Baroness has always inhabited their own space in the musical universe. An innovative, complex, and dedicated DIY outfit that defies easy categorization, the energetic and hard-charging quartet has been a fixture on stages large and small since 2003.
They have released five critically-acclaimed (Purple’s track “Shock Me” was nominated for Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance at the 2017 Grammy Awards), albums of textured and layered rock, toured with metal titans Metallica, burned through various members (seven total), and delivered thousands of memorable, powerful performances.
While COVID wrought havoc on their routine and nearly year-round pre-pandemic touring status and the band’s well-laid plans, 2021 has seen their return to an ambitious tour schedule. Their current and most stable lineup (since 2017), includes founding member, frontman, guitarist, and acclaimed graphic artist John Baizley, bassist, backing vocalist Nick Jost, drummer Sebastian Thomson, and lead guitarist and backing vocalist Gina Gleason, has emerged from the pandemic reenergized and eager to hit the road once again. The band used the pandemic shut down to regroup, record over 30 new tracks, and reevaluate their purpose. We caught up with the erudite, passionate, and creative force known as John Baizely shortly after playing their first live date of 2021 and during fevered rehearsals for their upcoming US and European tour dates. Baizley made time to speak to Sonic Nation about the band’s state-of-mind, the overwhelming joy of playing for a live audience again, the creative process, and their fan-sourced song selection concept for their upcoming US dates.
Where Are You Living These Days? Did You Move Back To Pennsylvania?
We’ve always had a bit of geographic diversity amongst our members. My daughter was two at that point, we decided to move, and it was time to leave Georgia. We wanted to have a kid in a good school and that whole thing. Equally important, for me at least, was about getting everyone closer together. At the time, our drummer was living in New York. Our lineup has changed since then. Gina and I live here (Pennsylvania), but our rhythm section is still based in Brooklyn.
How Did COVID Impact Your Life As An Artist And As A Musician?
It completely fucked it up, not to put too fine of a point on it. It’s hard to explain how tremendous the impact was on everything. In the early days of the pandemic, there wasn’t any reason for me to even pick up my guitar. The entropy got so exaggerated that it just felt like I was treading water. We finally needed to be active and get back to it. The dearth of art or music had a pronounced and negative impact on my life.
At this point last year, we were working on a new record. It was strange as long as the four of us were together, it was good, but something was still missing. This is something I didn’t see coming—the act of playing in front of a crowd informs the concepts behind the songs we write.
We can go through the same motions without life experiences to write about it and drinking in those experiences–in the world around us, a tactile experience; it became more difficult to find a meaning or any kind of stasis. It proved to me again, not that I needed proof, that the act of playing the music is not just an act; or just something that I do purely for financial stability to keep my family OK, it’s also something I need to do and something that I’m driven to do. Without that happening, something always feels like it is missing. It’s not a small thing. It doesn’t feel right when there’s no tour. It doesn’t feel right to play music when no one is there to hear it. The type of music we make is music that is designed for a crowd in a live setting. I would postulate that all music is meant to be played for a crowd. We pull energy from that (the crowd). That exchange of energy extends well into the time even after we’re touring. It seems like we recharge our creative batteries from touring, store them, and then we pull from it that when we’re writing. I’m psyched to tour again. We need it as much as we need dinner tonight or as much as I need a good night’s sleep. We need our lives intact, and it’s an extension of all that. We need our audience and fans.
I’m excited., and that’s not even a powerful enough word to describe my feeling of playing live again.
Is It Good To Get Back On The Road After COVID? Has It Become Sweeter?
We just played our first show back in Gainesville (Florida). It was a huge moment, and it was very powerful in both directions. I don’t think I could envision what it was like to go back to work after two years (of no touring). We’ve been rehearsing pretty hard over the last two months in preparation for the tour. There’s always this huge gulf between what qualifies as a good rehearsal and what a great show will be like. It was hard to anticipate what it would feel like (playing live). There’s a big difference between a great rehearsal and a great show. At any point in our career, a Baroness performance live is technically challenging to play and perform.
More challenging because the best performances have technically competent performance, and Our best performance has a technical aspect; there’s also the variable of energy. And, by energy, not just what the four of us create, but what the audience creates, and it’s so different. Understanding and having a natural feel of how that operates in a live show is the most challenging thing to deal with again. Typically, I’ve never really been off tour for more than two months, so (the pandemic) was insane. At the two-year mark, we had to get our stage legs back. It was a huge honor just to play live music again. It’s also a big humility check. We walked away from it a few years ago and assumed that we’d be touring and recording as usual. The rug was pulled out from under us.
There are so many distractions. It’s a bit terrifying again, but It’s totally exhilarating. The reward and feeling (from playing concerts) we get is tremendous. I feel like I woke up for the first time. It’s like the colors were brighter, the sounds were clearer, seriously, and it almost had a psychedelic awakening quality. It was exciting that has been missing for so long. I’m sure if you interviewed a hundred bands, many of them would tell you the same thing. It’s so difficult to lose the music and that connection with others.
It’s stupefying; for the first time in many years, it’s almost difficult to explain. I’m feeling things I hadn’t felt in two years. I’m psyched. You can probably tell.
Your Music Is So Complex? Is it Difficult to Reproduce Live?
Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. The challenge is presenting our music in the manner that we’re accustomed to. We must have both a complete technical mastery of our faculties and also play our music without just standing there and looking stiff.
I may not be the most technical musician, but what I write is technical. So, I want to see how well we acclimate to an environment in the first week of touring. It should be very familiar to us, but it isn’t yet.
Your Music Has A Lot of Layers, and It’s Very Intricate. Is That Deliberate?
The intricacies and the embellishments are very quintessential to the music we play. There are whole albums where the layering, textures, and complexities are what the music is about. On the verge of this tour, we are allowing the first part of our show to be generated by the fans. We have between rehearsing 40-50 songs. Our songs are not like Ramones’ songs (short and simple). There are so many tempos, tunings, and tones—the Three T’s. We typically use D Standard—everything tuned down a whole step, and then the next one might be in A#. We’re now using Drop G, and we need piano strings to go that low. When we were a younger band, we had to use piano strings to tune down to our desired levels.
Was Sonic Youth Part Of Your Inspiration For Alternate Tunings?
Yes, that’s where all my willingness to experiment with multiple tunings began was after seeing Sonic Youth live. They were one of the first shows I ever saw in like 1991 or 1992. It might have even been the first show I went to. I remember seeing all these rows of guitars up on stage. We lived in the country, so our influences were what we saw live and had access to. So when we saw them, we said it, fuck it, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s where I developed a very open relationship to any kind of tuning. Standard tunings weren’t going to do it for us.
Does The Use Of Alternate Tunings Impact Your Songwriting?
Yes, as the artist, you are in charge of your sound, and tunings are part of that.
I write differently whether when I play electric or acoustic, a Gibson or a Fender. The range of pitches dictated by an instrument dictates the character to a vast degree. Take Zeppelin and the DADGAD tuning (used on “Kashmir”). You can’t help but write music that accommodates that tuning.
Your Music Seems As Commercial Or As Polished What I Hear on Radio, Yet Commercial Airplay Seems Elusive? Do You Feel The Same?
Yes, and thank you for saying that. As long as we have audiences to play for, and we consider ourselves a live band, the passive stuff like radio really is just icing on the cake. I would be lying if I said that if I didn’t say that music is fundamentally flawed right now. I grew up when significant music also impacted people and was popular. Nirvana started me on my path. There weren’t a lot of shows where I lived as a kid, and I remember when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out. I always liked playing music, but they made me realize I could do it. I wanted guitars and everything that pop music has, but also an edge that makes it interesting. I might be out of touch with what younger generations feel or want, but I doubt it. I think all teens feel the same way at that age.
Why don’t I try and do something about that? The lack of worldwide international appeal is not necessarily surprising, and not just for us but also our peers–Mastodon, Neuroses, High On Fire, and others; if we had come up in the 1990s, we’d have a different challenge. I think if we came up now, it might be different. I refused to get aged out of that market. It’s a game. A simple game: Tour your fucking ass off and show your audience some gratitude. You talk to your audience like they’re real people. You’ll get the success that you’re due eventually. There are a handful of systems that kind of work against us, and perhaps It’s more of a challenge to be a musician today. It feels like, in the space of ten years, things really changed. For example, touring is now the only way to make a living in music. Ten years ago, touring was a hard way to make a living, and now it’s sustenance. I consider us a touring band, and we love playing live. Due to the gravity of those challenges, musicians seem to play to the universe of promotion and marketing more than they do to their audience, and that generates weird results. Scenes don’t feel as cohesive anymore. The punk system is stable, but they’re still somewhat underground—the community at large you have to fight so tooth and nail to get anywhere. I fight to get that back whenever possible. It’s tough out there, but If you love playing music, you just do what you can.
How did you decide on the idea to let fans vote for their ten favorite Baroness songs from a list of 80?
This was an idea that had been brought up to us through our management (Q-Prime Management). We share management with Metallica, and we’ve toured with them before. I’m really a fan of that band. They always impress me, and one lesson I took from them when touring in 2010 (and they may have passed the actual peak of their career) was even when they could cruise and coast and be a marquee-level band, they didn’t. Yet, they can still connect with individual fans even in a packed arena and still make it feel intimate.
That feeling was transmissible, and it was infectious. I would watch them (Metallica) from the audience, and you were excited about whatever was coming up. Your fellow show-goers felt the same as you did. And it ramped up during the show, and it was because they have humanity, and the mistakes were laughed at. When James (Hetfield) spoke to people, he spoke with his effortless charm.
When I got to know him, I realized it was not an act. He’s real, even being someone at his level. We realized that we had something in that realm to share with people, and we had been touring for ten years at that point. I’ve always taken great pains to meet our audience and shake hands. We engage one-on-one with our fans and always try to maintain that one-on-one grassroots appeal. That’s why I got into music. I got into music to demystify that four or five feet of space that separate me from them. That’s about that space between the people that paid to see me and me. That’s always been a consequential, bedrock principle to recognize that dynamic.
To see a grownup version of that (Metallica) shined through somehow and impacted even the small decisions we make. When we made an Instagram page, it was called YourBaroness. The music we play is for us, but it’s also for YOU as a shared experience. I’ve always had a hard time connecting with people outside of music. For me, music is that connection, and it allows me to feel less alienated and always have a place to call home. I would never do anything to damage that place for me.
When it comes to our back catalog, we always try to appreciate it. People want to hear more than the hits; it’s preposterous as if we have any hits (laughs). There’s no critical consensus on what our best albums are. Some bands have to play or close with a certain song every single night. Dale Crover (Melvin’s drummer) had a quote and five pointers for new musicians—One was don’t ever write a hit. I now understand that. Our history is making egregious errors and getting stuck under challenging scenarios to extricate ourselves from. We never want to do something disingenuous or phony. I hope this tour is ample proof of that. I hope it’s exciting for our audience and that they see the hard fucking work we put into it. It’s potentially challenging. On a superficial level, I just don’t want to get bored. Boredom is the death of good music. Music always needs to be exciting, unpredictable, and on edge.
I Recently Read That You Have Written As Many As 30 Songs Via Zoom. So How Did Songwriting Work Remotely?
We had weekly Zoom calls and sessions. We didn’t do anything in person for ages; we did everything online and shared the files. Because we’re all competent engineers, we were able to work through it efficiently. We took the last few years as a sign or a necessity, that for financial and creative reasons we need to do it (record and produce) ourselves. We held ourselves to task and got it done. What are we truly capable of us a viable, independent band? In this environment, the more you can do yourself, the more genuinely or authentically you can reach the people who listen to you even insofar as it’s acceptable not to have the fully-formed skill set yet. We have bumps and edges that are done under chaotic conditions. We might produce better music by writing under these chaotic conditions. That’s not to say that I don’t prefer working in a more traditional, non-pandemic sense. There’s one thing I know this band can always do—and that’s adapt.
How Does Your Art Inform Your Music and Vice Versa? Do You Enjoy One More?
At some points, I can see or feel the boundaries between the two. Recently, I had trouble even understanding how boundaries even exist. I’ve come to realize that I can’t view Baroness just as a band in the traditional sense or a repository for everything creative, but more as a singular project. It is an art. Poetry is an art. Visuals are a form of art. It’s just a big project that needs all these dimensions for it to work the way I need it to work. So I don’t draw much of a distinction between the two.
Do You Approach Creating Art for A Band The Same As Creating Music?
It’s really different. The way I work in Baroness in parallel with other artists, I don’t feel like a client or working for, I’m working with. I tell the people I collaborate with or ask me for artwork to have an unspoken trust in me to work on the material and deliver. That’s important. I really don’t like to take a lot of directions. I’m not a tyrant, but I caution anyone with too many specific or literal ideas that I’m going to ignore those. It’s easier for me when I work with a band or an artist; I want to be a respected part of what they’re doing visually, I’m also a fan, and I respect what they do. My unique perspective is not that I’m a musician or an artist, but that I’m a fan. I want to make a rewarding experience for the fan and the band. It’s not something they could usually envision. It’s kind of like the anti-pitch—I’m not going to do what you tell me, I won’t work off a bunch of directions, I’m going to surprise you. I prefer to work with a band that doesn’t have a certain set of rigid aesthetics or a band that’s willing to take a risk and see what they get. 98% that works well for them and for me. The few exceptions only told me that the way I work is right for me and that I continue to work that way.
Were You A Musician First or An Artist First?
I was a kid that loved to create things. I’m most at ease working visually. When creating visual work, the head and the heart work easily with the hands to express. There are a few more points of contact in music—the pick, the strings, the cables, the pedals, the amp, etc. With painting, it’s water, paint, the paintbrush, and the way I feel is (conveyed) with a flick of a wrist. With music, I’m always learning. I’m trying to absorb new techniques so that I’m able to express myself in music more readily. Art comes to me easier than music.
It Seems Like Your Albums Have A Color Theme? Can We Expect Another Color Entitled-Album?
The bold, blunt titling of albums after colors may have outlived its usefulness. Then again, we haven’t finished our new album yet, so you never know.
Where Does Your Music Fit? Are You Just Continuing To Do Your Own Thing?
I’d like to think so. I’m happiest when we’re not trying to fit into a genre. There are some hallmarks of our sound that marry us to something. We want to be able to say, and however, we can say it. The easiest way to achieve that is to keep the lines blurry and never moor your ship to any specific harbor. It’s also challenging. Our activity on tour is kind of dictated by the way the audience sees it. We play metal. You can’t distance us from that. Are we a metal band? I don’t know. If we open up for Obituary, we’re an alternative band. If we open for Tame Impala, are we a metal band?
Are You A DIY Band By Design?
The goal has always been to be as independent as possible. We have our own label. But, we do have an agent, management, and press people. The MO is to do everything yourself until you’re not able to do that job with the gravity and competence required. When the scope became too broad, and none of us could handle it, we got management.
When you’ve done it yourself, you know how to find the right people. If you haven’t done it, you can’t know. It’s hard to give respect to your roadcrew if you don’t know what they do. If you haven’t played road manager, how do you know what it’s like? You need to know what you need in order to find it.
How Do You Use Social Media?
When we first started, it came from an intimate light-hearted thing. I guess that’s tedious and performative now. So now I see it as a direct line to our fans—the record-buying public, the concert-going public. It allows us to give out information in an accurate and precise way.
Baroness is playing Off Broadway in St. Louis, MO on Tuesday, November 30th. Tickets still available
Your Baroness – An Intimate Evening with Baroness,” ticket buyers will be provided with a link to cast their vote for the ten songs they want to hear at the show. Baroness’ entire catalog will be fair game with no song off-limits. Voting will close one week prior to each performance.
Nov 9, 2021
Ace of Cups
Nov 10, 2021
The Black Circle
Nov 12, 2021
Barfly at Skyway Theatre
Nov 13, 2021
Barfly at Skyway Theatre
Nov 14, 2021
The Hall at Fargo Brewing Company
Nov 17, 2021
Lucky You Lounge
Nov 19, 2021
Nov 20, 2021
Nov 21, 2021
Doug Fir Lounge
Nov 23, 2021
Nov 24, 2021
The State Room
Salt Lake City, UT
Nov 26, 2021
Nov 29, 2021
Nov 30, 2021
St. Louis, MO
Dec 1, 2021
Dec 3, 2021
Dec 4, 2021
Dec 5, 2021
Dec 7, 2021
Saint Vitus Bar
Dec 8, 2021
Saint Vitus Bar
Dec 10, 2021
Middle East Upstairs
Dec 11, 2021
Kung Fu Necktie
Dec 12, 2021
Kung Fu Necktie
Dec 13, 2021
Kung Fu Necktie