Baroness Talk "Yellow & Green", Literary Influences, The Future, and More
Tue, 05 Feb 2013 13:00:38
Baroness conjure up a certain magic that's missing from modern rock.
Their double-album, Yellow & Green, tempers darkly sweet melodies with a heavy haze and even hazier mystique. It's an opus that demands and deserves the listener's fullest attention as it extends across the emotional spectrum from the depths of devastation to the heights of reprieve.
However, quite refreshingly, it never talks down to the audience. Rather, it elevates expectations and encourages pondering, debate, and thought. Is there a wrong or right answer? That's up to the individual on the ride with Baroness. On Yellow & Green, they've reached the pantheon of other artists like Metallica, Led Zeppelin, and Tool who brought listeners to a new plateau.
Last year, Baroness rightfully earned ARTISTdirect.com's "Rock Band of the Year" honors. Now, the future is looking bright, and editor in chief Rick Florino spoke to vocalist and guitarist John Baizley about Yellow & Green, literary influences, the future, and more.
What was your mindset going into Yellow & Green? Did you have an overarching vision prior or did that become clear in the studio?
The vision, if you will, was there at the onset. The details were what we needed to fill in. The idea was to write a record that didn't have to adhere to any rules, scriptures, or anything like that. We wanted to really focus on writing songs. We wanted to make sure that those songs were accurate as far as we were concerned. In other words, they needed to be real songs for us and not cobbled-together melodies we knew would work on some level. Instead, they're songs that have a meaning that is important to us in the way we look at everything in the larger context of music. Really, the last thing on our minds, was, "How do we keep our pre-existing fan base happy?" I think that's obvious. That's called pandering, and I'm not going to do that. That's not part of my process. I think it was a little confusing and frightening at first to have freed ourselves from this style that we had become accustomed to. Ultimately, that freedom allowed us to cover the amount of territory we did and present it the way we did, which is interesting.
That freedom is palpable from the listener's perspective.
We'd write a song in such a way that it could be presented in a number of different formats, styles, volumes, speeds, or whatever. We chose what we felt was the most appropriate. For me, the big question when you're writing music, making art, or going about your day to life is "Why?" You must always be able to answer that question. Why play music in the first place? Why does this song sound like this? Why would we release a double record? There's a bevy of questions that had to be answered. For us, the overarching "Why" was lest we get bored or become mechanical with our music, we must have a catalog that radiates rather than a catalog that follows a single line. To that end, we began writing the record from a very open-minded place. I knew it was going to piss people off. Discussion number one was, "Some people are going to hate some songs on this record. They're so used to some of the things we've established that this is going to be a major wrench in that mechanism they've built up." I tend to be a bit romantic when it comes to audiences and music in general. I think our crowd and music listeners in general are better than that. We've fallen into some sort of depraved time where you have to find these guidelines and stick to them. When you deviate, you really piss people off. Artists are so precious with the way their fan base thinks about them that they lose sight of the fact that when the fad is over, the trend is over, and even when they year is over, nobody remembers that shit or anything about it.
That's beyond true.
What's left is the recorded moments you've chosen to spend your time, energy, and a shitload of your money on. At the end of my days, my career, or my life, I'd like to sit back and look over the work I've done and say, "I'm proud of this all. I'm as proud of the mistakes as I am of the successes." I think there are plenty of mistakes as well plenty of successes. Being a human, you learn nothing by constant success. I see some mega, megastars, and I have this almost pity for them because they've made so many right moves. Eventually when they make a mistake, it's going to be a huge one. We watch these gods, god-king-emperor-entertainers fall from grace all the time. I think a healthy thing for a band like us to do is to admit from the get-go that by virtue of the fact we are human beings, we are imperfect. We are bound to create imperfections. When we embrace that and learn to accept, appreciate, and love those mistakes, I think your music starts to get better. I use this as an example. In the studio, we were having a discussion with our producer John Congleton about the modern state of recording equipment, all of the auto-tuning, beat fixing, and the capabilities we now have as musicians in terms of creating perfect-sounding music and covering up all the mistakes. He brought up the idea of someone sending him all the master tapes for Dark Side of the Moon and fixing everything [Laughs]. He asked, "Is that going to make anything better?" The answer is no. Really quickly, we were like, "No!" You learn to love the human moments on records. I think we put out human records. That's part of what's always been special to us. There's no emphasis on getting it perfect. That's a faulty way of looking at music, but there is an emphasis on getting the right vibe, atmosphere, or feeling to your music. For us, this record was ambitious. Maybe for another band it wasn't. It was super ambitious for us. It was a lot of unfamiliar stuff. It was also very important that, as we recorded, we didn't over-record and turn these into "perfect" songs that we wouldn't be able to play. We wouldn't to record them in such a way that when we played them live they didn't sound like different songs. That's by and large what we did.
Lyrically, there's a myriad of emotions and they span from blissful, ethereal moments to some truly dark territory. There's also a refined sense of storytelling. You really challenged yourself here. It sounds very personal, but there's an element of mystique that resounds. The listener can feel what you're saying whether or not he or she has lived it.
That's always been the goal, if you will. What is it about music that ties people together? There's clearly something universal happening there. I'm not sure that anybody truly understands that. One think we can all agree on is we all understand pain. We all understand struggle, suffering, and everything. It doesn't matter if you're Justin Bieber or the guy on the street corner with the paper cup. For some portion of our year, we all exist in our own personal little hells. We all have to deal with these very universal things. Nobody has a perfect family. As a human being, nobody is perfect. We're flawed. It's our flaws that define us as much as anything else. With this record, what I sought to do was to open up a little bit more and be a little more direct about that. It's a difficult thing to do because you're exposing a lot. We've gotten to a point where we're not just selling three-hundred records. It's not just 300 people who have access to whatever the gist of the song is. It's a little larger than that. I wanted to take what had been a severely bad couple of years on a personal side and try to relay some of that experience I had in such a way that it connected with your bad experience, struggles, and pains. Then, it came to finding moments of bliss, levity, hope, and all that. I presented it in such a way that it didn't feel like it was just me [Laughs]. It's not like, "I'm trying to get over this and here is my struggle." It's more like, "I'm a person so I know things from my perspective." I'm going to give you my perspective. There's so much I've gone through that I know "You" with a capital "y" are going through. My favorite records all have that in them, whether they're songs about heartbreak, failure, disillusionment, or apathy. You name it. I connect to those records because I felt that. When I listen to the real sweet, sugary pop music, the Katy Perry-type of stuff, I'm like, "This is unrealistic. It has nothing to do with me." Yes, I do like to have fun on a Friday night, but it's just not like that. Life isn't utopia. When we're doing the best job we can do, our music is part entertainment and part art. I think the music that is purely entertaining is vapid and soulless. There's nothing to be gleamed from it other than a melody that gets stuck in your head. I think music that is pure art is nearly unlistenable because the real artists are accessing the purists of emotions. The classic bands that have had the most universal appeal and reached and helped the most people understand there's a balance between understanding yourself as an artist and an entertainer. It's when we were finally able to acquiesce to that fact and become comfortable with it that our music took a big leap forward. When that door opened, a double record was written. The next ten years of my life have become a search for a best way to present that. Lyrics are a big part of what's going on. You can hide yourself and mask yourself in the obscurity, obtuseness, and mysticism of poetry or you can find a poetry that speaks a bit more directly and is less about being between the lines. I think that's what it is with me. My natural predilection is to go very obtuse, guarded, and masked. It's worked for me. It's a struggle for me to let people in a little bit further. I think it's dangerous to do that, but that's why it's exciting and I want to do it. I don't want this band to ever feel safe and secure in what we do. I'd like to say, "I want to be on the frontlines of music, period." Playing in a four-piece rock band, you're a dinosaur to begin with [Laughs]. Within the context of the band we play in, I'd like to be constantly pushing, evolving, learning, and moving forward. I think it's important, necessary, and what defines our band. We are going to take risks and upset people in some of the turns we take. Like each human being out there, you simply cannot learn anything about yourself without walking as far out on to that limb as you can.
A song like "Back Where I Belong" becomes a journey in and of itself.
That was an interesting song for me to write because there are some real tender moments in that song for sure. There's no doubt about it, but there's also a frustration and an anger boiling beneath that. The lyrics came quickly for that one. That means I was definitely inside myself and I had access to each part of me when I was writing that. It came out quickly and easily. That meant it was an exposed song. I can only imagine what some of the fans we have from our very early days thought when they heard that song for the first time. Amongst three or four other songs, "Back Where I Belong" is a bit of a tough pill to swallow when you're expecting a hard rock album. It's a huge leap of faith that we are kindly and graciously asking for from our audience. So far, I think it's worked out pretty well. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to tour too much with these songs [Laughs].
Moments like that make the rest of the album even heavier though…
I absolutely agree. That's just dynamics. It's the sound of a band becoming more and more familiar and comfortable with their own dynamics. That was another part of the songwriting process. We wanted to be dynamic. In order to do that, you have to reach down a little bit further and up a little bit higher.
Around the time of Yellow & Green, what else were you reading and watching?
When I first started this thing off, I was like, "Okay, this is going to be the Southern Gothic rock album. It's going to be like William Faulkner sonically." It didn't turn into that at all. Throughout that whole writing process, I think all I was reading was William Faulkner. He's got a lot of books so it kept me pretty busy. Within his writing, there was that horror, those tender moments, and that reality through the most realistic vantage point on paper. It impressed itself upon me in that way whereby I thought all we need to do is write these songs and go, "Is this really us? Is this what we sound like? Can we continually pour ourselves into this song on a night-after-night basis. I get influenced by so much stuff so it's hard for me to go into specifics. Let's take Ingmar Bergman movies. They're so dark, but there are these brief moments of triumph spattered among the bleakness. There's insight and wisdom that doesn't come from anything but experience. I think that's what informs our record. That's what I've learned through the literature or cinematography or art that I was being influenced by during the writing. I'm finally at a point in my life where my experience is on the level of my motivation and drive. I can use what I've seen, felt, and heard. I can channel the insults that have been paid to me and the difficult moments and use them for something good. To air one's laundry musically is an important thing from time to time. That's how a lot of great albums have been born. You can hear when it's dialed in from a band. Our ears are sensitive to those indefinable, ephemeral things. With us, we had to make sure the mindset was there when we walked into the studio. I can hear how nervous we are. It's not confidence-shattering nervousness, but I can hear the anxiety we bring and some of the pain we underwent through the year it took to write that record. I can hear it on the album. When it gets angry, I know why we were angry. It wasn't just like, "I'm 15. I'm fucking pissed off at the world, fuck you, here's my loud music." It was much more subtle and nuanced than that.
What song speaks to you the most right now?
I just started playing shows again and doing a stripped-down thing. I'll always close the set with "Eula". To me, that was one of those songs I wanted. I needed that song to be written. We'd written songs and I was like, "Shit, something's missing. There it is." That was just me late one night with an acoustic guitar and two chords. I found the melody. I hear it inside first. Once I lock in, it's like a musical loop. I'll take two chords on an acoustic guitar and start strumming or take two notes on a piano and then the symphony builds on itself. Everything is a bit obvious to me. I know what I want to happen there. The trick is in what the hand's doing and to figure out how to present it. We're not an orchestra. If all I'm hearing is a brass section, I have to find a way for the guitars to mimic that. If I'm all hearing is a viola, I have to figure out some way for the guitar to do that. Furthermore, it's a technical thing. In the grand scheme of things, I'd say I'm a mediocre singer and guitar player. It's just work and practice. You put your time in. Our salesmanship is based on how much we believe in what we do. We can't just stand up on stage and sing phonebook and the crowd goes wild [Laughs]. We've got a bullshit detector in front of us all the time, and they need as much of us as we're willing to give.
You pushed the envelope as far as what's expected and the general climate and created something overarching and immersive worth coming back to for years to come. It feels like this is the record you've been working towards since the beginning. Up to this point, everything has led here.
Right, I agree with you, but because of my position, I cannot say we were working towards this record. I can only say this is the record we wrote because this is what we were feeling that year and it came out the way it did. Our goals are pretty simple. We want to write better records and become more fluid in our chosen language. You get to hear it from a completely different standpoint. You get to hear the context. To me, the context is just my life [Laughs].
Have you been writing and painting more?
Yeah, I am writing more now and painting more now. Since the accident in August, I've been using art and music as rehabilitation for myself. There's plenty of new music being written. It's not all necessarily Baroness. I've been doing some recording projects with some other artists and collaborations. I've been making artwork furiously, and I'm back on my unhealthy 18-hour work day again.
What's your favorite Baroness song?
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