Baroness vocalist/guitarist John Baizley is not only in one of metal’s most talked about bands, but he’s also one of the most accomplished visual artists in heavy rock. He leads the songwriting process for Baroness, produces all of its artwork as well as that of countless other bands. His commitment to expression comes across in everything he does, including the discussion of his work. Creation is Baizley’s way of life, so it comes as no surprise that his band just released an ambitious and highly-anticipated double album, Yellow & Green. Baizley’s usual candor and thorough responses begged for a double interview, but we’ll keep it as succinct as possible for you, dear reader.
Baizley says the decision to release a double album came about after just two months of writing when the group realized they already had near 30 songs in the works. Sensing divergent textures in many of the tunes, Baroness decided a two-disc package released at one time would allow them to still feel good about exercising their creative freedom, as well as offer their fans somewhat of a break between sides. “After 45 minutes – 50 minutes, the listener’s ears are going to be incredibly worn through,” conjectures Baizley. “[We] didn’t want to oblige our audience to sit through the entire thing at one time.”
Regardless of the sometimes disparate subject matter of the songs, still present are the warm Southern harmonies so familiar to American ears, so common to Baroness’ music and yet so peculiar in metal. Though the record does still boast some of the heavy-handed sludge riffing for which Baroness became known, it’s not a metal album. And, at last, Baroness is probably done being classified as a metal band.
Side one, Yellow, is the more uniform of the two in its punk-rock energy and throbbing grooves. Baroness fans are already familiar with the Yellow sound as it is not much of a stretch from their last album, Blue Record. Side two, Green, is more of a ride that goes from hammering syncopation to weird—dare I say Ween-esque?—tones, unlike anything we’ve heard from Baroness previously. The band was wise to release this as a double album; it has enough of their classic sound with a great deal of food for speculation as to what might happen next. For those of us familiar with Baroness and their music, Yellow & Green will likely take some time to reflect upon before it is ultimately embraced.
Bailey speaks for himself in the Q&A below.
You toured with Meshuggah a few months ago, took some time off, and then played the Orion Music Festival before going to Europe. Is it kind of a culture shock going from being on tour, taking a little break, and then going back to touring?
It used to be more shocking than it is now. I’ve been doing this now for probably the majority of my life—probably slightly longer than half of my life. I’m very accustomed to the ebb and flow of being on tour and then off tour. My wife and daughter have only known me to do the same thing. So what could be for other people a weird transition is kind of normal for us. The weirdest thing was last year I didn’t tour. I think that threw me for a loop more than everything else. I like going on tour and then coming off tour. It’s like I never get tired of being at home, nor do I ever get tired of being on tour.
When you had your daughter, how much did you think about reducing the amount of time you were on the road?
It’s not as much a reduction of time on the road because that’s sort of the only way that bands nowadays make money… but we had to get smarter determining how and when, why and where we tour, just to make sure it counts. Because it’s not just four young men traipsing about the globe anymore because there are families and friends and personal lives that depend on the band doing constructive, positive things.
How do you manage the challenges of doing both music and visual art?
I’ll preface by saying that I don’t think that I manage it very well (laughs). I’ve become a bit of a workaholic. And I think in some ways, for better and for worse, I’m entirely addicted to the work cycle that I’ve developed. Essentially what happened was, about seven or eight years ago, when I really wasn’t making a comfortable living doing either art or music, I got to the crossroads where I decided I needed [to] buckle down and have a regular regimen at work or I needed to entirely dedicate myself to artistic pursuits. And it didn’t take me long to make that decision, but the decision I made was largely a decision that would put me a compromising lifelong scenario, whereby neither of my professions had any… security.
I didn’t really shy away from that at the time. I just kind of thought, “Fuck it. If I’m going to do what I love, I don’t really care if I’m getting paid for it or whatever. I just need to make sure that I’m always doing it and that… it’s always engaging for me.”
My initial schedule literally was, if I’m not touring, I’m making art and if I’m not making art, I should be writing or touring. And I’ve kept that up for about eight years. It’s a very intensive schedule that requires, sometimes, that I change my artistic flow on a dime, which can be problematic. Especially in those moments where you don’t have your muse with you and you’re not feeling particularly inspired, it is tough and part of the challenge of being an artist. It is tough to dig in a little deeper and find something to push you forward towards making art or making music.
It’s kind of like a 12 hours a day, seven days a week thing at this point. A couple years ago it was pointed out to me that perhaps I needed to develop an off switch for art and music. And I tried to figure out what it was that offered me some rest or some break or some relaxation from the cycle of creating, but it turns out that I was miserable trying to give myself vacations or find time to chill out or relax; that’s not how my brain is wired. I’m not meant for that right now.
So rather than try to wrestle my schedule into some sort of workable form, I’ve just submitted to the overload of work. Both musically and artistically, I’ve generally got six months to a year worth of stuff piled on my back. I kind of like that. It ensures that I don’t fall behind schedule. Doing the types of things that I do, if I fall behind schedule artistically, I’ve compromised the release date of someone’s record—even my own. If musically I fall back, then the band can enter a period of space. And we don’t really need that, we need quite the opposite. I just have to be buzzing and electrified all the time and I’m fine with that.
I’m sure I’m a difficult person to deal with—at least that’s the word on the street—but I like what I do and I consider that the cornerstone for having professions that are worth having, really.
What prompted Baroness to do the double record this time around?
Yeah, I’ve answered this question a lot recently. It’s pretty simple:
At the end of 2010, we got off tour. We’d been on tour for about eight or nine years, but never more than two months off at a time. We decided to take a year off to write a record because we felt the need to push ourselves pretty hard in compositional and songwriter’s terms. Furthermore, I think we felt a little bit of tiredness coming on, and before we became burnt out on our music, we decided to do a, sort of, preemptive strike on that and took a year off so we could consider everything.
Very, very, very quickly into the process it was dreadfully apparent to us that we were going to have a ton of songs on our hands. Meaning, before a month was out, we had more than an album written. After two months we have probably three albums worth of stuff written. We started writing over 30 songs. We whittled it down to 18 because we felt that any less and we wouldn’t be presenting an accurate picture of the record that we wanted to present, any more and we felt we were getting a little repetitious, or a little longwinded.
Before everything was even written, we made a decision to put out an increased number of tracks. I saw the problem with having 75 minutes worth of music being that if you put it on one CD, after 45 minutes, 50 minutes, the listener’s ears are going to be incredibly worn through.
I’ve always been of the mindset that just because you’ve got that much time on a CD to fill up doesn’t mean you need to. I think it can be a very tricky slope—putting out records that are longer than 60 minutes. So we decided that, because we had to do it somehow, we would break the record into two very manageable-length records, just by virtue of the fact that there’s two CDs, you’re given an intermission. Physically, mentally, the act of taking one CD out and putting another CD in means you’re giving yourself a break, whether that break is the length of time it takes to take one CD out and put the other one in, or 24-48 hours later, it doesn’t matter. You need that break in there.
I don’t necessarily want to listen to our record all the way through. I’ve done it once or twice, but I think it goes down much easier if you split that up. We’ve gone through some pains to make sure the record is not priced like a double record, it’s as close to a single disc as you can possibly get.
Literally, we didn’t want to oblige our audience to sit through the entire thing at one time.
I get the impression that the members of Baroness are very candid with each other in regards to songwriting and the vision that you each have for the band.
Yeah, I think in this type of a band you have to be. The level of candor that exists in rehearsals and in writing is quintessential to seeing the vision of the band come to life. We never talk about commercial viability. We don’t treat our music as a product, we treat it as our art, we treat it as a reflection of our personas. So if somebody is uncomfortable with something, you can have a pretty drastic long-term effect towards the negative if there’s not a solidarity happening.
The trick with this record was to really try to strengthen the bond between the players as much as possible. We all have such a long history with one another. We’ve known each other for years and years and years. More than half of our lives we’ve spent with one another. We have to be particularly sensitive to one another because I think that with this band, and the dynamic that we have, it’s essential that we like each other, that we like what’s going on.
You know, we weren’t cobbled together as a bunch of talented musicians. If anything, we’ve sort of always worked within the limitations and restrictions we have as musicians. I think, in some ways, we’ve been blessed in that there’s no virtuosos in this band, there’s no sex symbol type of frontman thing happening; we can excise the larger part of the ego from the band when possible and just kind of put stuff out there. In order to be able to do that with dignity and grace, we have to feel involved with our music. It has to be offering the same emotional wavelengths.
Especially with some of the closely personal subject matter that you deal with, are you or were you ever reluctant or anxious about explaining a lyrical idea or a song idea to your bandmates?
Not to my bandmates. No, we tour so frequently and we’ve known each other for so long that they know my personal baggage, I know their personal baggage. I don’t have to over explain it, but to explain what this hypothetical song is about is just to say, “Hey, remember when I was going through this last week? That’s what this song is about.” Then it’s easy, because we understand each other on that level. Because we are witness to the rest of the guys’ personal lives, we can do songs like this without there being weirdness—everybody knows. Whether or not I’m willing to explain that publicly is sort of a different thing, but internally we all know what’s going on. We’ve all born witness.
How would you explain the two sides of Yellow & Green to someone who hasn’t heard it yet?
The initial idea that we had when we decided to do a double record was to release two records that were fairly stark in their differences. I think early on I had described the idea of doing a brother and sister record. One would be the daytime record and one would be the nighttime record, for lack of a better description. One would be black and one would be white, in terms of their tones… There are a million ways that we kind of chopped it up. But once we started trying to apply those ideas, it seemed a little heavy handed. It seemed too obvious and a little too confusing as a concept.
We just let the songs write themselves to a certain extent and we tried to do something that was a little bit subtler. I think you could definitely make the case that the first disc is a little bit more rockin’, I guess. The second disc might be slightly more out there, but that’s not to say that one is distinctly heavier and one is distinctly lighter; the differences are subtle.
The first one will be a little bit more familiar for Baroness fans and it ends up somewhere that’s much more distant, and we felt like that was probably the best way to lay it out. You know, just sort of ease in to some of the newer stuff that we’re doing. You’ll notice that across the course of the record.
Baroness’ new double album, Yellow & Green, is available now through Relapse Records. For more information, go to baronessmusic.com.