Ebru Yildiz

John Baizley & the Roles Within Baroness: A New Conversation

There is a lot of passion and awareness in this in-depth conversation, but the biggest takeaway is the core goal of Baroness: “build an architecture within our music that is recognizable, that isn’t afraid to show its references on its sleeves, and is something for us that feels genuine, sincere, and, most importantly, unique and creative.”

Since 2003, Baroness have subtly shone a light on what cool, sleek, modern metal could sound like if inspiration and experimentation was at the forefront of the creative process. With a Grammy nomination in 2017 and arguably their best album to date in 2023, it’s clear that their “subtle” light on what they’re up to is only getting bigger, brighter, and bolder.

I’d like to start out by discussing your recent show in Jersey at the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I couldn’t help but make the connection to your new record – titled Stone – and I had to ask, was the choice of venue an intentional nod to the new album, or more of a happy coincidence?

It was a very, very happy coincidence. I’m sure that we missed out on a great photo opportunity while we were there [Laughs]! It’s only been a couple days, but I remember we were getting into our tour van at the end of the night to leave, and somebody was like “Oh, we should really take a picture in front of the sign,” and I was like “Why? I’m so tired.” We didn’t do it then – we just all got in our vehicle and left, but I’m kind of kicking myself for it now.

I was in attendance at that show, and correct me if I’m wrong, was that your first time at The Stone Pony or had you been to the venue before?

That was my first time in Asbury Park, never been there before.

How did you feel about the crowd’s reception at The Stone Pony, and how do you think it compares to shows you’ve already played on this tour, as well as the shows that are yet to come? 

Well, you know since you were there! The crowd was great! There is a special sort of circumstance that is impossible to define, impossible to create or manufacture, where the crowd and we – as the band on stage – synchronize in a really beautiful, kind of alchemical way. I was aware of that in New Jersey the other night. It kind of makes playing music easy for us when we’ve got a crowd that’s so hyped, attentive, and familiar with our material; it’s great and it really allows us to perform at a slightly higher level, because I’ve always thought of live performances as being maybe more about the audience than the band or the music itself. It sounds totally romantic to say it, but I mean this in a very practical and literal way: the crowd is a fifth member of the band, if you will. They help guide the tempo and the atmosphere and the energy level of a performance more than we’re capable of doing. I think we had such a nice time at The Stone Pony because the crowd was… there. They were in the music throughout our set, and it’s just a joy to play music in that circumstance.

From start to finish, Stone feels like your most cohesive record yet, which seems ironic considering the limitations you experienced separately sending song ideas to one another and writing during the pandemic. Were there any silver linings that you can think of to working within these restrictions?

Oh, the silver linings were endless! The difficulties are very easy to articulate because there’s only a few things that are made difficult working the way we did on this record: taking the reins and doing the entire record ourselves, from the composition and arrangement of the songs (which has always been the case) to the engineering and production (which we also took care of ourselves). The four of us went into an isolated house in the middle of nowhere just across the state border into New York from Pennsylvania and we operated in a really special, magical way in that capacity because there was no extra opinion. Because there was no engineer adding color to anything and there was no producer trying to push us one way or another, we had to take on the responsibility of those roles ourselves, which is more work, for sure, but making records has always been – and will always be – work. We had to hold ourselves to a very high standard and we had to really push ourselves… and not just from the file trading at the beginning of the record due to the pandemic, but also through to the very fine details of the technical aspects of the recording.

I think that the rewards that we garner from working so independently outweigh any of the downsides. Any of the difficulties of creating music that way are vastly outweighed by independence, creative freedom, autonomy, and a sense of authority that the four of us get to share with this record. Whether it’s a success or failure, that’s ours to keep for ourselves. We have no one to blame if things go wrong, and we have a sort of genuine sense of pride and humility when we’ve done something correctly or when the songs are written well and the recording highlights that. It’s a really amazing way to create music, but you do have to have a great deal of technical know-how. You do have to be ready to work. We almost have to compartmentalize creative sections of the day from technical sections of the day, because we really need to accomplish both. We can’t be fully creative without having our technique and our engineering in full supply, and neither can we operate purely on craftsmanship and technicality. We’ve also got to create, so it was a really cool process and very enjoyable way of doing it, even if slightly stressful at times.

If I’m being honest, that was no different than any other record that we’ve done. It’s really nice to be able to stand behind something that you made because you’ve built the foundation of your house all the way through to the finishing embellishments. The rewards have been sort of life affirming, creatively inspiring, and invigorating for when we think about moving in this direction toward the future.

The release of Stone also marked the first time in the band’s history that consecutive albums have been created with the same lineup. Do you feel that having consistent band members at your side aided in overcoming the challenges of creating music during the pandemic?

100%! That is an easy ‘yes’ there. It’s taken two decades to arrive at this point, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the involvement of all of our former members. At the stage where Gina [Gleason] joined the band, Nick [Jost] and Sebastian [Thomson] had already been our rhythm section for a few years at that point, so by the advent of the second record with Gina, we had established a security and stability amongst the four of us as bandmates, which is something I’ve always desired for Baroness. We now have the sort of chemical makeup that can exist in a musical/band situation where we operate independently and each member has some idea about their role. We all write songs, we all compose, we all arrange, but, most importantly, I think we’ve all come to this understanding that – if I’m speaking personally – my role as a singer, guitar player, and arguably chief songwriter in the band, is primarily to support my bandmates. It’s not to have my voice heard louder, it’s not to have my guitar more present than somebody else’s; my role is to offer a place where the rhythm section can flourish. My role is to offer a place where some of the incredible, amazing, and unique things that Gina can do are highlighted so that she doesn’t have to speak louder. Do you know what I mean? The three of us know how to carve out a space for the fourth person to find moment by moment in a song, and it’s a very instinctual thing.

I say chemical or alchemical a lot because it does seem like there’s some sort of science that’s elusive, but there’s some sort of regularity to our workflow and to our creativity, but it is largely an artistic one. There’s no way to really define it, there’s no way to easily articulate it, and one great way of illustrating it is that if I were to start a melody or a phrase within our music, I feel certain that Gina would competently finish the sentence for me, and same with Nick and Sebastian. I think there’s a tendency in band scenarios where one person – or everybody – feels that they have to be heard or that their role in the band is more functional or critical than others. As individual artists, we all rely on our ego, so we all think that what we’re saying is important. There’s a sort of humility that comes with this lineup of the band where I understand that in order for my parts to shine, I need to allow and carve out space for everybody else, so we really have almost an automatic way of doing things at times, which, again, is something that I’ve always desired. It can be elusive and it doesn’t always last forever, but when you have chemistry like that, when you have a sort of nonverbal, creative, musical language that you can speak with three other people, you really need to cherish that and you really need to do everything you can to continue to develop, push, and strengthen that. That’s something that’s become really important to us and I think is a big part of how Stone came into being.

Absolutely. The synergy is undeniable, even if it is unspoken, and I think the fans can see that, as well.

Yeah, and I think another way of looking at it is, if we get to a point where we have to explain things to each other verbally, we’re already moving away from the point, you know? The point being with the type of music we play is that there is a reactivity to it. Again, that’s the reason why a crowd like we had at The Stone Pony is so valuable to us. They’re also sort of giving us clues that we as lifetime musicians are capable of receiving; input from the crowd and generating a response that falls in line with that. There’s a very organic nature to certain types of music, and I like to think that our music comes from a place of sincerity and organic reality, so if we feel the crowd trying to push us faster, we allow ourselves to play faster. If we feel them pulling back into more of a vibe zone, we’ll react to that, as well. The wider that network of circuitry extends, the better we can be as a band.

Sure, writing and recording a song is one part of the work, and that is a different sort of thing in the studio, in a controlled environment, and as a place where your imagination has to flourish and you have to relieve yourself of boundaries and limitations. But in the live music sphere… of course there’s all kinds of practical things that get in the way of that sort of non-reality. I just really am in awe of what happens when the sum is greater than the total of its parts.

To those unfamiliar with your music, I like to describe Baroness as the lovechild of Pink Floyd and Metallica. Do you consider that a fair comparison, or can you point to any other influences that helped you to craft your signature sound?

Those two are certainly notable and audible reference points for us at times. I think in hard rock and metal, there’s just sort of an admiration of Metallica for forging so much of a path for all of us. It’s nearly impossible to step out from underneath that shadow, and it’s nearly impossible not to use the great wealth of tools that they’ve gifted to successive generations of musicians after them.

Pink Floyd has always been an absolute hero of a band for me since I was a very young musician, because I believe that bands like Floyd – and to a certain extent Metallica – have an understanding of the format that they’re playing in, but a disregard for some of the strictures and some of the homogeny and orthodoxy that can exist in metal, or what would become classic rock or psychedelic rock. I am always interested in following the careers and the creative output of bands that are leading the charge and have no map in front of them, so there’s a sense of adventure and discovery that you find in bands like that.

I would say also bands like Radiohead, Neurosis, and the Flaming Lips have been critical bands that speak to the way that we approach our music. Pixies, Fugazi, Deftones – you could sort of lump them into a category, too; you could say it’s alt rock or it’s heavy metal or psych or indie, but I don’t think that any of those terms encapsulate those types of bands. I think they’re just puny attempts at categorizing bands that built such colorful and florid universes within their music.

That’s just always been a goal of mine with Baroness: build an architecture within our music that is recognizable, that isn’t afraid to show its references on its sleeves, and is something for us that feels genuine, sincere, and, most importantly, unique and creative. God, this is gonna look so bad when you print it, but I mean this in a very literal sense – I like to think of not just our albums and our songs, but every aspect of what we do, as fine art – as a painting, if that makes sense. I think of something where the unique idiosyncrasies of the artist define the character of the work, and that there’s depth, meaning, sincerity, and a willingness to go places that don’t seem to make sense or seem like they might be contradictory. To be open in what we say and how personal we allow ourselves to get, and rather than trying to adapt to that abstract and creatively stifling method of thinking where you try to please your audience, we try as a four-piece to outdo one another. We try to impress one another within that framework of songs on an album, because if we’re impressing one another, we’re inspiring one another, and I think that happens quite frequently with us. I hope that lends itself to a unique sound. I hope that lends itself to a singular experience when you see us play and that maybe you would not be able to get that from another band. I’m not in charge of that, though; I can only hope that’s the situation, but I wouldn’t aim for anything less than 100% unique, 100% creative, 100% boundless, and only bound by the limits of our own creativity.

I think that is something that anyone who considers themselves an artist should strive form which leads nicely into my next question. I wanted to take a moment to discuss your album artwork, which is actually how I became a fan of Baroness (upon seeing the Purple record at a local music shop some years ago and purchasing it based on the imagery alone). How important to you is album art in conveying the concept of a record to a potential listener?

I think it’s inextricable from the album experience with this band for sure. There’s the visual aspect of our music, which informs the audible aspect of our output, and vice versa. The poetry in the lyrics and the visual art that accompanies our albums are as intertwined with the music as any guitar solo or drum beat could be. Again, the reason we’re all drawn to become musicians is because we have egos; somewhere deep inside of us, we feel that we have something to say and it’s worth recording and putting out into the world to see if anyone else responds to it. I also think in order for us not to lose ourselves in that cavern, we need to find the kind of humility that comes with those excessive egos. Where we’re able to recognize that our part – whether it’s a riff, a vocal, a lyric, an image, anything that goes into the record – it has to be to create something that is bigger than the individual ego.

Again, I realize how this might look when it’s printed, but it’s true! We hear artists through the ages talking about this sort of thing, about how the music is bigger than us and it lasts longer than we do, and how it has the capacity in many ways to adjust the emotions and outlook of the listener more than any one of us could possibly do. I don’t think there’s a real fundamental difference between the visual art, the lyrics, and the actual music. I think they’re all part of one final piece of expression; it’s sort of like, how important is a script to a movie? It’s inexorably important to the movie, and so is our artwork to our music. Part of that also happens to be based on the fact that we’re internally creating the artwork– there’s not somebody outside the band who’s gotta interpret what we’re doing. It’s sort of me just trying to accompany what we’ve done musically in such a way that you understand the music more, or the music lends itself to a more mysterious adventure or a more rewarding sense of discovery. The whole thing, to me, is just a big art project with all these different avenues that you can use to prop up the others.

Your lyrics have always been very descriptive and story driven in nature. Is there any literature that inspires your songwriting, or do you exclusively draw from personal experience? 

I draw exclusively from personal experience, but the language that I use is influenced by literature, it’s influenced by cinema, it’s influenced by fine art. All of the things that I’m interested in are all an influence. I think all of us are fairly avid readers; I may be old fashioned in stuff that I like, but I really enjoy the classics. William Faulkner has always been hugely influential in the way that I write lyrics, as is T. S. Eliot, as is Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, Cormac McCarthy. I could just list authors for days. The language they use is a great example of the level of poetry I would like to achieve at some point. We always come up short of what we’re attempting, but it always ends up being further than we thought we were capable of, if that makes any sense. I’m into a lot of classical literature, as well: The Odyssey, the Iliad, those were some of the earliest stories that I was really interested in as a reader at a young age. A lot of Greek and classical writing and philosophy sort of finds its way in, but I was also interested in historical, spiritual, religious texts, fables, and stuff like that. 

Now entering your third decade in the music industry and having toured with so many incredible bands already, is there a “dream tour” lineup you’d love to embark on that hasn’t yet come to be?

Check this out – this might be a little weird, but I feel 100% positive this tour would roar and this tour would be a big one: Baroness, Meshuggah, Deftones.

Oh, I love it! That would definitely fill some seats for sure.

And it’d be interesting, you know? At least two of those bands are total leaders in their field – totally unique, totally incredible, great music, great lyrics, great art, great creativity, unique sound. I like to think we could be the third in that group. I think that would be great, but I’d also love to see a Baroness / Tragedy tour happen, ‘cause I’ve always loved punk. Or At The Gates – that would be incredible, Maybe with The Marked Men from Texas for a kind of pop punk thing? I think that would be great because we’ve played with them once or twice. There are so many tours we haven’t done yet that I would love to do, both larger scale tours and more gutsy, roots-y, punk tours.