The PV Q&A: Baroness' John Baizley On Yellow & Green and Investing in Your Music

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Interview by Dan Epstein

If you’re a bit thrown by Yellow & Green (Relapse), the latest release from Savannah, GA progressive metal practitioners Baroness, you’re not alone. Though the heavy riffs, harmonized guitars and densely-woven psychedelic flourishes that characterized 2007’s Red Album and 2009’s Blue Record are still present in spots, much of the material on the new double album features a more spacious and atmospheric sound, replacing the sludgy sturm und drang of yore with quiet acoustic passages and stacked vocal harmonies that occasionally recall Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes. The overall effect is gentler and more intimate than the band’s previous work, yet no less intense or disquieting; still, the sudden sonic shift of Yellow & Green has caused some critics to accuse Baroness of venturing into “emo” territory, and some longtime fans to reproach the band for forsaking their metal roots.

Unfortunately, the band had to face something far worse than listener disapproval on August 15, when their tour bus took a 30-foot dive off a viaduct near Bath, England, while en route to a gig in Southampton. While all on board thankfully survived, frontman John Baizley suffered a broken left arm and left leg, while drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni were hospitalized with broken vertebrae. All three have since been released from the hospital, but all remaining 2012 tour dates have been canceled.

While this is obviously a frustrating turn of events for both Baroness and their fans, we don’t think it’ll keep ‘em down for very long. After all, as Baizley explained to PureVolume in this interview — which was conducted a week before the bus accident — he’s a man on a musical mission.

PureVolume: Yellow & Green is easily the most divisive Baroness record yet, in terms of critical reaction.
John Baizley: Fuck yeah — of course it is! We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t make at least one divisive record. [Laughs]
PV: The songs and arrangements seem a lot less dense than those on Blue. Was that the intention going in?
Yeah. We learned after Blue that continuing on the path of complicating our music in that technically dense way was only going to present unnecessary problems. I felt that a lot of that technical trickery had become pretense and artifice — a lot of makeup to cover up poor songwriting. So rather than admit defeat and try to push that further and further, we looked at each other and said, 'We’ve gotta write better songs.' The quality of a song isn’t in the precision with which we play it; it’s more about what we put into it that falls outside the technical spectrum. And that’s great — that’s what I love about music.
PV: You’ve been quoted as saying, 'Nobody gets into music to play it right. You get into music because it makes you feel something.' Do you think that’s kind of the crux of Yellow & Green, right there?
JB: Yeah, I think it very much is. As musicians, the tendency is that your music gets bland and lifeless and formulaic and redundant — it ceases to become art, and it becomes promotional product. So the trick is, how do you continue to invest yourself in your music? How do you continue to search for the emotional core? Well, you can’t do the same thing over and over again. If there’s anger and darkness on one record, to try to recapture that same anger and same darkness doesn’t work as well the second time. So what we’ve done is approach it from a slightly different vantage point. There’s never going to be a moment where we realize what the mathematical equation is that creates a good song. In fact, we’re probably going to stray further and further from that as time goes on, in order to find that new high.
PV: But much of the songwriting on Yellow & Green is actually more “conventional” than on your past albums.
JB: In so many ways, this new record is the simplest thing we’ve ever done, because there’s no grand illusion to it; there’s no concept or theme, other than our lives. What do we all have in common? Well, we’ve got our anger, we’ve got our pain, we’ve got our resentments, our losses and our heartaches. So we’re just presenting that the way we’ve experienced it. If the record’s a success, it’s because people will find some common thread with it.
PV: But that’s not up to you, really…
JB: No, it’s not up to me. And it’s a very liberating thought — and it’s a very difficult thought to come to — where you stop caring about what other people think, or what you assume other people will think. We’ve all tried to do that, and it doesn’t work out well. The only gold standard that we’ve ever held our music to is, 'Does this feel right to us?' If it does, then all the pieces can fall into place. It’s simple, it’s pure — it’s a pure thing.
PV: Is it difficult to keep it pure?
JB: It’s incredibly difficult to keep it pure, because everything in the industry seeks to dilute that purity. I understand that, and I understand there’s not really anything you can do about it. It is an absolute necessary evil. I want to play music, and I want to feel passionately about playing music. I can do that on the street corner, put a little tin cup out in front of myself, and hope that my daughter has food tonight, but it doesn’t work like that. So you’re intrinsically at odds with the purity of the art form from the very beginning. So admit it, recognize it, and then move forward and recognize that the only way to maintain that purity is to trust the people you work with that they care about your music, that they afford you the opportunity to have artistic control and freedom. And that’s where things can get hairy — when you get into bed with someone who’s going to tell you the way it is. I did not start playing music so that somebody could tell me how it is; I started playing music because I needed to say how it was for me. That is the sentiment of a nine year-old kid picking up a guitar, and in some ways it’s the sentiment of a 32 year-old man who has spent his life chasing a dream.
PV: Who are some of the artists that have set the example for the artistic path you’d like Baroness to follow?
JB: The usual suspects — like, we can all agree on Pink Floyd. That shit is amazing. And closer to home, bands like Neurosis. One of my all-time personal favorites, one of my absolute heroes, is an artist named Scott Walker, whose career has been about as polarizing as it gets. I look at artists like that for inspiration, because those are the artists who prove to me that, relative commercial success aside, you can constantly engage in pushing yourself forward without losing your identity or losing your sense of self. And then, at the end of the process, at the end of the line, you’re not looking back on variations on a theme — you’re looking back on a work of art that mimics and mirrors the human experience itself. Those kind of lofty, ambitious, overly romantic things are the things I like to concern myself with. I have no illusions that we’ve gotten there, but I’d like to try.

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