While all the members (both past and present) of locally-based metal juggernauts Baroness grew up together in Lexington, Va., they’ve only been playing together under that handle for a little over two years now. In that time, they’ve earned more critical accolades and fan-based praise than some groups who have been toiling away for five times as long. Not that you’d know it from their laid-back —and almost Zen-like— approach to self-promotion.
“We don’t have any promo photos,” explains lead vocalist and guitarist John Baizley when I request one to accompany this article. That’s almost unheard of for a band that tours cross-country as well as abroad (playing as many as 150 shows a year), but I’ll soon find out that’s standard operating procedure for these diehard independent spirits who have carved out a small, but ever growing niche for themselves in the increasingly competitive (and lucrative) world of extreme metal music.
It’s commonly believed that there have been no musical acts from this town who have made major inroads on a national or worldwide level for decades, but that is in fact a fallacy. On the contrary, there have been a handful of groups from our immediate vicinity who have —over the past decade or so— achieved significant cult status worldwide. Some are even considered icons of their respected genres.
However, the artists involved operate outside of the mainstream, appealing to fringe audiences, and garnering fervent support from loyal fanbases through grass-roots marketing, incessant word of mouth, and the kind of internet-based buzz that was literally nonexistent in the late ‘80s.
To jam-band fans, Savannah is the homebase of Perpetual Groove (or P-Groove as they’re sometimes known), to rap fans, we’re the “C-Port” town that begat the late Camoflauge (sic), and to brutal punk metal fans, we’re the city that created and honed the so-called “Savannah Sound,” a hybrid of sludge-rock, stoner metal and hardcore typified by groups such as Damad, Kylesa and Unpersons.
Baroness sounds only vaguely like those three acts which came before them, but the fact that they chose Kylesa bassist (and acknowledged codeveloper of the “Savannah Sound” Philip Cope to produce both of their ultra-indie EPs (on the too cool for school Hyperrealist imprint) demonstrates a willingness of sorts on the part of the band to integrate that distinctive sonic fingerprint into their own bag.
Yet, even among aficionados of that sub-sub-sub-genre will acknowledge that Baroness is their own animal, and seems rather disinterested in following anyone else’s lead too closely. Baizley admits to an affinity for the trademark production value and work ethic that Cope and company have honed over the past several years, but seems wisely wary of hitching his band’s train to anyone else’s star — local or otherwise.
“There is no official ‘party line’ on our part as to style, genre, sub-genre, etc,” he explains.
“We are realists, and more often than not, we can understand where someone is coming from when they throw a label on us. That type of labelling will always be a simple way for different people to relate to music. That said, we prefer not to label ourselves. It feels a little too specific these days. Will rock do? How about metal? Those seem fine to me.”
Seeing this band live is vaguely akin to witnessing a summit meeting of both old and new metal gods. They fire on all cylinders, sweating and concentrating to the point of scowling as they unleash a seemingly endless barrage of syncopated, monstrously precise riffs that touch on a surprisingly inclusive range of influences. In their epic, anthemic song constructs, one can catch fleeting glimpses of ‘70s wizard rock, speed and thrash metal, and melodic hardcore — yet no one style show sup for long enough to make itself (or the crowd) too comfortable.
In the midst of preparing for a rare —and hotly-anticipated— hometown show at The Jinx (where the band first launched its career), the de facto frontman of the group took time out to speak candidly with me about the formation of the Baroness, their steady ascent among the ranks of their peers, and the band’s hopes for the future.
Connect Savannah: How did the band form?
John Baizley: We have all played music with one another off and on since childhood. Most of us grew up within a few blocks of one another, and a number of us had the same guitar teacher, who definitely shaped our musical sensibilities. (Drummer) Allen Blickle, (bassist) Summer Welch and I had played in a punk band around 2000-2001. We all filtered down here to Savannah over the past 7 or 8 years.
Connect Savannah: Was there a stylistic goal in mind from the beginning?
John Baizley: Initially, much as a result of my disenchantment with the majority of popular and underground music, I simply wanted to do something interesting that played to my strengths and musical background. After moving to Savannah, and witnessing its incredible local underground scene —bands like Damad, Kylesa, Unpersons and Roswell— my interest in music was rekindled, and soon Baroness found ourselves inextricably part of the “Savannah” sound. This, and the fact that we all have distinctly different talents and tastes, has helped us define ourselves.
Connect Savannah: Baroness seemed to be instantly embraced by the local metal community. Did that surprise you?
John Baizley: Prior to our first local performance, no one had really heard what we were doing, so I think most people came out initially because they were friends. We had no idea what to expect from them, nor did they know what to expect from us. There certainly was never an assumption on our part for the support we’ve received.
Connect Savannah: You’ve released a couple of EPs and are working on a full CD. Are you happy with the EPs, or in retrospect, would you change anything about them?
John Baizley: Wouldn’t change a thing.
Connect Savannah: What can you tell me about the upcoming album? Can listeners expect a new approach from Baroness?
John Baizley: It should be out in early 2007. The direction is decidedly a little different, as we’ve been playing a relatively similar setlist for over 3 years now. However, the overall thrust, atmosphere and performance we think defines us should never dissipate, nor should our intentions.
Connect Savannah: Have you played material from the next album live, or will it remain unheard till the CDs are pressed?
John Baizley: This Saturday we will be performing a set of new material. We’ll see then about working out the kinks.
Connect Savannah: How did your recent lineup switch alter the band?
John Baizley: It was as easy as it gets. When our guitarist Tim (Loose) left, Allen’s brother Brian moved down in a week. He already knew the songs. Without a doubt, there’s been a slight shift within our internal chemistry. Fortunately, Brian’s an excellent musician, and an old friend, so what could have been very hard on the band’s psyche has been quite positive.
Connect Savannah: Was there ever any doubt that Baroness would continue on?
John Baizley: When Tim left we were in a difficult position. One of Baroness’ initial strengths lay in the fact that we’d all been friends beforehand, so we always felt very comfortable playing with one another. Adding a fraternal bond to the band may have actually strengthened that identity.
Connect Savannah: Savannah seems to breed extreme and brutal music. Why?
John Baizley: Good question. I think all the Savannah bands ask themselves the same thing. No doubt there is some inexplicable wellspring in this city from which we’ve all gotten some type of inspiration.
Connect Savannah: Much of today’s extreme metal sounds frighteningly similar. Are you at all concerned with falling into that trap?
John Baizley: Avoiding the pitfall of conformity in metal, or any style of music for that matter, is a real concern. We’ve taken a number of measures to avoid homogenizing ourselves. We usually try to avoid the easy route. That’s where the trap is. Musicians themselves have very little control over trends and popularity, but it feels like right now there has been some genuine interest in some Savannah bands. We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate to have the chance to tour all over the world and have great audiences. After hundreds of shows we still love writing and playing music, and hopefully the summation of all this actually does fly in the face of conformity. Simply enough, we write what we like to play and we play what we like to hear.
Connect Savannah: Can you see yourself playing this type of music in 25 years?
John Baizley: If my mind and my body can take it . . .
Baroness plays Saturday at The Jinx. Unpersons and Black Cobra open the show at 10 pm.