Interview: Baroness

Matthew Fritch

By Matthew Fritch

on 07.17.12 in Interviews

The members of Baroness don’t lose any sleep wondering what particular pantheon of rock bands they belong to, but us mortals sure do like to speculate. Formerly ensconced alongside a pack of similarly bullheaded Southern sludge-metal acts, Baroness became known for its stylistic wanderlust beginning with 2009′s progressive, at times psychedelic, Blue Record. With the new double album Yellow & Green, Baroness displays epic heaviness and guitar heroism but also realizes that drop-A chops don’t amount to greatness unless they’re contrasted with melody and variety. Few bands have crossed these streams so artfully in recent decades — Queens of the Stone Age, Smashing Pumpkins circa Siamese Dream — and the shortness of the list speaks to frontman John Baizley’s admitted love of classic rock’s trappings (which are especially tangible in the band’s mythological references and Baizley’s album artwork). Pink Floyd’s tidal atmospherics loom large here, especially on “Cocainium,” and there’s a sly glint of goth rock reflected off the obsidian guitars of “Little Things.” Baizley still gets all Hetfield when he’s angry (and there is still a major amount of riffage and carnage going on), but he just as often sings in a sinister, slow-moving baritone. Purists may view Yellow & Green as a capitulation to alternative rock, but it’s clear at first listen that Baroness didn’t go to the mountain; they somehow made the mountain come to them.

Baizley spoke with eMusic from his relatively new home in Philadelphia’s leafy Mt. Airy neighborhood, a short walk from the Wissahickon Creek’s rocky gorge and dense forest.

I read some recent interviews with you where the questions focus on how Baroness has evolved, how the new album is a crossover thing, etc., and I just wanted to say I admire how you dodge those questions every time.

[Laughs.] It seems like there’s this expectation nowadays that everyone is supposed to have a willingness to articulate everything about their records. I can’t say that knowing more about how an album was written or what was done in the studio enhances my understanding of an album. My thing is really “Listen to it and draw your own conclusions.”

At some point it’s the music critic’s job to frame an album’s context so you’re not judging yourself from the outside.

Certainly. It’s a mistake for me to prejudge our audience, and any prophesying I do is undoubtedly going to be way off-base. I’ve been in the game long enough to know how to skirt around those particularly dodgy questions.

There is the reality that the metal scene — or any genre — has expectations of what they want bands to sound like. But nobody got mad at Picasso when he stopped painting in blue. In music, there’s an expectation not to change.

That’s ludicrous. Furthermore, this band has never done anything to lead our audience to believe this wasn’t going to happen, that we weren’t going to change. The only thing up for debate is what type of change and how, not if. We started the band 10 years ago with the single goal that we would be the type of band that would have a progression. All we’ve ever done is change. What tends to be jarring is the speed at which we change. It’s an outdated thing that we’re doing. These days, you’re expected to establish your theme early on and simply milk it as long as you can, until there’s nothing left and your band crumbles. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t aware of that. We have a chant about outlasting whatever trend we currently find ourselves in. While that’s not a reason to write a record, we’ve kept that in mind from a historical standpoint. Pink Floyd never repeated their records, had a long run, and people loved them for it. I’m at a loss sometimes.

Or it could be the case that some bands simply run out of ideas.

The worst thing to me would be experiencing success at the cost of creativity. That’s why we make music — there are so many less risky jobs out there that don’t have heart and soul in them. It’s just paychecks and repetition. If I was interested in a secure lifestyle, I wouldn’t be doing this.

It seems to me that when bands get together, often the members are into the same scene or same kind of music, but as time goes on everyone starts to listen to different things and their tastes aren’t as homogeneous. Has that been the case with Baroness?

That’s absolutely the case. And we even started out from a place that was pretty eclectic to begin with. It’s only been an outward expansion since then. I listen to a record I’ve never heard every single day just to keep my mind open and keep things looking forward. We’re listeners before we’re musicians. There’s no musical prodigies in the band; we’ve always been avid listeners.

Really, a new album every day? Do you always make it through the entire album?

That’s kind of the point. You put yourself in the situation where you’re not going to love everything you listen to, but you gain some respect for the stuff that you hate. It’s all about seeking inspiration and imparting myself with the intellectual backing for understanding why I don’t like something. I’m kind of curious as to why things do or do not work for me.

It’s an old saw in criticism that it’s more difficult to write a negative review than a positive one, because you really have to defend your viewpoint.

It’s hard to write an intelligent negative review. It’s easy to sling shit around all day, which is where we’re at with the Internet, where it’s a battle for the most offensive outlook on things.

I took the scenic route to asking this question, but were there certain albums or genres that were on your minds when you were writing Yellow & Green?

[Long pause] There are the regular players, the standards. We all grew up in a very small town, so we had similar musical intake. We all started out with classic rock, which is always going to be informative. Maybe now its effect is more how we lay out records and sequence them and consider an album. But we also grew up listening to punk rock. We came of age at a time when our guitar heroes were Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Fugazi, stuff like that. That’s my first girlfriend, the music of the early ’90s. Beyond that, I’m into stuff that’s probably not on everyone’s daily playlist, stuff like Scott Walker, King Crimson and Brian Eno. That’s the stuff that currently inspires me because it’s so forward-thinking and seemingly bizarre. I’ve got a place in my heart for reggae music, R&B and country — there’s something to be gleaned from every style of music. The one constant to everything I listen to is that it’s all pretty dark. I like depressing music, but that’s about it.

So do you see Yellow & Green as a double album in the classic-rock sense of things?

We consider it one record, but with an intended intermission. But the layout is there: You get a big beginning and a minor ending, and then a minor beginning and a big ending. I’m pretty interested in sequencing.

Did you consider the dangers of doing a double album? It’s easy for bands to overreach and, well, just not do it right.

My assumption from the beginning is that we wouldn’t do it right. It’s the process that intrigues me. We were writing a ton of music — after a month, we had two records’ worth of songs. After two months, we had three records’ worth of songs.

If we psychoanalyze the cover art, the Yellow muse seems a little bit more treacherous than the Green one. At any rate, a listener can scrutinize how that painting relates to the music.

I hope they do that. I don’t expect it, but I hope they do. I want this band to make music that requires a little bit of thought. There are fragments and stories in the cover art. If I were to ask my bandmates, “Where are you in this painting?” they would know instantly. It’s obvious [to them] what stories the artwork is telling.

You employ a lot of mythology in your artwork. Is mythmaking still possible today, when all the answers seem to be in front of us?

Absolutely. I’m of that Jungian thought variety that we’re hard-wired to be entranced by these things, whether it’s symbols that act as metaphors or actual images that help us understand who we are. What I think has become outdated are the old myths we were taught in school. What I’ve chosen to do is beg, borrow and steal those bits that work for me, and the rest is invented. I’ll use quasi-religious images and slightly similar layouts and stories from mythology. I was into Joseph Campbell and studied the Greco-Roman myths, and later on got involved in the pagan/heathen and Scandinavian myths. I think they’re fascinating.

Do you listen to music when you paint or draw?

I listen to music all day long. Normally when I’m doing album artwork for other artists I’ll listen to their music. [Baizley has created album artwork for a number of artists, from Kylesa and Pig Destroyer to Flight of the Conchords and Gillian Welch — Ed.] But I absolutely cannot listen to our own music when doing our artwork.

Do your surroundings influence your visual art?

Yes, but maybe not in completely obvious way. On this record cover, I drew everything from life. In the past, I had to use photo resources that I didn’t create in order to get some of the weirder stuff on the album covers. I had live models sitting for me for this album cover. Although it’s impossible to stage a swan in a woman’s hand and lap, so I’d make a fake swan out of pillows and cardboard tubes and use photos I’d taken later to compose it.

What strikes me about Yellow & Green is that it does an excellent job of balancing heavier sounds with melody. That’s not easy to do.

It’s tricky. If we’d kept on a linear path with how our music sounds, we’d just be making refinements. We wanted to put ourselves on a different chopping block entirely.