John Baizley of Baroness
The heavy band Baroness and the world of John Baizley
Interview by Confinement Loaf
May 11, 2010
“So, you know, if it gets to the point of where my hands are chopped off or I’m arthritic and blind and everything like that, I guess then I’ll have my work cut out for me and I’ll have to find something to do.” John Baizley
John Baizley: Yeah, I’m John Baizley, I sing, play guitar and do various odd jobs for Baroness.
Confinement Loaf: On our way here today, about an hour and a half drive, we were listening to Baroness. What were you listening to on your way here, if anything, or what keeps you going on the road for 250 plus shows a year?
JB: In order to stay sane traveling 250,or how ever many days it is, we have to listen to as wide and comprehensive a collection as possible, lest we burn out on punk rock or post hardcore, or whatever it is that we’re listening to. Most recently, we were listening to 7 Seconds and Youth of Today, that was on a more energetic drive. We’ve listened to plenty of Simon and Garfunkel in the past 24 hours, a little Willie Nelson, some Body Count, it kind of runs the gamut, I mean whatever we’re feeling kind of happens, you know. ‘Cause the last thing I want to listen to after a show is anything that sounds remotely like us.
CL: We’re d.j.s on college radio, have you ever been a d.j.?
JB: I did a little bit, on a college radio station in the late nineties and I played mostly metal, that was it. That was at J.M.U. in Harrisonburg, Virginia. All I remember really, basically, from those few shows that I did was that there was a maximum security prison somewhere situated near the college and we got a lot of Slayer requests, a lot of scary Slayer requests.
CL: If you were a d.j. today, where would you, as John in Baroness, place Baroness in your set list?
JB: That’s always a tough thing to deal with, how do you treat your own music. Bluntly, I don’t play my music ever so it’s a bit difficult for me to say when I would. Logistically it kind of depends on what’s being played. I mean, I think when we make a record it has an unconscious or conscious or sub conscious narrative that sort of carries it through. So there are songs to me that are early in the set list songs, songs that can only be played in the middle and then there are certain songs that sort of round out the mix. When I was a kid, you know, pre c.d.s, pre mp3 and whatever, all that stuff, we all used to make mixtapes. That’s how you got girls. That’s how you showed all your friends how much better your taste in music was than theirs and everything like that. That’s what you do, you make mixtapes so you can ride around in your car, you can have your Walkman and drown out the rest of the world, forget about everything else that’s bugging you and in order to do that, I mean there’s an art to it I think. There have been some cool, I’m getting kind of tangential here, but I think there have been some cool, sort of mix tape flavored albums that have come out recently. Like there was one, it was Jarvis Cocker and somebody else put out this double disc, it was just sort of like a random, it was kind of like if they made a mixtape and then produced it and mastered it and put it on an album, I thought that thing was fantastic. But back to the question, I really feel like there are definitely songs of ours that out of sequence sound completely awkward, you know, and basically our record is sort of the template for that. As it lays on the record is probably how it would lay on a mixed tape. You know, there’s this sort of gradual tension release thing that we keen in on as were writing and as we’re performing and that’s truly how we lay our records out. You know, if you were to watch us play tonight, for instance, on stage there’s a lot of similarities between the ways we structure our records and the way we structure our set. I think, you know, if I was approaching it from a d.j. standpoint, I’d play the songs early on in the record early on in the set or whatever, middle, middle, end ,end. Those songs are created to elicit a certain emotion that comes before or after the fall. You know, sort of elevates, I don’t know, it’s like laying out maybe a movie score or something like that so our songs have that sort of continuum happening.
CL: Did you grow up listening to college radio at all?
JB: I grew up in what would be considered maybe a minor college town. Everybody that’s in this band, we all grew up in Lexington, Virginia which is a small city in the Appalachian mountains in the Shenendoah Valley and there is a college there. It wasn’t the most conducive college for great radio you know, being that it was a fairly conservative school, you got a pretty steady diet of you know, jam bands, southern rock, just the type of stuff that as a child, as a teenager, that you didn’t want to have a fuckin’ thing to do with. I want loud, fast, heavy, interesting, artistic, you know, ground breaking and you just didn’t get it. For me it was mail order. I made my own sort of radio mixes, if that makes sense, like I said mixtapes. You know, so we collected Fugazzi records, and Jesus Lizard and Melvins and Sonic Youth and that sort of divulged to the sort of lesser second, third tier bands of that ilk and the more interesting stuff. Then you get down into Today is the Day, Hammerhead and all that kind of stuff, just the kind of stuff that wouldn’t be played on college radio one way or the other anyway. So that was my musical diet when I was that age. When I was in college, you know it was the same thing, I don’t think there was a great radio station in town and there certainly wasn’t anything that was ahead of me there. I’ve always lived in places where my own taste is following fanzines or now I guess websites and message boards and all that stuff. I like to be, I like to listen to everything, I need to listen to everything, I need to know as much about the music that I hate as much as the music that I love so I’m a constant listener. I read something or I heard something about Henry Rollins that when he’s on tour he tries to listen to a record he’s never heard everyday, I still try to do that.
CL: Are you a big record collector? And on that note, you are a record album cover artist. What, if any, album covers, regardless of the music, but the actual cover, the artwork, the liner, what really blew your mind? Or was there something that really pushed you into that as a career?
JB: I would say that no matter what the trajectory or what the impetus was for me to do this I was never thinking that it would be a career. I was always thinking that it would be a labor of love that, you know, I’d just do one way or the other. At this point it’s become a career. It’s become what my family, more or less, depends on. When I was thirteen or fourteen, you know this is in the nineties, I’ve been collecting records ever since that time, throughout the years and you know rifling through second hand record stores you come across these records that obviously nobody is buying, the music inside is probably not that great, or it’s got a very limited market. One of the album cover artists I fell in love with, probably because of that, was a guy named Roger Dean who was the cover artist for Yes and for Asia and, um, I don’t like Yes there’s nothing there for me and I don’t like Asia even more. But as an album cover artist, he is absolutely a cut above the rest. I would say that in the larger record collecting world those were some of the albums that most impacted me. And then Hipgnosis, the guys that were doing all of those great seventies record covers, yeah all the (Pink) Floyd covers were great and Rick Griffin these are all classic, classic guys that had a pretty pronounced impact on me. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Pushead because at the time when I was needing angry music when I needed an outlet for that when the rest of the world was just too much for me and I lived inside twelve inches of vinyl, he was the image of that period of time for me. You know, through the Metallica singles, through the Metallica t-shirts, to Bacteria Sour, and all the punk and hardcore stuff he did that’s where I found myself most engaged. There’s somebody who visually understands what I’m feeling. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that throughout the years I’ve sort of struck maybe the middle ground between the stuff that Pushead was doing and the stuff some of the seventies artists were doing. It’s just interesting to me, it’s a beautiful, lush, vivid and visual world there’s more there than what hits you instantly, there’s stuff to look into and stuff to research and find out about, there’s great reference points in there. So, as somebody who now finds themselves behind the pen and paper, of many album covers, those are the things I still refer back to for motivation or just like a little bit of inspiration.
CL: So many musicians are artists, have degrees in art or have been to art school. Off the top of my head I can think of many including in Laura Pleasants in Kylesa, Jacob Bannon in Converge, Aaron Turner of Isis. Why do you think so many art schools produce rock bands?
JB: Yeah. I guess if you think about it they do, especially on this tour. The guys in Valiant Thor all went to art school. I think there’s something to be said for the creative personality. I think there’s a certain type of person that is drawn to this lifestyle and I think so many of us at the time you know, when you are around eighteen years old we feel pressured to pursue some sort of academic goal. For a lot of us, the closest we could come to assuaging our parents fears and concerns is to go to art school. So I think what you get in art school is you get a lot of over privileged kids who simply have no direction and then you have these creative types who, for them, this is the closest they’re going to get to a more liberal arts oriented experience. For me, I can only speak for myself but I know from a very young age it’s all I wanted to do. I had parents who were very supportive in that fact and I think they were confused at one point when I stopped making art and I started playing more music. I mean I’ve always sort of had both running parallel to one another and it’s been recently that they’ve seen that I’ve been able to sort of merge these two worlds for myself. There are so many guys that you have already mentioned who have followed the same path. I think it’s just that what has been happening the past ten years maybe in music, and at least in my eyes, there’s just been a huge divide between the artist and the music. You know, we’re going back to that sort of sixties mindset when you can have somebody write your songs for you. As long as you’ve got a pretty face and a nice voice, you know, solid gold records, whatever. I’m not content with that and I think most of the people that we know aren’t content with that. So, why if you are artistically inclined, why would you not challenge the conventions of pop music? Why would you hire an outside artist to create a vision for your band if you have some modicum of artistic talent? Use it, you know. It’s an art project, the bands that succeed are lucky. There’s a lot of hard work that everyone puts in but there are a few bands that get elevated and sort of pulled from that maelstrom. But everybody you mentioned, everybody I know, ten years ago was sweating it out in a basement somewhere, not making a dime. They were making art. They were making music just for the simple pleasure and the cathartic nature of doing it. So, I’m not sure I’m actually answering your question, but yes, I believe there is something to that personality type, where we’re just driven to create. You know, under different sets of circumstances, we all come from different backgrounds, and everything like that but we’re all trying to figure out some way that works for each of us in some unique way. I feel that in Baroness I’ve struck an incredible balance between making visual art and making music. Being able to write lyrics and being able to tour as close to the way we did ten years ago as we can. I feel lucky, you know, I feel ingratiated in front of anybody that will pay to see us. I know what it’s like to save up for a week just to go see a show. You have to respect the power of that because at some point nobody’s going to give a shit who I am. They’ll forget about me and there will be someone younger, hungrier, more talented, more creative than me. So, I’m enjoying this, I’m trying to make the most of this while it’s going relatively well for us.
CL: Since you brought it up, let’s look at life post-Baroness, if there ever is a post-Baroness. Any other instruments you would like to learn, music you would like to make, anything that’s a real passion for you that you’d like to pursue, beyond how lucky you are already?
JB: I’m doing right now what I feel like I could be doing forever. Sure the rules change, trends and scenes sort of come and go, you have to ride the crest of the wave or be content to sit and wait for one to come along. So, I don’t really know what I’m going to do when this is all over. I won’t stop playing music and I won’t stop making art as long as there is an audience out there for me I will make music and art for that audience. There really aren’t any other things in my life that I feel that passionately about that are potential professions. I mean I like to cook but I’m certainly never going to put myself in a professional kitchen, I’ve done that before, it’s a nightmare and I wouldn’t bring that on myself again. So, you know if it gets to the point where my hands are chopped off or I’m arthritic and blind and everything like that, then I’ve got my work cut out for me, I’ll have to find something to do. I’ve really put so much of my life into this at this point there’s no end in sight, there’s really no option for me to do anything but this. How ever it has to be, how ever it modifies itself to fit my age or how much of a family I have to support and everything like that. I will just rearrange and adapt to whatever the situation is.
CL: You talked about your experiences struggling when Baroness was just starting out. Do you have any advice for young people who want to start a band, who have very few resources but a lot of drive?
JB: Yeah, there’s only one thing that I can say, and this seems to hold true in all regards for everything, if you feel passionately about what you are doing, if you are willing to put endless hours into it and don’t expect initial returns. If you do it because your heart tells you to do it then that’s the foundation of any success you’re going to get. That’s the foundation of any success you’re going to get, the genuine passion, the desire to do it, everything we do is predicated on that. I know there’s bands out there that don’t have that but I just don’t trust them, I don’t want ‘em around me, get ‘em outta here, you know. Do it because you feel like you need to do it, because it’s what drives you, because as destructive as this lifestyle can be for people there is a way to make this a creative, constructive and enriching experience as a musician, or as an artist. That is, in my mind, a total dedication to the craft and a total respect of its power and your smallness with respect to that power. You can’t choose your fans. You can’t guess where your success is going to come from. You can only do it because you mean it and do everything with a clean conscience. There’s much quicker ways than that, there’s all kinds of ways to step on peoples’ backs to elevate yourself and go for quick cash and all that stuff. The only way that I think you can do it is just give yourself into it, let it take you where it’s going to take you.
CL: Could you talk about your early musical experience, how you discovered music? That you were a musician?
JB: I’m still reluctant to consider myself a musician. I think tenacity, if anything, has gotten me this far. I mean, seriously, it’s just years spent doing this when it seemed like a bad idea to everybody else. Technique is a very difficult thing for me. So, with that in mind, I can still remember when I was incredibly young. Just those residual sort of photographic images, of when I was four or five, and my parents bought me an acoustic guitar. It probably had two or three strings on it. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with it I just knew that certain motions elicited certain sounds and that was, sort of, my early love of the instrument. At some point I was given one that was more suitable for playing. You know, this was when MTV was a big thing and I was six or seven years old and I thought that was cool. I just wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, you know, I wanted to be in Poison or Ratt or whatever it was, I thought that stuff was amazing, Aerosmith and all that stuff. You can’t be eight years old and see that and not be blown away by it. I don’t think it’s possible. So that was that. When I was an adolescent and I didn’t want anything to do with Poison or Ratt or any of that. I just hated it and I still, to a certain extent, hate what it is. But you remember the TV, or seeing some magazine where you see the concert footage and you never think that’s something that’s possible for yourself. So it’s been thirty some odd years later and a whole lot of basement shows, dingy bars, clubs, sleeping on floors, living hand to mouth. Flash forward so many years and I’m on a legitimate stage with equipment that works and people who I’m just astounded have bought the record and are paying to see me play.
CL: How do you feel about the audience? Do you ever get stage fright?
JB: No, I don’t necessarily get stage fright but what happens with me is the quality of my playing or my performance is based on the vibe or the energy that I draw from the crowd. When it’s a really cold crowd I can be a little bit Stoic on stage just because I need to access that energy somehow. There’s this thing that crowds create, it’s just sort of this group energy, it’s very difficult to define, I only know it when it’s there and I can’t explain it any further than that. But when that’s there, then things take on just a completely different flavor. I’m unaware that this is a performance where there are four of us and hundreds or thousands of audience members. In my mind everybody contributes because when everybody is raging and having a great experience, I am definitely having a great experience. When everyone is standing there stroking their chins, you know, quizzically dismembering the music that we’ve written I have a hard time, I’m socially sort of at odds with everything. It’s bizarre. It’s very difficult to explain. If you took a guitar off of me and put me in front of the microphone in front of that same audience, I would be scared shitless. I mean, I would be white. It’s a security blanket that’s strapped on you. As soon as it’s off I’m dead in the water.
CL: Speaking of the audience, are there specific types of venues you prefer to play?
JB: There are individual venues that I love. The Jinx in Savannah, that’s kind of where we cut our teeth, that’s always going to be an important venue to me. There are some sort of odd venues, like the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, which is just basically the basement of a church that’s had every incredible show you could even imagine. But more so than that, the thrill of being a musician, a touring musician, is that it’s constantly changing. Some tours we can go for a month and play nothing but smoky little bars and some tours, like this one for instance, we’re playing these sort of medium size venues, we do festivals, anything that you do day in and day out is going to become boring and repetitive. In order to break that boredom, that repetition, we try to make sure that our tours are different from time to time. It’s easy to get burned out on the small crowded clubs because it’s very stuffy and there’s this paranoia that sort of sets in after about two months. Just the same, the huge venues you can feel very isolated after awhile, where you essentially live from one backstage to the next. You never really get to mix or mingle or see much of a town so long as things change, there’s a story, an adventure, I’m engaged with it. Each tour I just want to drink things in, soak in as much as I can. From the big glitzy, sometimes crappy, corporate clubs which intrigue me and disgust me to the small little cracked out Heroin dens, which intrigue me and disgust me. It’s just, I want the good, I want the bad, and I want the ugly because without that I’m not getting a good picture, the story that I’ll have upstairs at the end isn’t going to be as rich. I can say at this point we have played every type of venue, short of arenas and I would be excited to do that just because it’s something new. I just like new different challenges. That’s what it’s about for me.
Baroness is: Allen Blickle, drums. Summer Welch, bass. Pete Adams, guitar/ vocals. John Baizley, guitar/ vocals/ songwriting/ album cover art. Go see them in concert, they put on a first class show and they are all the nicest, most genuine guys who totally rock. Thanks for the music and for keeping it real. Ted and Andria, Confinement Loaf.