A New Hope: Redefining the possibilities of heavy music with Baroness

photo: Jimmy Hubbard

Savannah, Georgia’s Baroness have survived a horrific bus crash and a rhythm section revamp since their last album; they’ve emerged with a victorious and game-changing disc, Purple. The record makes good on what their last, 2012’s Yellow & Green, hinted at: songs that are soaring, exploring, and moving in ways that heavy albums usually aren’t. It’s the unlikely feelgood album of the year, which actually makes a lot of sense, considering the difficulties it was born from, and strives to overcome. Substream caught up with frontman John Baizley to talk about Purple and the circumstances surrounding it.

The album is really moving. I’m a life-long metal fan; it’s not too often in the realm of heavier music I’m emotionally moved, but this album just takes me away.
JOHN BAIZLEY: Thank you. You are very simply summing up what I was trying to accomplish with the record. Admittedly, as you and I both know, it’s a very difficult and very ambitious task, but why wouldn’t I try something difficult and ambitious? I’ve been putting out records for a while. The point is to do something that elicits reactions from people. That said, when we mostly had the record written and demoed and I was speaking to our producer or whomever, and they would ask what the record is like, I would have to describe it, and the descriptions which I kept saying, which were genuine, were “sonically heavy, musically dense, creative, artistic, emotional, melodic, earnest rock album that has moments of metal and a variety of other genres.” That sounds terrible. Not only pretentious, but it sounds like I’m describing anything that would fit the modern day active-rock formula. So it was a tricky thing to set out to do. I’m very happy to hear you’ve responded the way that I’ve responded.

I think the album clicks with me so much because it actually feels like guys playing music that has some meaning behind it.
It’s funny that it’s so hard to sound like guys playing music with meaning behind it. I agree with you. Fads come and go, and I like at least half of them, but honesty is a different thing. We made a decision that when I would write lyrics in this band, and this is an old MO for me, I won’t write lyrics about things that I can handle and deal with in my everyday life. I don’t get as much out of the music ultimately as I want to that way. With this record I chose, once again, to focus on the parts of my life that are difficult, the concepts that are tough to wrangle with and to ask questions that I know I really can’t answer. Hopefully through that questioning maybe I can come a little closer to dealing with whatever it is that each song is about. And with the events of August 15, 2012, obviously there’s no lack of stuff to ponder. It left me and all of us with a lot of questions, and I don’t think any of those questions are necessarily going to get answered, but we certainly aren’t going to do ourselves any service by ignoring them.

I was almost loathe to bring that up because every journalist is going to ask you about the accident and how it influenced the album. But it’s so apparent that I have to ask: How much of an influence was that 2012 bus accident on these songs?
In so far as with each record, Baroness writes about the experience about the moment we set down to write until the moment it’s recorded, yeah, it’s a quintessential player. It’s a foundation stone. But it’s not the only thing we’re willing to talk about. But the fact is we were forced to contend with a brand new rhythm section, and while that could have been a real difficulty for us, it allowed [guitarist] Pete [Adams] and I to work with two musicians who brought no baggage with them regarding that crash towards the writing process, and, on a very simple level, we just didn’t have to talk about it. I mean, of course they knew what’s going on, it’s obvious that we went through that, and in some ways it’s obvious we don’t want to talk about it all the time, but we can’t ignore it. There are some very real and immediate effects from that crash, physical and mental. So if half of us don’t have that, and the other half do, and we play in a band that prides itself on working collectively then we simply cannot force two people to deal with a situation they had no real experience with, and we don’t want them to have a real experience with it. We needed to prove it wasn’t the sort of event that was going to stop the band. We can write a record that has elements of hope and pain and deals with the anxiety but not by creating more, by relieving some through the best medium that we know.

There is a lot of hope on the album. I was wondering if it would be miserable, but to me it’s a very uplifting and hopeful album.
Yeah, it’s coincidental in a way and maybe not so much in other ways. I thought we could very easily write something that was somber and reflective but nobody else really wanted to do that. In retrospect… thank you. [Laughs.] I think in order to achieve the subtle things we want to achieve and some of the broader things that were important to us, the idea of writing something really bleak, which I certainly had the impetus to do, would have ultimately been a mistake, and a misrepresentation of who we are. Very quickly we realized that we had an opportunity with this record to say something simple and profound, which is that you don’t have to get stuck at the way station just because life is difficult. That’s one of the things that attracts me to music: It’s an outlet for people who have to contend with the darker side of life. But we never even really talked about the crash, other than things like, “Someone help me pick up this amp, my arm is screwed up.” But we weren’t dwelling on it, which is what I did when I was alone. When we got together, we celebrate. That’s what music’s about. That’s what this record’s about.

And I hear that. My favorite song on here is “Shock Me,” although immediately I was like, “Goddamn it, you named your song the same as KISS song.” How distracting is that?
Oh, whatever. We’re riding on the backs of our forefathers. Our record is Purple; Prince had his purple thing. We did Blue [Record, 2009], so did Weezer; we did Red [Album, 2007], so did Weezer and Taylor Swift. We’re just begging, borrowing and stealing from one another. If someone takes something that was said before… at least it wasn’t “Lick It Up,” you know what I mean? There’s not going to be post-apocalyptic naked women eating turkey legs in our videos.

You sound like you were traumatized more by the Lick It Up era of KISS more than anything else that’s happened to you.
That video is terrifying to me. [Laughs.]

But your “Shock Me,” as well as other songs on the album, are full of hope. They really lift me up when I hear them.
Yeah, I like that fact. I think that shows where we were when we were in a rehearsal studio in my basement. I have a tendency to go toward darker music, but that’s not representative of the rest of the band. So when they take what I have and put it through their filters, it ends up being very triumphant. S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #49.