In terms of ups and downs, it’s hard to top Baroness. Their Red Album set them up as Relapse’s latest and greatest, the Blue Record garnered them an appreciative and devoted fanbase, and with the sprawling Yellow & Green it seemed like everyone else was finally ready to get on board, but a savage tour bus crash in England as they were touring the album brought the band to a standstill. Thankfully, Baroness are made of stronger stuff and Purple marks not only their return but also a new chapter in the band’s history. Vocalist and guitarist John Baizley spoke to us about the changes the band have undergone over the past few years and why these have made them happier, stronger and hungrier than ever.
Welcome back, man. You’ve just recorded Purple, which relates in large part to the effects of the crash the band suffered here two years ago. Has the process of putting this down in words and music helped?
Absolutely, man, of course. For me, that was a big part of it. There are four of us in the band, two of whom didn’t go through that accident at all, but for me it was a pretty big component of it. Anything I do has a lot to do with it because it has left a pretty big impact on my life, but the album was a great experience in terms of working through the effects of that accident.
Were you dead-set on making a ‘purple’ album as opposed to a ‘black’ one – one that would’ve been more downbeat and mired in misery?
Most definitely. In a way, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of using the difficult circumstances that followed that accident as a means to write very dark music and get kind of stuck. Pete and I realised very quickly that the potential was there but, additionally, we also realised that because of the accident there’s now this new storyline with the band that we didn’t ever intend to have, and as much as we’d like not to focus on it we can’t really ignore it. It’s a very delicate balance between respecting the severity of that incident and not calling too much attention to it. Because of a variety of circumstances involving where we were with the record and the people involved with making it, and just frankly the outlook that we have as musicians, it was important to respect it and address it without it becoming the only thing that this record was about. It’s one of a variety of themes and factors that have gone into it and there’s no denying that the majority of the lyrics address either something that was directly to do with the accident or have been caused by that, but because we have a new rhythm section, people who don’t have that experience, we couldn’t focus on it, and that was nice. It was liberating in a way.
So did having Sebastian and Nick on board help offer some new kind of direction or focus?
Definitely, and we wanted it. With the realisation that there was some potential with this record to maybe get a little too dark and be a little too obvious with things, we had this counterbalance with these two guys who are very high-energy. They have a very positive outlook, and so do we. Rather than try to force ourselves into this pit of misery that wasn’t natural for anybody, we went with what was happening. It’s odd, but since I started doing press for this record, I came to the realisation that while we were writing, demoing and recording – which took probably over a year to do – we really didn’t talk about the accident with regards to the record. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to talk about it, but while we were rehearsing, it wasn’t a theme then. We were concentrated more on a musical level and on an energetic level – that’s where we were investing our time. Coming out of it now, realising it most certainly has some themes and deals with some of the issues about that crash, it’s only in retrospect I can see that as directly as I can now. At the time, it felt like we were just trying to write up-tempo music and integrate two new members into the band, which was a daunting task in and of itself without all the baggage of having gone through the baggage of that bus crash.
Sebastian and Nick are both incredibly accomplished musicians within their own right, so how much input were they able to give with the writing of the album?
A lot. I like to think that, in the best-case scenario, there’s 25% input from everybody. It’s not entirely realistic to say that every moment of every song is a perfect balance of four people’s input, but they helped write, they were part of every aspect of the process, and that’s the way that Baroness works. It is a collaborative effort. For certain, there are elements of the music that have to start from one person or another but once we start working on a song, it is critical and necessary that everyone puts their two cents in and puts their stamp on it. With Nick and Sebastian, they definitely had an understanding that we have a long history and there were some pre-existing personalities in the band that were no longer there. They had big shoes to fill, so to speak. I think the work for them, at first, was finding a balance between those characteristic musical things that keep Baroness as Baroness, but also finding the space to exert their own influence and have their personalities shine through in the songs and that’s tricky but I do feel we did accomplish that
What were the circumstances around Matt and Allen’s departure, and did it affect you and Pete’s decision to keep the band going?
Pete and I were determined to keep the band going, it’s just that simple. I would say that it didn’t really come as a surprise that Matt and Allen left. In some ways, I sort of expected that early on – we all sort of expected that. It wasn’t even in a negative way. The simple fact is that there was a huge amount of trauma involved in that accident – physical, mental, all different things – and everybody in the band was very sympathetic with everyone else in terms of how that trauma played out, so if one or two members didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of touring anymore or being in the band, of course Pete and I offered all the support in the world. Those guys are our friends and we all had this shared experience that’s pretty horrifying so it wasn’t surprising that they left, and it happened in a way that we didn’t want it to be a big dramatic thing. There weren’t any hurt feelings or anything like that. One thing I think that we would never do is try to pressure any members of the band to stay in the band, especially after something like that; it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be a rewarding experience. Some part of that experience is soured by the fact that our bus drove off a fucking cliff, and I understand why they’re leaving. In fact, at the time I thought that maybe they’re slightly more clever than I am because it’s certainly not going to be easy to continue doing this, but it was a worthwhile cause for Pete and I.
“I prefer touring over being sedentary. I like to be out drawing on experience, meeting people and finding out new things, seeing different cities; I like the chaos, I like the confusion – I’m comforted by it.”
Did you have any trepidation about going back on tour? You guys were back on the road pretty quickly after you had been through your physio.
Yeah, really quick – within ten months of the accident. I can’t remember exactly how long, but I was in a wheelchair for a really long time. I could not get up and I could not move. The first tour that we did back, I wasn’t really walking properly or adequately but once the accident happened, after the surgery and I realised that I still had an arm left on my body and I’d eventually walk again, and once Pete and I understood that, I think we almost felt obligated to book a tour and get things going as quickly as possible so that we didn’t hesitate and end up regretting things in the long run. I think hesitation may have led to a reluctance in general to continue playing music or at least touring so with that in mind we just really tried to get back on the horse and push forward. That ended up working really well because after 8 or 9 months touring with Nick and Sebastian we realised that it was worth all the effort that it took to get to that point. That allowed us to start writing a new record with a little bit more ease.
Are there many home comforts that you miss while you’re out on the road?
I miss home comforts, I have a family and it’s impossible not to miss your family, but other than that it’s not much. I prefer to be touring. I prefer touring over being sedentary. I like to be out drawing on experience, meeting people and finding out new things, seeing different cities; I like the chaos, I like the confusion – I’m comforted by it. Not everybody is, I’m not saying that, but I find the environment of touring is one which suits me well. I like sleeping in buses and on people’s floors, waking up somewhere new every day, getting out and having those experiences. I just miss my family. I don’t expect them to tour with us because they’d be miserable, but that’s about it.
It took you around a year for the writing and recording Purple. Did this come together any easier than previous records?
It didn’t come easier but that’s not to say that it was a difficult thing. It wasn’t a painful undertaking, but to put as much as we chose to put into this record, to sacrifice as much as we did just to write and record it, to devote yourself to one project with that much enthusiasm and passion, it does bear its own price. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but in terms of length, it’s different every time. Truly, every record happens at a different pace and we’ve learned how to avoid certain deadlines just so that we can say we’re done when we’re truly done rather than trying to stick to some sort of schedule. Sometimes songs are very easy to write, some take weeks and months of refinement; in the case of some of the songs on this record, years, because there are a few parts of some of the songs on this record that have been talked about and tried as Baroness riffs for years now. The main riff for “Chlorine & Wine” is a riff that I wrote in the studio while we were recording Red – that’s probably ten years old, I guess. With the process of creating, we find we are at our best and most thorough when we don’t put any time-based pressure on ourselves because we put such a great standard on our quality and consistency so if there’s deadline, it can get a little overwhelming.
You’re continuing the colour theme again with Purple. There’s an obvious emotional correlation with the colours red and blue to anger and sadness respectively, but purple is a bit trickier. Does it hold any significance with you?
Yes, but I have a very specific and ambiguous response to the colour theming. At the very core of things, it does bear some significance, and I won’t deny that, but it’s very difficult to articulate what that significance is. Say you’re going to write a story – you have to start with the first line of the story, and as many writers will tell you that’s a very difficult thing to do. There’s a kind of arbitrary nature to it. If you don’t have something finished and you need a starting point, you basically grasp at ideas from nothingness and at random, one sticks, and then you start doodling on top of it. With regards to the way our albums look and are titled, we decided at a pretty early stage in the writing that visually the album would fit in with the colour scheme but I wanted to try something a little different with the titling. After a couple months of writing, Pete and I were having a discussion and pretty much flat out, he said that no matter what name we give the record, people are going to refer to it by whatever colour it is. Since it’s purple, they’re going to call this record Purple. You can’t really avoid it. Because it comes at the end of a bunch of records that are colour-themed, that’s what they’ll call it so why should we over-think that? What purpose does it serve for us to get bent out of shape or over-think something that has been consistent and people really seem to respond well to? Furthermore, it’s one which offers you, the critic, and the audience and everybody else involved some level of ambiguity. It starts off as a random thing and we start applying our reason or concept to it. It’s a fluid process whereby sometimes it will inform something on its own, it will inform something in the artwork, just as the songs will influence the name of the album. There’s a back-and-forth there. Also, just to finish this off, I find the creation of these records is a very complicated and incredibly dense process. I truly don’t know what it’s like to listen to our records because I have a very bad perspective point for that. If they are audibly as dense as they are for me to be a part of writing then I think it’s important that in order to seem equitable and open-armed, we put simplicity where it can be. The album cover, for example, isn’t exactly simple and if you listen to the record, in my opinion, it’s not slow and simple. It’s not a Ramones record. It can be very complicated and very overwhelming. We really have always wanted to reach whatever audience is willing to listen to us and so, here’s a simple album title. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at the artwork and viewing the album and if you’re the sort of person who has to think critically and go in a little deeper, there are certainly some points of synchronicity, but if I explain them then I cut off all the discovery points that you could have. It’s a complicated answer and it probably sounds like I’m not answering it, but that’s sort of the point.
“We’re excited, and we haven’t been this excited in a while. When you play this much music, at this point in your career – or age, let’s say – to be able to tap into excitement can be a very difficult thing.”
You’ve chosen to self-release the record on your new label Abraxan Hymns. Where did that decision come from?
The contract that we had with our former record label Relapse was up. Initially, the question was going to be whether we stay with Relapse or move to a different label. Relapse had been an incredibly good label for us and they have a huge history with us. They know exactly how we operate and they’ve been with us kind of from day one of Baroness proper so what purpose would it serve for us to leave them and move to a major label where potentially there would be more money up front but less artistic control? However, the idea that we could just do it ourselves became something that was realistic because we had built up a community of relationships and partnerships over the years whereby we thought we had the infrastructure to release the record ourselves and as a result become more independent, have more artistic freedom, more creative control and a greater sense of ownership over what we do; if we succeed it’ll feel more like a success for us and if we fail then it’s our failure and we won’t blame anyone else. It won’t be for lack of trying, in other words. Already, it’s been an incredibly rewarding process. It’s a phenomenal amount of work, but we don’t really shy away from work.
Amongst certain circles, there’s as much anticipation of new Baroness artwork as the music itself. How do the two sit in the album creation timeline? Are they run together or does one always precede the other?
I’ve done both in the past. There has been albums where I’ve tried to create as much of the artwork in tandem with the music as possible. That can be really tricky because the commitment level that you need to exhibit to fully commit to either one is tremendous and it can be somewhat taxing. What I’ve made an effort to do over the years is compartmentalise a little bit more and I’ve figured out that if I start doing the artwork generally around the same time as we start recording the album proper, that’s generally the best way of doing it. I start really slow as I spend a lot of time doing research and concept development – I take a ridiculous amount of time to click as I’m not really an internal thinker, as you can probably tell; I think out loud. Now, it generally happens that the music comes first because as a band the music is always more important than the visual stuff but with this band in particular the balance is weighted a little differently and the visual component, the artwork, is very important to me. I started working on the artwork prior to going in the studio, but the bulk of the actual painting after, during the final stages of mixing. It’s just that long a process.
Possibly due to the vinyl resurgence, there seems a greater appreciation of cover art than there has been for the past decade or two. Is this something you particularly appreciate as a visual artist and musician?
Yeah, of course. When I was young the package was very important because it offered a further glimpse into the band. With us, I don’t see it as a glimpse into the band itself, but it does offer some further information. It is a critical part, and furthermore, one of the key things that packaging like this fulfils is the necessity that we have to treat this band as more than just a band who write songs that then get released. Baroness has always been intended as a place where we can express ourselves, and being a visual artist as well it’s a great place for me to do that. Honestly, everyone just streams and downloads. There’s a committed group of people who still collect records – there are some people for whom CDs are still an important thing. It’s fun for me to create these things. I don’t know ultimately how important it is for everyone else but for us it is important. People appreciate that though I’m not pretentious enough to think it’s all going to come full circle and it’ll be like 1970 and all the record pressing plants are going to open back up. There was a dip in vinyl sales over the years and now it’s coming back. There’s a little niche market aspect to it, but it’s also because people genuinely do appreciate it. I’m not going to deny that.
Token final question – how would you sum up the atmosphere in the band right now?
We’re excited, and we haven’t been this excited in a while. When you play this much music, at this point in your career – or age, let’s say – to be able to tap into excitement can be a very difficult thing. People tend to get jaded as they get older, you kind of get used to the things that were so exciting to you; it’s a case of pulling back the curtain and seeing the Wizard, or seeing a sausage getting made or whatever metaphor you want to use. When you see the mechanism that exists behind closed doors, it can be a little jarring and discomforting, but in time there are ways to work through that, and work through pain and difficulty and sacrifice and rediscover the simple enjoyment that you can have by discovering a new way to write a song or a new way to perform, or even just performing an old songs with a new kind of vitality. That’s been important to us.