John Baizley of Baroness on his paintings and why his band resisted having an official website
Baroness (due tomorrow night at the Ogden Theatre) is a band from Savannah, Georgia, known for making a true alloy of psychedelic metal, the precision of prog, and punk attitude. In that way, they're musical kin to bands like Kylesa and Mastodon. With the release of its debut full-length, 2007's Red Album, Baroness established a style of music that became its signature sound and the aesthetic for singer/guitarist John Baizley's artwork for the band.
Baizley's work, which is resonant with mythological themes, has since become iconic -- and not just in the realm of metal artists, but for bands as diverse as Daughters, Gilliam Welch and Flight of the Conchords. This summer, the outfit will release its latest album, Yellow & Green. We spoke with the candid, self-deprecating and insightful Baizley about his work as a painter, his songwriting, his appreciation for Scott Walker and Baroness's new record.
Westword: When did you start painting, and what got you interested in the kind of imagery you tend to use in the work you've made for album art?
John Baizley: I consider myself a lifelong artist. It's something I did as a kid and never really stopped doing. The genesis of the type of art I'm most likely associated with now happened in conjunction with the band starting and the necessity to have an aesthetic and merchandise and everything like that. I thought, even from the very beginning, that it would be a cool, multi-faceted project for me, where I could be part of the music and part of the artwork, and we'd always have control over both aspects. Everything would always look like we wanted it to look. As we toured as a young band, our friends on the road would see our stuff, and I ended up doing all sorts of work for all sorts of bands.
Has your work beyond album covers and that sort of thing been exhibited?
Oh, yeah. I've been part of one or two group shows, and I had a solo exhibition in 2010 in Pennsylvania. But I don't show very often, because the rigors of my tour schedule prevent me from synching up and devoting a whole block of time toward making anything new. I have to do as much work as I can whenever I can.
Do you have a preferred painting medium?
I guess I'm kind of old-school in the media that I use. It's exclusively the same stuff that I was using when I was eight: pencils, pens, paintbrushes, ink and watercolors. There's a lot of people who have asked in what capacity do I work digitally, and I just don't. That's just not the way that I work.
Do you like to use oils?
Oh, I absolutely love oils, but it hasn't been the easiest thing for me to work with in recent years, because I have to balance my art with my music, and oil is kind of an immersive thing. Or at least it has been for me in the past. I've not been able to get too deeply back into it.
You started playing music at a young age. What was the first guitar that you used to play out, and what do you play these days?
Whoa, man, I've been through so many. When I was ten, eleven or twelve, I played literally anything I could get my hands on. This is around the time Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and bands like that were getting big. I lived in the country, so that was way outside of the box for the county that I lived in. That type of music, that kind of applied a punk-rock attitude to sort of a noisy template, was what I wanted.
It meant I didn't need to have nice guitars. I just needed to borrow people's guitars. Other kids I knew had dads with guitars that they didn't play anymore and amplifiers and things like that. So throughout my teenage years, we went through a battery of completely low-rent, cheap, totally messed-up instruments. We just plugged them into whatever we could to make the most racket that we could.
That's really where I started. The fact that I've become a musician who's required to play technically correct, or precise, music has always struck me as odd, because I think at heart, I'm a little sloppier than that. I like the mess, you know. It's a similar thing with art. The way that I work is so precise and requires so much accuracy and technical ability, even with the art that I make, I find myself in direct conflict with what I consider my nature, which is very messy and very sloppy. I just try to keep it tight within the lines, figuratively, on both sides of the coin.
You did an interview with some college DJs who called their page or site Confinement Loaf; you mentioned that on the road you don't want to listen to anything remotely like you after a show. What's been in your listening diet of late?
Lately I've been listening to a lot of sort of darker...I don't want to say mellower music, because it's certainly not mellow.... Scott Walker has been my musical hero for years. It's not apparent from the music I play. I listen to a lot of Scott Walker. Wovenhand, which you should be familiar with, and Nick Cave. In terms of volume, it's a little easier on the ears after a show. That type of stuff is better for me to digest because it's a good wind-down for me. I do gravitate toward dark, angular, sort of fucked-up music.
Is there a particular era of Scott Walker that you prefer?
I'm actually across-the-board totally into him. I definitely prefer his solo stuff -- you know, I through IV, Climate of Hunter, all that stuff. Of course The Drift, which is his most recent thing. To me, he exemplifies the true artist. By comparison, I think the rest of us are mixing in a good bit of entertainment in order to keep people listening. I listen to his music and I think how wonderfully liberating it would be to write music like that, which so clearly does not pay attention to audience accessibility.
Yeah, when his first solo album came out, there were probably people who thought he had gone crazy.
Yeah. Of course, he was not on my radar when that record came out. Maybe I wasn't even alive. I think when I listen to artists like that, there's much more for me to learn about my own music, and it ends up informing the music that Baroness plays in a much greater way than if we were to listen to something that's played by our peers or our proto-peers.
In that same interview, you said something about doing as you heard Henry Rollins doing and trying to listen a record you've never heard every day, or at least regularly. Is that something you do these days? What have been some of your favorites of late, and what got you to pick them up?
Oh, yeah! I've been doing it for a while. Of course there are on days and off days. Every once in a while, I just don't have anything at my disposal. I also believe that in order for me to write music that continually pushes forward and works with who I am... As an aside, I consider myself very limited, vocally, compositionally, technically, so I have to learn, I have to keep my ears open, and I have to observe constantly.
I'm an obsessive listener, in that it bothers me when there's a musical discussion happening that I don't have anything to add to. Inevitably, on tour, you hear about a lot of stuff, and that's how I'll find out about music, or I'll just poke around on different types of radio stations and see what's happening. I feel very firmly that I should be as informed on music that I dislike as I am informed on music that I do like. Now I find myself with one foot in the industry, and that's a dangerous place to be.
Recently, it's been interesting because I've found some musicians and artists who don't have records out, who are just working and operating on a demo level or putting out very abstract stuff. On a recent tour, somebody played me some of the cassettes that Daniel Higgs has put out. That just blew my mind. I couldn't believe that it took so long to get to my ears, but that's the beauty of things.