Total Request Live: Baroness’s John Baizley on Concerts By Request, Post-COVID Touring, and Gold & Grey

“Hi there Pete,” the email started out. I love getting these emails from bands and their agencies. It always feels very validating to know that people and artists appreciate what

3 years ago

“Hi there Pete,” the email started out. I love getting these emails from bands and their agencies. It always feels very validating to know that people and artists appreciate what I do on Heavy Blog. I love writing about music and bands I enjoy and would be doing it no matter what other people thought, but it’s nice that people notice and even like it.

Baroness is coming to town…” is what really got my attention. I’ve been listening to Baroness since the Red Album was released in 2007. This was turning into a personal golden opportunity. As much as I love promoting bands first starting out with niche underground sounds, I’ve always had fantasies of interviewing musicians from established bands that I love. The idea of a writer (if I can call myself such a thing) and fan having a conversation with a working musician I respect would be the ultimate joy. But this isn’t happening here, right?

“The band members are available by phone…Please keep them in mind?”


Golden opportunity arrives! O sweet Fortuna, how you shine upon me! I had to read the email multiple times to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Things like this don’t happen to ol’ Pete! Fortunately, this was the exception because after doing some back and forth to plan this out, I was scheduled to speak with John Baizley, Baroness vocalist, guitarist, founding member, and visual artist extraordinaire. I was ecstatic. I’ve found myself saying the phrase “over the moon” a lot lately, so I guess this is just keeping my lucky streak alive.

Anyway, the reason for the occasion: Baroness is FINALLY able to tour in promotion of Gold & Grey, their most recent album and (according to my own opinion, among others) the best of their career to date. While they did tour with Deafheaven just before the album’s release, it didn’t feel like your average band-promoting-a-new-record tour. As John says below, the band hadn’t had the experience of playing the tracks live since the record wasn’t out yet. The audience also didn’t know what the songs really were yet either. But this corrects that.

There’s also a twist on this tour. The band will be playing two sets. They’ll close out the show with selections from Gold & Grey, but the first set is a fan-selected setlist that changes at each show. Before doors open, ticket holders will receive a link where they can go and vote for what they want to hear that night. The band takes those vote results and makes a setlist of the top songs for the evening. You always hear about bands taking requests, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show where that actually happened. But we have the technology now where this kind of thing can be done if an artist has the will to do it. Plus, it’s the first post-COVID tour! Go big or go home, right?!?

Finally, the great tour begins. The first day of a new tour seems to be one of great excitement with no shortage of nervous energy, but John sounded as collected as one might be given the circumstances of getting back to work after a two year stoppage. I have to say, John’s a pretty cool dude. He seems to have the creative mind of an introspective thinker. I could tell he had mulled my questions over long before he had ever even heard my name. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to say or ask and look like a pud, but John had a lot of thoughts to put out in the world about musical life during the pandemic, getting back into touring, Gold & Grey, the state of the band, and so much more.

Pete Williams: Hey John! I really appreciate you taking the time today. This is…to be honest, I’m gonna try not to gush too much. Baroness is one of my favorite bands. I’ve been listening to y’all for a while now. I know you’re from Pennsylvania originally and formed the band in Virginia, but you started in Savannah and I’m from Georgia so I’ve always been really supportive of you guys.

John Baizley: Oh dude, we definitely started the band in Savannah. Everybody was from Virginia originally, but we started in Georgia. No matter what, I still claim we’re from Savannah, GA.

L to R: Nick Jost (bass), Sebastian Thomson (drums), Gina Gleason (guitar), John Baizley (guitar, vocals)

PW: That’s awesome to hear. So when your people reached out to talk about this tour that’s going on, I got really interested because of the whole fan-selection thing for the first set and then doing stuff from Gold & Grey for the second set. How do you prepare for something like that? Bands don’t really do requests and stuff like that anymore, so how do you prepare for that?

JB: [Laughs] We just practice a lot. What we did was we have a pretty keen sense of what people want to hear, having played thousands and thousands of shows. You get accustomed to the songs you think people are going to request. So of course, those songs were initially the things we knew we had to take care of. But by and large, those are songs that are staples of our live set anyway, so that didn’t take too much work. And then we went through album by album chronologically, starting with the EPs. We went through and decided on which songs were very likely to be voted for or more likely to be voted for than others. There are some songs that we have that are pretty purely studio songs and just noise or something like that, so obviously we aren’t doing those. We’re talking about 80-90 total songs, and we learned between 40 and 50. We just have to play them a lot. Any one individual Baroness song is a totally achievable goal to learn even from scratch. But they are technically demanding songs very frequently, and compositionally they run the gamut from a simple song to some massively complicated amalgam of tempo changes, key changes, and dense chord voicings with difficult intense singing. So you just gotta spend your time rehearsing. I think it’s like training for a sporting event. You really have to put the work in. The more work we put in, the better we get at it. At this point, we feel pretty confident about these 40-50 songs, but I assume that in addition to that we’re going to have to use our time during soundcheck to rehearse the songs day by day. We’re also keeping our eyes on the vote count to see what kind of set list people are asking for. Fortunately there’s nothing that we’ve seen show up in the voting results that are totally off the wall. But it’s still a tremendous amount of work.

PW: What prompted this? Was it sheer COVID boredom? Like, “Man! We gotta do something interesting this time around, fellas!”

JB: We effectively haven’t worked in two years, and that’s been really difficult for us. So it seems like with the gradual opening up of the touring business and the economy with some of the strictures and things in place now, pairing with the logistical realities of now against the difficulties of the past two years, we decided a big, bold move would be good for us. For no other reason than it just forces us back into the fire without much of a safety net, which is kind of exciting. Having been off tour for two years, we’ve shaken off a lot of our old performance habits. So we’re taking this as an opportunity to rebuild the structure so to speak. It’s as if our house which has worked for us lo these past two years just needed to get a remodel. You take everything down to the studs and rebuild. Nine times out of ten, we’re just relearning songs we’ve loved playing in the past, but the interesting thing is that there’s quite a few songs that have fallen off our regular setlist that are extremely solid songs, extremely rewarding songs to play and perform. So it’s been really exciting to give ourselves a task that is forcing us to broaden and diversify what we’re capable of moving forward anyway. It’s a really cool opportunity, and yeah we had the time.

PW: It’s interesting you put it that way. In discussions with people in my own life and talking about after being at home for so long, you have to relearn how to operate in normal society again in weird ways you wouldn’t think about that I think you’re alluding to.

JB: I’m just speaking personally here, but the vast majority of my adult life I’ve spent on tour. Typically for me, the balance between off tour and on tour is that when I’m on tour, I’m forced to confront my social anxiety. I’m forced to communicate with a world that historically I’ve felt somewhat at odds with or somewhat confused or estranged in. It’s always been an extraordinarily helpful thing for me because, left to my own devices, I do tend to become a hermit and shut myself off from the world. Touring has always been a really healthy activity for me. I think it goes without saying, because this is everybody’s experience the past two years, that we’ve all become hermits. So our facilities in dealing with relative strangers and even acquaintances, friends, family, like all of those structures and normal patterns have fallen by the wayside. I have to think a lot about things I’ve never taken into consideration before. For instance, what am I going to say when I’m on stage and have a microphone in my hand again? Where do you begin? What do you say? Things like that in the past that would never have crossed my mind are now things I’m concerned with. Whether or not it’s a rational or irrational concern is up for debate, but I’ve found, now that the economy is a bit more open, feeling quite strange in certain situations. Even at the grocery store or Target or whatever. I have definitely lost touch with how to have basic communication. I feel like in certain social situations, I’m all or nothing. I’m either aloof and closed off or I can’t stop telling perfect strangers every single detail and long-winded story. I feel like an unguided missile or something. To bring it back, I’m really quite excited about getting back into touring, because the venue environment is somewhere I feel very comfortable. I understand the language, I understand how to engage and communicate with people because that has been the most stable and solid home for me for going on 25 years. I’m sitting outside the first venue on the first night of the first tour in two years right now, and the level of excitement and nerves firing is really pretty awesome.

PW: I was going to say something similar, too. Just normal interactions with people after all of this is strange. It’s like every interaction is when you go to a restaurant and the waiter says, “Enjoy your meal” and you reply, “You, too!” It’s those kinds of moments.

JB: Yeah! It’s like all of your habits are rusty. All of the automated responses that you typically have feel like your synapses are firing diagonally where they should be lateral. Your neighbor asks you how things are going, so you tell them EVERYTHING. Or simultaneously, your parents call you and you don’t know what to say. Things have just become kind of odd like that.

PW: Look at this! Musicians: just like the rest of us!

JB: Right! But the thing I say is that I think the true majesty of music is that it’s a very fluid form of communication. It’s not verbal. When you play music, there’s songs, lyrics, words, but it’s not conversational in the traditional sense.The conversation we have in venues is one of excitement or energy or atmosphere and vibes, and that for me it can feel a bit more feral, wild, and unchecked. But it also feels a little more substantive and genuine despite its lack of direct verbal communication. That’s something I really have been missing and wanting to have back in my life.

PW: Since we’re talking about touring again, and this specific tour, you mentioned that you have focused on the most likely songs you’ll play. Are there any songs you’re worried about? Like, “Oh shit, this one’s gonna win”?

JB: Oh yeah, for sure! I’m not gonna name them here for fear of someone going nuts on it. Every record has at least one song on it that, if we are asked to play it, even two months ago we wouldn’t have had enough time to make it work. Because, on occasion this is the fun part of creating studio music, you create something that’s not exactly organic or a traditional context rock song. It wasn’t created in a typical way. When we record those songs, we’re expressing ourselves and we feel that kind of stuff in the studio is not only fun but necessary to go way outside your limits of music. But when it comes to having four people on stage to recreate that, it’s an impossibility. So far, none of those songs have quite popped up in the lists thankfully because we really have our work cut out for us to make those things happen.

PW: So no “all interlude nights”?

JB: No! It’s not surprising to me that nobody votes for interludes, but then again we do play quite a few of the interstitial things and interludes. We always have. But people vote for the popular songs and things they’ve seen us play before. People vote for the songs that are near and dear to them. When you’re talking about a group of people, the songs that have great stage legs already tend to be the ones that make their way to the top of the list.

PW: That’s so exciting. It’s such a unique concert experience, and I’m really glad to hear that. I’d like to switch over to talking about Gold & Grey because a lot of this tour is also because you weren’t able to tour in support of that record.

JB: It’s a real shame because, as you may or may not know, this is not the first record that has been pulled out from underneath us right as we were ready to take it on the road. We’ve got a long history of pouring our hearts and souls into creating long playing works of music and not being able to adequately support them. We’re really excited to bring Gold & Grey to American audiences now that they have had an opportunity to hear it. Last time we toured the states was a couple months before Gold & Grey was released and we were co-headlining with Deafheaven.

PW: Yeah, I saw that tour. It was great!

JB: So we had introduced two or three new songs by the end of that tour. But our performance of the songs was still a little rough and ready, and people didn’t know the music so they couldn’t react to a solid performance. There wasn’t the same kind of engagement you get when you’ve had an opportunity to listen to the record.

PW: Yeah, like when it’s really fresh in everyone’s minds.The question I really have about Gold & Grey is this: I have been listening to y’all for quite a bit now and I love all of your records, but to me Gold & Grey represents something really different in your career and discography. Was that the result of the songwriting and recording process? Or was there a conscious decision to make something different and cool? I’m always interested in that as a not very talented amateur musician myself I’m always interested in how that process works. Is it something you think about or is it just what happens?

JB: I’ll preface by saying this current lineup is one of the most critically analytic groups that I’ve had the good fortune of playing in. We’re all extremely engaged listeners. We think very critically, and the level of overall musical comprehension with our lineup is tremendous. Having said that, I think the more important aspect of Gold & Grey and what this lineup is capable of is using that analysis and attention to detail and compositional know-how to support the more important aspects of music. Which are far more abstract than chord voicings and musical theory elements. Layering, embellishing, capturing a certain energy and feel is far more important to us than anything literal or easily definable.

Furthermore, a big critical part in my process in regards to Baroness has always been that when we’re writing something that we let the music go in the direction it wants to go. We don’t want too many restrictions so we don’t become institutionalized by ourselves and stuck in any kind of rut where we’re obligated to write certain kinds of songs. Gold & Grey has a very loosely put concept that we discussed before we wrote anything. We wanted to write things a little groovier and more hypnotic, but we have a very intense way of writing and that intensity can subvert things. Where we were trying to write hypnotic and repetitive and groove based, we ended up doing something hyper intense, overloaded and embellished. It feels like a great oil painting where it’s textures beneath textures beneath textures, all in the name of being expressive. So it did feel like we were doing something of very critical importance for us. It’s sort of like audiences, listeners, journalists be damned. We felt like it was necessary to make a statement with what we were doing in spite of how pleasant or ugly or loud or soft it might be. The writing of that record, more so than records preceding it, we let the music lead us where it wanted to. It was not easy or pleasant to write. It was fun to make but it wasn’t always a pleasant ride. It was difficult, jarring, and abrasive at times. It was meticulous and fastidious at certain moments. And there are many moments of single take noise experimentation that we somehow managed to mold into a song at some stage of the game. It was a really, really fantastic record to work on because it sometimes felt like we weren’t writing music but trying to create some piece of sonic art. I’m very proud of that.

PW: I’m really glad you put it in those terms because I had some other questions about making the record and putting it together. I really do feel like the oil painting metaphor is pretty spot on. There are a lot of layers to that record and each song.

JB: And we really leaned into that. Gina [Gleason, guitarist] and Sebastian [Thomson, drummer] know that I embellish and go layer crazy. Dave Fridmann, our producer who’s also quite aware of this having done Purple with me, was very encouraging that I not shy away from those tendencies and that we just see what happens if we go all out with it. It would amount to things happening on a day to day basis where I drove everyone fucking insane. If we recorded a guitar sound that we loved enough or liked at all, we would immediately change it the next time around so that we wouldn’t duplicate any one sound. We’re moving mics around, changing guitars, changing amps, changing effects, changing everything about everything constantly so that the whole thing is this chaotic miasma of studio sounds documenting everything. Whenever something felt comfortable, we changed it so that it felt foreign in order that we would end up with a result that we couldn’t have anticipated and, by extension, our audience wouldn’t see coming.

PW: That’s another good point. I pay attention to that kind of stuff and have been playing guitar for a long time, so I like hearing about those nerdy gear things. Something like using Fender guitars is uncommon for a band like Baroness, but it goes to the point of getting too comfortable means you’re not challenging yourself. It contributes to an overall sound of going big and going different.

JB: RIght, and with regards to the Fender thing in the earlier years of this band, we stuck to our mentality of overwhelming with volume. The best tools at the time were the traditional rock tools. Gibsons, full amp stacks, so on and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that I realized while we were working on Yellow & Green that I didn’t feel that the equipment that I had was up to the task of expressing things I wanted to. When I discovered vintage or traditional country & blues instrumentation and equipment, I found tools that were much more expressive and allowed the core of what we were trying to say come through. There’s been no looking back since then. When Gina joined the band, I think she had the same story. She was used to using more traditional rock or metal types of equipment. This may bore the pants off somebody who’s much less into gear than us, but we consider ourselves artists and there are many tools you can use to express yourself. We just happened to find tools that allowed us to be a little more precise and expressive in what we wanted to say. Now if you took Gina and I and gave us the setup we used to be more than comfortable using, we feel awkward. It feels clumsy all of a sudden, because with the Fender stuff we found the tools that allowed us to be ourselves.

PW: One other thing I’m interested in, to go back to the layering: There’s so much more stuff coming out in the mix and there is a grooviness to this record. I won’t say it wasn’t there before, but this just feels different. More to that point, there’s a lot of bass on this record.

JB: We have one of the best bass players in the scene. In earlier years, by the time we did Yellow & Green, our bass player had left the band so I played bass on that record. I’ve always written our bass lines and I love playing bass. But I play bass like a guitar player does. I write a lot of melodies. My sense of rhythm is more of a guitar player’s rhythm. When Nick [Jost, bassist] joined the band, we didn’t just get a bass player. We got a tremendously skilled and talented bass player who didn’t just bring one facet of a bass playing style to the band. He brought a whole new world of musicianship and technique and feel. When we did Purple, 50% of the band had changed. I think that Sebastian and Nick, who were new to the band at that point, wanted to do something that fell in line with the history and respected the people who had come before them in Baroness. I said, “Well, we’ll do this once, and then when we move forward it’s important that we all feel authority over the stuff we’re doing.” Nick being the instrumentalist that he is, it seems only appropriate and necessary to make sure that people understand how critically important each of us is to the band. So his bass is loud.

PW: It really is a new tool in your arsenal to have him come out and have his bass lines really brought forth so you can hear it. The other thing that blows my mind is Gina rips it! When I saw y’all on tour with Deafheaven, I was mesmerized by her playing. She is incredible!

JB: Here’s the deal. When you have a band like Baroness and the first era of our existence, the band was exclusively guys I grew up with and knew since childhood in a small town in Virginia. After the lineup changed after the accident in 2012, we were faced with needing a new rhythm section. Then when Pete [Adams, former guitarist] left the band after Purple, I was faced with the fact that whatever our original lineup was, I was the last one standing. The two options to me were to find people who played like our former members, or take a risk for a much greater reward and find people who played much better than you are. I say that like it’s easy to find musicians so far beyond my technical capabilities. It’s not easy. We don’t do tryouts or casting calls and all that shit. I wanted to use the music community and network of friends. Like my friend saying, “Hey, I know this guy, Nick, and he’s one of the best bass players I’ve ever seen.” When he joined the band, I thought he knew Baroness and he didn’t. He knew our name and had friends who liked the band, but he joined as a musician who wanted to try something new. We ended up with one of the great bass players in rock music. You gotta punch up. Find somebody that’s way beyond what you thought you could do. And with Seb, also being the drummer for Trans Am, he was a huge influence on us and someone we looked up to when we were first starting out. When Seb joined the band, he sort of knew Baroness. But those two guys weren’t die hard fans; they were die hard musicians. And when Gina completed the circle and our technical prowess broke the ceiling I thought we had in the past, it drove me to become a better musician. I have to. I have to constantly improve my game in order to keep up with everybody. When that starts to happen mutually and all four of us start driving the other members to start doing things you didn’t think you were capable of, then you’re in the beautiful uncharted territory of writing music you didn’t think you were capable of. That’s sort of what it’s been since all of these line up changes and there’s no looking back.

PW: That’s great to hear because this is the most complete version of the band doing what you and the band set out to do originally.

JB: And that’s how it feels to me, too.

PW: I’ve got just one last question for you. I was doing some reading and poking around, and it sounds like there’s already new material being put together. Are y’all ready to perform anything right now or are you still putting stuff together?

JB: I think there will be a few surprises on this tour.

After having this conversation with John, I had to go out and grab Gold & Grey on vinyl. It’s such an intense record full of new ideas that’s taking Baroness in a new direction. The band is on tour now, and it sounds like something not to be missed if you’re a big fan. Take a look at the band’s tour dates and get your ass a ticket before they’re gone. A huge thanks to John Baizley for taking the time out of his chaotic schedule to speak with me. Everybody at Heavy Blog Is Heavy is a huge fan of what the band has done so far, and we’re all very excited to see where the band goes from here.

Pete Williams

Published 3 years ago