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Baroness’ John Baizley Battles Social Anxiety, Fatherhood Fears, and Metal Purists

Baroness / Photo by Jimmy Hubbard

There’s no way around it: After years of reveling in the apocalyptic, Savannah, Georgia sludge-metal behemoths Baroness have grown up and mellowed out. At least a little.

Following two increasingly hook-savvy albums of progressive, experimental, and externally aggressive music, the artsy, inventive quartet crafted Yellow & Green, two discs of melodic, multifaceted hard rock. It’s not a concept album per se, yet its 75-minute run time is cohesive and cinematic. Instead of screaming in agony, frontman John Baizley and co-guitarist Peter Adams now sing and harmonize kinda like their peers in Mastodon. Plus, they’re even adhering to traditional (and, for them, formerly taboo) quiet-verse/loud-chorus constructs, incorporating ’70s prog keyboards, occasional disco beats, Radiohead-esque atmospherics, and pastoral, undistorted, Fahey-esque acoustic guitars.

At first listen, the move might seem geared toward satisfying label executives or expanding the band’s fanbase. Despite accepting Metallica’s invitation to open a music festival, this is not the case. After nine years of challenging audiences with ill-angled hooks, elephant-stampede rhythms, and soul-cleansing howls, Yellow & Green was the best way for Baroness to continue challenging everyone — defying expectations by exploring sounds unfamiliar to themselves. And while Yellow & Green is easily the band’s most commercial offering, it still churns with swamp-soaked guitar lines, unusual tunings, bombastic drum fills, soul-baring vocals, and dynamic midsections that swoop and undulate with vintage flangers and phasers. In other words, playing it safe isn’t in Baroness’ vocabulary. And for the reclusive Baizley, 34, speaking at his home in Savannah, working within more conventional parameters was the only way to open up and confront previously private subjects, including the challenges of being a father, substance abuse, and crippling social anxiety.

In today’s music landscape, the iTunes single has contributed to people’s diminishing attention spans. You seem to be saying, “Oh, you want three-minute singles? Here’s a double album.”
Very much so. I consider music something that challenges, confronts, and has an impact that can be felt. I don’t believe that music should be a momentary pleasure. I think there’s the potential to achieve something much deeper and more soulful, but I don’t think you can get that in three minutes and 30 seconds of overly compressed tripe.

This is your most accessible release. “Take My Bones Away” and “Eula” could even be on the radio.
There’s no direct intent for us to write a “radio hit.” In fact, when the people we work with ask, “What song should be the single?” I say, “I don’t give a fuck.” I back all these songs the same way. I understand that we’ve engaged and embraced melody in a different way on this record. My reasoning for that is not necessarily to appeal commercially; it just became the way to most accurately express ourselves. In the past, we put all our ideas in this little box and most of them were fairly angry and depressing. We realized that wasn’t an accurate depiction of who we were anymore.

So, what is Yellow & Green about?
It is very directly a record about what was going on in 2011. Some people think that since it doesn’t sound as angry, I must be happy. Sometimes I am, but the struggles, frustrations, angers, anxieties, and resentments in my life haven’t gotten better. They’ve only gotten more complicated. And this music is a release, a catharsis; it’s self-psychiatry. And it had to become something new, most importantly because just complaining wasn’t working. So I tried to look at life experiences less as black and white and more as gray in an effort to deal with my frustrations and not get dragged down by them.

What issues were you confronting?
Like everyone I know, I have a checkered past — one which I’m not through, and one which isn’t through dealing with me. I’m writing about relationships, substances, family, friends, the entire gamut. Without sounding too pedantic or pretentious, I’m dealing with the uglier, darker side of the human experience. Last year was particularly ugly. The specifics are my own, but I have a wife and child and my responsibilities are different than they were when I was younger. I’m not content to scream at God anymore. I get nothing back. So I’ve chosen to make this trip more reflective.

How old is your daughter?
She turns three on this tour. And maybe I’m not the best dad for being on tour when she turns three. But that’s something I just have to deal with.

It must be heartbreaking being away from her and missing some of the groundbreaking moments in her life.
That’s the thing. Maybe using music purely as an escape mechanism is just not fulfilling anymore. There are circumstances of which I am not proud. Three years ago, I actually tried to book a tour that would end right before my wife’s labor. That didn’t work out so well. I’m in Portland, she’s in Savannah. We’re going from one show to another and she calls and says, “Yeah, um, remember that due date you were supposed to be back for? It was wrong. I’m having a baby now.” So I had to go, “Okay guys, tour’s over.”

Did you feel guilty or irresponsible?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve had to consider my worth as a musician balanced against my worth as a father. My wife gave me the best perspective on it. She said, “Well, now it’s your duty to set a good example for your daughter. You need to prove to her that by taking the road less traveled you can still be a productive, constructive, creative, passionate person.” For the time being, that’s the lesson I’m holding on to. If my role as father is, in part, teacher, then I’m obligated to teach my daughter that the status quo doesn’t necessarily have to be adhered to.

How do you have time to do music, art, and be a father?
I don’t have time to do anything, but I do it all anyway. Making music, going on tour, doing art — none of those endeavors are nine-to-five or come with an on/off switch. They’re 100 percent dedication, full time. Someone needs to tell me when to sleep and when to eat sometimes. I’ve had many conversations with family members and friends about that. I think by having a healthy discourse about it, you avoid becoming the cliché absentee parent. Because let’s face it, the guys that are fucking that up for real, they don’t realize they’re doing it and can’t articulate that they’re doing it.

Your music is colored with elements of psychedelia and your cover art is also trippy. Are psychotropic substances an eye-opening part of the creative process?
Not anymore. I was a fucked-up kid for a while and I had my struggles. I’ve gotten through the big ones. But I can’t perform, write, or make art unless I’m dead sober. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since 2000. Having said that, experiences I had when I was younger have colored the music we make. We started the band in 2002 when I was reeling from almost ten years of very strange and abusive experiences. And while I haven’t drunk anything, Lord knows I’ve had other vices since then. I’ve used [substances] to escape in the past. And now I use music and art in order to achieve that. I fill that void that the substances used to fill. I’m just wired oddly. I’ve been trading one thing for another throughout my history. I hope I’ve got all my ducks in a row these days, but fallibility is still part of the program.

When you’re not being creative, do you feel comfortable in your own skin?
I’m highly anxious and not very functional socially. I understand things like sitting in front of my artwork for 12 or 14 hours a day, performing onstage, and living on the road. What doesn’t make any sense to me is relaxing, vacationing, going out in public, and making small talk. It has grown from an annoyance to a concern to a part of my reality that I don’t love, but I’m used to. How debilitating is your social anxiety?
I have what I call a 15-minute rule. If I’m not in my house, I absolutely have to switch rooms every 15 minutes. That’s difficult because it’s a put-off for people who think I’m just avoiding them. I used to have really bad panic attacks. This was back when I was using, so I blame most of it on that. But now, rather than suffer weird, panicky situations, I have to keep moving from one thing to the next or else isolate myself.

Does exercise reduce stress for you?
It’s a good equalizer. Every day at home I’ll run between three and five miles. It helps to level me off so I don’t get too intense on people. It’s about filling space with the good things rather than the bad.

The path to recovery for someone with addictive behavior often involves finding substitutes for your addictions.
Yeah, it’s about replacing one typically expensive habit with another. I’m a big collector of guitars, amps, and effect pedals. That’s a lot healthier.