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Interview: John Baizley of Baroness on recovery, resiliency, and the risks of disappointing a fan base

 
 

Most people have a misconception that being in a moderately successful rock band is all fun and games, as long as you avoid being a drug addict or celebrity casualty; but what isn’t widely understood is that those addicts and casualties are the product of a grueling machine that grinds up the crème de la crème of rock’s creative class, forcing them to the edges of exhaustion whilst simultaneously putting them, emotionally, through a psychedelic hall of mirrors where all of their worst flaws are shown back to them, grotesquely distorted. It’s enough to make even the most hardened road dogs dive off of a cliff.

Metal/punk titans Baroness were just that sort of seasoned veteran band when last August when their tour van flew off the side of a viaduct near Bath, England, nearly killing everyone on board.

The band was in the midst of a lengthy worldwide jaunt supporting their twin turbo magnum opus Yellow & Green (Relapse Records) when the grisly bus derailment left the band with broken bones, trauma, and months and months of recovery. For guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/album cover artist John Baizley, there was doubt as to whether he would be able to play music or do art again.

But Baroness, as a rock unit and as a multi-person juggernaut, was resilient enough to shake off the insecurity of this catastrophe; within a few months, Baizley was playing guitar again, and this May, the band was able to take the stage again. Chalk it up to fortune at having survived such a horrible ordeal, or give credit to the steely resilience of this driven group of dudes. Either way, this particular trip through the never has clearly doubled the resolve of Baizley and Co. to keep doing what they do, which they will indeed do when they come to pummel Royale this Sunday, with fellow Georgians Royal Thunder in tow. I caught up with Baizley and got the scoop on recovery, determination, and the will to disappoint your fandom in service of a higher calling.

Daniel Brockman: How does it feel to be back and touring again?

John Baizley: It feels good, it feels good with a capital G. [laughs] I’m not gonna lie, it’s been awesome.

What was the process like of going from “Am I going to be able to do music again?” to going back on the wheel again so quickly?

I’ll tell you, man — it’s just work. Work. That’s all it was. It’s all work. The physical work, the mental work of just trying to piece the band together, whatever — it’s just work. And I’m lucky that Pete [Adams, guitarist] and I are just wired to work. That’s all we’ve been doing since we’ve been 13: music, or jobs, or whatever.

Or your visual art.

Yeah. I mean, if you say you’re gonna do something, that you wanna do something, then you have to fucking get to work on it. So it’s a pretty simple thing for Pete and I.

The thing that’s interesting about that is that the whole work ethic thing is especially true for the metal and hardcore world. A band’s luck just tends to get better if they are able to work. Do you think that is what drew you to those types of music, those music cultures?

It didn’t draw me to it, but it definitely kept me in it. I mean, Pete and I basically lived and died for the whole hardcore/metal world for a very long time, and, I mean, that was it. It was the punk rock thing, that if you wanted to do something, no matter how hard it was, you just stuck to your guns and did it. And at some point that turns from a lofty ideal to something that you can actually work and use. And sure, there are tons of slackers in the scene and all, but you walk through that and you realize that if you’re not working for it, if you’re not hustling for it, then someone else is. And I’ll be damned if someone else is gonna take all the passion that I’m bursting with, all the hard work that I’ve put into this, and take that from me! That’s not happening.

I mean, Pete and I, we’ve been getting knocked around since we were kids, you know? I mean, just one shit situation after another. But we just get back up and ride again. And it’s kind of a beautiful and efficient simplicity that’s so often overlooked. I think that it’s been an interesting story for us, this whole thing, and there’s a lot of people looking at us, and it’s been tragic and rough. But we’re walking away with smiles on our faces. You have to maintain a level of positivity, you have to stick to your guns, and above all else, no matter what, you just have to live with what you are dealt with.

A lot of people focus on “Oh, it must have been really difficult to get back on the horse;” but I’m curious if, after this whole ordeal, if Baroness feels like something different to you now, does the band mean something different in your life?

No. No no no. It means the exact same thing; it just maybe means it a little bit more. The band was always an escape from the doldrums, the band was an outlet for creativity, it was a method by which we had to teach ourselves what the world was about. It was a way to travel around, meet people, connect, all of that. At the end of a 60-hour work week, it was a couple of hours we could spend not feeling stifled and breathless, and it continued to be that for many, many years. And now, it’s just that, amplified. I just needed something to hinge recovery on, I needed something to hinge my re-entry into society on, and it became obvious to me that if I did anything else I’d be less pleased with myself. So it was kind of like there was no other option. I mean, the band, it’s rewarding in every way, so it’s like, you know, fuck it. This is a chance for us to get back to work and also thank people who helped us get through a very trying period of our
lives.

That’s really interesting, because there is this community, but at the same time, Baroness has often existed outside the greater metal community, especially since your more recent albums have gotten less, quote-unquote, metal. You and I kind of talked about that one time when I interviewed you a few years ago before a Worcester Metal Fest appearance; how do you feel now about that kind of metal tribalism?

Well, first things first: my original entry into music was through punk rock, well before I was into metal. And with punk, theoretically, you’re meant to be yourself. You’re meant to embrace that side of yourself that is an outcast and develop that into something that is unique and true to form. We know that punk is as conformist as anything else, but that really appealed to me. At a certain point, I got into metal because there was just so much creativity there, people doing their own thing in a way that seemed awesome to me. And we’ve just kind of stuck to that, we haven’t really changed anything. If people choose not to listen us, if friends choose to leave us alone, then that’s on them, because we’ve never stopped listening, we’ve never taken our finger off of that pulse.

We’ve gotten more popular, our profile has been raised, all that good stuff — but with that comes disdain and dissension of the people who quote-unquote remember you when you used to play basements. But we played basements for forever, and at a certain point we outgrew that and we were turning people away. And you know, some bands love that, because those are “intimate shows” — and yes, sure, fine. I love that, but the idea isn’t to stay where you at and hold that thing forever and find a forever that works professionally forever. The success by which we gauge our profession is creative fertility.

I mean, I know that there are people who hate our new record, and I know that there’s people who like and it, and that’s fine, I’m comfortable with that. I mean, I don’t anticipate that everyone’s along for the ride, that’s the beauty of the punk/metal/hardcore underground is that sometimes you outgrow it and become something different. I mean, it spits you out in favor of someone who’s a little younger and fresher. And I love that whole thing, it’s an outcome of vitality. Somewhere in between all this is us. I guess I try not to spend too much time negotiating where we are and just — alright, if you love it, you hate it, I think “Cool! At least you have an opinion.”

Yellow & Green really shows just how wide the funnel is; the album just indicates just how many different styles you are putting through the Baroness machine.

The funny thing is Yellow & Green could have been so much more, it was super ambitious, there was so much work put into getting that thing together. We thought “You know, if we don’t do this now, the window of opportunity to do something like this will close.” Because you know, you get into a rut and it’s hard to try something that you know has at least a 50 percent chance of falling flat on its ass. Which is what I thought was going to happen with a lot of this record. But we didn’t want to be 10 years later down the road and go “Oh man, I wish we’d done that.”

I mean, that’s just not an adequate way to go about life, to think about what you should have done. We just want to take risks; and sure, from time to time, you’ll be disappointed, I guess, but you know, if you’re into that, we’re your band! [laughs] Because we’re not gonna stop trying.

People have a weird interface with the concept of indulgence: In theory, everyone wants artists to develop and get interesting, but at the same time, people are quick to mark something as indulgent at the time that developing work is created.

It seems to me that, by definition, that kind of ambition, is in and of itself indulgent. We are fortunate enough to have been in a position where trying a record like that was possible. So that’s indulgent, in a way; a double record is indulgent! I knew that. Which is one of the reasons why we told the label, we told everyone “We’re gonna market this as a double record.”

We can do what we want in the future without, you know, shaking the foundation of the steadfast point-A-to-point-B folks who just want to hear Blue Record over and over. I mean, shit, man, we already said that with that record, why would we want to say it again?

Yeah — sometimes fans are the ones who kind of want bands to keep saying things over and over, while bands feel like when they’ve made an album, they’ve said it.

And therein lies the real difficulty of being into this band: You have to just accept that we are going to disappoint you. Because we’re human beings! I mean, if nine people were to say “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard,” and one person says “Yeah, I hate this, that sucks,” I’m not paying attention to the nine people, right? No matter how much you try not to, you still wind up taking it personally.

But my new tactic has been “Look buddy, there’s tons of bands out there that I like their early stuff. So I get it. But the early stuff isn’t vital anymore; and it would be vital for me to write that sort of thing.” So if we are trying to progress and we fail, then I’m more content in that than if we’re trying to succeed no matter what. We’re pretentious enough to think that we’re going to be the band to buck the trend; maybe we’re not, but who cares? We really do have our feet on the ground and we really are going to stick to our guns, for better or for worse.

BARONESS + ROYAL THUNDER | Sunday, August 11 @ Royale, 279 Tremont St., Boston | 7pm, 18+, $17.50 advance / $20 day of show | advance tickets | facebook invite