Baroness Frontman John Baizley on ‘Gold & Grey,’ Pig Destroyer and Psychological Burdens and Heartaches

Photo: Ross Halfin

By Rod Smith

John Dyer Baizley is an interviewer’s dream. Why? Baroness’s sole original member, frontman and leader answers all the questions you’d ever think to ask plus better ones that would never even occur to most people, all delivered with panache and theatrical flair. Also, he never holds back on details. The best part is that you don’t even need to ask most of the questions. He just goes. What you’re about to read is one little raw, unfiltered chunk of a long phone interview conducted late in November while Baizley was putting the finishing touches on Gold & Grey––before the album officially had a title.

“With this record, we were like, ‘let’s use elements of conventional songwriting, but let’s also use elements of all the styles of music that we like throughout history.’ I mean that real broadly, like, ‘let’s take the elements of metal that we like, let’s take the elements of black metal that we like––electronic music, jazz––you name it. But let’s re-contextualize it all. One thing that really struck me at a certain point was that the greater listening public had become a world of playlists––and the beauty of contemporary playlists is similar to the beauty of the mixtapes people made in the ’90s in that, ideally at least, you get a little bit of everything. There can be a flow in a set of 20 songs by different artists that take you on a journey comparable to any great record by a single artist. I sorta thought out loud and said, ‘it seems like we’re starting a record that has the feel of a playlist with a bunch of different artists; let’s really fucking spread our wings.’ I mean, I’ve got these incredible musicians to play with, musicians who keep pushing me forward. And the last record––let’s be honest––it was all about the guitars and the drums. And while I haven’t had a chance to listen to the new record all that much and probably don’t know it well enough to make this assessment, it seems to me like the new record is more about being a thing in itself, minus the emphasis on any particular instrument or instruments. Half the time we’re trying to make our guitars sound like anything but.

“One thing that was missing from Purple was the kind of stripped-down acoustic song that we’ve had at least one of on every other record. We had this really powerful experience last summer when Sebastian had to very suddenly leave our European tour to go attend to some urgent matters in New York. It was something he absolutely had to do. Rather than cancel shows, we decided to just wing it and do our remaining shows with a synthesizer, a Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitars. They were among the most powerful shows I’ve ever played. The show that we played at Hellfest was impossible for me to process as it happened. We’d rehearsed for about two hours in the back lounge of a bus on two shitty nylon-string guitars—just to see if our songs would work. Then we went out and basically made it up as we went along. For me, it was a huge moment. It occurred to me that we could do that in the studio, but not in that typical ‘let’s put a soft song on the album’ way that we’d done in the past. The change was that we tried to give each song the best possible representation we could, even if that meant pulling out everything but the vocal.

“When we were 75% of the way through the record, I knew it was going to be cool, that it was going to be good and that we were going to fulfill that one necessary objective: not to repeat our last album. I was positive we had done that. But also, one thing occurred to me—something that’s still with me. Everybody always says their latest record is the best record they’ve ever done. I’ve said that to you before. I’ve said that to lots of people. I have no idea of how many times I’ve said it or how many people I’ve said it to. Well, I’m not going to say Gold and Grey is necessarily the best record we’ve ever done. I’m simply not going to say it. I think it’s a great record; I think it’s definitely different for us—but I’m telling you right now—this is the best record we’ve ever done. “I’ve never been as proud of Baroness as a team accomplishing something new as I am today. It’s mind-blowing to me, largely because of the way we wrote the songs. I don’t mean to disrespect anything that’s happened in the past, but we pushed ourselves so hard that none of the four of us knew what any given song was going to sound like until it was finished, recorded, and mixed.

“Purple? We had that shit. When we went into the studio, we knew everything. We were extremely prepared for that record. Lyrically, it was done. We had demoed every song—and the demos were great. This one was just a bunch of, like, weird music. A couple songs are all improv. There’s a couple songs we wrote in the studio. There are songs where I don’t play guitar, but Nick does, and Nick doesn’t play piano, but I do. There are some weird role reversals. It’s a weird record. But [drops voice] I love it.

“I’ve had a fuckin’ shitty past couple years. Let’s just put it that way. I mean, it’s all obvious stuff, mainly that I got hurt real bad and it’s never going away. When we wrote Purple, I was just happy that I was alive––because I’d come real close to dying. I don’t know if you’ve ever almost died but one experience is common to people who have. In the immediate wake of it, you’re psyched. You’re seeing everything through the filter of ‘I almost lost getting to see the sun rise;’ ‘I almost lost getting to have that discussion with somebody that I love; ‘I almost lost the taste of pizza; I almost lost all those things and I’m super-grateful for them  

“But as time goes on, that’s not enough. And it’s not enough when somebody pats you on the back and says ‘well, at least you made it through that.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, but that was six years ago.’ I’m not going to explain what the past six years have been like, but for every good thing there was the double edge of that sword––contending with the subtler, more nuanced realization that of course I’m happy I survived but I also have to deal with all the aftereffects stretched out over a very long timeline. I’m super-fucking grateful that I have music to share those thoughts that I don’t wanna share in a non-poetic way or in a non-musical way––that I’m uncomfortable verbalizing otherwise. Nobody tried to stop me from going kinda dark on this record. It’s not the most pleasant record we’ve ever recorded in its themes––but I’ve come to realize over the years that one of the qualities of this band that draws our audience together could be these sorts of difficult-to articulate-psychological burdens and heartaches, all the physical pain—all the detritus of a life well-lived—all the scars and scrapes and bumps and bruises, all the stresses, all the breakups, all the deaths—you name it. That’s what I deal in lyrically when I make records. And it’s obvious on this record. I mention this because I don’t think it’s focused in an unhealthy way. I think it’s focused in a way that, at least for me, makes it like the best psychiatrist I could have. My hope is that people can respond to the lyrical side of the record in a way that helps them as well. I don’t lie when I say that music has saved my life. It continually keeps me going.

“It’s startling to me, the kinds of things this record does. There are things that almost always happen a lot on our records, like songs with this kind of big guitar harmonic lead thing. That happens on this record, but it’s not the focus of it. A lot of the time we’re just trying to reinvent—and I know this is dangerous—we’re just trying to take the conventions of music we’re familiar with and just fucking squash them in favor of trying something new. It’s the most extreme record we’ve ever done. You’ll know. You’ll know when it happens, and you’ll go ‘ah yeah.’ It’s extreme. It’s fucking extreme—as much a challenge for the listener as it was for us to make it. It’s sick, no doubt. At the same time, it’s a very beautiful record.”

“I’m always trying to find something beautiful in what we do, and in everything I listen to, whether it’s a grindcore record or classical music. I tried to make sure with this record that there’s always some undercurrent of beauty, even when there’s a very dark blanket over the top of it all. Sometimes I’m really, really impressed—and I’m not trying to draw any musical parallels here, but that’s what I love about Pig Destroyer—that’s extreme—but there’s a structural elegance underneath all the rugged shit. We’re writing pop songs by comparison, but there’s such a diametric thing there, and that’s why I think they’re so important, both to the underground and to music in general. I think the world needs that. We’re not capable of that technical level of extremity––at least I’m not––I think the rest of the band probably is. It’s like Meshuggah. That level of music takes effort to listen to, but nobody ever turns it off. I could go on and on: There are examples in pretty much every genre and subgenre. I just try to add my little offering to this great river of music that’s flowing past us and around us.

“I don’t think we’re the best band in the world by a long shot––but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to be the best band in the world. I don’t have that voice. I don’t have that talent. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to lower my personal bar because I’m not Michael Jackson. Who’s to say that you and I or anybody else couldn’t try to write a record as good as Thriller? Could Baroness write a more furious record than Reign in Blood? We could try. I promise we’d fail in both instances, but that’s not the point. As artists working in music, shouldn’t we try to create something as compelling and challenging and reflective as possible––something that acts as a mirror for both the listener and ourselves––in the hope that we all learn a little more about what we are through our music? We think about what we are and what we’re trying to accomplish and in those terms, this record’s been a very pure endeavor. I’m not saying anybody’s gonna like it—but I don’t give a shit—because I know I put everything I had into it and I left no stone unturned, because I did something I did not think I could do, because I did a lot of things I did not think I could do. In that regard alone, I consider it a success. I don’t mean that in a prideful way, more like ‘I’ve been doing music for a while; I have to have a reason to do it.’ I can’t do this because it’s entertaining to other people. That’s not the point. I can’t do it just because it’s fun. That seems kinda hedonistic in a bad way. I’ve gotta think there’s some function. Maybe it’s just for me. Maybe it’s just to get me through the day. With all that in mind, I can’t wait for people to hear this record, mainly because I’m curious about what kind of music people think it is. I don’t know what kind of music it is anymore.”

Baroness will perform at Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Philly on Saturday, April 13.

Purchase Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Philly Two-Day tickets 
Purchase Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Philly April 13 tickets
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