Geographically and physically speaking, Baroness are back, and having not been in the same room together in over half a year, they’ve had just a matter of days to make their sound shipshape for a one-off live performance of their epic 2019 album, Gold & Grey.
Tomorrow, Thursday, 10th September 2020, at 8pm ET (1am, UK time), Baroness hit the stage at Long Island City’s Culture Lab LIC at The Plaxall Gallery for a front-to-back performance of Gold & Grey.
That's right, they'll be playing the album nose-to-tail, and the whole thing will be live-streamed and available via pay-per-view webcast until 11.59 ET (4.59am, UK time) on Sunday. Tickets cost $14.99, and you have unlimited access to the stream from 48 hours after activating your pass (If you miss showtime, or want to save it for Saturday night, it'll still be there).
Now, this is a big deal. Not least musically, as Gold & Grey is an album with legs, striding beyond the fuzz pedal quasi-metal rock sound right through lush atmospherics and moments of quiet. And it's not like Baroness have ever done anything like this before – a whole album in a oner, to camera, with no crowd.
That it’s such a big deal, and yet is hardly the big deal 2020 Baroness had scheduled – a tour of Asia-Pacific, a US tour with Against Me, and the usual head-spinning tour through the European summer festival circuit – speaks to the weirdness of the times we live in.
This weirdness is not lost on guitarists/vocalists John Dyer Baizley and Gina Gleason. It has taken Covid-19 tests, isolation and time to get this together but now at least they've got a setlist and a showtime to work to.
It's something resembling normality that, as Baizley and Gleason maintain here, is anything but…
What was it like actually getting back to do some work together? Because you’d still have been playing, just not together, and that’s a big difference.
Gleason: “It was cool because everybody was musically in shape. You could tell that every single person not only worked on our setlist and our repertoire but also worked on musician stuff!
“Like, whatever it is that you were lacking before, when you are constantly touring and focusing on what we are playing every night, [now] everybody had time to get into working on other disciplines with their instrument, and that was really exciting to me. Everybody sounded really, really good and strong.”
Baizley: “Ha! I definitely think I could have spent more time on the repertoire part. [Laughs] I am better at new stuff than the older material, but, for a band like Baroness, we only thrive in a genuine way when we are altogether. It is really hard to explain how great it was and how important it was for us to get back together.
“This band is predicated on our chemistry with one another. It is predicated on our access to an audience – and really, really quite preferably an audience in a venue/club. To have had that rug pulled out from underneath us was a shock to our system.”
So you’re back in the room, you’ve got guitars, and, technically, you’ve got a show. How are you going to make it feel like a show for yourselves first?
Baizley: “I hope this is just a rung on the ladder towards something in the future that works to the strengths of this band. Filming a show without an audience is missing the most important part. Playing a show in front of cameras without an audience neglects the most important aspect of playing for a band like Baroness, which is the audience.”
“Every show we play, the audience dictates whether or not we push over the top. It really, really falls on the audience’s shoulders to elevate a show, so I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I thought that this was an entirely viable option in perpetuity. It requires an audience.
“Music as a whole does. There are very few styles of music that work better without an audience. Live streams are cool. But I think that every single touring musician in existence is waiting for the vaccine and the worldwide recognition that we are safe and able to be in crowds again.”
You’re playing Gold & Grey from front to back. That’s a lot of music.
Baizley: “Our typical rehearsal routine before an important event is the bare minimum of one or two months of regular, short bursts of rehearsals. We’ll typically practise on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but for this event we have been entirely apart. We haven’t been playing music together for seven months, and we have one week to put it together.
“It is a tremendous amount of work, and we decided to do something that was tremendously ambitious as well, and what would be a definite, definite first for Baroness, where we are performing the entire record in its original sequence without skipping anything.”
Do you still remember all the parts?
Baizley: “In some ways it’s like cramming for the SATs and you haven’t studied for six months and now, all of a sudden, you are straight into it.”
It’s like a recital. Are you going to wear suits?
Gleason: [Laughs] “It does feel like that. It has a certain clinical feel. We put the pressure on ourselves that, okay, so even if this is an interlude moment or transition they still want to nail it as best as possible.
“It is not going to be exactly like the record but there are certain live interpretations that are different each time we practise or go through it. There is some element of, not improvisation, but surprise where you’re like, ‘I really hope we can stick this!’
“You put that pressure on yourself – and it does feel like that, like a recital, which us as a band and us as musicians, that’s not really our strongest suit. Like John was describing, we really do feed off the intimacy and connection of having an audience and connecting with people.
“It is a little weird that you put so much pressure on yourself and running through the set it feels really intense from a personal perspective. Like your really, really hyper-focused on what you are doing, and not making a mistake, and not tripping anyone else up.”
Baizley: “What this event and the preparation for it has highlighted is the fact that this situation has has really forced us to look at the foundations of what we are as a band. What is important to us?”
What do you mean?
Baizley: “It is very easy to see the shortcomings of something like this. I mean, it is painfully easy to identify the aspects of this pandemic that make things more difficult for us. The most important thing for me – at the moment at least – is that literally we don’t lose sight of what forged us as musicians to begin with. Honestly, the streaming thing is sorta weird.
“We are trying to see how we can continue to approach our music with the same passion and enthusiasm as we have in the past when things were easier, let’s say, and how we can keep those core fundamental values of the band intact. Our attitude is like always, we take this as seriously as we can, and put as much work into as we can, but not make it feel disingenuous.”
Sure, this is different. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise?
Baizley: “We are trying to keep it somewhat casual. In reality, it feels like we are filming a rehearsal more than we are recording a performance, because our performance is so based on the venue and the audience.
“The weirdest aspect for me of playing in front of cameras without an audience is: am I supposed to look at the cameras? And treat it like the audience, and talk to it? No, I am not going to do that.”
Gleason: [Laughs] “No!”
Baizley: “We can’t start treating cameras and lenses like they are people! We have to find some middle ground, and that is the work, and that is where the creativity comes into play.”
“The vibe is going to be that we are playing with each other, rather than we are playing in front of bazillion people. That is the first step towards taking the idea of a streaming show and making it work in a Baroness setting, as opposed to making the Baroness idea work in a streaming setting.”
You have to work out how much show is appropriate?
Baizley: “Should we discuss what to wear? Should we address the audience? For us, the answer is resoundingly ‘No!’ When we rehearse and prepare for shows, we face each other, and use each other to create that same kind of energy in a rehearsal situation that we would hope would be bigger and more exaggerated in a live situation.”
Is there anything on the setlist that frightens you?
Baizley: “The whole setlist! [Laughs] It is the whole record! And we are going to play it in sequence! Song by song, I’m sure it’s fine. It’s easy to go, ‘Okay, we can play Tourniquet. We are great at playing Tourniquet. We’ve played it a million times. That’s easy.’
“When you get into deeper cuts, some of the softer songs, to put these incredibly tender moments – piano, acoustic guitar moments – in the middle of an hour-and-fifteen-minute-long jam, full of high-energy moments…
“I think that is the trickiest thing, to maintain the correct atmosphere and vibe in a setting that is unfamiliar with a setlist that is unfamiliar, after a week of rehearsals. It is so ambitious, and I am so psyched that we committed to this. Everything about it is going to be a first for us. That is the part that is going to be the most exciting.”
You mentioned writing. Have you got much?
Gleason: “Yes, that has been the biggest focus of this whole year.”
Enough for a record?
Baizley: “I don’t think we have a record ready. I think we have three records ready! Twenty-seven songs, almost three hours of music.”
Gleason: “Everybody really buckled down and used the time that we had during quarantine to do the best work that we could – independently, remotely, and then collaborating with some of the things that we can use technology for. Like, we can Dropbox Pro Tools sessions to each other.
“We can collaborate in different ways that we didn’t really have to consider before because we’d be together for the most part. That’s really exciting. I think there is an element of revisiting some of the more deep-cut moments of Gold & Grey, some of the more psychedelic, spacey kind of sections that are inspiring when getting into the new material.
“At times it can be frustrating to put down the new, exciting ideas and be like, ‘We have to really hammer in this other priority, this setlist.’ But I think one informs the other in a cool way.”
A huge aspect of your sound is those two guitars, and the dynamics between them. Can you talk a little bit about how you work them together?
Gleason: “There is something about how harmonically this band functions that, as guitar players, we are very, very rarely playing the same thing. Like, there’s rarely a moment when John's playing an E and I am too!”
Baizley: “Those are big moments! [Laughs]”
Gleason: “They are! And they are very intentional, which is cool. Earlier on, we tried a lot of different setups. John has a lot of gear. I have got my fair share. It just came down to what could give us the most surgical tone, the one that is going to poke out the most and make these two different but harmonically complementaIry parts that we are playing on at any given moment not seem like they’re getting lost in a whirlwind of fuzz and effects and whatever!
“I think that the setup we have right now works really well for that. I love playing a Tele for that reason. John plays a Tele, too. A Jazzmaster is a big thing, gives it a different character. It just comes down to the nuances, the harmonic things we have account for as we are playing.”
Baizley: “Up until 2011, maybe 2012, it had really been a game of humbuckers and closed-back 4x12 cabinets with heads on top, and that’s such a classic sound. But I always felt like I was fighting, like everybody was fighting for breathing room, and the type of music that we write is already a battle. It is already so dense and filled up with so much harmonic content that anything you can do to add some clarity is great.
“The other day, Gina and I were playing, and we’ve got a small combo setup in a studio room, and it’s like a Fender Princeton and a Fender Deluxe, Teles and Strats, and I have this old Gibson ES-335 with P-90s in it, and it just sounds good. It just sounds beautiful.
“That is what I love about electric guitar. You just play a chord, and the way that the distortion works and harmonics are added, the way the speakers breathe in the room, it’s beautiful.”
Gleason: “Hell yeah!”
Baizley: “It is important when you play in context that you can hear and achieve the effect that you want, and sometimes that effect is chaos and density, or overloads. But equally important is, when you are by yourself, you want to enjoy the sound that you hear, and I think the sound that we have right now, if you were to isolate the sounds, you’d be psyched on it because it is cool. Fucking cool!”
Well it is. Your tones are off the charts…
Baizley: “Off the charts! Oh it doesn’t take any work at all… You just have to obsess over it night and day and spend all of your time, money and energy on tone! [Laughs]”
Gleason: “[Laughs] Yeah!”
Who needs spare time, right?
Baizley: “Yeah! But the funny thing is that it took me 20 years to just come back to this kind of aesthetic. Like, my amp is a production model. It’s not boutique. Take the guitar, it’s a production model. It’s just normal stuff. Anyone can get it. You don’t necessarily have to break the bank to get any of this stuff, and it is gorgeous. Gorgeous, gorgeous sounds…”