As I spoke to Baroness frontman John Baizley this past Friday before their show in Detroit, he was busy hand stamping a raised seal into a pile of lithographs he’d drawn inspired by Metallica’s Kill em All that would go on sale the following day at the Orion fest. That’s actually Baizley in a nutshell. He’s been a multitasker since the band started in 2003, combining the band’s heavy southern sludge with an increasingly prolific art career that’s seen him as an in-demand album cover artist. Even in the band, he sings and plays rhythm guitar. And after last year’s horrific bus crash, the band was forced to regroup, parting ways with half of their lineup. A week and a half into their new lineup and tour, we caught up with Baizley about his rehabilitation, the new lineup, and doing their first proper headlining tour almost a year after Yellow and Green came out.
How does it feel to be back in the spotlight again?
It feels great. We’ve been on tour just a little bit over a week now and I’m not even being hyperbolic but it’s one for the records.
You more or less made your Yellow & Green debut last year at Orion Fest. Obviously your touring plans were drastically altered after that. How does it feel now?
When we did the Orion festival, the record was still three weeks from being released, so we played it pretty safe on the Yellow & Green material that day. A week and a half ago when we started touring, it was really quite literally the first time we had a set that was very loaded towards the new record, so for us, the feeling was not too distant from the tour behind the first record. It’s exciting for us, but there’s also that weird thing that has happened where for so many people in the audience the record’s kind of old. It’s a different kind of tour than we’ve ever done.
How’s the new stuff going over? You have half a new band that you had to learn it with.
It’s awesome. I wouldn’t lie if it wasn’t. If I didn’t trust implicitly the guys that are touring with us now, we wouldn’t have done it. The simple fact of the matter was we booked the tour without a band and put the band together out of necessity. It’s been great. It’s just been simple. We’ve got great musicians and great personalities. It’s just awesome.
Well you’re genuinely excited. You’re actually doing what you wanted to do months ago.
That’s a rare bird for me. I don’t get excited too easily. That’s one thing I’ve learned since being in that accident: that it’s okay to get excited. There are things to get excited about now that come with the perspective that we gained.
Do you have an official reason as to the lineup changes?
Specifically no, because it’s more complicated than this, that, and the other thing. Matt (Maggione), who was playing bass for us at the time, suffered some pretty severe back injuries. That, coupled with the fact that he really wasn’t comfortable getting back on a bus – rightfully so. With Allen (Blickle) it was more or less the same thing. He had different injuries in a different portion of his back. When you incur that kind of injury, that is absolutely going to change your life, as we all have had happen, and you decide not to do it anymore, they’re probably the smart ones. We’re just the idiots who still love doing it and have to put up with that touring lifestyle day in and day out.
Was it hard to find replacements? Did you know these people?
I didn’t know them personally to begin with, but we used, as we’ve always used, the friend system. We’re fortunate that we trust our friends. They steered us immediately. A good friend of mine who is a drummer for a giant metal band set me up with a drummer he thought would be great for it, and that guy had just gotten engaged, so he said “here’s my buddy Seb, we grew up together and this guy’s an awesome drummer”. It was just that simple. It was twenty minutes on the phone and he came down and was a seamless fit. A friend of mine that I play music with sometimes said “I know this guy Nick, he’s the best bass player I’ve ever seen play. Give him a call”. He wasn’t wrong. He’s incredible. Equally important is the fact that they’re good people that have experience. They know what they’re doing. It wasn’t a whole lot of work. Things can be given naturally, and that’s why I knew it would work.
The last time I saw you I kind of high-fived you outside your acoustic show at SXSW. That was a really emotional show for those in the audience, I’m sure even more so for you. Are any aspects of the acoustic thing going to make their way into a Baroness set?
Sonically, not exactly, but emotionally yes. I learned during that show and a handful of others that I’ve played in Europe and on around the East coast since the wreck that perhaps a bit more openness and honesty onstage is a good thing, so we’ve changed our performance attitude somewhat in that we’re not quite as guarded or withdrawn as we’ve been in the past. That’s part of the communicative process. With music, you’re talking to people through sound. Every once in a while it’s nice to actually use your voice, because now, frankly we have something to say that works in tandem or hand in hand with the music.
The blog entries you wrote were pretty touching, actually, which isn’t something you normally say about someone in a heavy band who writes a blog. It was cool to read about that and how you’re healing up. How healed are you? Are you back to where you were before?
I’m not near where I was before. For instance, I’ve got all this nerve damage. It is what it is. Fingers still work. Things aren’t growing back quite as quickly. If you look here (puts his hand around his left arm), there’s about an inch between my middle finger and my thumb which reaches around my forearm. On this hand (his right) you can see there’s about two and a half inches. It’s not because I’m not using it. It’s because there’s been a whole lot of reconstructive surgery and damage. The rehab isn’t an easy twelve months. It’s a difficult ten years until things are likely to get back to normal. I’m willing to wait that long – well, I’ve got no choice, but of course I’m willing to wait that long. Frankly, when I talk like that it sounds kind of like I’m being impatient, but there was a good portion of time where we were talking about the loss of the arm itself, so of course it’s still present and working in relatively sound fashion. I’m pretty pleased with that.
I’d say. Are there songs that you played that you can’t play now?
No. That’s really a surprise. I wondered and I spent a lot of time considering it, and I was prepared for a bad surprise and I just didn’t get it.
Everything is OK with art too?
The only thing is mechanically there is some funny stuff happening. That’s a piece of a big nine inch plate and then there’s another one there and you can see there, and then there’s wires. My arm clicks. This is not a fun limb to have. But I’ve gotten used to it.
So you’re still able to draw the same way?
Yeah, I’m a righty. Left hand is down…
Have you been doing a lot of art?
Since I’ve become capable I’ve been doing as much as I can.
Have you gotten to a point where you’re writing music yet?
No. When the two other guys left, our reality changed significantly. We had to make a mental switch from the idea of writing something to the reality of the fact that we needed people who are capable of playing a vast body of the work. The stuff that we have is like eighteen or twenty-two songs – somewhere in that range. That’s a lot for anyone to learn. While I hoped it would be easy – and it was – to bring up to speed two people that haven’t been in a band that has existed and grown and shaped itself over a course of ten years, I wish we could have written something. It would have been nice to have written something, but it wasn’t realistic.
Lastly, it seems like Philly has sort of been your home base lately.
I’ve been in Philly for two years.
So you moved there?
I live there. Rhythm section lives in New York and Pete’s in Virginia.
I was going to ask what made you make Philly your home base.
At the time that we moved there, there were a number of factors. One, I wanted to give my daughter somewhere where there is a better school system. Two, I was making everyone come down to Georgia to practice and everybody was much further North than that. It’s a lot easier to get everybody into the same room, and there’s no plane tickets involved. We just wanted to be closer. That’s why.
Would you consider yourself a Philly band now?
We’re an East coast band. A guy in Virginia, two guys in New York.