Gold & Grey: A Conversation with John Baizley of Baroness
We've talked with John Baizley on several occasions over the last few years and he's just one of those guys who makes you feel like you could be doing more...lots more. As the frontman/guitarist and sole remaining original member of Baroness, he somehow manages to methodically get better at his skills as a visual artist while juggling the commitments and wild schedule of a musician around the world.
We caught up with him recently to talk about the new Gold & Grey album and to get a glimpse into his current process.
Mike Stalter: The last time we talked, one of the takeaways for me was the idea that you are nonstop in your efforts as an artist, both in the musical and visual realms. Have you let off the gas or has it only become more complicated since then?
John Baizley: The often difficult reality of having a mind as chaotically wired-up as mine is, is that there is truly no rest, no relaxing, no letting up. On occasion, I've been able to deceive myself into believing that I'm taking a break, or that I've finally found some manageable balance. The truth is, each oncoming year of my life has proven itself to be more complex than the preceding year. There is undoubtedly a chaos that surrounds me, and in many ways, this ever-present storm has allowed me to become the artist, musician and man I am today. I'd be lying to say it didn't exact some toll, but on the other hand, I assume we all experience some type of sacrifice in order to get wherever it is that we're going. When, during the rarest and briefest moments of my life, things have calmed a bit, I have no earthly idea what to do. I've come to understand that much of my work is born directly from and deals exclusively with these growing complexities.
For you, what is the ideal balance between the two – creating music and creating paintings?
The ideal balance between my visual art and my music is when I get into the type of workflow that allows me to switch gears the instant that I begin to feel blown out or tired of one thing. For instance, if I've been staring at my artwork for too long without making sufficient progress, I simply adjust my creativity and make music. I've been doing things this way for quite a while now, and it certainly helps combat the kind of exhaustion that I can suffer when I over-dedicate my time to one particular discipline or project. In short, when one type of output becomes stagnant, I know I always have something else to do.
I read recently that you feel the color orange is the most "gaudy hue available" and that you kind of saved it for last. What makes you feel that way?
I think my antagonistic relationship with orange essentially boils down to the idea of traffic cones and highway/construction signs, all of which use the purest, most vibrant hue of orange in order to cause alarm. I can think of very few naturally occurring bright orange objects that inspire me, or which I find true beauty in. But I don't want to give the impression that I hate it, or feel too seriously about it. It was, however, a very tricky color for me to use in an expressive or interesting way. Painting the Gold & Grey cover was a true challenge.
You live in the Philadelphia area. Do you feel as though you are a part of that art community, or is it difficult to have that kind of home base given the demands of being in a touring band?
I love living in Philadelphia. I love the scene here, the museums, the people, the city itself. However, my incessant need to travel, and my existence as a touring musician has made it difficult to feel entirely part of any community. I'll follow that by saying the initial appeal of being an artist, or a musician was that I never felt like I belonged anywhere, and the music and art scene seemed hand-tailored for outcasts, misfits and weirdos who couldn't find much of a home elsewhere. Philly has accepted me though, and I make as much of an effort as humanly possible to involve myself in whatever capacity possible. There are some tremendously talented artists in the area, many of whom I have had the great fortune of being friends with.
What do you think is unique about what's going on in the art scene there?
I think Philadelphia will always look north to New York, as the bigger, wealthier, more metropolitan city, and there seems to be a touch of resentment there. I think the net effect is incredibly positive, though, because people act and feel as though they have something to prove. Because Philly can be seen realistically as a rougher, meaner and scrappier town, I've noticed that the type of artists who end up there seem to have, at least externally, a more obvious sense of humility and a deeper understanding that the work you do will only truly hold up based on the quality of its own merit. There's something artistically pure, creatively challenging and ultimately rewarding about that.
When you're on the road traveling, are you able to find time for art shows in the cities you're in?
Wherever and whenever possible. And yes, it is tricky to see art shows when you're only in a town for a few hours.
I also read that you were proud to maintain your vision for the new Gold & Grey album. What exactly does that mean for you? Did you have a precise idea of what it needed to end up being, or how did things go along the way that led you to know the end result was what it was supposed to be?
When you work collaboratively in a band, when you are being funded by someone like a label, or when the livelihood of you and your family depend in some way on the commercial success of a given project, it can be easy to take the predictable, commercially viable route. I was drawn to art and music when I was young because it appeared to be a profession where being your true self was tolerated and occasionally rewarded. Of course, as time goes on, we all learn that making ends meet is never so simple. What I am proud of, is that after so many decades spent sacrificing for my art, after suffering so many bumps and bruises, after hearing so much doubt regarding my vision, that I have not once succumbed to the kind of creative compromise that I always fear most. The kind of compromise that would force me to concede artistic defeat or guide me to make decisions based not on artistic/conceptual integrity but on decisions of financial security and predictably. It made things hard, incredibly hard, and the reward is largely internal, but I never feel bored, and I know I can always learn more and better myself as a musician, artist, and person.
Who is your favorite musician who also makes paintings? Why?
That's tricky, there are not too many of us. I have always adored Jake Bannon, and his paintings. His access to pure expression confounds me and I'll never cease feeling jealous of his efficient use of color, texture, and form. I was always fascinated by what other artists and designers called “the efficiency of the line.” It is a skill I do not possess. Clearly, my work requires an altogether inefficient use of everything. I can't help it. When I see Jake's work, I'm awestricken because, through his simple use of color and texture, I find a universe of thought, feeling and emotion approached from an entirely different direction. His music in Converge is similar, it's a level of raw expression I can only marvel at. I have accepted that I'm one of those people who, unfortunately, is forced to learn every lesson the hardest way possible, taking the most time and the most effort. Therefore, I always stare dumb-founded at his work, which appears to have been accomplished quickly, yet still expresses the full scope of the human experience.