The “Southern Thing” That Cannot Be:
Stairclimbing, Genre Splicing and Blowing Ears Open with Baroness
Let’s face it, it’s never been exactly cool to be from the South. Sure, The Southern Thing has its own mystique. And there are buttloads of bands that have honed, mythologized, fetishized, commoditized, struggled with and even claimed to deconstruct their own “southern-ness,” all to various degrees of commercial and artistic “success.” Both a blessing and a curse, the Southern Thing is an onus that burdens all bands of our region. Go forth, oh Absolom, go forth.
Since its inception in the early oughts in Savannah, Georgia, Baroness has certainly borne the weight of The Southern Thing. Thankfully, though, the stereotypes and stigmas associated with their region of origin have not proven a Sisyphean onus for the band.
Not that the band has “risen above” its roots per se. The thing is, even though they originally sprung forth from the swampy mists of Savannah, the band has never really been about the South – or exactly about heavy metal, even, for that matter.
“I think the idea of the mythic South – the conception or misconception of this band as being influenced by or being about the mythic South – it’s always felt to me as though it’s something that’s more of a talking point for people internationally and people outside the South,” says Baroness vocalist, guitarist, auteur and main man, John Baizley, who actually resides in Philadelphia these days. “Because there is something that people outside the South have always kind of wanted southern bands to have – like a certain quality or a certain attitude. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here, but I think that Lynyrd Skynyrd is always what people think when they hear ‘southern band.’ But for all the bands I know from the south, from Savannah or Atlanta, it [being categorized as a ‘southern band’] gets bigger and bigger the further away we get from the actual South. It becomes, like, a caricature.
“The idea of that southern caricature, it’s positive or negative, whatever. You know, that idea of the “whisky drinkin’ band from the South’ or being called a sludge band, it’s always kind of driven me crazy,” Baizley continues. “I mean, I do know bands that do self-identify as being southern bands and that’s cool. I do know bands that are hard-drinking bands, and that’s cool. But there is a caricature and a stigma that comes with being classified as a southern band. It’s so wildly inaccurate – even when it’s on point. And it’s something that I’ve tried pretty hard to demystify, all those false, overplayed ideas. They get heaped onto us – but not just us. Everybody gets it.
“The only time the ‘southern’ thing applies, kind of in a sort of angular way, is in the lyrical cues I’ve drawn from classic southern writers.”
Baroness is and has always been a heavy, guitar-driven band with soaring vocals, anthemic choruses and just enough prog flourishes to strikingly, tastefully augment their sonic cathedrals of sound. But during the twelve years since the release of its first album, the band has continued to evolve and progress, all the while amassing what has become a rather large fan base. In other words, in a dozen years of shapeshifting, lineup changes, tireless touring and obstacle surmounting, the band has transcended its perceived genre (heavy metal) and, in the process, gotten really, really big. Their new album, Gold & Grey (Abraxan Hymns Records, which is, by the way, Baroness’ own label), which is, FYI, the final installation of a career-long series of color schemed albums, just might be the record that bumps the band into Big Rock status. Stranger things have happened.
“I feel very proud of this new record we just made. And I don’t think until this year we could have made a record like this,” explains Baizley. “But that doesn’t mean we’re done. I don’t feel like we’ve arrived. I feel excited and I feel energized. But we’ve always been kind of an underdog band.
“I mean, sometimes it does feel like we’re poised on the precipice of maybe actually catching a break for once in our lives,” Baizley continues. “But I can’t really bank on that. Most of the time, for me, I feel like we never really catch a break. So as long as I’m not anticipating anything positive or, you know, any big step forward. I’m very grateful for any break that we may get because it comes as a surprise. I’m not assuming anything.”
Nonetheless, Baizley acknowledges that the band’s abilities to transform and transcend genres is key to its steadily gaining momentum.
“It’s been important for me not to get too tied to any audience or genre or scene or whatever,” says Baizley. “I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve seen a lot of this stuff come and go as trends. There have been some years where the band was considered ‘cool,’ and other years where we were very much not the cool band.
“For me, as a music listener, the most powerful moments are the moments when I discover a band. And in a way I’ve felt that through the years we were getting closer and closer to becoming undiscoverable because we were just playing to the same people over and over again. Doing the same thing and playing for the same people over and over is not why we do this. We never wanted to make music that’s exactly what people have already heard. We weren’t trying to be heavier than Neurosis or more technical than Mastodon or more ferocious than Slayer. It has nothing to do with that. At all points, we’ve tried to break away from being an exclusive band – and being an inclusive band. That’s harder work. And the results are more rewarding.
“I mean, I realize that we’re not a metal band – but there’s enough heaviness in our music that we sort of get that tag,” Baizley continues. “We’re either the most metal band on an indie or mainstream rock bill – or we’re just the wimpiest band on a heavy metal bill. And either way, we don’t fit in. And because we don’t fit in, well, I’m psyched. I didn’t get into music because I wanted to fit in. I got into music because I didn’t fit in. And our show, our music, is for people who share that same ideal of inclusivity.”
And what a long, strange trip it’s been. Sure, Baroness is more or less a “people’s band” that defies rock star clichés. This Everyman quality, coupled with the band’s ambition and creative derring do, is a big reason why so many people have come to dig them. And when a band gets really, really popular, as Baroness are, they end up joining an exclusive club, the Legion of Rock Stars, whether they like it or not.
“I’m always, always aware of whose shadow we’re in. I’m always aware of what we haven’t done. I am very proud of the accomplishments we’ve made – but I don’t want to make it seem like I’m big-timing anybody,” says Baizley. “I see everything as a work in progress. And this band is absolutely and uncategorically my life’s work. I just feel like we have so much more to prove. It still feels like we’re a young band – and that we haven’t done our best thing.
“We’re trying to reach past people who already know what to expect from us and reach people with new ears. For bands like us, to have an impact we have to get inside a system that we seek to change. The band has evolved. Now we’re in a place where we’re getting judged on a much larger chopping block. We’re being balanced against a different level of artists. It’s exciting to me because I think we’re at a point where we can have a tangible effect on an audience that is waiting to have their ears blown open. Now, I don’t know for sure that we’re the band to blow anybody’s ears open (laughing). But I wouldn’t be involved in this if I didn’t think we had a shot.
“But regardless of where we’re at; we have room to improve, we have something to prove, we have miles of open road ahead of us yet to conquer. For me the most important thing about being in this band is having the experience of personal, creative and musical growth. And it feels like we’ve made another step in that evolution. But we’re not even halfway up the staircase yet.”
Photo by Pam Strohm.