KILL SCREEN 022: John Baizley of BARONESS Opens Up About Being a Gamer

Photo by Ed Newton

“I also want to preface by saying: This is the only time I’ve ever openly admitted that I played that game.” Sat in front of a Zoom-filtered backdrop by legendary fantasy and sci-fi painter Michael Whelan is equally talented and prolific John Baizley, the accomplished main man of Baroness. With six LPs now attributed to his band—their latest Stone available right now—as well as an illustration portfolio decades in the making that has elevated the works of not only Baroness, but dozens of others, Baizley is an artist in the truest sense of the word. His knowledge of music, visual art and literature is as enthusiastic as it is encyclopedic, treating the co-nerds of Kill Screen to a history lesson on Whelan’s work and mid-century fantasy novels prior to our official on-the-record interview.

His proficiency with the art of gaming, however, is much more limited. While all other previous guests on this column share similar origin stories—an early childhood discovery followed by a lifetime of out-and-proud nerdy devotion—Baizley’s tale took a decidedly different path. Largely a by-product of—hold for sigh—the pandemic, what had at best been an occasional flash in the pan morphed into a brand new dimension of artistic appreciation. Finding out that the multi-talented virtuoso partakes in video games required a bit of digging: Fellow Baroness guitarist Gina Gleason shared the info during a chat at a show in Philadelphia. “It’s fun to talk about while in between a Blood Incantation set,” adds Baizley, a smile starting to form. “Which, incidentally, is definitely the best place to have a Xenoblade discussion.”

Lack of experience means not that Baizley is lacking in insight. Though he may need help recalling the names of specific games or consoles, his answers are earnest, articulate and add a fresh perspective to a medium that we have absorbed for over 30 years. Still, even a Grammy-nominated artist can’t help but express a negative self-awareness: “I know that I’m not the intended audience for it. I’m positive… I don’t even think they would want somebody like me in their world.” We couldn’t disagree more, and thankfully his initial hesitance to discuss his new-found pastime gave way ahead of the band’s upcoming Sweet Oblivion Tour and resulted in a wonderful discussion that we are truly appreciative to be able to share with our readership. We hope these won’t be his last words on the subject.

What was your first video game experience?
I was at a friend’s house and they had an Atari and I remember Pong, or a Pong-like game. I do remember seeing that in real-time, probably in ’82 or ’83. But by the time I was in elementary school a few years later, when the NES was coming out and that was changing the game, I was right there for that. My friend had one. Unfortunately, I don’t think I ever got the NES until it was already out of date, but I do remember going over to my friend Mike Schwartz’s house and playing Metroid, which I thought was awesome because it was kind of scary to me at the time. It had some frightening moments in it. And then Super Mario Bros., for sure. 100 percent. I was there when that was happening. Contra, [The Legend of] Zelda. I preferred the deeper-commitment games. The games that kind of eventually turned into RPGs.

What have you played most recently and what are the games that you typically like to play?
I’m very, very limited in what I play. I’m very restrictive. I didn’t really do much with video games until the pandemic. In 2013, when Baroness was in our bus crash and it took me 8 months to recuperate, I had recovered, we put the band back together and we did our first European tour—with [drummer] Sebastian [Thomson] and [bassist] Nick [Jost] in the band—with Royal Thunder. Evan [Diprima], their drummer—this is when GTA [V] came out—he was so preternaturally good at it that when I got back, I bought it. Somebody had given me a free [console], whatever it was on. I played that game for a little bit but then that was it. Eight, ten years go by without playing anything. The pandemic hit and my daughter was at the age where she wanted a [Nintendo] Switch. So, we got a Switch and I went from 0 to 1,000 with [The Legend of Zelda:] Breath of the Wild. It just turned me back into a video game player somehow. Somehow? It’s a beautiful game! It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful game. So, I got totally hooked because I had nothing else to do but get hooked. But I went pretty deep with that. Like, very deep with that. And then I discovered [The Elder Scrolls V:] Skyrim, and that’s all that I did for three years. And now I play Tears of the Kingdom like it’s going out of business, but I also like Divinity: [Original Sin] on the Switch. Last year, I played a little bit of Monster Hunter: [Rise].

I only play Switch because I don’t have anything else, although I’m sure if I had something else—especially one of those systems that is better for RPGs—I’d have a little longer list of games. I like games that take hundreds of hours. I really, really, really like grinding. I just like taking my time and building things and making things and forging armor and shit like that. Skyrim was especially potent to me because there’s something that’s so super fantastically nerdy about it. It hits the swords and sorcery sweet spot for me.Even when I get bored of it, I just put it down for a little while and come back to it and just start again. It’s the only game I’ve ever started again.

Do you have a reason why you enjoy the grinding?
I think I like the idea of games like that. The allure of them is similar to the allure for me of literature. Reading is a hugely important pastime of mine. When I need pure escapism, I go towards sort of the classic ’50s, ’60s, ’70s sci-fi, fantasy, swords and sorcery stuff like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard. I’m sure there’s a couple other slightly more minor players in that. But I’ve always been into that. I read through all the Tolkien stuff really early. I got into the Dragonlance novels back then. If this reference doesn’t completely ruin my reputation and if you understand it: There were stairs down to my basement when I was a kid [where] I had spray-painted—specifically in red spray paint—“Raistlin Lives.” Because I was really into Raistlin from the Dragonlance novels, who, of course, was the red wizard. I really liked that stuff when I was a kid. I think in my later years as a teen I ran into the issue that I wasn’t aware of the older writers as I could have been. I’d go to sci-fi comic stores and I just couldn’t find a book that held my attention. I had become accustomed to sophisticated writing at the level of Tolkien, at the level of Ursula K. Le Guin who, at this point, is one of my favorite writers of all time. I really liked good writing and sci-fi/fantasy blended. I kind of didn’t read much of that for years. I’d re-read Tolkien every once in a while because he’s definitely a favorite.

The escapism that I receive from a good writer is one thing. The sort of point of a lot of that sci-fi/fantasy stuff, I think, really was to give the reader an escape. I find myself getting lost in those books quite easily. For me, the great RPG games that I’ve ever played—and again, it’s limited, I think I’ve listed every game maybe that I’ve ever even played—offer that same sort of level of detail, that same sort of universal dimensionality that I would get from literature. It’s fun to do the action stuff, for sure. The peak moments of those games are when you’ve got to solve some insane puzzle or defeat some awful foe using supernatural means. That’s fun, but it’s fun because you’ve applied yourself in that alternate universe. You’ve applied yourself and you’ve prepared yourself. A lot of older games, the reason I stopped playing those is because you had to get so refined in these tiny motor skill movements. It was just, “How good is the rhythm of your thumb?” It’s like gymnastics or something. It’s impossible because I haven’t done it a bazillion times. But what’s the reward? The reward is doing a backflip once. That’s great, but that’s not for me.

In life, things come with sacrifice, things come from hard work, things come from blood, sweat and tears, so to speak. Even in a virtual setting, that kind of application to me is appealing. It is never about winning, it is about the process of preparing. That’s thrilling to me. We’re here talking because I’ve got a record out. I care that it comes out, but I’ve already had my experience with the record in making it. I’ve already been successful. Success of achievement is not about the achievement itself; it’s about the process of getting yourself to the point where you can achieve. I think that’s what appeals to me about these kinds of games. It’s not how athletic you are with the motion, it’s how prepared you are, how much foresight you use.

You’re very particular about the literature that you read. Has there been any lore or story from these games that you found appealing, even if it’s not at the same level as some of [your preferred authors]?
I don’t know because I never looked. I just don’t care to look. I played The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. I really liked that game, too. I think that’s based on a book, right? I just don’t go there because I’ve never found a solid example of literature that is even supplementary in an interesting way to anything like that. If it’s based on a book, I’ll read the book. If the book is a supplement or comes afterwards, I just feel like it’s a waste of my time. There’s a hundred thousand to a million better things for me to read that I’m going to take something away from. If I’m putting my time into reading, it better be fucking worth it, you know?

While you’re playing the game, do you find yourself drawn into the lore and the story in the game, or are you more interested in the mechanics that get you entrenched in the world?
I appreciate when the history of the world in a game extends beyond the boundaries of scene one, cutscene one and however it ends. I definitely appreciate that because to me that’s what Tolkien felt like when you read it. That’s what Dickens feels like when you read it. Potentially, I’m spending my entire time in this city, this county that this game takes place in or a book takes place in. But unless the author or designer has done an exceptional job of closing the walls around that environment in a way that’s convincing and actually helps the story, I like to understand that there is a greater universe at play. That, to me, is where Tolkien stands head and shoulders above the rest of great fantasy writers. His world was convincing and the limits of it went far beyond the geography that he would ever cover. But due to the things happening beyond those limitations, the dynamics of the world had a reality to them that seemed plausible, even in the most overly fantastic scenario. And I think in Tolkien’s case, he would use the vagaries of the beyond, the vagaries of history to explain things, but there never seemed to be contradictions!

When you play the Zelda games, you’re aware that they refer to things that have happened in other games. There’s some sort of tenuous thread that runs between them, which I think is cool. It helps with an understanding. Sometimes it’s just fun to hear something randomly mentioned because it puts that seed of curiosity in your head where maybe at some point in the future, this kernel of knowledge then expands—maybe it doesn’t. You give people enough juicy details about the universe that they do not have access to, then we wonder about all those things and we miss the obvious thing that’s transpired right in front of our face that’s gonna come back and surprise us later. Part of those games is being surprised from time to time.

Do you feel any sense of embarrassment or shame in enjoying games, let alone even having an interest in games?
Not anymore. I think games are sophisticated enough now that I have been fortunate enough to find games that are designed in a way that appeals to me and I can filter out the ones that don’t. I tried to play Halo before. It just was too difficult and I didn’t see the point. The GTA thing, I was like, Eh, this is cool, but it’s a little sensational. Or Call of Duty, or things like that. You come into contact with these things when you’re touring all the time. They just didn’t speak to me. I enjoy watching other people play these wild ass games where you have to be be really good. I like the adventure of life, so I want an adventure when I play a game. It’s not as much about the constant need to be satiated by intense sound and intense light and intense dynamic movement all the time—I want that when it’s important. I like the everyday-ness of the RPG. I like that every once in a while you have to consider sleeping and eating. [Laughs] It’s kind of a fun boundary to exist in. It makes sense to me because I have to eat and sleep every day.

Was there ever a point at which you felt, That’s just shit for nerds [and] kids?
Well, I was a kid once and I currently am a professional musician, so the idea of adolescence is part of my profession regardless. In terms of being too nerdy… I’ve always been a nerd, so it’s not that anything is too nerdy for me. I think we nerds like to guard a little more closely than be open with it. For a variety of reasons—some of which are kind of superficial, some of which are a little bit more practical—people don’t take this seriously if you’re gonna go on and on about some awesome book you just read where there’s a spell involved with it. I don’t only read fantasy. [Laughs] I like literature as well. I prefer to make a choice sometimes and read fantasy because I want something fantastic. It’s like there’s this secret, forbidden knowledge, right? We have it, we want to horde it and keep it quiet. The more sunlight that gets on my interest in something, the less that becomes a thing that I get to keep to myself and I get to enjoy as a personal experience; it more becomes a public experience.

There’s likely going to be somebody who’s going to approach me in the future and want to talk about this. I have to be willing to have this dialogue with you and accept the consequences from it. That’s another one of those stigmas that comes with using your band as a mouthpiece to say anything. If all we talked about was how much we like Fuji apples, I guarantee you I’m going to end up having a conversation in the future about Fuji apples with somebody when I’m not the one coming up with that subject. I realize somebody is going to talk to me about Zelda or Skyrim or whatever at some point, and I’m OK with that. Maybe in the past I wasn’t because I sort of like having those private things private.

“I realize somebody is going to talk to me about Zelda or Skyrim or whatever at some point, and I’m OK with that. Maybe in the past I wasn’t because I sort of like having those private things private.”

Was there a specific period in time when you just weren’t really interested in video games as a whole? It just wasn’t really speaking to you?
Honestly, most of my life I haven’t been very interested in them. It was a fun stoner thing to do with your buddies. When we first started Baroness, I bought a Chevy Astro utility van, which you can only imagine being relatively small as a utility van, and that was what we toured in for six or seven years. Our roadie at the time was this guy Jeremy Hush, who’s an artist friend of mine. He had some genetically-coded gift at GoldenEye 007. Jeremy clearly had some decade-long period of life where he devoted himself to that game and no one got to see him practice because he just came out really good at it. We had that in the back of our van, which was just a corrugated metal floor with a couple of pillows on it. We’d just sit in the back while on 20, 30 hour drives around the country when we’d just do the punk rock/DIY circuit year in, year out for a decade. It was just constantly him winning against my bandmates and our crew at GoldenEye because he knew how to do the timed mines! We were just running around like, [pantomimes shooting machine guns]. And you’d walk into a room and you’d die—you’re constantly dying. It wasn’t fun to play with him after a while because he was too sophisticated with it.

That was my experience with games my entire life. I never really owned a system. Even now that I do, I buy one game a year and that feels like an indulgence. I just spend my time with that game. Maybe that’s also why I like the big, long games. I don’t feel like starting new ones, I just want a good one that gets great reviews and everybody says is the best thing ever and I’ll just play that until I’m dead. It’s only been recently that the mechanics of the games have gotten to the point where I’m like, Wow, these are really addictive. They clearly have figured out and decoded the human mind. It’s like when you’re in the hospital on your morphine drip and they time it out so you only get it every so often, but you need it by the time you get it. That’s what I think games are now. They just give you this serotonin or dopamine push every so often. It’s just enough, but you’re just hooked on those top-tier, marquee level games. It’s wild how addictive they are. I fall prey to those. Sometimes people are like, “You play games?” I’m like, “Yeah, I play a little.” “What games you play?” I’m like, “The good ones? I don’t know.” [Laughs] I don’t have time to sit through the shitty ones! I’ll go online and I’m just like, What does everybody agree on? Can I find some Subreddit where everybody agrees this game is dope? I’ll play the 10 out of 10s. Anybody, share your 10 out of 10s with me because those are the only games I want to play. I don’t like investing time in shitty games. [Laughs]

RPGs are a much more single-player experience. Have you had any interest recently in gaming with other people or is it still much more of a personal, solitary experience?
A good friend of mine, Sarah, who works for my screen printers out in Minneapolis, she knows I would love to have a PS5, Xbox whatever—I don’t even know what they are anymore—but I just don’t. I have a Switch and she knew I was a Switch player. So, she suggested I get this game Monster Hunter because it was a pretty simple, user-friendly co-op thing. So, I played a few games with her through last winter and early this year. I thought that was fun, but the magic of those games to me is that solo experience where you’re doing the adventure. I find that I tend to like the games that have colder, harsher, atmospheric environments. That feeling you get when your character’s just kind of stamping through the snow and some half-lion/horse/minotaur thing is right around the corner, you don’t know where it is. Or when you’re just quietly watching the aurora borealis over some fantastic frozen seascape. It’s quiet, it’s serene. There’s a sublime sort of feeling that you get. You know, it’s an adventure. Every step you take, you’re discovering something. You’re looking around, you’re using your eyes, you’re deciphering the worlds that these game designers made and you’re trying to make sense of it. It’s just a weird adventure/puzzle that has elements of story that you can choose to pay attention to or just go off on your own thing. I like any game where you can be engaged in the game, but also off on your own doing an independent thing, figuring it out, getting better at something. That sort of game appeals to me. Frankly, sometimes—especially over these past few years—I just want a purely beautiful, overwhelming adventure, especially when I can’t go on it myself. I’m not so foolish that I don’t see the nature of escapism that I’m engaging in. It feels good to me. It feels rewarding and I’m always aware of when I need to put it down. I wouldn’t say that I go overboard, but some of those crazier, longer games, I like the commitment. There’s something really satisfying to the slow build of those games.

This is something that came up in a previous interview—you could book a flight and a guide and go out to some frozen tundra and see a wolf on the horizon and that would be cool. But that’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of effort. So, instead, you could pick up that Switch and wander through that far northwestern area of the map in Zelda and experience this deep frozen winter vastland.
I would do the analog, real-life version. I mean, I have—many times. But there’s also something that’s appealing to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a creative type; maybe it’s just how I’m wired. The designers have to walk this razor-thin line of creating a world that is familiar enough that we understand its physics and its dynamics, but they can’t be just the normal, regular dynamics—there’s no point in that. It’s not that it’s as much a fantasy as it is a fantastic reality, or super reality. I like the snowscapes because I know snow. I like the desertscapes because I’ve been in the desert. Or swamps, I’ve been in a swamp. I’ve been in a regular swamp; show me, game designer, the absolute ceiling of your creative imagination. I want to know what you’re capable of doing that doesn’t fuck up the fourth wall. I think that’s what designers of games have become really adept at. Look at any of the Yes album covers, or Roger Dean album covers. They’re totally, totally beautiful, totally incredible, imaginative, weird. Places that seem bound together by just enough actual world physics that I don’t just totally write them off—but they’re not real. It’s seeing what an artist or creative mind can do with those confines. As the designer of these games, you have to create something that people feel comfortable and excited to navigate. So, it has to have elements of reality, but just how fantastic can you push it before it trips over the line, and then it’s just gobbledygook, it’s just nonsense? It’s that weird little razor-thin edge that I think separates fantasy that I will read, that I will watch, that I will play, versus fantasy that I will never, ever think about again.

As an artist, the idea of that appeals to me. As a recording artist, that idea appeals to me. I’ve never been interested in recording what our band sounds like genuinely on stage. You want to know what that’s like? Get a ticket, come see us at the club. We’re only going to play in an analog, four-person, very realistic way. I’m used to doing that—I’ve been doing that my whole life. But when you’re in a studio, your only limit is your fucking imagination. So, with our band, I want to see what my creative limits are. I want to push those boundaries so hard that they’re practically ready to break, but I also want to have the self-restraint not to break that indefinable wall that separates great creativity and art from vacuous, anemic fucking fantasy bullshit.

As a creative type, both visually and musically, what game has been most appealing to you in a visual and musical sense?
I will preface this by saying that I think growing up in the specific age that I did, the songs from NES and maybe a handful of the Sega games, but specifically the first real wave of NES games, had such incredible sound design and musical direction that I think it would be impossible for any of us that grew up in that time period to say that it didn’t affect the way that we approach music in some way. What song did I hear more than Tetris on Game Boy? Because I’ve heard that song thousands of times. I’m not sure there’s another song I’ve heard as frequently. Or Castlevania—that was one of my favorite soundtracks. It’s impossible that those songs didn’t affect my sense of melodic and harmonic structure. It’s impossible. Because everything else from that era of my life did. My mother loved Broadway musical theater, stuff like that. So, a lot of that sort of dramatic, grand musical gesture, melodies, they worked their way into what Baroness does, somehow, strangely. So did Tetris. So did Castlevania. So did Contra. So did Mario Bros. Any of those games have been etched into my brain—and everybody else at my age. Also, those early Zelda games had great soundtracks, too. I think musically, they clearly have had some kind of an effect—whether it’s a subtle one or an overt one. I’m going to be the last person to be able to say that.

In more recent years, I’m not even sure that I’ve heard anything that’s got that kind of scoring at that level that those old games did with those crazy limitations. This new Zelda game is like a weirdly religious experience to play and see. It’s visually breathtaking and really, in my opinion, more than maybe any other game that I’ve ever born witness to, strikes that balance between generating a world that I understand, that I feel comfortable in, that operates based on mechanics I understand that are smooth and enjoyable, but also has so much visual fireworks. It’s this kaleidoscope of ideas that now have three different levels—in the sky, in the depths, on the ground. The harmony of color, the harmony of design influences and the cohesion with which everything is held together. The subtlety of the play mechanics that keep you in the headspace correctly. Any great piece of creative work will cover all those bases in the same way, where you submit yourself to its reality in some ways more than your own when you’re really in its trance. I think applies to the cinema, I think this applies to literature, I think this applies to art, I think this applies to anything created like that. It’s satisfying.

One of my friends, Thomas, he’s the editor of this heavy metal magazine in Austria, he described the game as tough, but fair. What was the really hard game? Ninja Gaiden? Way back when. It was tough, but it was not fair! You could never win! Once the snow starts falling, you’re done. The game’s over. What was the really, really old one that kind of had a Disney style? Dragon’s Lair! Even 25 cents, it’s a waste of because you can’t get far enough in it to enjoy. I think that the Zelda game, you are forced to lose every so often. There are things that genuinely scare you because they come from nowhere. There are scenes that are genuinely beautiful. There’s a story that sort of holds up. It’s a really cool experience. And it speaks to people of all ages all over the place. You don’t need to know the language, you don’t need to know anything. It’s wonderfully for everyone, in my opinion. It’s still so incredibly designed that you can’t do anything but go, “Yeah, it probably is the best game that’s ever been made.” Probably.

Zelda has such a pedigree at this point. Even [Decibel editor in chief] Albert [Mudrian] plays the original Zelda. Because of this, he kind of got back into a little bit of NES gaming and playing it with his kid. Zelda is the one that he goes back to and he’s like, “Yeah, I remember all of this from when I was playing it in college.”
It somehow avoids all of the shitty pitfall tropes of other games. It’s kind of bloodless even though you’re killing, I guess. They’ve designed everything so that no one really dies in a permanent way, unless it’s meant to make you feel that death poignantly. Things disappear and then they regenerate and they make a big show of it so that if you’re playing it with your seven-year-old kid, they’re not aware of the amount of murder that they’re taking part in. [Laughs] I think Zelda’s always had that right. A lot of the Nintendo games, I feel like they intentionally design their games to have a somewhat bloodless quality to them as the games are probably designed primarily for children. There’s that innocent aspect to the game, but it’s serious. And it’s cool. I really appreciate the amount of effort that went into just simply designing the game. And the fact that it comes off as effortlessly as it does… I’ve yet to be bored in a way that I can’t resolve relatively quickly.

Are you looking forward to any future games or are we going to have to wait for the pandemic part two?
No, I think at this point I can say comfortably I do like gaming. I don’t follow it, though. I don’t know what’s coming up. Ever. Which I also kind of like. I don’t follow a whole lot of entertainment news. I don’t know what movies are ever coming out. I’ve got a pretty good selective attention span. Where do you even see previews anymore anyway? We don’t have cable or anything like that. I don’t even know what movies are about, who’s in them, anything like that. If I hear that one’s really good, I’ll go see it and it’s usually just a total surprise. There’s so much of a universe of reviewers out there. I mean, now it’s all half-truths and lies and thoughts and all that. If I find a reputable site that tells me what’s good right now, I don’t even look too far into it. Video game trailers, as you are probably well aware, don’t really say anything. Most video game trailers that I watch, I’m like, Am I watching the game? Am I watching a well-rendered commercial? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s not like music. Music, I will sit through an hour and a half of some godawful shit hoping to mine one gem. I’m looking for 20 seconds of good audio in any given record that I can love. But I’m not looking for 20 seconds of a game. I’m looking for a game that’s 100 percent entertaining all of the time, no fucking bullshit. No, “Oh, well, this game’s about heavy metal. You’re gonna love it!” Just because it’s about something that I like doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be something I like. Hey, guess what I like: Swords and sorcery. Are there any games that have that? Yes, they all have that! So, just find me the good ones.

Stone is out now via Abraxan Hymns and can be purchased here.
Tickets for Baroness’ Sweet Oblivion Tour can be purchased here.
Follow Baroness on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Facebook.

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