We meet John Baizley working on a painting in the back of a bus, he assures us he can talk while doing this “I think.” He smiles, the clearly scatterbrained but energetic artist pressed for time. The shock of the attacks the previous day in Brussels, where they had a show planned is still there, but overcoming adversity, turning the bad into the good is the general tone of the conversation we have with Baizley this evening before Baroness’s show supporting ‘Purple’. Given all he and the band have gone through over the years it’s amazing to see how utterly undefeated this man is.
Yesterday you were meant to play in Brussels, the same day it was hit by those terrible attacks. What was it like to experience something that up close? Were you already in town?
‘No, luckily for us I think we were about 30 minutes outside of Brussels, and our driver was actually on one of his regimented breaks. He was listening to probably BBC world news or something like that. So he heard about that as the attacks were happening. We probably were all asleep at that time, and I was woken up by our tour manager saying “we need to discuss something”, which is never a good thing to hear first thing in the morning. Under normal circumstances, we would have been parked 800 meters from where one of the attacks happened. It’s sort of our normal routine. It was intense enough that we made efforts to get our minds off of that yesterday, including booking and playing a show in Sittard.’
The replacement gig you did in Sittard what was that like, it must have felt special?
‘It was as awkward in the beginning as you would expect something like that to be, but that dissipated quickly. I assume in some way everyone in attendance felt a relief for the distraction. And we felt it was the right thing to do to offer those who wanted a show, a show to offer a distraction for those who needed it and offer something positive on a day like that. It was good for us too, better than if we had sat in the hotel room and just gotten distracted watching the news, this was a way to offer something positive on a horrible day.’
After November we saw many bands cancelling tours and going home, do you think there will be similar effects for touring bands in Europe this time as well?
‘Yes I’m sure we’ll see this have it’s effect on touring bands. We already felt it when we played in Paris a few weeks ago. People are afraid to go to gatherings and do things they like now. But people are also very glad for the diversion, to show life goes on.’
You have mentioned that making purple was rehabilitation for you, now a few months after it was released into the world, have the feelings that come with the album evolved?
‘No, that’s more of a process of years than months. It’s important to make the distinction that it was written during rehabilitation, but it wasn’t focused on that. It’s us picking things up again and moving past things. It’s not necessarily about our specific experience with the bus crash, half of the member who co-wrote the album don’t have that experience. In Baroness every member contributes to the writing of the music so this album is more about taking a bad experience and working through it. Of course it is about the accident but getting into that right now would be too complex and personal, and in a way the album is more about rehabilitation in general, everyone experiences traumas and hardships in life, and working through them, overcoming them is something universal. We have always tried to take the negative darker sides of life and turn them into something positive. ‘
About rehabilitation: the physical process can take a very long time and do you find touring more demanding, how much is it still with you every day?
‘Of course there is a huge difference in what I can and can’t do and it’s not a process that necessarily ever stops. I have been very lucky, and many people have suffered much worse trauma than I have. But I have to keep going with my art and music. It’s about creating rather than destroying things. This is what I do, whether it’s in the back of a bus, a hotel room, or at home in my studio, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy making things. I enjoy the process of creating images and sounds. I try to force it into being no matter where I am.’
After the traumatic crash and the damage to your arm, the band lost two members, how have their replacements settled in, and brought their own ideas to Baroness?
‘Well as I said in Baroness every band member contributes, we were a four piece before and are so now, but half of us has changed. So of course half of our sound has changed too. We were very lucky to find two guys who fit so well, but yeah of course the influences they have brought have added things to the band. But the process for us was very easy and worked very well.’
Your art is a big part of baroness, tell us a bit about your process; you use the female form a lot, do you use models for this?
‘Yes, everything from life. I am working in an antique or outdated fashion, I make figurative imagery, and I play rock and roll music. These are not new things, these are things that in generally are seen as very far out of fashion. My philosophy is that there is something intrinsic and something innate in the type of music and art that I make. It means something to me, these images, and these sounds. I can’t tell you what they mean, I may never be able to, but they do mean something. All these sort of things come into play, otherwise I’m just a craftsman making a nice product. I don’t see these as products, this is me expressing myself.
Where do your ideas come from?
I actually can’t have outside ideas very well, I’m a very neurotic person.’ *Baizley pulls out a leather book which turns out to be a sort of day planner, with lists and scribbles all over* ‘this isn’t a sketchbook, this is what tells me what to do ever day. I have to make lists and write things down because other wise it doesn’t get done. If I don’t do this I get into more chaotic, neurotic and even somewhat destructive habits. I think that’s why I keep making the same pieces and the same music in a way over and over again, although they are different every time.’
You’ve released purple on your own new label, Abraxan hymns, and mentioned it was to preserve creative freedoms?
‘We did it partially to keep creative freedom and well, frankly we just had the opportunity. We were at a point in our lives where we had the wherewithal, the means and the opportunity to start our own label. It was more about that than writing records and releasing them by ourselves. Any label has to have a lot of people that involved, and over the past 13 years we’ve made a lot of professional working relationships with people who we respect and trust, whom we care for and that care for us. With the knowledge that we built over the years and the assistance of the people, the connections that we’ve made, that we’re able to do this. For everyone involved it’s a labor of love. I don’t think anybody out there look at Baroness and says “Oh there is a marketable band that we can make a fortune off of.” We’re difficult to market. We don’t fit very easily into the commercialized formats. I’m happy that anyone at all works with us and I’m happy that anyone at all comes out and watches us play’
You must have learned a lot setting this all up?
‘Yeah, that’s part of it. I think the worst thing that could ever happen to us is that we would become bored with something or learn it too well. Part of the process is understanding that we are never the best and smartest guys in the room, but we aim to learn. Every day on tour, every day writing, every day as a label we’re capable of learning something new and pushing ourselves forward. We hold ourselves to a very high standard that is almost impossible to meet, because it’s so ambitious and over our heads.’
In spite of all the trouble you have been through and still go through, you come across as very hopeful and driven, where does that stem from?
‘I don’t know, I’m not an optimist. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I don’t see things as intrinsically good, I see them as intrinsically difficult and hard and painful. Because of that I have a reason to get through them. I don’t think that difficulty is an appropriate reason to stop doing something. I think difficulties, obstacles and ambitions that you have never met are the reason that you do things. That’s really why we still exist as a band and why I’m still excited to do things. Like playing shows, they’re relatively the same thing every night but I always think we could be better. In some ways it’s very good to have a bad show. It’s a good reminder that you’re not perfect, there is always room for improvement. There’s years of life left to learn and to be proven wrong, to improve yourself personally, and as a group, creatively, professionally. We want to be better people, we want to be more creative people. We want to be more hard working and industrious, more creative, more ambitious, more intelligent. We can always, every day of our lives, say that all those things can be improved on.’