Interview conducted June 8 2018
Interview published June 18 2018
if you make a record full of songs that
are presented in a way that nobody's ever heard before, chances are it's
gonna be a little tricky to listen to."
American sludge metallers Baroness
are currently out in Europe for a bunch of festival gigs and some headliner
shows in between and as the band came to Sweden Rock, Metal Covenant got
some time to talk with the band's undisputed leader, vocalist and guitarist
Tobbe: You've got 5 albums and a couple
of EPs out by now and do you think that it's already getting difficult
to come up with completely new or different things?
John: No, I don't think it's hard to come up
with new things. I think the difficulty for a band like this, and this
has been a difficulty since we started, really is that we don't wanna
be a repetitive band. You know, we wanna grow and I mean our goal is
to write better and better music as we get older, but at the same time
I think it's a healthy habit to keep an eye on the past and make sure
that you don't lose your sense of identity.
difficult thing, I think, for any artist who's playing music is to understand
what it is about their music that makes it theirs, because we play a
format that everybody plays. You know, we got two guitars, we have a
bass player, we have a drummer and, you know, somebody shouting in a
microphone. There's nothing now about that.
The challenge for us, and I assume for many bands
out there, is to come up with a way to keep that interesting as time
goes on, because even at the point when they started, the greatest things
in rock 'n' roll that ever were going to be said had been said, you
know. The '70 was a really fruitful time for this format of music, so
in a way we're not at the beginning of the history of this; we're somewhere
stuck in the middle and trying to figure out what it is that keeps our
music contemporary and keeps ourselves moving forward as musicians.
Tobbe: Is it important to you personally
to come out with music that is unique in a sense?
John: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the idea
of coming out with unique is a really difficult one, because if it's
truly unique, if you make a record full of songs that are presented
in a way that nobody's ever heard before, chances are it's gonna be
a little tricky to listen to. But neither can you copy somebody else's
songwriting entirely, because that's
you know, what's the point?
So finding a place in the middle there is what's
really critical, because music is a wonderful way for us to communicate
ideas and, you know, concepts and our philosophy to an audience, oftentimes
I consider us a live band, and to have some of that reflected back towards
you know, our show gets better as our audience gets more involved
and excited and interested. It's great to me 'cause I still feel a slight
tinge of anxiety before we play 'cause I wanna do the best thing we
can do. And it's still exciting, it's still challenging, it's still
work in a constructive way, you know what I mean?
Tobbe: In the end, will you kind of run
out of colors to name your album by? Have you thought about breaking that
naming process at some point?
John: Yes, I have. I've talked about it many
times. [Laughs] Time will tell on this one though.
In which way would you say that you intentionally try to develop your
John: Yeah, we intentionally try to develop our
music, but not to the point where our intentions outweigh the quality
in what we're doing. You know, it's not fun to rewrite a song that you've
written and just tweak a few things so that "Oh, this is definitely
a different song, but it follows the same format as another one.".
It's also sort of impossible not to do that sometimes, so, you know,
this is where our judgment and our taste come into play.
We have to feel that it's progressing without
distancing itself from our original intent. You know, it's gotta be
difficult for everybody; writing in your own style: easy. You gotta
get all the people in your group together and synchronize them on one
path and just cross fingers and hope that everybody likes it. What I
will say though is, I learned a long time ago, maybe even before the
band started, that we should never write music for our audience; we
need to write music for ourselves.
The goal is to write an album that we want to
hear, that we haven't heard yet, because when we do that our enthusiasm
and creativity is operating in such a high level that I assume that
that moves over to the audience, and then they pick that up and what's
enjoyable about the record is that the band making it sounds as if they're
inspired. I mean, that's the goal.
Tobbe: Baroness's music is kind of retro,
I would say.
John: Yeah, a hundred percent, there's elements.
We don't shy away from the fact that there's elements of our sound that
celebrate metal, or punk, or hardcore, indie or hiphop. It doesn't really
matter, like, you know, you beg, borrow and steal from all these records
that you've heard, these great ideas, but you just make the idea your
own, presented in a way that's yours, you know.
When you first started out making your own music, what did you try to
accomplish back then?
John: When we first started, part of it was that
as musicians we were young, so in a certain way I think every musician
thinks what they're doing is really more unique than maybe it is. But
that's really all you need, like whether or not it's unique is kind
of irrelevant at that point. If you think it is then you're approaching
it in a fresh way and you don't apply these rules to it. You know, "Led
Zeppelin would stop at this point and then change sections and then
it would be chorus." and "Fuck that! Our chorus starts whenever
it wants to.".
And initially when we started, we really avoided
writing, like, standard formats, so it wouldn't be like A, B, A, B,
solo, B. You know, not verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It was just more
like A, B, C, D, E, F, G. You know, just keep stacking parts on one
another. And then when we had done that enough it was like "Okay,
well, this is a pattern. We gotta break this pattern. Let's try to write
music that does have 2 or 3 choruses and solo." and that was difficult
for us; that was a new thing for us back then.
Tobbe: About your personal development.
Have you ever been using a vocal coach or anything?
John: I have had the great fortune of working
with an incredible vocal coach, a women called Melissa Cross, and she
and I have developed a great friendship over the past couple of years.
And the primary reason I saw her was because I just didn't wanna lose
my voice on tour anymore and I was taught more about the physiology
of a voice than about how to actually use it. Because I can use my voice;
you know, you're heart is in your voice. There's something there that
I respond to, that your fans obviously respond to.
We wanna keep that instrument intact and at that
point I realized that it's the one instrument that I have at my disposal
that I've never learned anything about. I know every part of my guitar,
I know how to fix a guitar, I know how to retool it and make it sound
however I want; I don't know how to do that with my voice. So, when
I began to think about my voice as an instrument
know, I never really considered myself a vocalist, ever, but then once
I became confident enough to realize that that's a very critical and
important part in our music, I took it more seriously and since learning
more about my own voice I've had much more fun performing and playing
music. Because I've learned that I can do more things than I thought
I could and part of this band is always recognizing, you know, what
the line of our capabilities is and then taking it one step beyond that
and to a place where it's uncomfortable, and then that pushes that capability
just one step further in that we're trying to do something.
You know, that's how you grow, as a human. It's
not unique to music; no matter what you do, that's what happens for
Tobbe: And if you don't like a turn, you
can maybe take a turn the other way.
John: Yeah, and that's the other thing about
Baroness. I've never particularly felt like we fit easily into one genre
definition. And that's great for me, because it means we can take risks
that probably will fail, we can do things that probably won't work out
in the long run, but we do it with enthusiasm and we do it because we
want to and if it fails, you know, fuck it, whatever. The sound is not
a linear thing for us; it needs to be broad and radiate from center
I think that gives us the right to do whatever
we want. It also makes things very difficult, because I think, you know,
if you're a metal band you play capital H heavy metal, soaring vocals,
huge leads and then that's all you gotta do; you just work within that
format and try to be better and better. We're not exactly any of that,
so "Good luck!" to our marketing department trying to figure
out who we should play with.
But I love it, because we get to play, like,
a festival like Sweden Rock, which is more hard rock and metal focused,
but we can also have the same experience at, like, a Roskilde type of
thing. We can play in clubs, we can play in arenas and it seems like
it works. It seems like we can figure out a way to make everything work.
As long as it's not repetitive, I'm happy, you know. Just don't wanna
do the same thing every day.
If we look at your paintings and stuff. How much time do you basically
put down to paint a cover for an album?
John: [Laughs] Hundreds of hours. Yeah, it takes
a lot. I mean, every time I do it it's a massive project. I think in
the best years of my life I can say that I split my time pretty evenly
between music and art.
Tobbe: As you grow older, will you maybe
paint more and create less music, if you know what I mean?
John: I assume that's the way it's gonna go.
I mean, that feels like the natural way of things. So for the time being
I'm spending a little bit more time on music because, I'm not stupid,
I know that if you're in a band you have a lifespan that, you know,
is gonna end, but as an artist in general, you know, you can work 'til
Tobbe: Are there many offers from other
bands that want your paintings, or collectors or just regular people wanting
to buy your stuff?
John: Yeah. I mean, I consider myself beyond
fortunate, because people do seem to want the things that I've made.
I'm happy to say I normally have more work that I can take on; I'm unhappy
to say that I normally commit to more things that I can actually accomplish.
So, I feel like I've just been running a marathon for the past 15 years,
that probably won't end. [Laughs] But I enjoy it. You know, the process,
the stress, the constant workflow. That works for me. When I have free
time I don't know what to do with it.
Tobbe: Is there a greater chance that you
come out with things that are even more unique when you paint than when
you make music?
John: I don't know. I think in the arts. I mean,
visual arts, musical arts, theatric arts; you know, whatever you're
doing. Being a true original is a difficult thing. It's a difficult
road to follow, because as you close in on truly unique
kind of an alienating thing. The people out there that are making things
that only they make
it's usually kind of twisted up, it's dense,
it's angular, and it's kind of hard to view or listen to and it takes
some work to understand it. But understanding the place in the great
river of musical history and the history of visual arts and using points
of familiarity, I think allow your audience that easier entry point.
that's just what happens when I make music. It's music that has elements
of familiar music in it. When I make art you can tell what I'm making
a picture of. So that's how I, as an artist, learned how to draw people
in. And then that uniqueness might be just below that superficial level;
just below the surface. If you have a point, if you have an idea, or
a point you're trying to get across
that's been, for me, the easiest
way to express that. And that's just a personal thing, you know.
Tobbe: You seem to have a clear vision of
what you want to do.
John: It seems like I have a clear vision, yeah.
But I mean, the big secret is I don't think like this while I'm making
something. You know, when I'm making something I'm reacting; it's instinct.
I think I can confidently say that that sort of stuff that I make is
very emotionally based. I can't think about it; I look back on it and
I can analyze it and critique it and I can tell you how things have
worked, but I can never tell you how things will work. It's just not
the nature of this game for me.
Tobbe: Since you're the only original member
left in the band, are you sometimes hard to work with?
John: I hope not, you know. I founded this band
and one of the basic principles on which I work is I refuse to experience
any success based on somebody else's work. I will never do anything
intentionally rude, I don't lie, I don't cheat, I don't believe in quick
success; I think hard work is the key. If anything is hard to deal with
with me, it's that I believe that there is no time limit on how long
it takes to make something great. It could be 5 minutes, it could be
5 months, it could be 5 years and I'm grateful to everybody that follows
me on the journey, because
[Whispers] I also know I'm a little
bit crazy, and that's probably what it is, you know. [Laughs]