A lot can happen in a matter of seconds: Brakes fail, guardrails give way, lives change. Everything also slows down, says Baroness frontman John Baizley, recalling how his band's tour bus plummeted down a 30-foot embankment on its way to a gig in the southwest of England.
But Baizley and his cohorts beat the odds, and are now touring on behalf of their most successful album to date. Produced by David Fridmann of Flaming Lips fame, Purple debuted at No. 1 on the indie charts, and placed No. 7 on Rolling Stone's Best Metal Albums of 2015 list.
Despite the happy ending, the more than two years between accident and album release were anything but easy. Baizley, whose left arm had been shattered in the crash, only regained the ability to play guitar after surgeons implanted the two 9-inch titanium plates that now hold his elbow in place.
Meanwhile, the band's rhythm section resigned, leaving Baizley and longtime guitarist Peter Adams to recruit drummer Sebastian Thomas and bassist Nick Jost, who is also responsible for the keyboards that play a big role on the new album.
Musically, the Savannah, Georgia band has managed to take several steps forward. Arrangements draw more upon the post-punk, progressive rock, and down-tuned sludge elements that were largely drowned out in the driving melodic metal that dominated their first three releases. Fridmann's production techniques and psychedelic inclinations bring a sonic adventurousness to the table, resulting in the band's first true "headphones album."
Baroness push their musical boundaries hardest on the epic "Chlorine and Wine," a nearly seven-minute opus that showcases fuzzed-out, intertwined guitar leads worthy of early Brian May, James Hetfield-style vocals, and inventive arrangements that culminate in a triumphant outro as powerful as anything the group has ever recorded.
In the following interview, Baizley candidly discusses the aftermath of his near-death experience, the pros and cons of having an obsessive-compulsive personality, and the leap of faith involved in recruiting an outside producer to help take Baroness in new directions.
Indy: I understand the band spent nearly a year in the basement, writing and making demos for this album. Why did it take so long?
John Baizley: I think it was a combination of things. We'd toured with our new rhythm section for something like eight months, so we knew we had a musical rapport. But when it comes to writing, that's a different thing. And we needed all four members contributing, because that is how Baroness writes. So it took a couple months to figure out how to lock into that.
It also wasn't a particularly easy year, personally speaking. So there were some physical and mental obstacles that probably delayed things a bit.
Can you be more specific about those?
Yeah, I mean, I was injured physically, and I had to heal. And it didn't happen quickly. It still isn't done; it never will be done. And then, on top of all that, I am admittedly on the obsessive-compulsive side of things. So when we were recording multi-track demos, it was like, 'Let's see what the song sounds like in different keys. Let's see what the song sounds like in a different tempo. Let's record every single idea that we possibly have — with every different instrument as our disposal — and see if any of them add, subtract or alter the way these songs sound.
That sounds pretty horrifying, actually.
Well, I would never suggest living inside my brain. And, you know, I'm sympathetic for my bandmates, because they have to deal with this kind of thing all the time.
It's like those episode of Hoarders when the family members take away their extra G.I. Joe dolls or whatever. And you see the people physically shaking and having panic attacks. That's sort of how I am with rushing the completion of a song. If you say it's done, my initial reaction is to try to think of some reasons it's not, and then work on it a little bit more.
So yeah, it is horrifying, and I think it certainly horrifies the people around me. But, you know, underneath all of this is my belief that, if we stick to it, the listeners are going to feel the amount of excitement and care that we've put into it.
You toured extensively prior to making this record, and you've got a lot of dates coming up. Was it hard getting back on that bus the first time?
That was a breeze, honestly. I had no problem with it whatsoever. I thought I would; it made sense. But it just didn't rattle me at all. I mean, there are moments at night — if it's raining, you know, if it's cold, if there's ice on the road — my first thought is "If it's gonna happen, let it be quick." Because, you know, when we were in the accident, nothing was quick. It felt like an eternity. But now, I've already gone through a period where I've accepted my own mortality. So I've crossed that threshold.
Do you really think so?
I mean, as much as somebody can, realistically. Look, there are people who've had it worse than me, and there are people who've never had that kind of experience at all. And in a way, I'm glad that I have, because I know some of the anticipatable feelings. I don't like them, but I know them.
Usually, when artists go through a situation like that, they start writing very personal songs about it. But you've continued to use a lot of fantasy tropes in your lyrics. Where do you see the balance between those two approaches?
Well, my goal as a lyricist has always been to write about the experience that I have. But I make a very conscious attempt to not focus on the specifics and the idiosyncrasies that make it the story of one person. I've always thought of lyrics as a universal language of pain and suffering, and anguish, and torment, and reflection.
You forgot joy.
Yeah, but I try to be realistic, and joy is the byproduct of pain. You have to understand the opposite of joy in order to understand joy. And vice-versa. Think of that joyous moment at the end of Beethoven's 9th, where you've spent 45 minutes listening to despair, and then all of a sudden, in the space of 10 seconds, the entire mood shifts. And it's not the joy of waking up in the morning on a sunny day and knowing everything's gonna be alright. It's the joy of accepting things and gaining a deeper understanding of who and what you are, and what your station in life is, and being comfortable with that.
From a musical perspective, Purple doesn't sound like anything else that Dave Fridmann has worked on before. Having come from a DIY background, how was the give-and-take between the two of you? Did it move the music in directions you didn't always anticipate?
Absolutely. And that's what we expected. In his recordings, I'd hear his playfulness, his creativity, and his unwillingness to adhere to any type of specific formula. And what I really enjoyed about working with Dave was that he appreciated Baroness's love for layers. I don't believe the studio is a place where you necessarily have to record the best-sounding live versions of your songs. That's not the type of band we are, you know? There's a baroqueness and an orchestration that, in the studio, becomes very fun for me.
And we knew that if we worked with a guy like David Fridmann — who never even touched any other heavy band before — we're gonna get a recording that does not sound like any other heavy recording. In some ways, it may be very smart to do the obvious, because you get more predictable results. But I don't give two flying fucks about predictable results.
You also have a lot more keyboards than on previous records.
Oh yeah, it's full-on keyboards. We had included keyboards and synthesizers on prior records, but we buried them in the mix and didn't use them live. But on the last tour, Nick took along a Rhodes keyboard. And now his setup is a bass guitar, Rhodes keyboard, and a synthesizer.
So that's varied the dynamics of the live show, as well.
Absolutely. That's something we've dreamed of from record to record and from tour to tour. The further up our highs can go, and the further down our lows can go, the better.
When you use words like "baroqueness" and "orchestration," I can't help thinking of progrock. Isn't the song "Kerosene" in 7/4 time?
Yes, well, 90 percent of the song is in 7.
If you found yourself drifting in that direction, at what point would you stop yourself and say, "I really can't start wearing a cape." Is there a boundary line there, or is nothing off limits?
In theory, nothing is off limits, okay? Philosophically, there's no bad idea, meaning we'll try it if somebody presents it, it won't get shot down. Doing a song in 7 isn't insanely prog. I mean, Pink Floyd did it. They did it a lot slower, but they did have a song in 7. Radiohead had a couple songs in 7 that hit the radio.
And Led Zeppelin.
Yeah, Led Zeppelin. So I mean, that's not too overtly prog. I think writing a song in 5, perhaps, is a little bit more demanding. And when you start getting into the 9s and 17s and stuff like that, then you're asking for it. But it can be done.
The thing is that, as a musician, at the same time you're developing your technique and your art, you have to develop your sense of self-editing. And when something feels like it's going to be too much — when it feels like it demands a cape, or a frock — you just know. And then you don't do that.
Or you keep changing it until it works.