by crustcake gerf (NYC)
Portions of this interview originally featured in issue #53 of The FADER. Buy a hard copy or download a .PDF here.
Crustcake gerf: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background.
John Baizley: I'm from Lexington, Virginia. I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains... Lexington is a really small town. I've had what I consider a lifelong interest in art, meaning that I've always been as active as humanly possible. And, uh, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for three years and eventually dropped out. And, I took a-- about a two year hiatus after I dropped out of school from making art of any kind and then uh, as soon as-- I think it was really as soon as [Baroness] started playing it kinda gave-- you know, a reason-- it kinda jump-started me into action and since then it's been seventy or eighty hours a week, every week-- it's all I do.
How/when did you get your start in visual art? Did you take lessons?
I think it was a natural inclination of mine when I was young that both of my parents sort of fostered and encouraged in many ways. I took-- never really anything too formal. When I was in, like, I'd say middle school I would, from time to time, go take lessons with a teacher and a number of students but I don't think that was anything that had any lasting effects on it. It was primarily self-motivated up until college.
You started doing visual art before music?
Yeah, I would say I've definitely always-- I've-- when I was younger I favored visual arts-- it was just more immediate and a little easier to grasp onto I didn't start actually having and actively participated interest in music until I was like nine or ten. But, I mean if you look through my parents' photo albums there's art that pre-dates that by many years, you know?
What got you started in music?
I think it was more of a personal choice that I made, as opposed to the art which, you know-- like I just mentioned my parents have a minor background in art-- they both took classes in college and things like that. My mother's always had an interest in it. So that was always something that the kind of, you know, kind of encouraged and pushed on me.
The music was something that I think they saw that I was independently interested in and, you know, I got a guitar when I was like nine and just started playing. So I mean, it's a fair assessment to say that I've always been, you know, I've always had sort of a creative impulse.
Were you in other bands before Baroness?
Yeah, I mean, I've been playing in bands of one sort or another since I was like eleven or twelve. Obviously better and worse, or, no-- mostly worse, I would say. But, you know, some form of music, if it was like cover bands or punk bands or hardcore bands-- things like that. It's just always been a part of my life, as has visual art.
What prompted the move to Savannah?
As I mentioned before, I dropped out of school a year prematurely and sort of did a-- I guess kind of like a hermit thing in Virginia for about a year, year and a half. And I was also essentially living on a river without a car or a television or a phone and at the end of that period when I decided to reemerge, and, you know, move somewhere with some people again, it was basically happenstance and essentially random, and I just moved down there and when I did, it was a rekindling of my interest in both art and music. So there wasn't any, like, con-- it wasn't some, like, conscious or pre-planned sort of thing, I just kinda did it.
How do your surroundings affect your work? I've noticed a lot of plant life in your illustrations-- is there a connection there?
There's a total connection. Everything that I do is sort of a reaction or an intuition based on, you know, like a present time situation. So, you know, if you've ever been to Savannah, you'd know-- it's a fairly lush environment compared to most cities. There's trees everywhere, and they're mostly a live oak, which means they're like deciduous trees that never lose their leaves and there's, you know, Spanish moss hanging from everything.
So there's like this intense sort of surrounding constantly-- no matter where you are, no matter how much of the city you're in you're entirely surrounded by the plant life and sort of this chaotic, organic growth constantly happening around you. And that's definitely-- not consciously-- but it's definitely had an effect that I'm able to see now in retrospect on a lot of the work that I do.
How do the rest of the guys in Baroness feel about the art? Do you have free reign to do what you want?
Yeah, I think the guys that I play with are-- they have a deeper understanding of what I'm doing visually and ultimately they trust almost across the board with whatever I'm trying to express visually. It almost, no, it always falls in line with what we're doing. I've been lucky in that regard-- we don't really have to talk about it too much. I'll run ideas by them and everything, but I think they've afforded me a lot of trust in that department.
I've heard that you do everything by hand, only bringing in a computer towards the end of the process...
Yeah, entirely. I was raised and have always had much more facility working in sort of the traditional techniques. Meaning, with a lot of stuff that you'll see, it's mostly pens, inks, watercolors, and ink washes and things like that. I'm also an active oil painter and acrylics and everything like that so, basically, the traditional media is where I'm the most at ease.
But that's not to say that it's 100% that, because I think, you know, considering my medium, considering the ease with which you can work on a computer-- I have had to incorporate a computer into some of the stuff I do, so, essentially I will work on something traditionally until it's at the point where it's ready to get sent to print and at that point I'll incorporate a computer and that's sort of been a trial by fire with me, where it's just been born completely out of necessity.
When I started to use a computer I didn't know any of the programs-- like the, you know, your photoshop, illustrator and stuff like that. I've had to teach myself as I go along with that-- no formal training whatsoever.
It's sort of a best of both worlds approach.
I like the traditional approach-- everything seems more 'warm', you know?
Yeah, and I think that's where I'm comfortable but I think that's also something that separates me from a lot of, you know, who I consider my contemporaries who have skills on computer with graphic design that I can only work towards at this point.
I'm looking at the Torche - In Return cover, and you can see the texture of the paper, you can see the stain of the watercolor.
Yeah, and you also-- if you look through enough of my work you can see that consistently there are technical errors. I tend to favor those errors over something that's a little sleeker looking, so, you know, when a paper grain will show through or when a slight smudge or mistake will happen that's just part of the piece for me. And I welcome-- I embrace that sort of thing that can happen randomly. And I think it lends something different to my work than a lot of other people's.
Do you see maybe like a parallel between that-- how when you're working in a more traditional medium versus working on a computer-- you know, when you're working on a computer you can sort of erase those, or eliminate any errors-- a parallel between that dichotomy and say, with regards to music, you know, bands that might use a beat detective or whatever you want to call it to kind of line up the beat and like you guys, who are more live in the studio?
That's the magic and the beauty of both mediums to me and I think the most impressive artists and the most impressive musicians are those who are able to make their craft more individual based on the riskiness, or the risk taking in that sort of approach. And I think that truly is where the heart and soul of what I'm doing lies.
Who are some of your influences as a visual artist?
As a visual artist-- I have more, I mean I would say there are more than I can even list. It's difficult for me to name specific people because it's like, you know, every day, every time I find a new book it's like, you know, there's potentially some new inspiration for me, but as a kid growing up in punk rock and metal obviously and, you know, this has definitely been brought to my attention before, and I won't deny it, but, you know, somebody like Pushead where when I was in middle school and just a total freak for Metallica and that's what, you know-- those were my favorite T-shirts and those were my favorite designs and illustrations.
So somebody like that and then somebody like Roger Dean who did all the Yes covers-- he was also one of my favorite album cover artists. So, that tradition in terms of music, but then traditional fine artists, you know, I can pretty much run the gamut. You know, everybody from master craftsmen like Caravaggio up to the present. A lot of contemporary artists too I'm constantly inspired and impressed by.
What about Art Nouveau, any connection there?
Yeah, there's definitely a connection there too-- that was something that I really got a lot of influence on, well I would say about a year and a half ago we we're touring Europe for two months and over here you have a lot more access to that type of stuff be it actual museums or the art books or what have you so I came back with a pretty extensive library of art books and magazines and, you know, we saw a few museums when we were over so that kind of stuff definitely rubs off on me and that's something-- again, I embrace that type of thing with open arms as well where, if I'm in a museum and something moves me or if I see something in a book that moves me that-- there's inspiration there and there's reference material for me.
What other things influence you? Books, literature, films... is there anything specific that you can name that maybe when you were a kid inspired you, like a movie that freaked you out, or...
Honestly, nothing really jumps to mind. Because I've always been so open with that, anything is great source material for me. So, when I was growing up if it was like the sci-fi stuff like some of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones-- that kind of stuff, like, you know, a lot of the Tim Burton movies-- when I was younger there was certainly an artistic influence from films.
And then, on the literature side of things, even though it's not a pictorial medium, the written word is chock full of visual imagery-- often times more so than I think something that is visual, you know, where the interpretation is open to the reader, something like that, and that type of stuff is critical to my process. Being able to immerse myself in a language of images or metaphors or icons-- something like that-- can only be to the betterment of my art.
Any specific literature? Lovecraft?
I'll definitely say that when I was young, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen I went through a huge phase of reading all the Lovecraft stuff and all the, you know, Edgar Allen Poe, things like that. And that stuff is so lush and chock full of disturbingly beautiful imagery that was just fodder, you know, fuel for my artistic fire when I was young. And that's remained with me to this day.
You don't have an official website as an artist, do you?
It seems like you're still kind of under the radar even though you're obviously in very high demand.
Yeah, and I've intentionally kept it that way. I don't like to be extremely blatant on the promotional side of what I'm doing. I'm more interested in the day to day connections that I make personally as an artist so, you know, most of the people that I work for I've met. Most of the people that I work for I have a prior respect for. And I've been incredibly fortunate that I don't have to-- thus far I haven't had to advertise myself that much. I've had a lot of amazing people come to me and thus I've built those personal relationships with a lot of people I'm working with which, again, is sort of critical to my process which sort of, you know, begs for that.
How do you decide what bands you want to do cover art for? Do you listen to the music beforehand? How's that work?
That's happened almost-- I would say 99 out of 100 times that's the way it goes. Because, as an artist and as a musician, I have to feel passionately about what I'm doing or else there's no point for me, you know, to even get out of bed and pick up a pencil or a pen or anything like that. So, again, I feel incredibly fortunate because I've met people who aren't in that situation. As long as there are people who feel equally as invested in my art as I do in their craft then there's just an increased level of intimacy that I'm able to embed in the art that I'm making.
And in addition to that I grew up with the 'do it yourself' ethic of, you know, I started off playing music in the punk and hardcore community where everybody knows each other and it's all about helping each other out and, you know, you try not to involve the business so much. That sort of ethos eeked its way into my art, so I approach the business with that same mind frame.
What are you working on currently?
At this point I'm in between projects obviously because I'm on tour but as soon as I get back I'm gonna be working for a few bands actually. There's a local band in Savannah called Black Tusk that I've done a number of things for art-wise and I've actually put out some of their records and then, uh, doing some stuff for them, doing some stuff for a Dutch hardcore band called Vitamin X and I think immediately after that I have nothing on my plate. But, that's because I get so back logged with work sometimes that it gets a little overwhelming so when I get back, you know, I have to reassess that and it shouldn't be a problem at this point.
Do you work on the road at all?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. For instance, last time we were touring Europe we were here for about two months and I was selling prints on the road and I was doing this like, these-- I came over with a number of black and white prints on watercolor paper and I would hand paint them individually each night to sell, you know, to individuals. And, occasionally I'll get backed up on a project that'll spill over onto the tour and I'll pretty much be pulling my hair out trying to get things done. But, it's difficult in a way that I can't really express, so, I tried on this tour, for instance, I'm selling silk screened prints that are already done so that I'm not a complete wreck.
Beyond the immediate future, do you have any specific goals? Any band's you'd like the opportunity to work with?
You know, I don't really think about it in terms of like 'who do I want to work for', because I've found that that often times sets me up for disappointment. Really, my goal as an artist is to maintain the same level of interest and to keep-- to continually have this sort of progress thing happening with myself where, you know, if something gets a little old or tired to me and becomes a little bit more academic than interesting then the tough thing for me and the work for me is to try and change gears and keep myself involved in a way that is a challenge to me. So I don't set out with specific goals, I set out with a sort of open-ended approach, and whatever comes my way becomes the challenge and the goal.
I wanted to ask you about the Baroness First and Second covers. They strike me as very different from most of your other work...
Yeah. When I first started making art full time essentially or around the time when [Baroness] was first coming up, I felt like it was important to have a real disparity between the other work that I was doing and the work that I was doing for [Baroness], so there was sort of an intentional difference-- stylistic difference between the Baroness artwork and then what I was doing for, you know, say, any other band. And, since then, the two have grown a little closer together as what I've done has progressed and become more refined. But, yeah, I just basically wanted to have our stuff look a little different than the other stuff I was doing to keep it separate.
Where did the inspiration for the First and Second covers come from?
I mean, there's-- the work that I do is all filled with deeply personal metaphors and iconography-- you know, like a set of images that have relevance to me that I don't discuss. But the more external sort of inspiration for those was just my interest at the time in a lot of the 70's-- a lot of the poster artwork coming out of the Bay Area and just a lot of the classic rock and psychedelic artwork that was inspirational to me. I've kind of set them up like that and then filled them with my own set of stuff, you know, set of images.
Alright, I'm just want to go through some of your pieces one by one and have you talk about them...
[Torche - In Return]
I have had a strong relationship with Torche for a while now. I began as a fan of the band and we turned into great friends and eventually tourmates. After a two-month tour with them in Europe, their singer Steve Brooks came up with the idea of including portraits of the band inside the LP jacket.
[Torche - In Return, detail]
The only real input beyond that was that they wanted a colorful space theme for their record, as their first EP had an earthy volcanic theme. The circular theme is a device I use often, for a variety of reasons, both personal and structural. The visuals of flowers, bees and space add up to a kind of revolving theme of life and love cycles, one which suits the band, lyrics and music. As I have a personal relationship with the band, I was able to go pretty deep with some of my visual metaphors. There is a ton of stuff hidden in there.
[Genghis Tron poster]
Those flowers, while they may look quite alien, are actually the rather common foxglove. They do have an exotic look to them, which is part of the reason I chose to use them. There is a print shop here in Savannah that has silk-screened a number of posters and shirt designs I’ve done, and the guys who run the shop have obviously noticed that I have a tendency to render skeletons. These guys all live out in the countryside surrounding Savannah, and whenever they find skeletal remains, they will save them for me. I think they all think I’m kind of loony for collecting all this decayed reference material, but what’s truly crazy is how much care they all take in finding and preparing these bones for me. This is some type of feline skull.
[Baroness - Third]
First off, the artwork for the Baroness/Unpersons Split, or Third, is inspired by T.S. Elliot’s "The Hollow Men." The poem itself lent itself to form a logical thematic bridge between myself and the Unpersons’ singer. We both found many points of synchronicity among our own music, art and lyrics within the poem. While your analysis works on one level, there are sub-floors and alternate interpretations aplenty in this piece. It is meant to be viewed and explained differently by different viewers. This, I feel, lends itself to the intrinsic nature of a split release, where there are, at the bare minimum, two distinctly different voices.
This was an album design I did for a recording by three finger style guitar players from Berkley in California. It is meant to have a pastoral feel to it, as the presentation of music leans more towards folk and Americana than anything else. The wheat has always been a symbol to me of creative harvest, and in this picture it double for the guitar strings themselves, being plucked by three hands.
[Baroness - The Red Album]
The women on the cover of The Red Album are the same totemic muses from all of our releases, whose particular meaning and origin I tend to eschew in favor of individual interpretation. When I started this album, I asked all the members of Baroness to give me one symbol, or idea from themselves. It had to be something relevant in time or inspiration to the writing or recording process of the record. I also asked that it be a symbol that came with some personal difficulty, and that the reason for the symbol not be explained fully to me.
This was to make the record both personal and inexplicable to the band itself, in hopes that something genuine and coherent would emerge. Thus, all elements in this picture are both detached and critically important to each other. The record itself was a combination of four personalities, and so is the artwork a mirror of that concept.
The "Skeletonwitch" is a kind of meta-morphing ethereal character, whose image represents the band, and is not resigned to one homogenized form. I have created this character a number of times, each with a distinctly different effect. This album title, Beyond the Permafrost, required an icy layout, but as always, I needed to include some form of life. In this case the flora and fauna includes ram skull flowers and the always-grim raven-crown. I enjoy working within pre-established structures of images and icons, distorting and subverting original intentions and creating multi-layered meaning.