Interview: Baroness Discuss Their Epic New Double Album, 'Yellow & Green'
There's an old expression that goes, "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
In the case of Savannah, Georgia's Baroness, when they were left wondering where to go next after 2009's Blue Record, they realized that while the almighty riff is as effective a device as any, sometimes you just need a bigger set of tools.
"It may be easy to make an impact with a sledgehammer," says frontman/guitarist John Baizley with a philosophical tone, "but I'll be damned if you're going to make any great sculptures that way."
Indeed Baroness have put the sledgehammers away on Yellow & Green, opting instead for artful craftsmanship and a rigorous pursuit of progression through simplicity.
While the songs on the band's third album follow what could loosely be considered more conventional structures, a relentlessly experimental spirit underlies the 18 tracks that make up the band's most ambitious effort to date. Guitar lines weave in and out of one another, converge and recoil. Arpeggios twirl around straight-picked patterns. Percussive guitars heave and hoe in the midst of vast, ambient soundscapes.
And most notably, Baizley has come into his own as not just a songwriter, but as a singer, no longer relying on the guitars to provide all the hooks. While similar turns toward an increased focus on vocal melody have ultimately panned out of some of the band's peers — most notably Opeth and Mastodon — there's always the threat of angering a certain portion of heavy metal purists.
"I think a lot of that has to do with a part of our fan base, or even just others out there, who want us to be a metal band," said Baizley's fellow guitarist, Peter Adams. "No one in the band has ever set out to be in a metal band. We're musicians, progressing in a way that is natural and comfortable."
But given the presence of riff-happy numbers like "March to the Sea" and "Psalms Alive," you'd be mistaken to think Baroness have abandoned metal altogether. Instead, they've finely honed their senses of dynamics and tension, making sure that when a riff drops, you damn well notice, a tactic the band admits is picked up from noise-rock acts like Dinosaur Jr., Jesus Lizard and Sonic Youth, bands that know the value of a good build and a slow burn.
"Back then, turning up to 11 was a novelty," Baizley said. "Now it's the status quo."
And if there's one thing Baroness never want to be, it's the status quo.
GUITAR WORLD: So you made the decision to take a little over a year off to write this record. Was that specifically to focus on the writing, or did being burned out from the road factor in any?
PETER ADAMS: It was more on the writing. We weren't burned out, but I think we needed the break.
JOHN BAIZLEY: We needed the break.
PA: We wanted to take a break before we got burned out.
JB: I was pretty tired by the end of 2010.
PA: But what I thought would be a month ... After about a month at home I had caught up on every ounce of sleep that I needed, and that's when I started to freak out. And that's when I started getting the shakes. [mimics shaking violently]
JB: We got addicted to touring.
After getting off the road at the end of 2010, how soon did you start writing?
JB: Pretty immediately. We got off the road in December 2010 and we started writing in January 2011.
I remember you saying you had something like 20 tracks written for the Blue Record. How many ideas did you have before narrowing it down for the record?
JB: We wrote a shitload. Or at least we started a lot of songs. I think we probably started about 30 songs, and what we ended up with was 18.
At what point did you know you had a double album on your hands?
JB: We kind of had the sense that there was going to be a lot of material. We kind of had the idea that, rather than put out one really long record that was going to tire you and bore you eventually, that we would put out two more manageable records with the same amount of stuff, but without the obligation to make it from front to back.
PA: It's hard. A lot of bands put out records with more than 45 minutes of material on one record, and after that 45- or 50-minute mark, you start skipping around and missing some stuff because you get physically tired of listening. Even if it's your favorite band, you start thinking, "Wow, this is so long." So I'd rather do two records under the 45-minute mark. One album you can listen to and then you're good, then you get another album and you can listen to that an hour later.
It is nice that you can listen to either record individually, or the entire record as one big narrative. It must have been difficult to compile all of those songs in a way that allowed for either experience.
JB: Sort of. We had to figure out what the balance was. First, you have to have two records that both hold up under their own weight. Then those records need to make sense in context. The layout for Yellow is roughly the same dynamic layout as Green, but put them together and it's obviously not like you're listening to the same record twice. There's flow between them, amongst them, in every way, shape and form. We perceived that as really critical, and I think we got it.
PA: I think so.
JB: They're both like perfectly lengthed, like an old Zeppelin record. It fits so easy on the same piece of vinyl.
A lot of people would say that putting out a double album in the day of digital music is a pretty bold move.
JB: Technically, I think some people would probably say it's silly. But it's more that we wanted to do this as a project. It was something we all agreed on, and that we all felt strongly about and passionately about. If that's what you want to do, then just ...
PA: Figure it out later.
JB. Yeah, if that's what you got. And that's what we did. We just said, "This is going to be the record." Then all that other stuff is immaterial. It doesn't matter if it's a selling point, it doesn't matter if it's "epic," it doesn't matter if it's money metal, it doesn't matter if it's two for the price of one. Who cares about all that? We just wanted to do it.
PA: I think we understand that doing a double record can kind of seem pretentious. But we just wrote one record that was too long to fit on a single disc. And we were writing a lot of material that we wanted to use. There was a brief moment when we were talking about shelving some ideas for later things, but we decided, "Let's just put it all out. We've got all these great ideas, let's get all of our ideas out, and we were all comfortable with that."
Reviews so far have been very generous, but many of them have made a point of saying that Yellow & Green isn't a "metal" record.
JB: It wasn't like we put out a press release two years ago saying, "Wait for our next metal record!" I barely even consider the last record a metal record. It's got some moments on it ...
PA: I think a lot of that has to do with a part of our fan base, or even just others out there, who want us to be a metal band. No one in the band has ever set out to be in a metal band. We're musicians, progressing in a way that is natural and comfortable.
JB: I don't feel uncomfortable identifying myself, us as a band with metal influences.
JB: But I don't think that we're simply, merely and only a metal band.
PA: And I think everyone understands that. Or they're about to.
JB: Yeah, they're about to!
Yellow & Green doesn't feel as dense as your previous records. There seems to be a lot more breathing room ...
JB: You nailed the word. Breathing room is exactly what we went for. It's something we haven't really done before in the past at all. Just on that virtue of that fact alone, it means it's something worth investigating. So we investigated it and it was a shoe that fit well.
It seemed to open up a new type of songwriting for us. One which was both more gut-level for the band, but also a bit more personal. There's no reason not to challenge yourself with music. No reason not to set a very high goal for yourself and try to stick to it, to try and do now what you've not been able to do in the past. It seems silly to think otherwise. It seems totally counter-intuitive to think otherwise.
Unless the point of your band is to sell a consistent product, which is not what this band is about. There's no salesmanship at all. It's music. You like it or you don't. It's totally subjective.
There are a lot more "conventional" song structures here, but you always seem to find a way to make riffs surprising. They seldom resolve in the manner you think they're going to.
PA: As a musician, I like to write outside of the box. I like to use the box as a starting point, but then make it interesting to me. We're the ones who are going to be playing this stuff, so it comes down to, "What makes this song interesting for us to play?"
There's also a lot of different types of interplay between your guitar lines. Sometimes one of you will be playing something in 4/4 and the other is in 3/4.
PA: Obviously, there's more emphasis on the vocals on this record. As a vocalist, too much of this [mimics playing difficult riff] gets in the way of John focusing on his vocals, whereas I can maybe stand back and play something outside of that, play the "lead" part.
That's also an idea there that we recognized. We've got two guitars in this band, why play power chords the whole time and mimic each other?
JB: We've put out two records, a bunch of EPs and stuff, we know how to play simultaneously. And there's some fun to be had there, but that's not traditionally how you compose music. You don't have everything working in unison all the time.
What's been really cool has been figuring out how to compose two guitars so that occasionally they synchronize and you go for those power moments, and then occasionally they diverge. For instance, sometimes one of us is doing something highly rhythmic and one of us is doing something highly textural, where you might treat one guitar like more of a rhythm section and the other like more of a string section. And then at some point those sync back up and then you're back in Thin Lizzy country.
Just as easily, we'd like to take that and blow it out of the water. There are moments on the record when you're not even thinking about guitars and drums take over. And that's something in the past ... Pete and I have the largest control over volume and space, so the tendency is like, "Loud guitars all the time!" But you realize after years and years of touring that it's kind of confusing, in a way, because you can get married to your technique. And then all of a sudden people are watching you who aren't worried about the emotional content of your music, they're not worried about reacting to music, they're worried about, "Are you playing it right?"
Nobody gets into music to play it right. You get into music because it makes you feel something.
As Pete alluded to, vocals play a much bigger role on this album than on anything you've put out in the past. How did that emphasis come about?
JB: It's real simple, and you can probably apply this to a number of questions, but we just wanted to write better songs. That's what we saw as a weak point in our songs. Maybe that we were trying to distance ourselves from traditional song structures so much that there could have been this tendency to really get lost in outer space, where the songs aren't really songs, they're just noisescapes or something like that.
Even the really riffy stuff — I think we got incredibly lucky on the last record in that they still felt like songs. But with this record, each song is simple, and pure and devoted to one goal, that goal being whatever the song is about. And so vocals became the most interesting and obvious and emotive way to get our point across.
PA: And to add to that, here [pointing at John] we have another instrument that we wanted to use. We wanted to use our vocals as more of an instrument. It was like, "Look at what you can add to the song when you're singing it, or when you're harmonizing in just the right spots."
When John and I first sat down after a long break of not having played really any music together, we realize, "Hey man, the last four or five years we've both had a voice and we both know how to use them, so let's work on that." It was really a casual thing.
In keeping with the trend of diversity on the album, there are certainly a lot of different tunings going on. Which ones did you utilize most?
JB: Let's see, we've got: E standard, D standard, Drop C#, Open C minor and Drop B. That's a lot of guitars!
There are a lot of effects on the album as well, even on some of the heavier moments. That sort of "bouncing" guitar riff on "March to the Sea," for instance.
JB: We did a bunch of guitar layering in that song. We played it straight, almost a bit punkier, then we re-recorded those same parts and triggered a filter to open up on the downbeats, which is an old ZZ Top trick. And that's one thing I know that we did. A lot of stuff I can't remember because it's just such a long chain of effects. We did a lot of experimenting with different sounds and guitars.
PA: We used a lot of different fuzz pedals. We got pretty crazy with those.
What were your main guitars?
PA: I used a hollowbody Yahama for 90 percent of everything I did. And then I used a Les Paul. So I didn't use a ton of guitars.
JB: I went a little overboard. I used a First Act Tele Plus copy, a GCI Hollowbody Yahama, an old '60s Gibson ES-330. So many guitars. But you know, each tool's got its purpose.
When we go to record, we've got a general idea for how we want things to sound, with maybe a few notes on how to achieve that. But moment by moment, we're changing things.
When you finished the album, was there a major sense of relief?
JB: Oh yeah, absolutely. Recording is not fun in the traditional sense, but it is rewarding in retrospect.
JB: It's punishment.
PA: By the time we recorded it, we had already spent so much time demoing these songs, playing these songs, rehearsing these songs. We didn't go into the studio half-cocked with things not fully written. We knew what we were doing. Which was kind of nice.
JB: It's just the length of time you have to be in there.
PA: That's it, man. It's all that time ...
JB: It's sitting there listening to your heart and soul, and picking it apart and critiquing it as it goes. It's hard because we hold each other to a pretty high standard, so when there's a part that's frustrating to get your take on, and you've got four people staring at you, like, "I've heard you do this a million times, get it right." Sometimes you'd rather shoot yourself in the foot.
It's a tense and sterile environment.
PA: We try to give each other the space we need to breathe. We try not to ride each other too hard. We try not to be too sensitive toward each other's criticism, and remember that everyone wants the right thing for the record.
I hate to ask this before the record is even out, but what's next?
PA: I am going to record an album influenced by Eddie Vedder's ukulele record, only I'm going to do it in the Bahamas with a steel drum.
JB: You took my idea!