In one of many houses in a row on a winding downslope in northern Philadelphia, Baroness are jamming in the basement. On the front porch where I’m waiting to be let in — I texted that I had arrived, but unsurprisingly, my alert has gone unheard — a delivered-but-unnoticed box of musical gear lies next to a discarded pink toy convertible. I can hear the low rumble of the band (minus guitarist Pete Adams) running through a couple of songs, but otherwise, the stillness of the sunny November day in the suburban neighborhood is stunning. I’m more likely to attract attention for my milling around the house’s entrance than the group is for the stadium-ready racket emanating from below.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the outside, this is the Baroness compound — the home base and practice space for one of the biggest crossover acts in metal. The band drills in the basement, next to the washer and dryer, and several floors up, lead singer and lyricist John Baizley designs the group’s visual artwork in his personal studio. Somewhere in between the basement and the studio, Baizley also actually lives in the house, along with his wife and their 6-year-old daughter, while his bandmates routinely schlep to Philly — Adams driving six hours from Virginia, bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson taking public transportation from New York — to write, rehearse, and crash in the living room.
The quartet’s other three members are a regular-enough presence in their frontman’s home that they’ve become surrogate uncles to his daughter. “Nick teaches her piano, Seb does math with her, Pete draws pictures with her,” Baizley recounts. “I get too romantic about it, but the band is like a family.” And his family is part of the band, too — his wife is invested full-time in all things Baroness. “She just helps me administer all the band stuff… I can’t keep up [on my own],” Baizley says. “She’s part of the chaos in this house.”
As we speak in late Autumn, that chaos is focused around the December release of Purple, Baroness’ massive and majestic fourth album, and its accompanying promotional tour of smaller venues across the U.S., which the band will embark upon at the end of the month. Over their decade-plus career — the group formed in Savannah, Georgia, in 2003, though Baizley is the only remaining original member — Baroness has built a fanbase much larger than they can play to in 200-capacity clubs. This tour will be a throwback to their road-tripping days behind their earliest EPs and first few albums (2007’s Red and 2009’s Blue), before they expanded their audience with 2012’s less obviously metal Yellow & Green, the double album that attracted some of the strongest reviews of their career, and debuted at No. 30 on the Billboard 200.
Aside from the pressure of following up their breakthrough effort, the band has added on the burden of releasing the album themselves, via their newly founded label, Abraxan Hymns. So with weeks remaining before Purple hits stores, Baroness are still deliberating last-second questions of packaging, and coordinating with retailers. (The band insists that they had no issues with Relapse Records, the iconic metal label that put out the first three Baroness albums, but merely wished to ensure creative autonomy at this point in their career: “I’m terrified of major labels, man,” Adams summarizes in a later phone conversation.)
The process appears to weigh heavily on Baizley, whose droopy eyes, nervous hand tics, and manic conversational style make you wonder if he’s slept in the last month. “I haven’t slept at all this year,” he blankly clarifies, and it’s hard to tell how much he’s exaggerating. Objectively, he can acknowledge that a perpetual lack of slumber isn’t a sustainable lifestyle (”And I’ve been doing it for 15 years!”), but this is clearly something of a natural state for Baizley, whose skinny frame and unwieldy beard suggest an obsessive who regularly skips meals and personal upkeep while in the throes of artistic tinkering.
That perception is hardly downplayed by Baizley as he shows me the scores of demos — instrumentals, first takes, and other rough drafts — that he’s recorded over the years for the dozens of songs that have eventually wound up on Baroness LPs. Not only has he saved and organized all of these on his computer, he’s given every collection its own fake title, cover art, and even artist aliases like “Michael McDonald Fagan.” I half-jokingly ask if he’s saving these early editions for bonus tracks to the far-off (but surely inevitable) 20th-anniversary reissues of the first four Baroness albums, and he zero-jokingly answers that a lot of them could be.
As much as he’s consumed by his own music, he may be even more voracious consuming the music of others. He tells me he’s listened to at least one new album every day for the last four years — schooling himself both on older artists he never understood, like the Beatles and the Eagles, and fresher albums by artists out of his musical purview, like Grimes and Ryan Adams. He also says that, despite being a 37-year-old family man, he still tries to go to four concerts a week, seeing acts of all stripes. “It’s my job to not lose touch with what people are doing,” he explains.
By Baizley’s own admission, Baroness probably couldn’t function with four members as meticulous and compulsive as he. “I’m just a weird ball of energy,” he says. “What’s needed [for balance] is Pete.” Adams, lead guitarist and backing vocalist, is indeed a stark contrast to his more frenetic bandmate, who he’s been friends with since they were teenagers. Even though Adams is responsible for a healthy percentage of the band’s artistic vision and the label’s day-to-day, he’s far calmer and more casual when discussing group affairs, he prefers the honesty of first takes to the fineness of hundredth takes, and he draws lines between business and personal where Baizley will not. (Does he share Baizley’s tendency towards sleeplessness? “No, I sleep — that’s what I do well,” he responds. “I need eight hours, man, that’s what’s up!”)
The most obvious rewards of Baizley’s relentlessness come with his artwork, which he’s designed not only for every Baroness release, but also for LPs by peer shredders like Torche and Skeletonwitch. The lead image for Purple is an incredibly detail-rich painting of four nude women — his longtime visual archetype of choice — adrift in an appropriately purple-hued sea of flora and fauna. The artist says it took somewhere between 200 and 300 hours to create, and required a great deal of research into mythology, philosophy, and theology. His investigation into religion is particularly necessary because of Baizley’s lack of personal history in the area. “I’m most definitely an atheist,” he says. “Especially after 2012.”
The year 2012 should’ve been Baroness’ biggest and best, with Yellow & Green dropping that July to near-universal critical acclaim and first-week sales that were the best in both the band and Relapse’s history. But the triumph was cruelly short-lived. On August 15, barely a month after the album’s debut, Baroness and five touring crew members were heading down a particularly steep hill in Monkton Combe, U.K., when the brakes on their bus failed, and the driver lost control of the vehicle. The bus went through a guardrail and a cluster of trees before becoming airborne, falling more than 30 feet to the ground below. (“We had spent enough time in the air to appreciate, make peace with and accept a fate we thought inevitable,” Baizley later recounted.) Miraculously, all nine souls on board survived the crash, but the band’s then-rhythm section — bassist Allen Bickle and drummer Matt Maggioni — both had fractured vertebrae, and Baizley suffered a broken leg and his left arm was shattered so badly that it nearly necessitated amputation.
Baizley remained in an English hospital for two weeks recovering, and then another couple of weeks immobile with his family in a U.K. apartment. The toll on the band and its frontman was tremendous — not only physically, but financially. Because of medical expenses and the cost of recuperating overseas, the windfall Baroness should have seen from Yellow & Green’s success had been completely wiped out. “We were given good advice [from our management] early on, which was, ‘You guys are screwed,’” remembers Baizley. “What they were saying was, ‘This work — you’re not going to see the fruits of your labor.’” Even today, the band remains in financial straits — Baizley doesn’t own the house that serves as the Baroness compound, and he says the rent is more than he can really afford.
In the meantime, the four members of Baroness had to decide if they were even going to continue on together. “Within the first week or two, after the bus crash, I was definitely very concerned about the band,” says Adams. “I was just kind of like, ‘Yep, that’s it.’” But he was heartened by his first conversation with Baizley — who says he never questioned the band’s future — after the frontman was finally able to get out from the haze of medication and overwhelming pain he’d been under. “[I was] like, ‘Well, what do you wanna do?’ And John was like, ‘I’m gonna get better,’” Adams recalls. “And he was like, ‘What do you wanna do?’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, right. Let’s not end this band.’”
But both Baizley and Adams knew soon after the accident that the group’s rhythm section was not long for Baroness. “I was pretty sure that Allen and Matt would leave,” the frontman says. “They seemed very shaken up by it very immediately, so it wasn’t surprising.” Neither of the remaining members held it against Bickle and Maggioni when they did leave the group in early 2013, saying that the combination of their injuries and their post-traumatic stress responses — Adams, a veteran of the Iraq War who says he’s lived with PTSD for 13 years, is particularly sympathetic — made their decision understandable. “It is what it is, and no hard feelings, man,” says Adams. “But, you know, I saw it coming right off the bat, and was prepared to replace people immediately.”
From there, Baizley and Adams say they got really, really lucky. Through mutual friends in the music industry, they tried out two prospective new members: Sebastian Thomson, drummer for influential Maryland krautrock trio Trans Am, and Nick Jost, a jazz-trained, all-purpose bassist. And when the pair of tryouts were over, Baroness were suddenly a foursome again — an audition process that was, by all accounts, shockingly simple. “I played with John, and then Pete showed up the next day to jam, and then we were just hanging out,” Thomson says. “And then they’re like, ‘Well, you know, we’re going on tour next year, blah blah blah,’ and I was like, ‘OK…’ It was that sort of casual.”
The new members slotted into the lineup with disquieting ease, strengthening the outfit’s four-way assault and adding new elements of jazz and electronic music from their diverse backgrounds. And though half the band now shares a particularly gruesome history that the other two have no part in, Thomson says that maybe the “fresh element” he and Jost bring is what’s needed in a group that’s been through so much. “I think it might actually be a plus that Nick and I don’t understand every single thing that’s happened to them,” he suggests. Adams would probably agree, as he seems elated with the current state of the band. “I think the most important thing was going, ‘OK, well here’s what we needed to fix, and this is what we want, if we’re gonna get two new dudes,’” he remembers. “And damned if we didn’t find them! It just worked! And we didn’t even f**king try!”
Baroness would try out their new roster with extensive U.S. gigging in mid-2013, a set of dates “to prove to people that we didn’t disappear.” The tour was a bittersweet one, given the calamity the band was still reeling from, but it was a successful trial run and a particularly validating experience for Baizley. “The mood and the energy and the vibe, on and off stage, was so good,” the singer says. “We still felt proud of the process of making [Yellow & Green], creating it, putting it out, and also very happy and proud to have been able to survive and get through the thing that just easily could have been the end.”
Adams knows Baroness has miles to go before they sleep, but he refuses to dwell in the past. “Man, we’ve got such a good thing going on right now that it’s really hard to look back,” he says. ““