John Dyer Baizley’s Brute Emotion

Baroness frontman cuts through the B.S. for Chaos in Tejas

Leader of the pack: Baizley, with the ZZ Top beard, and the new Baroness
Leader of the pack: Baizley, with the ZZ Top beard, and the new Baroness

Last August, on its first shows for tour de force third album Yellow & Green, Baroness’ bus plunged over a viaduct in the UK and nearly killed everyone aboard. The heavy rock quartet counts Chaos in Tejas’ Saturday set at Mohawk among its return to the live arena. Frontman John Dyer Baizley’s no-holds-barred Q&A proves equal to the task.

Austin Chronicle: You probably don’t remember, but I came by your table at Flatstock this past South by Southwest.

John Dyer Baizley: Yes, I do remember that, actually.

AC: How did South by Southwest go for you?

JDB: It was great. It was kind of like my official first week back at work after a long layoff. It felt great to do it. It’s good, because South By is work: a lot of walking, a lot of organization, and a lot of stuff to do. But it felt good. It felt good to do that, because essentially I hadn’t [played] for about six months. To be involved with both artwork and music all in the same week, and getting all the ground covered was kind of awesome for me. It’s kick-started me and gotten me back – precipitated getting me back into shape and everything.

AC: That’s quite the leap back into work – the circus of chaos that is South by Southwest.

JDB: There’s no better sink-or-swim than that kind of scenario. As such, it was a good and positive thing for me. It is chaotic and it’s very circus-like, so I was forced to deal with that sort of situation and see if it was too much or too little for me. Turns out it wasn’t. It was confidence building – a good pre-prep for touring.

AC: Where do you live?

JDB: Philadelphia.

AC: I’d think that getting back into the game would more likely call for you taking a guitar down to your corner tavern rather than South by Southwest. Were your shows here during the festival therapeutic mentally as well as physically?

JDB: They all are. They all are in their own way. The solo ones more so than most certainly. But yeah, absolutely. There’s a huge mental component for me in playing live.

If I was a smarter musician; if it didn’t offer me some mental sustenance, I would probably have focused my energies on being a studio musician of some sort. But I like the thrill of it. I like the nerves. I like the exposure and the intimacy. In some ways, I kind of like the circus. So playing South By, I know what it is. Everybody out there – it’s kind of a promo thing. It’s kind of a press thing. But for me, I didn’t really need the promo and I didn’t really need the press. I was probably in the minority of artists performing there this year, who just got to go there and play music. For me, it was simply a test – a foot in the bathwater. And it was good. I enjoyed it.

AC: Are solo shows just you and your guitar? Is that something you’ve always done?

JDB: No, no, no. It’s relatively new for me, but it’s forced me to open up and engage in a different way – both the music that I’m playing and the audience I’m playing it for. I find it very enlivening, because at this point in the development of the solo stuff I do, it’s all very new. It’s full of holes and mistakes and human error. That’s good for the musician and the artist to experience, because after a certain point playing with the same band all the time, there’s an element of autopilot that happens. You gain in confidence, and you lose some anxiety.

I think the anxiety is an important thing for our music, because it’s outside of the safety or comfort zone. At this point, I haven’t accessed that in a long time. So again, the delight and pleasure for me was in how difficult it was, and how exposed and sensitive that type of performance feels.

AC: Had you written much material for the shows?

JDB: No. I’ve begun to write, and that’s the important thing. I’ve begun to write for that [solo] setting. I’ve begun to become comfortable doing cover songs, which is something that typically I’m not all that cool with. It’s been an eye-opener in so many ways. It’s one of these things that I’ve done for any number of reasons, but most importantly just to take stock of where I am and get my bearings back, for better and for worse. The material will come as I progress, but it’s a brand new thing for me. I don’t know the rules. I don’t understand the strictures and the confines, so I’m figuring those out the same way I figured out how to play in a band when I was 16. You just do what’s immediate and obvious and right in front of you. You learn from that and develop through experience.

AC: You’ve been writing songs a long time by now. What kind of songwriter are you then? Autobiographical, or as a form of escapism?

JDB: For me, it’s entirely autobiographical. The trick, as it were, has been in crafting a language that I’m comfortable describing my experience in such a way that’s understandable, relatable, and universal. That’s where some of my recent endeavors have been quite fruitful in terms of any experience. I’ve never needed to escape my reality through music. It’s more about discovering and reflecting on what I and the band and everyone I’m around has been through via our music.

One of the great things about music is it’s the universal language that denies or forsakes barriers like language and geography, and so on and so forth. It allows you to cut to the quick in a unique way – through music – and deal with the universal things like heartache and loss and suffering. All that sort of stuff. It can do that with or without a super, super direct narrative. Not to say that there aren’t people who use to great effect a direct narrative. It’s just that for this band the narrative is sometimes more poetic than prosaic.

As I get older, I find that the poetry has become more direct – maybe as a result of recent events, maybe not. It’s hard for me to say at this point, but I just feel like, “Let’s cut through the bullshit.” And the chit-chat, and all the 50-cent words, and let’s get down to business. That’s what drew us to this music to begin with: its directness. It’s only after we’ve heard every album a million times that we follow these rabbit holes to these weird sub-genres and funny little corners of music. But the real stuff has historically been and I think will continue to be the stuff that touches people.

AC: Given what you’ve been through and your continued healing, do you have any trepidation of what will come up naturally in your writing? Like, “Gee, the wounds are just now healing, do I really want to poke back at it?”

JDB: Yeah... that’s, that’s who I am. That’s who we are anyway. We’ve got to poke back at it. That’s always what we’ve done in this band. We’ve never shied away from the hard truths. I don’t think now’s time to shy away from it. If anything, now’s the time to really take a look. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to push that any further down the road. Who knows? Who knows what will come out in our songwriting. Certainly we’ve taken a break – or we’ve had to take a break – from touring and writing and all that. We’re just now getting back to it. I wouldn’t say that I’m fearful about what’s going to come out of us next. In fact, I’m kinda excited to get to the point where it’s time to tackle these subjects. Time to write songs about what we’ve been through – recently.

AC: Seeing as you’re looking forward to a point where you’ll be working up new material, does that mean this past album, Yellow & Green – such a great double-disc – will end up a lost child because it didn’t have a chance to blossom through promotion?

JDB: I hope not. I mean, I don’t think so. That was something I was aware of and somewhat fearful of some months back given our particular scenario right now, which is we’ve gone through line-up changes, which is we haven’t actually played any domestic shows with our new record. And what, we’ve only maybe played 10 or 11 international shows since the record’s been out?

Given the content of that record, which remains relevant though recent events, I think that Pete [Adams, guitarist] and I are very, very excited about the prospect of playing the record. Whether or not there’s a public for it is up for debate, and I guess we’ll find out soon enough. But as far as we’re concerned there’s plenty of life left in that record, and we’re anxious to play it and see where we end up. Because that’s how we write the next record, based on the former record, and what we do onstage.

The old songs inform the new songs is what I’m trying to say. Frankly, we haven’t gotten a chance to do much with this most recent record even though it’s been out almost a year now. We’re touring soon to find out.

AC: You lost band members of that album to this accident?

JDB: This past record we recorded as a threepiece, so I played all the bass. We’d lost our bass player just prior to recording the record. So, when we recorded the record, we were a threepiece. For touring purposes, we’d gotten a new bass player, and then bus goes off a cliff, blah, blah, blah, and everyone has their own experience with it.

I can say this with assurance and without speaking for everyone else, but each one of us has had an entirely different response/reaction from this crash, and the injury – be it mental, be it physical – has not been dealt evenly. So, each one of us has responded in turn. I don’t really like to air the other guys’ laundry too much, but suffice it to say that the crash has made it difficult or impossible for those guys to continue touring with us – unfortunately. Very much unfortunately.

AC: Which guys?

JDB: Our drummer and bass player are no longer playing with us. It’s Pete, our other guitar player and singer and I that are continuing on. We’ve gotten a new drummer [Sebastian Thomson] and a bass player [Nick Jost].

AC: What level of post-traumatic stress disorder have you experienced? They use that term for war, but it’s likely the same for any cataclysmic event.

JDB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, look: The short and simple truth of it is that we all came within a microsecond of dying. That’s going to change you, if it’s through post-traumatic stress or whatever. I can only speak for myself, but there are definitely psychological effects. I’m very sensitive to them. I’m very aware of them. It’s not like I don’t understand where they’re coming from or why I’m having them, but they’re present. They’re frustrating.

You know, it’s almost to the point of dull annoyance – constant annoyance sometimes. And sometimes a little less subtle than that, but it’s there. Obviously it’s different from somebody that’s been in war, but our guitar player Pete has also been through war. He served in the U.S. military – and was injured. So he’s been able to help me have some initial perspective on the way the ball rolls down hill. As such, I’ve been aware of it. I’ve been ready for it as much as one can be, but that doesn’t mean that you can stop. It’s a very strange, unpredictable thing the PTSD, because you can’t pre-envision things in the right way to stop them from happening. You can only accept it as it’s happening and try to understand it. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

AC: Your post-crash blog about the accident was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. As a writer, what’s your relationship to that document now?

JDB: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m far enough away from it. To me, it was just kind of a blog post that I did. It still has the [hard sigh]... The crash is still so fresh to me that there’s nothing outside the crash that’s more impactful, so that to me just was a quick little... In my mind it was a quip. [Laughs] Well, not really, but in some ways it was more an update for a group of people I knew were curious as to our condition. And I wrote it for that particular audience and I certainly wasn’t trying to work anything through in that piece of writing.

I’m not dumb: I know that clearly something was coming out of me as I was writing it. I could feel that. I think it stands as the foundation stone of whatever comes next. There’s that and a couple of other documents that have a similar vibe or feel to them. I wrote them around the same time period when that was literally all I could think about – was my injuries and the crash. It’ll be interesting to see what I can take away from it, more than just the immediacy and brute emotion of something like that. What I can offer myself and the audience in response to that – moving forward and past it. It’s one of those things. You don’t walk away from something like that without learning a lot – and quickly! The learning curve is right in front of you.

AC: I’ve been a fan since your first albums and tours, but I never saw this last album coming. What birthed it?

JDB: In some ways it’s really easy to talk about where it came from, and in some ways it’s kind of difficult. Much like the bus crash, I see it as a thing that happened, though with the album I’ve been able to step outside of it and say, “This must be a jarring thing.”

We knew as we were writing it that it would at the very least pull a reaction out of people. But we’ve been touring for 10 years and woodshedding in a certain way, and it just felt like we were dangerously close to becoming formulaic. I felt that the content of our material was suffering from a lack or reality. Plus, there’s this thing that can happen if you tour too often, which is you get stuck in that realm. You get stuck using the same language and the same imagery and the same musical devices as everybody else who’s stuck in that spot is using. I just wanted to get out of it. I wanted to treat our music like something more serious than it was. I thought, let’s do something that has more artistry to it, a greater sense of craftsmanship, that has more personality to it.

This was all based on the year I was having at the time, which I thought was difficult [laughs]. It was difficult for me personally, and it became good musical fodder. It forced me and allowed me at the same time to write differently and approach the band in a different way, in a more serious way. Like, “Okay, we have to write something better and bigger and less adherent to the strictures than we’ve had in the past, because we’ve been doing this for so long and if we don’t it’s just going to feel like a big waste of time at the end of the day.” Like we’re just gonna be these idiot musicians that are just “playing the game.”

So, what’s the biggest risk of all than to take the house you’ve built and crush it down and rebuild. That turned out to be a very good thing for us internally, and that’s what we’ll continue to do in the future.

AC: Musicians talk about albums they were listening to when they made a particular piece. Yellow & Green reminds me of something like Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills & Nash. The folk element is so there. And yet the lines are blurred – it’s folk, it’s rock, it’s many things. Ultimately, though, it really reminds me of that rich period in the late Sixties and early Seventies. What was its musical matte?

JDB: For me, it’s all over the place. A year prior to starting to record that record, I had begun to do this thing, which I’ve continued to do for years now, which is I listen to a fresh album every single day. An album I’ve never herd, because lord knows, there’s plenty of them out there. In doing so, I start with the familiar and then move outwards.

I’ve always considered myself to have broad musical tastes, not to be repetitive. I’ll seek out whatever, Rolling Stone’s “50 Albums You Have to Hear Before You Die.” Or some random Brian Eno, sub-genre, superfreak’s blog post about what he thinks is the newest, freshest, coolest thing. From one end of the spectrum to the other, I was trying to be there, trying to inform myself. And as it turns out, I think we can all admit that there’s an especially fruitful period during the Sixties and Seventies where it seemed to me, in retrospect, that it hadn’t all been said at that point. You could refine yourself to the point of obscurity, or you could embrace the carnival that is music. You could laugh at yourself, be slightly schlocky, but writing good music at the same time. Your themes could be big and grandiose and sort of over the top, but as long as it was grounded in humanity, the music was pretty decent.

I ended up listening to a lot of country. I’ve always been a kind of closet country fan. I ended up finding a couple of country artists that I really like and I was able to acquiesce to writing with less chords and trying to find a greater amount of soul in our music. Look, I’m not saying we’re like the Band, or Pink Floyd, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I’m not saying that, but we want to try and do something on that level without seeming retro or overly pretentious. Just the right amount of pretense, just the right amount of theater, and then underneath it all just a handful of good songs. Who cares how we arrange them? Let’s just keep writing.

AC: Mission accomplished. It doesn’t sound retro.

JDB: We were very cautious. Bands nowadays have to be especially careful not to get roped into the retro category.

AC: Love the harmonies. The word that comes to mind is “monastic.”

JDB: We were going for something rudimentary in terms of harmonies. It was all in the presentation. You can and we do engage in a handful of pop structures when they’ll suffice. We’ve been developing that. Even if you go back to our really, really early stuff, which is much more brute force, there’s always been a sense of harmony. As we’ve grown older and as we’ve grown more comfortable as musicians, we’ve been able to use harmony and melody in a more fluid way, in a more diverse way. It suits the meaning of a lot of our songs.

AC: It’s a loaded term, and musicians seldom have a use for categorization, but do you or have you ever considered Baroness a heavy metal band?

JDB: No, I never have. And I’m pretty quick to point that out. Nor have I ever denied that there’s a strong heavy metal influence or element to our band. We never wanted to be confined to a style. I know that’s what everybody says. And here I am saying it. But that’s the world we came up in. Those are the bands that we knew. That was the type of tour we were familiar with. I think you can say with some asurrity that it’s rooted in that, but ever since day one we’ve been pushing back at it, seeing how far we can take in a different direction.

AC: Your labelmates, Royal Thunder, their singer Melanie Parsonz said they never considered themselves metal, and yet the first time they listened to the playback of their debut they were stunned. “Are we that heavy?” That’s not you is it?

JDB: No, no, no. At first, for us, it was just, “Let’s be heavy.” When I was younger, it was just about being loud and heavy, and about having that release. As we’ve grown, we grown quickly enough and constantly enough that we can see where the artifice is. Every year further we’re aware of the artifice, and the tricks of the trade that you can use to be heavy.

Tuning is one thing. We tune down. Volume’s another thing. Those are really obvious. Then there’s a lot of stuff you can do within your music to support that. The important thing is we know that. We’re getting more used to eschewing that in favor of something a little bit more unique. I don’t know how you couldn’t. Everyone seemed surprised with our record, but I’m like, “How couldn’t we have written that?” Everything else is getting done and other bands are doing it. Why would we just stay stagnant and not grow? How could we not ask that of ourselves?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

John Dyer Baizley, Baroness, Pete Adams, Sebastian Thomson, Nick Jost, Royal Thunder, Melanie Parsonz, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Pink Floyd, The Band, Buafflo Springfield, Chaos in Tejas, SXSW

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