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Notes Of Woe: A Conversation with John Baizley of Baroness

The maker of wicked lullabies talks "Stone", sorrow, and stability.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley

Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):

When discussing colors, several artists spring to mind in the rainbow of music: Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Metallica, Prince, Joni Mitchell, OK GO, and King Crimson to name a few. The concept is hardly new, but the art of using it effectively comes down to the determination of the artist to build a panorama around a central theme.

Few know themes better than John Baizley, the cult of personality behind Savannah's Baroness. For twenty years now, he's been finding out the meaning of color to the world around him, through sludgy riffs, and melancholic ballads that have transformed the group from an underground act, to a worldwide arbiter of spectrum superiority. His songs are close, and ambiguous, often speaking of a lust for vices, the simplest comforts, a need for kindness, and the primal urges that turn us into wretched creatures.

For years, this critic has been obsessed by the imagery, illusions, archetypes, and honesty of Baroness, recognizing that it takes a lot to revive a band after member turnover, and even more when there are significant injuries involved. Last month, we had the pleasure of a digital sit-down with John; what followed was a real chat about intellectual honesty, the nuances of creation, and what it means to successfully squeeze nectar from a Stone.


On behalf of Heaviest of Art, thank you for joining us! I've been wanting this interview for about three or four years. Every time I would scrub one up I'd be like, "Naaah, that's shit. He would never like that." Let's try my chances now. Last year, I was fortunate enough to catch the "Your Baroness" Tour, where fans were able to pick your setlist. By the way, that's fucking insane. Way too much power for us.

John Baizley: It was a lot of songs to learn.

I contributed to that, so can I ask — what did you learn from it? What data did you take away, and what interesting insights did you take from the experience?

I don't know if it was interesting; it certainly wasn't very surprising. You can probably imagine that when you put that type of authority in the hands of your fans, it ended up just being all the songs that we play quite frequently, anyway. The songs that were voted for are also the songs that are — for lack of a better term — popular songs of ours. They're songs that we're always prepared for because of the nature of that tour and because we made kind of a big point about booking small shows. Generally speaking, it was 300 capacity or under. As you can imagine, some of the crowds were pretty small, and when the core sample group of people voting for songs was small enough, then we started to see some of the more interesting setlists. There was particular town — somewhere in the South — where it seemed like there had been some kind of coordinated effort to get us to play a bunch of songs off our very early EPs, which I thought was cool, you know? We were ready for 'em. That was kind of exciting.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
Photograph by Ebru Yildiz

Beyond that, that thing that was most surprising to me was how much I enjoyed extreme length sets. For the majority of our career, we've kept our set times under two hours, but on that tour it was closer to three every night. I really enjoyed it. It was a really physical, super challenging tour to undertake, and it put us in really good musical shape, and I quite enjoyed that.

It was crazy. I remember going to that — it was such a late show, but the thing that struck me the weirdest is how energized Gina (Gleason) is. She cut her hand early on at the Dallas show when you had to switch over to "Trees". For the rest of the set, she played with her hand just streaming blood over this guitar, and I remember watching that from like two feet away going, "That's terrifying. She looks so excited by bloodlust." It was phenomenal.

Another one of the cooler, fun things about being a musician, and playing live music is... anybody like a Broadway actor, or a Live Show host, dealing with a live audience night after night requires that as a performer, you're ready, willing, and able to deal with injuries, insults, any number of things that can go wrong. It's awesome to play music with a bunch of people who are willing to push through that kind of stuff, of course — when it's not super detrimental to their health. Playing live music at the level that a lot of us do, it's similar to pro sports, I think. Sure — there's a lot less money in it, but you have a set amount of time that you're gonna be in front of people performing, and things are definitely going to go wrong. Things have a tendency to go wrong, quite frequently.

Well, you've got this fantastic four-piece ensemble again, and it feels right. It's chemically special. With Nick (Jost), Sebastian (Thomson), and Gina — the band finally feels whole again after all these years — which is something I'm sure you've not taken for granted. How do these three people help make Baroness what it is? What part of the chemical balance are they?

In a band like Baroness, everybody's gotta come correct. Everybody is a song writer, part of the arrangement, part of the song, everyone brings 25% to the table. We've gotten ourselves to a pretty ideal place where all four of us are competent song writers, capable of writing songs that, once we're all involved, become full Baroness songs. I have a lineup right now who loves to work, who loves rehearsal, loves touring, loves studio time, loves arranging music. They love the challenge of self-improvement, and it's really great to have a unified front, in that way. I'm sure this'll come as a surprise, but there tends to be in group situations like this, and especially in band situations, which are about the only thing I'm quite familiar with — there's usually one person who's a little bit more reticent to take the risks, or a little less willing to sacrifice all this time and energy for something.

From what I understand, the depth of commitment that this band requires of its members can be a little intensified, so when my team of bandmates, my family and I have the same mindset, work ethic, ambitions, motivation, it's really special, and unique. Since our chemistry has just gotten better, and better over the years since everybody has joined —we're excited to see how that works itself out musically. It's a huge step for us in that realm of finding out what's unique about the four of us, together.

Once the pieces all fell together, the "newer" Baroness just felt more right. Everything that gets better with "Purple" (2015), and "Gold and Grey" (2019), they feel more organic. Which is not to say that the other parts aren't. I get more excited with each new Baroness release because I'm discovering that the path that I selfishly wanted you to take is what you're doing right now, and that's a treat. It's a treat to feel that, and your band has always possessed a strange quality. Your music, the further we've gone, has developed a sharpened edge for using lullaby melodies in your albums. From "Steel that Sleeps the Eye", to "Mtns (The Crown and Anchor)", "Foolsong", "Eula", "Chlorine and Wine", and most importantly, "Tourniquet", and "Cold-Blooded Angels". Which by the way — you ruined Spotify Wrapped for everybody that year.


Everybody I show "Tourniquet" to curses my name, and your name. They're like "Why would you show me that song? I have 800 hours of Taylor Swift, and then a hundred alone for this one album!"

That's nice to hear. That's cool. You've gotta understand man — I DON'T KNOW. I've gotta stop listening to 'em at some point. I almost always stop listening to a record as soon as they're mastered. Then it's like, "Okay, we did everything we wanted to do for it." It doesn't end up in my Spotify Wrapped. I think when Gina joined the band, I ruined our first Spotify because she had to learn all these songs. *laughs*

I don't know if this is surprising to anyone, but I love writing ballads. Those songs are more fun to write for me than other types of songs, because you need to feel them. I couldn't write "Cold-Blooded Angels" without feeling the way that song feels. "Eula" would be an impossible song to write without the mood, and the feelings that song brings. I really enjoy and prefer the moodier aspects of what we do, and I think just due to the particulars of my sense of melody and harmony, I have a knack for those type of "lullabies". I hear people call them all sorts of things, but it's always in that world. I think the rest of the band says I write "bad Christmas songs".

*laughs* That's fucking great. Now you've committed to this. BARONESS CHRISTMAS ALBUM — WHEN?

Exactly. I think it would be kind of fun. In all honesty, all jokes aside — I really like the sort of melancholy of a lot of those traditional holiday type of songs. I really do like them. I think they're beautiful, oftentimes dark. They don't make any sense that they're a thing, but yeah. Bad Christmas songs are what's up! Bad nursery rhymes, bad lullabies — you name it. That's my thing.

Dude, you're nailing it. Now I'm gonna be looking forward to that. That's all I wanna hear; ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, by Baroness. You're painfully aware of these synesthetic properties. People come at you all the time with that. "For two decades now you've been putting out color albums." That's fine, because The Beatles only laid claim to the White album. Why do you think fans cling so hard to this living pantheon of color you've crafted?

I might be the worst person to ask that question. Every one of us are capable of recognizing the tones and the names of those albums because they're colors. Everybody brings to the table their own experience of what a broad color like that could mean. I think one thing that were fortunate with in our titles is that because colors have a loaded amount of symbolism and potential for metaphor — like an archetypal quality, I think that's a better way of explaining it. When Jung talks in his book "Man and His Symbols" about archetypes, the thing that was always interesting to me about that, depending on where you're from, a broad enough symbol can have a vastly different meaning to different cultures, people from different economic backgrounds, genders, places, times, so on and so forth. But you say ‘red’ to anybody throughout time and there's going to be an association with something whether it's blood, or fire, stop signs, you name it. There's so many different ways to interpret these things that I think that it was something our fans were cluing into, and it's something that allowed the depth of our music to be more easily understood. I'm not putting a record out and saying, "This next album we're releasing is called LICKING MY PISS OFF THE BIBLE, or something." I think I know what I'm getting myself into there. *laughs*

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
"Yellow & Green" Cover Artwork by John Baizley

Even a more specific term. If we called it "Sunset", then that makes the idea of the record so much more tangible, and foreseeable. But I think when we say "Stone", "Red" (2007), "Yellow and Green" (2012), "Purple", we're really asking the listeners to bring their own stories to the table, and listen to it with their own ideas, and experiences in mind. The themes of the music, the feeling and energy, can affect different listeners in different ways. That's why music is beautiful. A Beethoven étude doesn't mean the same thing to me as it did to somebody in the 1700's.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
"Purple" Cover Artwork by John Baizley

Meaning changes environmentally, temporally, it changes based on the specifics of your experience as a human being in the world. I like for us to use that, you know? Maybe in a practical way, it takes a little pressure off of having to give the album a title that explains all too well. But more importantly, I think the listener's experience should contain as much variety as the four of us, and our experiences that we bring into making them.

You're right, and loaded imagery is the perfect way to describe that, too. We all bring our own personal biases into this. I think everybody has their own emotional attachment to it. When I think of the different color albums, it's exactly what you said. Temporally, I was somewhere different in my life, and now I cling to that. You create emotional baggage, but it's a good burden. You like taking it with you.

Yeah, and if you think about the Adele records — the title of the record is how old she was when she recorded it. That's kind of a beautiful, simplistic, but very poignant way of going about your album titles. It says to the listener, "This is what it was like for me, at 21." It makes me go, "Well — what was my experience at 21?" It was certainly different from Adele's. *laughs* But I can listen to that music, and I've already taken the first step towards trying to listen to it as somebody who's just turned 21. I think giving people just enough context that they are interested but not nearly enough context that they feel like they're either part of it, or not allowed to be part of. If I said "This song is called 'All the colors that I see'" and somebody blind is listening to it, it's a very different thing. So we just say, "Here's a word that describes a feeling, describes twenty percent of the color of every single thing you're going to see today." Then you've gotta wonder, "Which red thing is it? Which purple thing? Which stone thing?" How can these words not apply to the artist writing them, but the meaning of the listener.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
"Gold & Grey" Cover Artwork by John Baizley

How do I bring those archetypal images, and metaphors into the experience of listening to somebody else's music. I think that's an interesting thing.

Definitely is. When we inject our own meaning into's double-sided. On one hand, you have people bringing in good, positive meaning. On the opposite side, you have Rob Halford being sued because he put "do it" in one of his songs. They're like, "Your honor, could you not hear the meaning behind the music? Clearly, it was intended."

Sure — but I'll say this: I will defend art, for art's sake past the point a lot of people will. Rob Halford shouldn't have to explain himself in the same way that the judge doesn't necessarily need to understand what Halford's intentions are. In a way, artistically, it's a pure thing when your music creates such a reaction in somebody that they feel litigious about it. I'm not saying it's a net positive, but the positive aspect of is that music, which has a tremendous capacity to make us feel things, to make us change our behavior, to make us approach the world slightly differently, has that effect. In some ways — in EVERY way — Rob Halford is not in-charge of how you interpret a Judas Priest song. If you don't understand what "Ram It Down" is about, maybe that's not important to Rob, but you'll feel something.

Of course — I think it's complete bullshit. But I also think, in a way, it's almost complete bullshit that anybody out there can get sued for supposedly lifting too much of a song. Whatever that thing was with the Marvin Gaye song earlier this year, or Sam Smith and Tom Petty. It's like, no-no-no y'all. None of those notes were his intellectual property. There's no such thing as a melody that belongs to somebody. Music is for everybody. I think you could basically rip an entire song off, and if it's better than the original, then I'm not gonna complain. It's when it's NOT as good as the original, that I think we get a little bit bent out of shape.

I'm glad you went there. That's exactly where I've been going. People take a lot of turns trying to draw meaning from things, or try to extrapolate data from it that they probably shouldn't be, honestly. People took turns prodding you during the "Purple" press cycle, and even afterwards.

For sure.

They were trying to connect dots on the board to the 2012 bus crash. Hell, we're in the eleventh anniversary of that right now. I'm guilty of doing the same thing — I can't say much. I used to end all my interviews with, "does great suffering breed great art?" which I look back and cringe on now. Why do we all seek tragedy as our medium to empathize with others? Did you ever feel pitied, or handled with kid gloves because of the way journalists approached the topic?

No, I think great art comes from great suffering — yes, that's true — but it's not exclusively true. That's the more subtle, difficult answer to the thing. While one thing may be stereotypically true because it applies more often than not on a big enough data set, then yes. We see tons of heartache, tons of heartbreak, some are born of frustration, some are born of tragedy, and in many, many, many cases have a great capacity to, again, make us feel things. So, of course they're popular. None of these things are exclusive. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a social context to all this stuff, so I would say that 100% of our music has come from difficulty. That doesn't mean I'm going to let journalists gaslight me into an oversimplification of what that difficulty is, you know? No one gets to tell any artist why they did anything.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
"Stopne" Back Cover Artwork by Surya Mahdiana

You as a journalist, you as a critic, might know better than I do why I did something, but that doesn't mean I have to accept it. I think the duty and the obligation of the artist in every society is to ask questions, artistically, creatively, musically, but it's not our job to answer them. Posing the question in a purely creative way has everything that it needs to. It's the act of asking, the act of questioning, the act of wondering, the act of investigating that is really the beauty of this medium. It doesn't require that you answer things, or resolve things. In fact, creativity, music, art, literature, cinema, you name it —it thrives in a situation where resolution isn't important.

There are so few natural examples of stories that have a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Art is a reflection of life, and how, and why should we expect that art reflects a life that is unchaotic, unmuddied, unsophisticated, and linear, and articulatable like that? No, I think that life is in fact, more like The Sopranos. There are sudden, abrupt ends, and changes, and adjustments that define the need of art, and music. Great albums can have the difficult to ascertain elements, and create these environments that are so fantastic, and so complex that we don't know what they are. That doesn't make us less interested in them; it makes us more interested in them. When you're watching something you can't quite wrap your head around you wanna watch it again, you wanna listen to it again. I can name countless records that the first time I hear 'em, I'm like, "that's cool," and there's something in the back of my brain that's like "there's a great reward here." You've gotta keep listening, and keep asking yourself those questions. I feel like I never really answer the build-up questions. The curiosity, and the sense of self discovery that we can experience additionally can be really profound. It certainly has real world effects on people like me.

You may be interested to know you're the outlier on the question. I've asked it so many times in different forms, and this time just as an example. 99 times out of 100, everyone is like "the trauma isn't important. You're gonna get there regardless." I've always wondered what would happen when somebody says "No, I had to have that trauma. It couldn't have happened any other way." It's like a fatalistic aspect of it, but you're right! It's not the whole story. You're still creating.

Maaaaaaybe it's fatalistic. Yeah. I know people have, but I never would go search for tragedy in order to have some more creative gas in my tank. I think life is going to generate enough difficulty. If you take your hands off the wheel, it will provide you with plenty of sustenance if that's what you require for creativity. In my experience, the easiest way to access inspiration, and motivation is to confront difficulty, confront tragedy, confront pain, heartache, loss, mortality. All of these things. To force them where you can ask the more difficult questions of your life through music, rather have to be truly courageous, and face it head on in a verbal way. I think the act of creating is so overwhelmingly a positive thing, that even when it's born of tragedy, and born of ugliness, and especially when it's born of ugliness and tragedy — the beauty is confirmed. That's the one reason that I believe in art so badly, because I think it gives its practitioners a place to take the most impossible aspects of existence and turn them into objects of true, and tremendous lasting beauty. Eternal beauty. I'm always going to believe to a degree in this query that it's potentially those difficult things that allow us to forge our creative identities. I'm not saying this to excuse us, that's the important thing. It's not that simple. There's no formula for making things. You can't just say "I've had a tragic life, therefore I've got something transcendent to say." That's not the case. You have to also have drive, motivation, instinct, good taste, an ear for it, technique. It's a very complicated thing, and anybody who tries to distill it down to something simple is going to present an inaccurate picture. But there's no such thing as a totally accurate picture. Conceptually I'm just going to talk circles around it. you know? *laughs*

You do what you do because you have to do it. You do what you do because you find it interesting, and you think there's some value in what you've created as such that it'll find an audience. That's enough for me. Anybody who's got the impulse to create something, and put their own self-expression out there to be judged and absorbed, and appreciated... you've got my vote of confidence. You are an artist because you made art. But you do have to be judged for it. Good art has a way of finding a larger audience than bad art. BUT NOT EXCLUSIVELY — AGAIN, AGAIN — NOT EXCLUSIVELY. Pop music, I think, is a great example. There's bad pop songs that get wildly popular, and I don't exactly know why, but they're even an objectively bad song.

You can sort of tell. Sometimes when people have an adversity that they like to sing about, and the louder that they get about it, and the more overtly mainstream they build upon it, it's like a hype train, and starts to feel disingenuous after a time.

Yeah, but crowds understand what's disingenuous. I don't understand how artists think that their bullshit doesn't stink, but large audiences are a great bullshit detector. I also think people have different expectations at a pop scale, than they do at an underground scale, but that's why when a good pop song comes out, I'm just so thrilled. Because I love hearing music in its most commercial form, that's also good. It's just not that frequent that we get that.

So what you're telling me is you are also waiting for Taylor Swift's 1989 (Her version). Gotcha. *laughs*

YEAH, but legitimately... yeah. Taylor is out there fighting the good fight. I think it's most important for me to think that, because I don't unequivocally love everything that she's done. A lot of her music is not for me. But the way she's going about it is really fantastic, and inspiring. She's speaking to people that weren't born in a record store, speaking to kids out there in the real world, living a great variety of normal-styled lives, not just the music intelligencia. She's getting people into vinyl. She's getting people into record stores, into live music! There's nothing wrong with that, especially when you're not stepping on anybody or doing it in a super gross way. I think she's actually one of the good ones.

I like that she's taking an honest perspective on owning your own rights in music. I wish more metal groups would come together and do what she's doing right now. Say "hey, we're gonna take our creative IPs back. We know you took them 20, 30 years ago, but this is our move to try and retake that." She's done it with a sense of pride behind it that I feel like more of metal could benefit from.

It's that idea, that in 2014 or 2015, that urged me to start my own label. That idea that authority, and authorship, that convinced us to finally take the leap and make our record all by ourselves. There is some confidence and stability that is garnered by working with skilled individuals, but when you're in a band, the idea... of a band is a group of skilled people whose combined talents are greater than any of their individual talents isolated — so, if we know how to make, produce, release, package our own records, make our own merchandise, can get out there and tour, and do our own thing, then why wouldn't we do that? That's genuinely who we are. I think that pop music needs to realize that on-scale as well. You're right — especially for metal bands who are coming from an independent-thinking place, whose music exhibits sonic qualities that are not for everyone. Unique records of self-expression. "All right metal band, you're the best person to represent yourselves, if you're driven, intelligent, and know what you're after." Otherwise sure, hire all the marketing/promo/management people that you need. But I would like to think that when we hire people to work with us, we're hiring people to do the things that we are absolutely incapable of doing at the level of quality that it needs to be done. We don't have an agent just because we don't feel like booking shows. We have a booking agent because we can't book shows competently with our schedules, with the amount of precision and care that we need in order to stay professionally active.

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
"Red" (2007) Cover Artwork by John Baizley

But yeah, if you can own your own masters, release your own music, if you can record it, market it, or package it, go for it!

Nobody knows DIY better than you.

Weeeellll, no — I'm sure plenty of people know DIY better than me. As an artist, if you see a space for yourself to operate more independently at the level that you're at, then yeah — go for it! Creatively, there's integrity, credibility, and respect there. But practically speaking, it's just people you don't have to pay. If you can do it yourself, as well as somebody else or better, then why would you pay somebody else to do it?

It's true. You own both aspects of yours! Your visual art has progressed along its own timeline in ways that fans can appreciate. There's people out here who have drawn the contrasts. Muscles have gained more tone, faces have gone from classical, to realistic, to statuesque, and even more animated. They're dense with symmetry and asymmetry alike, and draw on strange objects and familiar shapes. A halo of teeth, egg yolk, oozing cream, protrusions of flowers acting as a frame, piercing spears, and nails. THERE'S SO MANY FUCKING NAILS. Why do these seemingly unrelated aspects feel like Baizley motifs? What are their significance?

In some ways, I can't avoid them. It's an impulse. There's impulsive aspects to my visual sets, but I prefer using symbols that have loaded meaning. I don't use them according to the pre-loaded meaning, but across time, space, religion, sociology, gender, everybody has the image of a nail in their psyche in a loaded way. If you're a Christian, you're certainly going to have a pronounced meaning, but I think that nails can be objects of violence, objects of quiet, objects that bolster stability, objects that inflict pain, puncture, confine, objects that when they're released can symbolize a release. I like any object and symbol that I feel an impulse to create — furthermore, *any* object that has that amount of potential meaning to it.


Stone is available now via Abraxan Hymns (Order).

baroness interview, baroness stone, john baizley
Cover Artwork by John Baizley


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