Baroness: The Yellow and Green Attack
26-Jun-2012 Words: Brendan Crabb
Pix: Brendan Delavere
Latest release: Yellow & Green (due July 17 through Relapse/Riot!)
Band site: www.baronessmusic.com
Georgian heavy metal/hard rock crew Baroness are on the verge of major things. Last seen traversing about our arenas as opening act for Metallica in late 2010, the band will release their highly anticipated new double album Yellow & Green next month. Loud has had a sneak preview of the new material and can reveal it contains some of the most melodic, hook-laden fare of the band’s career thus far, while still retaining the more abrasive side of their musical personality. They’ve also snagged new management in the form of the powerhouse Q Prime team, who also look after the likes of Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. On top of that, they have a slew of high-profile European festival dates booked.
Earlier this year, Loud caught up with vocalist/guitarist John Baizley for a face-to-face chat at Sydney’s Manning Bar while in town for his solo tour with Neurosis man Scott Kelly. The highly articulate Baizley talked about the creation of the new Baroness record, striking out on his own for a solo venture, what he learned from touring with Metallica and more.
Q: How’s the solo tour experience been thus far?
A: Yeah, it’s been cool. Scott called me three months ago and asked me to do the tour with him, and it was sort of one of those phone calls that you get where you’re like, “I’m not going to say no to this, I have to say yes” (laughs). But the timing was a little funny ‘cause at the time we were finishing up writing a record and we were about to go into the studio and we had like a month-and-a-half roughly scheduled for the studio. Then I get back, have to put the package together and basically I gave myself a couple of weeks to get some material together to take on this tour. But as things go, the recording took a predictable amount of time and the artwork, as always, an unpredictable amount of time. So towards the, as I was developing the packaging, the time that I had I had to put anything legit together for this tour whittled down to literally nil. So I found myself delivering literally the bulk of the packaging for our new record, the mastered disc and everything, the day that I got on the aeroplane, which gave me no time to prep for the shows. So I brought with me, I had a couple of cover tunes, but primarily Baroness material sort of in a stripped down form. So it’s been interesting for me to see how some of this material takes life on-stage, without the whole deal.
Q: Has the manner in which it’s translated to the new format surprised you at all?
A: Yeah, everything has surprised me (laughs). The 45-minute set is 45 minutes of pure surprise and learning for me right now, because I’ve never done this before. That’s the other factor; I literally have never done this before. So I’m working it out on a nightly basis, trying to get a better grasp of the dynamic of one man on-stage in front of a small audience, rather than the band in front of a bigger, rowdier…
Q: Metallica crowd or something like that (laughs).
A: (Laughs) Yeah.
Q: So what can you tell us about the new Baroness record then?
A: Well, it’s done. Sonically it’s a step in a different direction for us. Having worked and toured on Blue Record for two-and-a-half years, we had very little time to reflect on anything other than our performance. We very rarely had any more two or three weeks off, and we always spent that with our families or friends, we always spent that decompressing. So there was no time to consider anything musically. At the end of the two-and-a-half years I think we were just as tight on-stage as we could possibly be. And when those last shows happened here in Australia, there was sort of a communal feeling that we needed to expand, quickly. Because we’d spent so much time on the record; it was such a long cycle for us. It’d become… Our tastes and pallets had changed so much over the course of those two-and-a-half years, that when we stopped touring, there was a collective… We collectively admitted we needed to do something different, kinda shake things up for us a bit. In the terms of the way we approach music and the way that we write, it’s always got to be like some sort of challenge, you know? Repetition is boredom and boredom makes for a poor show.
So, I just sat down and approached, I tried to approach our music from a slightly different angle, as I have with each of our records. And so I think that this one is going to sound like that. Certainly one of the first things that we really recognised as maybe a weak spot in our songwriting was the songs tend to hold up as long as the four people are operating and playing them technically correctly, constantly. There’s not really too much room to massage the songs in different directions or things like that. I kinda thought of it as like, this is just a very serendipitously cobbled together, like group of parts. Like a friend of ours had said concerning one of our songs, he’s like, “theoretically this song shouldn’t work out at all, but it does”. And so I took that as both a compliment and as a critique.
So what we tried to do was write a series of songs, and within each song there’s a single-minded direction, there’s a very like unified idea behind the song – tonally, lyrically and musically. I think these songs are at their core simpler songs, they’re meant more as compositions. Like, track one is its own song, track two is its own song, there’s not the same sort of bleed over and maybe slight homogeneity that maybe we had with Blue Record. I think it just comes with age, focus, direction and all that. There’s a few things that we left off the record that are kind of foundation blocks for some of our past records, like some of the out-and-out brutal stuff, we just weren’t feeling this year. It really boiled down to that we need to write a record that we feel that’s a good and accurate depiction of what we’re doing this year. And we spent the year reflecting, so the album’s got a bit more reflection on it than our past records had. Where historically the band takes time off touring to write a record, you have this very condensed period of time where it’s like, “go, go, go, write, write, write”. This is a little bit more reflective as we had way more time to put it together.
Q: You mentioned the new direction there. Was any of that inspired by touring with bands like Metallica?
A: Yes, but maybe not in the direct way that you’re posing. Every band we tour with impacts us, because we’re music fans before we’re musicians. We got into music because we liked whatever bands (that) were there in the 90s when we were sort of cutting our teeth. So when we tour with bands, we watch, silently, and we learn. That’s how, that’s one of the linchpins of the band; we’re not here to rule, we’re here to learn and develop things. I want to chart the progress of our band over albums, so if Metallica’s doing something that we find particularly powerful, like some concept or theory or a songwriting thing that we see working really well, we try to absorb the essence of that and then we can configure it into ourselves. But the same can be said with any band that we toured with last year. You see what they do that’s better than the way you put it, and use that to inspire you to move forward. It’s about recognising weaknesses within your band and turning them into strengths and sort of taking them on, head-on.
Q: On the flipside, perhaps you can also observe things that you do better than other bands and use that as motivation or encouragement that you’re approaching things the right way.
A: (Pauses) No, that offers very little like encouragement for me. There’s a competitive spirit to a tour – if there wasn’t, then tours would be shit. Band A as the opener tries to out-do Band B. Band B works off the energy of Band A and tries to ratchet it up a notch, then Band C the same thing and so on and so forth. It’s easy to point out the cracks in the machine, you know? Much more difficult than it is to understand and work on the positive aspects. So I tend to, it’s really easy to say “that’s a shit band”. It’s really hard to say “that’s a shit band, but here’s what they do well”. So that’s sort of my attitude, because I’ve got a particular taste and so does everybody else in the band. So we don’t really pat ourselves on the back, as opposed to other bands. To me the good show is one where the audience offers something in return. We transmit, they receive, they transmit, and then we receive, it’s almost like an electrical circuit. The more energised the crowd the more energised we are, the more energised we are the more in turn the crowd is energised. That’s the thing that we’re proud of – when that works.
Q: That’s a refreshing attitude and probably one you don’t hear a lot of in the heavy music world these days either.
A: Yeah, it’s the attitude I’ve always had and I’ve kinda stuck to my guns on that. I think that within the industry there’s the less risky road, then there’s the road less taken which is that of submitting yourself to your music and understanding what it is that makes your band, your band. So it’s easy to cop a style or a pose or an attitude or whatever; it’s tough to supplicate yourself, it’s tough to put something really personal out there. (That’s) challenging and risky, and that’s what I’m all about at this point.
Q: You hinted at it earlier, but where’s your lyrical inspiration coming from on the new album?
A: They’ve always been in a personal vein. The thing is, as somebody who values privacy I tend to veil them in sort of poeticisms and metaphors. Those are very important contraptions when you’re writing music, because you don’t… I think at this point in music, rock music history, we’re beyond the point where “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Mr Sandman”, that’s super literal almost and I think the audience is smarter than that at this point. Like, “we’ve said that, now let’s say something different”. Yeah, the music is as personal as it has ever been; the voice of the band and the voice that I’ve found lyrically have become a bit more lucid and hopefully a bit more transparent. But that said, it’s still not a literal game; this is still something I want to be open for interpretation.
Q: Does the artwork follow a similar theme as well?
A: Yeah, I think this record is probably going to be, in some way… I think what this record is going to represent for us is a bridge towards something a little different, a little less comfortable, a little bit more risky. But it still seemed to me upon the completion of the recording that it fit in with Red Album and Blue in a way. Visually there’ll be a sort of serial nature to it; I think that this record will be part of a grouping. That’s an assumption - it could easily be proven wrong (laughs).
Q: (Laughs) Interesting. On the artwork front, do you have many other projects in the pipeline there as well?
A: Yeah, always, it never slows down. I’ve been on 11 so to speak for four or five years. Loathe as I am to admit blank spaces into my life, they just seem to fill instantly. It’s sort of like a nagging weight on my shoulders all the time. You know, it’s a weight that I love, so I can’t not do it, I can’t take a break. I can’t take a vacation, it’s not good.
Q: All aspects of Baroness just seem to form one cohesive package – music, lyrics, artwork and even merchandise. It’s all inextricably linked. Approximately how much time and effort would you spend on the artwork for an album, say compared to composing the music for it?
A: It all takes a lot of time. I mean, I can’t really quantify one taking more than the other. Clearly music takes the most out of you because you have to organise four people into a forward-moving beast (laughs) and that requires that all four of those people have a comprehension of music, are able to practice and get together and rehearse, and that’s time-consuming. But to say that I spend any less than like 150-200 hours on like an album cover is also… In the past month I was engaged in just the cover alone, 14-16 hours a day for weeks at a time. Just like a soul-crushing amount of time (laughs). The lyrics take a while as well. It’s a big project; I’m kind of a dinosaur when I move, it’s very slow and it can be plodding sometimes. But like so much of the creative experience, the best stuff happens like in giant waves very quickly and the rest is spent refining and reflecting.
Q: So with the album due for release mid-year, when will we see Baroness in Australia again?
A: Without a release date we can’t really start structuring things yet. But as soon as that’s released I can guarantee you it will be as soon as possible. This has been a great country for us; the gig we did at the Annandale a year-and-a-half ago, that was one of the last shows we did and was easily one of the top three or four Baroness shows that’s ever been. Just like a killer, killer, killer country for us to come to. We will not stop coming here. The only reason we’re not here more is plane tickets (laughs).
Q: Any famous last words?
A: No, not good at wrapping it up (laughs). I’m sure you’ll come up with something.
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