After Near-Fatal Bus Crash, Baroness Subs Bitterness for Gratitude with Purple

"I don’t have a better way of saying thank you to the people who supported us than by writing a love song, so that’s a positive outcome."

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It’d be an understatement to call Baroness’ new studio album, a colossal effort titled Purple, a bit of a miracle. The album is their first after 2012’s much-publicized bus accident, which occurred only months after their double-LP, Yellow & Green, was released. In the process, the band would go through massive changes: founding drummer Allen Blickle wound up leaving the band on amicable terms, as did bassist Matt Maggioni—and these spots were filled in by drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Nick Jost for a post-recovery tour that followed in 2013. But for the members that remained—frontman and John Baizley and guitarist Pete Adams—that crash would leave a wide-open door on how to proceed with their band.

“Looking back, it would have been so easy to just call it quits,” Baizley told me in a phone interview. “It probably would have made a lot of sense. Pete and I would have figured out something to do with ourselves—but in the long run, we would have been really unhappy. A lot of people around me voiced their concern that if Baroness didn’t continue, I wouldn’t stay tethered down in a healthy way.”

During that recovery, I spoke with Baizley almost monthly for a Paste cover story. A lot of the conversations involved day-to-day challenges—as simple as whether Baizley could ascend his stairs at home or if he could do the laundry—but one hovering question seemed to loom was whether Baroness would make music again. With Purple set to hit shelves this week, it appears that the answer is a throat-ripping “yes.”

For their fourth LP, the newly forged unit hit the studio with Flaming Lips/Sleater-Kinney producer Dave Fridmann, who caught the band in an energetic upswing. “In the studio, we realized some truths about the record that we didn’t want to admit—mainly, that we liked it,” Baizley said, laughing. And in the process, the band decided one LP wasn’t enough work; they formed their own record label, Abraxan Hymns, which will release Purple.

Read our full interview with Baizley below. Purple is set for a December 18 release.

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Paste: So, how’s life?
Baizley: That’s a big question [Laughs]. Things are going as well as they can. Everything with the record is going super well, and I’m really stoked on that. Beyond that there’s a lot: We’re running a label now, it’s a lot of work, and that’s just the kind of week I’m having. I was talking to Gordon Conrad who used to run the day-to-day operations at Relapse, and he was like…yeah, you were working more than anyone should have been comfortable with, I’m not sure how you did it.

Paste: It seems like, especially now, self-releasing an album might be a huge headache. That seems huge that you’re doing it. ?
Baizley: It is huge. I’ve been prepping for it, we’ve been prepping for it as long as we’ve known about it. It’s been a discussion unofficially for years, but it’s been an official thing for a while now. We have a good infrastructure and group of people who we work with, so it’s not like us against the entire universe. There’s a team of people that we rely on. But that said, I should say the cool thing is that if we make a big mistake, we literally can not blame anybody but ourselves. That’s a pretty huge burden on everybody involved, to continuously be moving forward, but it’s awesome. I’ve been working with labels for a long time, and I’ve been involved in everything that Baroness does. I’ve participated in such an extent that [releasing a record] is not unfamiliar territory for me. I think the record is pretty good, and we’re releasing it on a global capacity. I’m on the phone, in front of the computer, in rehearsals, or making art every single waking moment of my life. I work 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., then I spend some time with my family, then I work from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. That’s been every single day for a year and a half, and while it’s kind of brutal, it’s what we want.

Paste: When we spoke years ago, it was much the opposite. While you were recovering, it seemed like your main frustrations were on your limitations, that you couldn’t be very productive. How much is the work you’re doing now a reaction to that feeling?
Baizley: It’s definitely a reaction to that. I think I’ve overdone it. I may be overcompensating for the year of immobility by being active as I possibly can. It’s good, but it’s super intense. Of course you understand what you’re committing yourself to before you get there, but it’s also pretty awesome. Despite some weariness and some mental and physical wear and tear that comes with it, the reward is much deeper. It feels much more genuine than in the past. People ask why we’re going to self-release, and I think, why wouldn’t we? The four of us are intelligent enough to where we can pull this off, so it’s just work in that capacity. If we’ve got the time and the energy to do that, we should. That’s where we’re at in the music industry right now: artists can begin to take back on what’s been traditionally held over their heads. Now there’s a lot less middle-men, and being able to legitimately say no to something. That’s an amazing power that doesn’t get used very often, especially by American bands. You can get yourself in a situation where you can’t say no, and that’s been a terrifying idea: buddying up with a major label, or being with a current label and having to sacrifice something that was integral to our aesthetic or creative control—now that’s all ours.

Paste: What were some of those sacrifices in the last couple of years?
Baizley: I’m not saying that we made any of them, but I felt like moving forward there was a chance that we may get backed into a corner at some point. With the people that we work—who are incredibly talented—we were given the opportunity to see one of our dreams come to fruition. I think it’s awesome. Frankly, this record took a phenomenal effort, even prior to recording. The two and a half years between accident and recording were really intense years. It just meant more, and it took a lot of stubborn forward propulsion to get to this record, and it seemed like it might not be an option in the future. We put every ounce of ourselves into the record itself, and now there’s a new spirit and vibe. There’s more energy now 13 years into this band than there was 13 years ago. There’s a new level of meaning. Writing this record, for me, was rehabilitation, and if the end goal was to get myself better, I think I’ve done something good. In addition to that, we’ve all created something that we’re really proud of.

Paste: It does kick ass.
Baizley: I mean, I think so. I’ve been really reticent in the past to feel any sense of accomplishment in recordings. When I was younger, it just wasn’t cool. Pride was a weird thing. It would be seen as boastful or gloating to say you were proud of what you’d done, but I’ve realized that’s kind of a ludicrous way of thinking about things. If we for some bizarre set of circumstances feel honestly, genuinely proud of something we do, it shouldn’t be not cool to be proud of that. I think that had to do with the lineup change. There’s sort of a unified acceptance or approval of what’s going on, and there’s no bickering or a song on the record where one of us had to compromise, and usually there tends to be—that’s the reality of music, especially collaborative music. There’s normally going to be a song or two on every record where someone in the band says “okay, if you guys feel good, I’ll do my part,” but we’re all this excited. We’re a bunch of non-teenagers who feel excited like we’re teenagers. We might as well go with that, because something is working out finally.

Paste: It’s kind of amazing, especially considering the circumstances of when Baroness first got back together. The goal seemed to be going back on the road for a few shows—and when we last talked, you weren’t even sure Baroness was going to write another song. When did you see the band start to solidify as a group of writers that could go into the studio?
Baizley: I would say in the first week of tour. Literally at the end of week one, we were having so much fun. It almost put me off a little bit—you go like, “woah, wait a minute. It shouldn’t be this fun.”

When we got off tour to write, it took Pete and I a second to figure out what the new dynamic was with a fully changed rhythm section. We had to see how we wrote music again. We don’t really have a set way of writing songs, as each song is written in a different format depending on what we have in the beginning. Developing that system took about a month or two, which felt like ages at the time. We really just wanted to get it done quickly, and it felt like we were dragging our heels. Now, looking back on it, that’s not that long for figuring out a writing rapport with two people. We’re all doing the most critical thing that we do in this band: writing music that is Baroness and a lot of the signature stuff that we do, but it’s also an example of all four of our musical personalities interacting with each other. That was a fear for me, and for everybody else that we’d get in a scenario where Nick and Seb would have to mimic what their predecessors had done. Realizing that that wasn’t the case was a big weight off my shoulders and theirs as well. It wasn’t even a consideration. We never had to think, what would Allen have done? What would Matt have done on bass? We’ve spent nine months on and off the road, they figured out what makes this band this band in a way that a skilled musician can figure it out within those parameters. I’m positive that I couldn’t do that for another band, so I’m very grateful that Nick and Sebastian did that.

Paste: From reading a few statements you’ve put out, it seems like you’re eager to move on from the accident in the band’s overall narrative, but the album explores the experience pretty extensively. How do you balance writing an album as thorough as Purple while trying to move past that narrative?
Baizley: Let me touch on a couple of things: There are a few things we will never be able to recreate again. Pete and I had been through that accident, and we have that baggage. It would be preposterous to try to ignore that fact. Simultaneously, Nick and Sebastian have not been through that accident, and it would be equally preposterous to try to focus on it and talk about it all the time. They don’t have that experience, and as a band, Baroness is about a shared experience. Musically speaking, it wasn’t about the after-effects or the rehab. Lyrically and conceptually, I touch on that a lot. There is a balance, a disconnect, in a positive way. The music is excited and propulsive. It’s over the top and psyched in a way, but lyrically it’s not as psyched [laughs]. But blending those two things together gave me an outlet to write in a more straightforward way about things that were bothering me.

It’s tricky, because I didn’t want this record to be about something that Nick and Seb didn’t understand, but we as a species define our music almost in terms of the difficulties we incur. Music is rife with heartache, pain, anguish, suffering. That’s one of the most easily accessible and universal things that we have across the globe. There’s no social, political, gender, age specificity to heartache. Everyone feels it. If that’s the case, this record is very personal, but also the point for me is that this sort of thing can happen on a very extreme scale, and in addition to dealing with the aftereffect of something traumatic like that, there’s hope. There’s realistic positivity: not ‘everything is going to be all right,’ which I find to be unrealistic, but ‘everything is fucked and that’s the way it is.’ But, in spite of that, you can still proceed forth. You don’t have to prevent it from you moving forward as a person, in the same way that we as musicians didn’t have to let this define us and be the only story that we had to tell. The story isn’t that we got hurt: the story is that we got better. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s huge as far as outlook goes.

Paste: That was my first impression of the record. There are definitely opportunities to be bitter on Purple, but it doesn’t seem like it’s in the album at all. Is that a point of view you had to consciously tap into, or is that just how you’re wired?
Baizley: That’s the group effort. Outwardly, I’m optimistic and inwardly, I’m a pessimist. It’s pretty easy to access the negative, and in turn it can be almost impossible to truly access the positive. A lot of my ideas might be on the downside, and because of that—or in spite of that—the other three guys would occasionally point out that [Baroness’] strength lies in the excitement that we put out there. That was a weird truth for me to hear, because I didn’t realize it.

In the grand scheme of things, some relative strangers and one of my oldest friends were telling me something about myself that I hadn’t quite figured out. Once I realized that, I felt comfortable and found a direction to use the things I was going through last year—which was really bad, I continue to suffer from them—but I was able to figure out a way to justify writing about them without feeling like I was capitalizing on my pain and misery. Like you said, it’s pretty easy to get there. When the four of us got in a rehearsal room—and this is odd, I only realize this now—we never talked about anything like that. Once I realized that nobody wanted to engage in some of the slower stuff that I was writing, once we figured out what the energy level was, we didn’t talk about the accident. We didn’t talk about the recovery, the recuperation, how people would look at this record in the grand scheme of Baroness. We wanted to write music and songs and push ourselves forward and include our new rhythm section. From a musical standpoint, the songs had to have meaning behind every note.

When I was writing lyrics, of course there were things that were coming up. The music had this particular triumphant energy, and it came from a very good place in me. It let some of my anxieties and concerns out. I have to sing about this every night of the week on tour, and now I know I won’t get bummed out. The song’s energy is a really nuanced way of getting through it that I can get behind. I feel comfortable being a little bit more exposed lyrically because of this pulse and heartbeat inside the music. I don’t know if anything would have been different under different circumstances…I couldn’t tell you what Nick, Sebastian and Pete took from it, but for me, this is a place for me to escape from that corporeal, visceral trauma that I still feel. It’s a very weird combination of things.

Paste: It’d been at least four years since you’d gone into the studio with a full band. What did you miss the most about that process?
Baizley: By the time you get in the studio, you’re halfway done. To me, the studio feels like the halfway point. But in the studio, we realized some truths about the record that we didn’t want to admit—mainly, that we liked it [laughs]. We were psyched. Our producer [Dave Fridmann] is a top-level guy, and he doesn’t take on projects that he doesn’t want to record. He saw something in us that he thought was worth producing, which was big to me, because I was always a fan of his work as a producer, mixer and engineer.

By working with this person, it proved that we had done something right—and you don’t want to admit that you’re right because it’s easier to be an underdog and shit on yourself a little bit, but Dave was excited. He was genuinely getting surprised by some things that we were doing. We were working like 24 hours a day, and the equipment never turned off. We could always record whenever we wanted. It was a big budget for us, and we wanted to get as much out of it as we could, and we started to get this indefinable element that I’ve always been chasing on recordings. There are moments in there—bits and pieces—where it’s hard to click in. I don’t know what to call it. It’s a side to the recording that’s experimental, fun and grateful but also earnest. The way that we were able to harness the energy on the record with more certainty was great, because I spent so much time feeling not confident. There were too many big questions that I couldn’t answer. Those aren’t issues anymore: Looking back, it would have been so easy to just call it quits. It probably would have made a lot of sense. Pete and I would have figured out something to do with ourselves—but in the long run, we would have been really unhappy. A lot of people around me voiced their concern that if Baroness didn’t continue, I wouldn’t stay tethered down in a healthy way.

Paste: Really?
Baizley: Yeah, with music there are those platitudes. You feel like ‘I have to do this,’ and life becomes more difficult when I’m not on tour or working with this band. I want this to work in a way where we can be a sustainable band and everything, but we all seem to be proud of what we do. It wasn’t enough for me or for everyone else that we would go back to square one and pick up where we left off; it was most important that we improved, and the metric by which we gauge our success is about pushing the sound a little further, about creating new challenges and just growing as people. With this record, we realized that’s what was happening—and I needed something to work out, frankly.

Paste: After all of this, what’s the place of art in your life?
Baizley: Let me pose the question in a different way. I’ve been asked whether my perspective on life changed after the accident…yes, of course it changed, but it changed in that my convictions were strengthened. It wasn’t like the course was altered…the course has been narrowed and made more obvious. As someone who’s used music as something that’s depository for internal things, it’s a place where I can ask myself questions and confront things that I’m not comfortable discussing verbally. It’s become more critical that I have both music and art in my life because I’ve got this huge piece of luggage to carry around with me for the rest of my life. If iI didn’t have this place to express the variety of feelings that I have, I’m not sure what I would do. I really, really consider myself super fortunate to go through the accident the way that I did because there was always a structure of people who were always there. I know as well as you do, there are people suffering far greater injuries privately. What I’ve gone through hasn’t been easy, but I’m on one extreme side of the spectrum and not at the edge. I consider music and art a very important part of my recovery and my existence as a person. It’s what I do, you know? If you took away anybody’s outlet, you’re introducing boundaries and oppression that’s going to upset people. I would be miserable right now because I wouldn’t be capable of doing that thing anymore. I experience a lot of pain and really horrible after effects, but it’s not as bad as like death or real dysfunction.

Paste: And with that considered—you said before that it was a split decision whether you kept your arm. What does that mean to you now?
Baizley: Very soon after the accident, we were in the emergency room. The medics and doctors were looking at the severity of my injuries, and I kept hearing somebody say “amputate.” But our tour manager stepped up and said “that’s not an option. Figure out something else. If you do that, you’re going to ruin this guy.” I have a vague memory of it, but some people have told me that that is what happened. I’m grateful for anybody who spoke up [laughs].

Paste: There’s a lot of gratitude all over this album.
Baizley: And that’s the thing, I got to write a love song to these people. In this style of music, there’s not a lot of space for genuine, honest love songs, but I needed to. I don’t have a better way of saying thank you to the people who supported us than by writing a love song, so that’s a positive outcome.

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