(Baroness - photo by Ebru Yildiz. L-R: Gina Gleason, Nick Jost, Sebastian Thomson, John Baizley)
“TO ME, THIS BAND, WE TOUCH ON and we approach the human experience in the music, and because of that we need the broadest set of tools to explain every dimension of our experience.”
John Baizley, Savannah-raised founding member of Baroness, is responsible for guitar, vocals and illustrations (that’s his work on the cover of the new album), lyrics, drive and emotion. And he possesses a beard that brooks no nonsense, like the band who hit as hard as any outfit in the hard rock/metal/sludge/this-isn’t-dance-music area.
But as anyone who has encountered Baroness before would know, the look, or even the sound, doesn’t tell you the full story of this band, which includes Gina Gleason on guitar, Nick Jost on bass, and Sebastian Thomson on drums – a lineup which has significance in this band’s history, as you’ll soon see.
(Stone cover art, by John Baizley)
A new album this week, Stone, slices through various shades of rock, acoustic, almost folk-ish, elements, and some irresistible hooks, backed by no shortage of power. It’s better than good.
To find out more about Baroness, and him, Baizley today submits to The Reverse Kondo, in which instead of throwing out things from your life, he’s asked what would he bring into his life to give him joy, in five categories, the last of them of his choice. He has a lot to say.
If I dig in deeply enough into my psyche I think the place that I wish I had greater access to, because it was so important to me when I was younger, is the more rugged wilds of northern Canada where I spent every summer as a kid [from 12 or 13]. I would go out there and essentially live off the land. We would travel some summers upwards of 2000, 2500 miles across multiple [provinces] in Canada by canoe. The point of the camp was to experience that natural wilderness the way the indigenous peoples had, so we would travel by mostly traditional means.
The place itself had a really huge impact on me. It’s isolation, it’s wildness, but also the almost overwhelming serenity and beauty of the place, with regards to that rugged wildness, offered the contrast to me in the physical realm that sometimes I try to approach through arts and music. I did this four or five years in a row and it was like months-long adventures. It certainly set me on the path, it certainly showed me how much I enjoyed being out in the wild, own adventure. It started me on a path of just moving, absorbing new things, drinking in culture and drinking and art, absorbing new foods and people, and that’s something that the lifestyle of a touring musician is suited to. For me, some of it started there.
Similarly, the imagery, and the atmosphere and the feeling – now, this is 25, 30 years ago – in my memory you have this hazy, fantastic sort of quality where it almost seemed like I was a different person, in a different era.
And he can see the lasting influence in the way he writes.
Yeah, in that I don’t distinguish, in so far as I’m capable, between genres or styles or musical contrivances, because that’s what they are. For me as an artist the aggression of punk and hardcore and mental, the volume of it, the weight of it, the heaviness of it, is a tool. The quietude, the subtle beauty of folk music, is a tool. Melody is a tool, harmony is a tool, dissonance is a tool. So what we like to do in this band, and what has been a guiding principle or an underlying foundational truth of the way that I try to approach the things I do – and probably because I don’t understand linearity in the way some people do – is rather than being a Point A to Point B [route] I like to think of it more galactic.
There was a starting point for us which was a dense thing of matter that has since been expanding, and through that expansion, because there is no linearity to it, it means you can reach into the past, you can reach into the future, you can reach laterally and take, beg, borrow, or steal whatever works for you as a tool as a musician. I’m really interested in how beautiful the rugged aspects of music can be.
This is a bit obvious for me but if I were capable I was somehow bring Nirvana back into my life because they were quite literally and very specifically and very definitely, the entire reason that I play music. It was the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, which I watched debut on MTV, which was the first instance where I ever recognised that I could be a songwriter and musician, if I wanted to. I was sort of at the beginning phases of playing guitar at that age, and music doesn’t come easily: you’ve gotta work at it. I’m not one of those supernatural technical people, it’s more that I have melody and harmony and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to get it out of me, breathe life into it.
When that song debuted, I lived in the country, I wasn’t exposed to very much music at all, only through MTV, and when that song came on [when he was] 12 or 13 it was the first time that I had the experience of someone singing to me, in that way that great listening experiences feel like they are for you. It became very much a guiding principle for me: everything that they wrote, everything that they recorded, everything that they released, I learned. And I learned it because I was teaching myself how to play music, and through that band I learned how to listen, I learned how to write music by using my ear.
I think that Kurt Cobain was that person for me. I lived very remotely, there weren’t shows nearby me that I was interested – there weren’t shows nearby me – so had to travel to see shows. I travelled to Lynchburg College, in Lynchburg Virginia, which is about two/two and a half hours away from us when I was 12/13 years old. I hung out the back of this college gymnasium – this is before they were the biggest band on the planet, and there were 800 people there – and waited there to see if I could meet them. The whole band came out and they hung with me and my three sweaty, frozen friends for 45 minutes or an hour, and not at one point did we feel like we were talking to a rock star. Not at one point did we feel like we were anything other than peers, equals of those people.
Through that experience I learned everything I needed to know, every single thing I needed to know about how to carry myself as a musician through the world. It was a potent moment for me, one that I wish I could explain, in some way, to the person responsible for me. But I very much use that experience is a cornerstone of my demeanour, belief system, creative ideal, the anti-rockstar thing: the idea that creativity has nothing to do with that sort of popularity. In fact it’s often hampered or stifled by it.
For me this year it’s been the paintings of Claude Monet. I find so much of myself in his paintings. And this is true of all great painters and music, that you find yourself in, you see something reflective and your brain digs in and needs to start figuring out why. And I think it relates to this record too: my experience with it was that we ever were writing big parts of songs and orchestrating things; we were being very intuitive, improvisational, reacting. [We were] using the combined chemistry of our membership, and trust and respect and care and love, to create this new record.
So when I hear it, the record does not ever sound like 10 songs, it doesn’t sound like one big album, it sounds like thousands of miniature expressive marks which on a granular level are appreciable, but there’s no narrative, there is no hardline form, and the further back you get and the more you let yourself and absorb it, the more you see.
It’s not meant to be a picture of a water garden or of a cathedral face, it’s meant to be the reflective energy of that space, the atmosphere of that space. There are some bands that are so unique and singular and so expressive that anybody who could try to sound like them, or who could try to use that methodology, would sound false and anaemic by contrast, because when we allow ourselves to express freely it’s not always pretty. There is a greasiness to it and it’s the things that we as individuals consider mistakes that end up defining the specifics of a character in many cases.
I could see 75 – 100 paintings of his in a day but always with the same response, always with this reverent awe because I think it’s the two-dimensional, oil paint version of what I’m trying to achieve.
HIS CHOICE OF SOMETHING TO HAVE OR BRING INTO HIS LIFE
I think the thing for me that really defines this record that we’ve just released is that is the first time in nearly 20 years of my musical history that I’ve been aware of and been overjoyed to develop the idea that this music can connect us as bandmates, can connect us with our audience. This idea of connection this idea of togetherness and oneness – and I don’t mean that in a hippie dippy, Lennony way – in my experience there is a very, very tangible feeling that comes with that. There is something in that beautiful, unspoken, improvised moment with my bandmates they can turn my day from dark to light in a second. And it feels like magic.
I don’t believe in magic; I believe in creativity, I believe in music. I believe that this idea of being creative and communicating through your creativity is my God, is my church, is whatever people find in football games that gets them so worked up. It’s how four individuals create something unique, and if you trade any one of those people that uniqueness shifts.
In Baroness, in 20 years this is the first record we’ve released that has the same lineup from the album before. We’ve had lineup changes throughout our history and is staggering to me how much more depth and dimension I feel with our music now that we’ve been able to develop chemistry, after years and years on stage, thousands of shows together, letting go of all the right or wrongness of music and allowing it to become the expressive, creative thing that it is.
And that is literally the way that I connect with the world, and I guess the thing that I need in my life to be a stable human being – because I am unstable without it – is that connection, which I don’t find elsewhere. I don’t feel those feelings elsewhere outside of my home and my family.
Stone is released on September 15.