Three years have passed since the near-fatal bus crash in England that fractured Baroness — physically, emotionally, and psychologically. On that day in 2012, three of the four band members were seriously injured, two of which — drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni — have since left the group. Guitarist and vocalist John Dyer Baizley suffered a broken leg and shattered left arm, crushed so severely that he almost lost the limb. Today brings the release of Purple, the first new Baroness album after that event that curtailed the tour supporting their previous record, Yellow & Green (2012). The band’s performances on Sunday at Rough Trade NYC and Saint Vitus are sure to be marked by a feeling of triumph, for the band and fans alike.
Not surprisingly, the album was heavily influenced by the crash and the aftermath. “It is the lyrics,” says Baizley, concisely. “In a nutshell, it is the lyrics.”
That’s not to say that drawing on his own life for song content is atypical. “When we write albums, from a lyrical standpoint, I write about the time period in which the album was written,” he says, “and considering the entire time period was spent after that crash…it was, I would say for me, the primary motivating factor behind the record.” Although the two new band members (Nick Jost and Sebastian Thomas) joined after the ordeal, and guitarist Pete Adams (an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient) walked away with less critical surface wounds, the impact on the group is permanent. “It doesn’t define us as a whole, but it’s a big story. It was a big event, and I’ll be suffering from it for the rest of my life.”
For Baizley, crafting the album was a way of processing both the damage and the recovery. “I think in order to go through anything cathartic, you have to relive those moments, and I felt like the more repressive I was with that particular subject and all of the fallout from that, the less capable I would be as a functioning member of society,” he observes. Writing an album may be therapeutic, but performing the songs on it night after night, reliving those memories, is a potentially re-traumatizing factor that he had to consider. “We’re just starting to play these songs now, but I’m going to have to sing them hundreds and probably thousands of times,” he says, “so I had to keep that in mind while I was writing.”
The fact that Baizley can play the guitar at all after the surgery that saved his arm seems miraculous. He reveals that, had the doctors chosen to operate on the inside of his arm rather than on the outside, his ability to play music would have been lost. As it is, he can’t lift things with his left arm and has trouble opening jars, but he retains the mobility to fret the guitar. (Fortunately, he’s right-handed, allowing him to continue painting the gorgeous artwork that adorns Baroness’s album covers, including Purple.)
“I’ve been told by many specialists since then that I got incredibly lucky,” he says.
Even so, he now faces the obstacle of perpetual pain management, another experience that became integral to the album. “I have a very persistent, very acute, very powerful residual pain that’s completely a result of the surgery and all the hardware that’s in my arm,” he explains. “Treating pain on that level puts me in a spot that I hoped I would never be in again, which is using pharmaceuticals in order to cope. And I’m not comfortable with that, but at the same time as I’m uncomfortable with it, I also have spent years contending with the fact that there’s really no better option, and I’ve tried everything at this point.” Again, songwriting became his outlet for dealing with mixed emotions.
He goes on: “The confusion, frustration, pain that I feel about that [treatment] I can put down on paper in words that aren’t that specific because I think that, especially within the realm of recorded music, one of the most common — if not the singular most universal — theme that defies geography, time, place, social status, language, everything, is that we all suffer in common. It’s not whether or not you receive an injury of some sort — physical, mental, spiritual, psychological — it’s the way that you process that, the way that you are able to work through it. Or, you get stuck and entrenched inside of it. I don’t think that’s particular to me at all. I think that’s something that everybody that I’ve ever met in my entire life has dealt with in one way or another.”
Creating or experiencing art as a medium for enduring life’s difficulties is, of course, a timeless human vocation. In taking inspiration from pain, Baroness have fashioned an album that, in advance of its release, has been embraced by the most widespread, glowing praises of their career, perhaps because, in addition to the innovation in the music, there is something vulnerable in the message. Says Baizley, “The record’s not about the accident. It’s about what happens when you suffer something like that.”
Baroness will stop by Rough Trade NYC for a signing and performance before their sold-out show at St. Vitus on December 20. Catch them at Rough Trade, or scour the secondary market for tickets to their later set.