In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.
The mixer: As the vocalist-guitarist for Baroness, John Baizley’s characteristics as a songwriter evoke an immediate sense that his influences cover a wide gamut of music. A respected visual artist—providing album art and T-shirt designs for groups ranging from Metallica to Gillian Welch—Baizley’s talents are not solely limited to his role as frontman. That same dexterity carries over to the music of Baroness, which has continually evolved with each release, with the band’s transition from what would largely be considered conventional metal to its most recent more straightforward rock ’n’ roll approach. In the wake of the band’s tour bus plunging 30 feet during their U.K. tour in 2012, Baroness regrouped mentally and musically, returning to the studio just three years later to record the upcoming Purple, Baroness’ fourth full-length. Ahead of the release, The A.V. Club spoke with Baizely about his unabashed love and appreciation for the often reviled genre known as “dad rock,” beginning, appropriately and almost obligatorily, with the Eagles.
John Baizley: I was so vehemently against smooth rock when I was a kid. [Laughs.] It was the devil. There was literally no difference to me at that point in time between The Grateful Dead and Boston and Foreigner or Journey. I just thought that all sucked. It’s smooth, and they can play their instruments, and that’s not appealing to me. That’s why I hated metal when I was a kid. I was like, “Ugh, it sounds like punk, but they know how to play music. I hate this.”
Incidentally, that’s why I loved and love Dinosaur Jr., because there’s that quality of: I’m on the cusp of knowing what I’m doing, but I really don’t, so I’m just going to play insanely in your face as long as I can. Stuff like that was all I was into at that period of time. My gateway into rock, punk, metal or whatever was definitely the same as it was for 90 percent of everybody who’s ever played guitar, which was [Black] Sabbath and [Led] Zeppelin. I don’t know if that’s dad rock or not, though. I remember my dad telling about how he remembered when the first Led Zeppelin record came out when he was in college, and how it freaked his friends out because at the time it was definitely boundary-pushing. There’s this whole other realm of music, though, that as I’ve gotten older I’ve gained more and more appreciation for, which is that beyond the threshold of smooth and into the realm of dedicated musicians spending time writing songs.
JB: I became an Eagles fan this year, which is the craziest thing. I hated the Eagles so badly that we would do tours, and I would talk so much smack and be so enraged by any and all Eagles-related speech. It’s always struck me as odd that there’s become an assumption, or I think an American assumption, that musicians listen to their genre and don’t really go too far outside, or if they do it’s very specific like, “I play grindcore, but I listen to powerviolence.” But I listen to everything, and I’ve definitely got lots of love for dad rock. There’s no doubt about it. The Eagles thing was this year, though. In fact, it was like a month before we went into the studio.
The A.V. Club: What was it that brought you over to the dad rock dark side with the Eagles, specifically?
JB: You know what it was? It was that documentary that just proves categorically that they’re sociopaths. It was a game maker. They’re open about it. Now it’s not an issue for me anymore. I was like, how can anybody like this stuff? These guys are complete lunatics, and they’re just wrong. Oh no, no, no. That’s part of it, so I get it. Now I like it.
AVC: So what’s the Eagles song for you now that you’ve been converted?
JB: I’m going to pick a weird one, but I think “Take It To The Limit” is incredible. You gotta understand the background. I hated the Eagles. We all know the songs. We all know the words. We all think the guitar solo in “Hotel California” is cool, but the rest of the song maybe not so much, or that’s how I felt for a long time. But then I watch that documentary, and I’d been complaining for such a long time about how it seems to me that in pop music—and by pop music I mean anything that’s big enough that millions of people have heard of it, but there’s become this dearth of personality. I’m sure there’s a bazillion reasons that that’s happened, but it’s just too hard to pull off anymore. Even if you’re Kanye West, and you’ve got personality for miles, eventually the press and your fans are going to demonize you for it—way back when it was pre-iPod, pre-internet, pre-cellphone, it was just guys doing crazy things behind closed doors, and you’d hear about it, but it was just rumors and that’s all you heard.
But with the documentary, I could just hear in Don Henley’s voice and in the sultry stylings of Glenn Frey, I could hear that these guys are total narcissists. You can hear it, man. There’s one thing when you emanate self-confidence. There’s another thing when you self-idolize, and you can hear that. I could always hear it, and I heard it as a bad thing like “Hey, this doesn’t represent me and my kind.” We were getting ready to record Purple months ago, and Netflix had the documentary, and we all just decided to watch it.
Once I realized that those guys were as openly self-involved as they sounded, it was like the veil was drawn back and all of a sudden I gained a kind of perverse respect for them. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s perverse. I’m not going to try to rationalize it and encourage it, but their openness about that level of character, it made me kind of dig them. Furthermore, I mean, watching them perform is kind of staggering. I think it’s when they’re in Hollywood, and there’s a whole section of the documentary just on “Take It To The Limit” where you realize that Randy Meisner is basically living in this self-inflicted hell that is the ending minute-and-a-half of the song where he really does in fact take it to the limit. It’s like The Eagles doing their version of the ending to “Overkill” by Motörhead. He’s hitting those notes, and of course it’s beautiful, and it’s amazing, and those songs are really great and especially that one in particular.
I like it. It’s barely rock at all, but I did gain an appreciation for it, and it kind of became a thing. What was most interesting to me was that he has to sing these notes at the end of the song because they’re iconic notes. Even the year it came out they were iconic notes, and they’re high and hard to hit even for him with the highest voice in the band. To seem him suffering at that level and really, truly trying to perform that song night after night, I got sympathetic. I liked the song enough as it was, but now there was a new layer to it. I’ve kind of been obsessed with it since then. When I go to a party and put that on my playlist, it doesn’t gain me a lot of popularity, but it’s a really good song. I’m being honest; they’re really good songwriters. I wish the style was a little harder, but maybe then it wouldn’t have worked as well. Who knows.
JB: Not as heart-wrenching as “Take It To The Limit” but still very influential and something I’ve never been ashamed to admit I like, although some people think I should be. But I’ll go on record right now as saying that I think that Queen along with AC/DC are probably the two greatest, most-talented bands in the rock genre ever to have existed. For very different reasons, but I’m a big-time Queen fan. If you’ve ever listened to any Baroness record, you can hear my sad attempts at imitating Queen’s grandeur.
But one of my favorite songs—and this may be a cliché—but I think straight-up that “Somebody To Love” is one of the best songs that’s ever been written. Look, I can flex weird angular deep-cut knowledge of songs just like everybody else can nowadays, but that song is just solid gold. I’ve heard it on record. It’s amazing. There’s a live version of it—like live in Toronto or something—and I’ve heard every permutation of that song that’s available in 2015, and they do it as well live as they do it on record. I encourage anybody and everybody to see the footage of them playing that, so you get the visual of it. It’s just an incredible display of musicianship. The song itself has got that timeless pop thing to it. It’s got everything you need out of any great piece of music. It’s got yearning. It’s got heartache. It’s got longing. It’s a slow, steady build.
The gang vocals at the end were in many ways the direct reason that we did a set of gang vocals on the new record. When you’re lucky enough to be on a tour bus that doesn’t crash, you watch whatever DVDs are pre-loaded into the hard drive, and there was a Queen DVD on one of the buses that we toured on last year. I think it was the [Live At Wembley Stadium] one, and we were just watching them play, and they’re just so much better than any other band at doing music onstage. [Laughs.] It’s slightly embarrassing to try to play live after seeing that.
I just can’t gush over Queen enough. It’s not possible. I think that band is incredible. You’ll fall into a band, overlisten to them, and then you need to take a break and come back and listen to them later on, but I’ve just never stopped listening to Queen. The variety in Queen’s songs is incredible in and of itself. The fact that all four of them were basically on par with each other as songwriters. Even though Freddie [Mercury] and Brian May wrote the majority of the hits, but Roger Taylor and John Deacon are also amazing. Any one of them could’ve been the frontman in their own band. The fact that those guys somehow managed to end up in the same group is staggering to me.
JB: Maybe it’s too cool to be dad rock, but I am a dad, and I do play this for my child who loves this song, and it’s “Shine On You, Crazy Diamond” by [Pink] Floyd.
AVC: I think Pink Floyd has almost crossed over into the dad rock canon, so you should be good.
JB: Is it dad rock? Okay. Good. I’m talking about a song with like basically five minutes of dead air and white boy blues jamming before anything happens, and it’s still compelling. Every time I listen to it, as quiet as it is, it’s a very dynamic mix on Wish You Were Here, with all those little sounds and subtextures of the synthesizers. Again, just like Queen, my love for Pink Floyd knows no boundaries. I have a 6-year-old daughter and for five years she basically had no choice on what to listen to except for what we were listening to, but there’s no denying the impact me playing that had on those little, tiny ears just immediately responding to it. It’s just a weird song for a little child to choose. There’s no easy or instant release with it. It’s a slow burner.
I think there’s more to learn in the context of that song alone than most bands’ entire catalogues. It also happens to be a single. At one point on the radio, that was a workable single. How on Earth did that happen? Why isn’t it happening anymore? Why can’t somebody do something that heady and that cool? And there’s a pop song buried in there, and it’s not about anything particularly cheery. It’s like, can David Gilmour wait just a couple more minutes in between notes? [Laughs.]
On paper, the description of that song really doesn’t work, but the execution is fantastic. The subject matter is fantastic. The lyrics are incredible, and when they hit those big choruses and all the backup vocals kick in and the song just elevates I just think, “Oh my god I’m in love with music when this song is on.” The whole record, but that’s really the centerpiece for me. I’m a huge fan of any band ballsy enough to start a record out with that much atmosphere and time, especially at the level they were at when they released it. That’s a phenomenal feat to accomplish and to pull off with that level of poise and grace in songwriting. Nobody holds a candle and nobody will. In many ways I think that’s why we continue to play music, because we wanna try to reach that level.
JB: My introduction to this song was in the ’90s when I was massively into Massive Attack. I think that’s the right way to put it. I’m embarrassed to say so, but I still love that group. But they sampled a groove from “Stratus” in one of their songs. I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought it was an original thing, but then this record came out which was called Protected: Massive Samples, and I think it was just the source material from a bunch of songs they had sampled. That was my introduction to Billy Cobham who I’ve since come to realize is basically, at least among my peers, he’s one of three jazzers that’s acceptable for rock guys to like. [Laughs.]
There was a time where it seemed like the jazz-fusion guys of their day were flirting with rock music and with guitars and stuff like that. “Stratus” is a little weird. For me, it’s just a really amazing groove. There’s some very awesome drumming happening. At the time in my life where I was transitioning from “I don’t give a fuck about how you play your instrument” to “Uh oh, I think I should learn to play and try to figure out what’s going on,” I started getting more into technical music. Maybe at first it was something like extreme current music that was happening, but I realized very quickly that that extreme music was referential to a lot of jazz-fusion stuff where bands would try out different polyrhythms or just play in odd time signatures. It’s smooth. It’s weird. I think it’s got some dad qualities to it, too.
JB: I grew up in the ’80s and had parents with a radio, and we lived in the mid-Atlantic. I listened to Huey Lewis. I had no choice. At that time, there was no choice. Let’s say for 20 years I was uncomfortable with how much I liked them, but if there’s a karaoke machine, and there’s a microphone, you do not need to point the screen at me, because I know those songs. Okay, but “The Power Of Love”—literally, if you wrote the lyrics to that song down on a piece of paper and handed it to me, I wouldn’t even read them to you. I wouldn’t even finish thinking about them. They’re bad. It’s like every trite lyric. It is the metric by which we gauge cliché lyrics, that song. [Laughs.]
Many of these songs are, but not like “The Power Of Love.” That thing’s got a riff, though. Sometimes the band would put like a Jimi Hendrix lick in the end of their songs. Sometimes they sued Ray Parker Jr. for the Ghostbusters theme song, but mostly where Journey, Foreigner, and even Bad Company sort of have this grandiosity about them, Huey Lewis just sounds like a bar band that got really good and just happened to write a shit ton of hits. I don’t know how that happened. Well, I do know why it happened, because they’re good songs. Radio sucks now. We all agree. It’s the worst place on the planet for music. The FM radio. It’s a terrible cesspool of grown men singing like 17-year-old girls writing in their diaries. That’s deplorable, but there was a time period during what you’d call the ’80s where a band like Huey Lewis And The News could write simple pop songs, present them in a simple way, sing with earnestness, play it comfortably, have a nice little riff, and it’s just killer. It’s just good music for driving around on a Saturday morning. It’s good rock music in the morning.
JB: When my wife was pregnant, every once in a while I’d have to go out around 11 or 12 at night and get a milkshake or something. More for me than for her. She was not into excessive eating during pregnancy, but I was. I saw it as an opportunity to go to McDonald’s and get a fucking Oreo milkshake. I remember I was going to get one of those for her one night, though, and it was late, and I was kinda tired, and Bad Company comes on the radio, and I don’t know why something had never really clicked with them for me.
But “Ready For Love” came on, and I was sitting there and just blown away by how awesome that song is, and how, like a lot of these songs, it shouldn’t be good. There was a time in my life where it wasn’t good. I had no tolerance for it, but my intolerance somehow turned back into tolerance, and I’m just sitting there listening to it thinking, “This guy has an amazing voice.” The song is so well recorded, and it’s very catchy, and it is rock. It highlights this very weird thing to me, which is that nobody does catchy not-too-abrasive rock songs on the radio anymore. It’s kind of like all or nothing. It’s either Slipknot or Shinedown.
It’s like what a cartoon character thinks scares his parents, or more of this pre-adolescent diary drivel by third-rate Eddie Vedder clones. What the hell is going on? [Laughs.] Where is Freddie Mercury or the modern equivalent of Freddie Mercury? People just don’t feel comfortable enough playing this style of music anymore. They’ll play something else. I mean, where is Huey Lewis? He’s probably literally in a bar playing. [Laughs.] A lot of these songs are cheesy, but they come from an era where the music on the radio had lasting appeal. Classic rock is a legitimate radio format still. In fact, it’s the only radio station I can really tolerate.
I think to a certain extent that we’ve become some a culture of cool, and we’ve become so referential in our tastes in music. Where the idea in the ’90s of being on the radio was looked at negatively because it was “selling out,” there’s not that distinction anymore. I just think that most bands don’t have the ambition, I guess? It could be the lack of self-awareness that it takes to make a great, fun, or earnest song that can be played and enjoyed by more than the subset of people for whom it’s intended. We’ve become so specialized, and we’re all such music snobs now because we all have Spotify. We’re not exploring different music styles now; we’re just finding out exactly what we like, and there’s a tendency by the public to kind of stay inside the trend or whatever your chosen subgenre is.
I kind of pine for the days where those artists could legitimately write music that didn’t limit an audience. Even U2 is there. I mean, according to Bono they started out as a punk band, but they got to a point where everybody was comfortable with U2, even people that didn’t like them. The counterculture was okay with U2, and mainstream media and pop music were okay with U2. None of these bands could exist now. If they came out fully formed, nobody would pay attention.
There’s two things that strike me as odd. One is that there’s no expectation of growth anymore. There’s no willingness on a public scale that people are going to stick with an artist long enough to see them grow. There’s no Floyd. Just from beginning to end, that is a huge trajectory, and there’s no willingness in listeners to engage in that kind of trajectory anymore. It also seems like they’ve made themselves so specific and so targeted that nobody can reach that number of people anymore. I’m not saying they have to, but there’s something really powerful and undeniable about what we now call legacy acts perform. Seeing those gigantic, uber concerts of yesteryear, I think the culture in Europe is still up for that, but in America? No way. The only bands that can pull those numbers now are the bands that pulled those numbers then. So much of the softer stuff has just kind of gone by the wayside, and it hasn’t been replaced by something better. That’s my complaint. Nobody improved on Huey Lewis. It’s like well, that’s out of fashion now.
JB: These guys are proof of why you don’t have to be good looking to create amazing songs.
AVC: And of course the solo in that song is ridiculous.
JB: Oh my god, yes. And you’re never going to be able to recreate that tone. Nobody can. It’s this weird thing those guys were able to capture, and there’s no way it could ever be duplicated.
JB: “Rosanna” was this song I always had this thing for, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. There was this really interesting thing to it that I wanted to figure out, so I spent some time listening to it, and I realized that it’s the beat, which is the very famous Jeff Porcaro shuffle beat. I recognized it because it’s also the same groove as “Fool In The Rain” by Zeppelin. It’s a slightly different kick pattern, I think, but that’s it. They just kind of swing on the hi-hat, and it’s a very smooth groove. I love it.
We were writing Yellow & Green, and I asked Allen [Blickle] if he could figure out that beat, because I thought that if we were capable of doing it we could write a really cool song with it. It’s really specific and gives you a strange base to write songs on. At that time I just wanted to see what we could do that wasn’t typical. It just didn’t come around, though. We made a couple of attempts at it, but it just didn’t happen. It’s kind of like a Latin music groove that’s polyrhythmic, and it requires some time. It’s not easy.
But Allen left the band, and when Sebastian [Thomson] joined it was one of the first conversations I had with him. We were just having a discussion about what we would do as soon as we started writing Purple, and I said, “Well, I’ve really always loved the ‘Rosanna’ groove.” I’ve got a notes section on my phone where I just write down grooves that I really like. It’s usually just beats that I’m interested in. When Sebastian joined the band I said, “Well, I’ve got this list of grooves that I’ve never showed anybody,” and I opened up my phone, and it was like 75 percent Toto songs.
I didn’t know shit about Toto until I got into Porcaro. I mean, do a Google search and see what all the guy’s played in. He’s the drummer behind a significant number of songs that are also on that list that had really solid grooves. As far as I know, it’s never been used in the heavy music context, and I assumed it was going to be really difficult but probably worth doing. We worked on it for a while, and it wasn’t particularly easy. You get it, but when you’re playing the smooth, complicated beats like that you’ve got to sell it to the room, and by the room I mean the band. We have to be convinced, so we worked for about a year on that, and it eventually clicked, and Sebastian was so good at it, that it became the starting point for the last full song on our new record, which I also think is possibly the best song we’ve written.
We would do these extended rehearsal demo sessions in my basement, and we were coming up with a song that was using that beat. We recorded it once, and it sounded amazing, so I said, “Can you do it again?” It’s the toughest rhythm on the record, and he recorded it without listening to his part of the take, and both of them lined up so immediately that we were both like, “Okay, well that’s absolutely 100 percent what we’re doing with this song when it comes time to record it for real.” It’s a common scenario for us. We’ll start out with something like that where we have an admiration for some part of some song whether it’s a tonal thing or something groove-based or a harmony or a melody, and it will eventually find its way onto our record in this twisted up, backwards way. So for me the importance of the song “Rosanna” is that it helped guide Baroness in the direction for a song that I consider a huge accomplishment for us.
AVC: And Toto did the soundtrack for one of the biggest film disasters with David Lynch’s Dune.
JB: Oh yeah, and I love that movie, but I really hate watching it. I can only do about 30 minutes.
AVC: It’s a glorious trainwreck that you’ll never understand, but also can’t look away from.
JB: True, but you gotta admit that Kyle MacLachlan keeps that thing together. He works as hard as he possibly can to keep that train moving forward even if it is engulfed in flames. He’s great in that.
JB: I’ve never felt embarrassed by Boston. If you like guitar music, and you like pop music, Boston is great, and by Boston I mean the first record. When Pete [Adams] and I were in our early 20s, we realized that we’d been making noise for a long enough time that we should probably start making music. There’s a thing that Boston does that Baroness does, and it’s that we layer harmonic guitars. “Piece Of Mind” was a song that I’d always loved, and the way there’s a build up.
It’s the same reason that one of my favorite Metallica songs is “Orion,” because they take this simple melody, and then you add the major third, and then you build on that. It’s kind of by-the-numbers harmony, and there’s nothing too complicated about it, but playing it as a punk kid wasn’t easy to figure out. Once you learn it though, it becomes easy, but you have to learn not to do it all the time, so you don’t become like Dragonforce or something like that.
Pete and I always had this thing where we would play that breakdown section in “Peace Of Mind.” That was the early template along with the way that Metallica did it, and of course along with Queen, and that one moment on Animals where David Gilmour lets himself be harmonic, and it’s beautiful, but that was one of the first inspirations for what Baroness would eventually sound like. Pete and I call it the Boston effect. You just start with the melody, and if you want to drag it out, then you add a melody on top of that and then below that, and several phrases in you add the more harmonic components. If you can figure out the right amount of restraint, it works, and it’s a really beautiful thing. The critical lesson that we took away from “Peace Of Mind” is that you can create something so simple, and it can be palpable. The simpler it is, the more character you can put into it, and the more easily an audience can digest it, and it gets stuck with them.