If there’s one band that’s managed to climb their way to the top of the metal mountain in the last decade, it’s the progressive musical kaleidoscope that is Baroness. Their debut full-length ‘Red Album’ reared its ugly head straight from the swamps and marshes of South-eastern Georgia, loudly announcing the group as ones to watch in the world of metal. Next effort ‘Blue Record’ built on those solid foundations, adding bucket loads of sludge and melody to the mix. In 2012, double album ‘Yellow & Green’ moved into more atmospheric, stoner rock and psychedelic territory, sweeping up accolades from NME, Spin, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork in the process. Speaking with drummer Sebastian Thomson, we decided to get the lowdown on their latest opus ‘Purple’, what their live show feels like, drumming and how musical variety is an essential part of maintaining one’s sanity.
Baroness have recently announced an Australian & New Zealand tour for later this year, which happens to coincide with the release of ‘Purple’ from December last year. So with the release cycle for that record taking Baroness across North America (with the band currently on your second U.S. tour now) along with shows in Europe and soon to be Down Under, how does it feel to be playing those songs, and what’s the response to the record been like so far?
I have to say, it’s all been very, very positive. Playing the songs live… See, the thing is, we worked really hard on those songs before we recorded them. We demoed them a lot, and we made sure that we could play them ‘as a band’ before we committed them to vinyl. Now I think a lot of times other bands—and even I’ve had this with other bands—you write something in the studio that you just can’t play live, at all. And we didn’t have that problem this time. So, playing the songs on stage has been super natural [laughs]. You know what I mean? Not ‘magical’, but very natural.
Absolutely dude, I know what you’re getting at. I listen to a lot of different music, and different styles of music, and I always find it somewhat disappointing when a band you really like and connect with, puts out a fantastic record with all these different sounds and lots of diverse things going on, and then you see them live and they choose not to play those complex songs or they leave out those little nuances, because it’s not a ‘live’ record, it’s a ‘studio’ record.
Exactly. I mean, especially nowadays, with everyone recording on computers, you can do so much editing, manipulation and rearrangements, that you never really know what you’re going to get on stage.
Now speaking of Baroness, you joined in 2013, after original drummer Allen Bickle left the group following their much-publicised bus accident in 2012, but you’ve also had quite a prolific career as a musician outside of that. You were one of the founding members of Trans Am, who are still an active unit, and you also have your electronic side project with Publicist as well.
That’s right. And I’ve been to Australia with Trans Am, like ten times.
[Laughs]. That’s crazy. You must love it down here Seb?
I do love it down there, but I think you guys love me down there [laughs].
That’s probably true [laughs]. Now I wanted to ask you Seb, how your connection to Baroness came about? How did you meet the guys and join the band? And also how it felt for you to join the group at that particular time, after their accident, as they were going through some delicate stuff?
Yeah, so basically, how it happened was John [Dyer Baizley, lead vocals/guitar] and Pete [Adams, vocals/guitar] didn’t want to do the whole, ‘let’s have a whole line of drummers auditioning’ you know? In some like, commercial rehearsal space. They wanted to keep it with people they knew, and play with people that they knew; friends of friends. Somebody who may have made records that they liked, or who would have musical ideas to contribute, you know? Basically just not a session guy, is what I’m saying. So John Baizley called my friend Jon Theodore from The Mars Volta, and said ‘Hey, do you want to do this?’ And Jon was like, ‘I can’t. I just joined Queens Of The Stone Age. But, you should call my buddy Seb from Trans Am, because Trans Am aren’t busy right now.’ And John was like, ‘I had no idea that was even a possibility. I love Trans Am.’ So he called me, and we talked, and then he said ‘Can you learn eight songs in a week and come down?’ So I did, and we played and it sounded pretty good. And here we are [laughs].
That’s very cool.
Yeah, and if you’re asking me what the ‘vibe’ was at the time, they were all super positive and just anxious to get the ball rolling again. They were super welcoming to me and Nick [Jost, bass]. And I think, overall, they were just anxious to move on and keeping moving ahead. I think it was such an obviously traumatic thing—that they’re still dealing with on many different levels—but they just wanted to get back to it, you know?
Absolutely dude. And building off that feeling, if we talk a little bit about the songs on ‘Purple’. You mentioned that they wanted to regain momentum, and revitalise the band after those tragic events. As a drummer, engineer and professional musician, do feel that you brought a new style, or new type of energy to Baroness?
Yeah, I think I definitely did. I think Nick did also… Oh god, he just walked in the bus. Get out of here!
[Mumbled conversation between Sebastian and other Baroness members, presumably on their tour bus somewhere in U.S.]
Sorry, I just had to walk out there for a second.
All good man!
Um, what happened was, with my background being mostly in Trans Am, I was very excited to start playing with a heavier band like Baroness. So you know, I’m a little bit of a different player than Allen was. I think I’m a little more hectic, in general [laughs]. I think that Allen had wanted to, especially on ‘Yellow & Green’, really simplify everything. And he was sort of, reacting against his own past. But I, on the other hand, was going in the other direction. Allen, since he was a kid, had been playing punk and metal, and was trying to move into a more experimental, post-rock type thing. Whereas I was doing the exact opposite [laughs]. So I was really excited to play some heavy drums, fast fills and stuff like that, which Allen just wasn’t really into anymore. So if you listen to ‘Purple’, as opposed to ‘Yellow & Green’, there’s a lot more drumming on ‘Purple’ and there’s just a higher energy. I’m certainly not dissing ‘Yellow & Green’, they’re great albums and Allen’s drumming is great, but I just think that ‘Purple’ is more intense, you know what I mean?
Yeah man, for sure. I definitely agree.
Every drummer is different, not just in the way they play, but in the grooves that they decide to play. And there are some Baroness songs you know, where even though I love the songs, I’ll be playing them and think to myself, ‘I would not have played this groove.’ It’s obviously too late now, as that’s the way the songs are written, but I think there are some beats that I came up with for songs on ‘Purple’, where Allen would not have chosen to play those beats. So I think it definitely changed the whole flavour of the album.
And with the way that we write, and the way that John has always written, is that he starts with a drum part. So every couple of weeks, I would send John some files of me playing some different beats that I had come up with, and he would choose half of them and write guitar parts to them. Obviously, considering that I was playing those different grooves, I think that’s already changed the music in Baroness.
Definitely. And I think it’s interesting that you point out, coming from your background, the desire to play heavier music. That’s definitely something I picked up on with ‘Purple’, and it was easily one of my favourite records from last year. I was watching a live video of the band performing ‘If I Have To Wake Up’ & ‘Fugue’, which are some of the softer or more mellow songs on ‘Purple’, yet there’s still a real palpable sense of urgency and raw energy captured in your live performance. How do you guys channel your energy as a band, across your back catalogue of material, and how do you move it into such a diverse range of sounds? How do you let it loose for those heavy bits, and then also keep it tame and reigned in for the softer parts? What’s the dynamic of the band on stage?
I think that the short answer is, it basically takes a couple of shows. Because the first few shows of a tour, we’re just so pumped that maybe we’re not paying attention to the nuances of tempos and dynamics as much as we could be. But I think every rock band does that. And then once we settle in to the tour, we kind of go, ‘Ok, now I know exactly how to play the song, or how fast or slow I need to do it.’ The first night is always filled with excitement, which you know, can definitely be a good thing because you’re all energetic. But like you’re saying, and that song is the perfect example, if you play it too fast then it loses any kind of ‘heaviness’. So you have to pay attention, and take a deep breath as you count the song in.
And as far as dynamics go, again that song is a great example, because in the studio, Dave Friddman [producer; Weezer, Mogwai, Tame Impala] wanted to compress the drum take to get a lot of the ‘room’ sound as opposed to the direct, mic sound. So in order to do that, it helps for the drummer to not play so loudly. I normally play with 5B’s, which is a standard rock drumstick weight, but he [Friddman] made me play with 7A’s, which are more jazz drumsticks. But it still sounds super heavy on the album, because it’s so compressed. But live, we don’t have that kind of manipulation going on, so I have to hit it relatively hard to make it sound good. But like I said, once you play the song live two or three times, you’re like ‘I know how to dial this in.’ And I think we’re there right now.
That’s awesome Seb. I’m really excited to see Baroness live, as I missed the band both times here in Australia.
The last time we were down, was for Soundwave.
That’s right. In 2014.
Yeah, that was super fun. And we did do some club shows with Mastodon and Gojira, which were amazing too.
I know, I’m very jealous of that! Those Sidewave shows would have been incredible. But I’ll get to witness the spectacle for myself when you guys make it down later this year.
Awesome. Now to wrap up Seb, since you’re obviously a passionate, life-long musician and music has been a big part of your life outside of Baroness, I wanted to ask you what some of your favourite records from this year are, and what you’re currently listening to?
I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the stuff I listen to nowadays, is electronic music [laughs]. I don’t know, it’s just one of my pleasures. For example, there’s a duo out of London called Paranoid London, that do a type of acid-house which is very minimal and aggressive, and I think they’re amazing.
For newer band stuff, I think the new Tribulation album [‘The Children of the Night’ (2015)] is really good, but I guess it’s not that new anymore.
There’s also a band called Nothing out of Philly, who are sort of shoegaze-ish.
Oh, their newest record ‘Tired Of Tomorrow‘ is great.
Yeah, they’re like a shoegaze band, but with more Steve Albini-style production I guess? They’re really good. But really, when I’m at home in New York, I go out to these underground, warehouse parties [laughs]. I know that might be weird, and/or surprising, to hear from the drummer of Baroness, but I think it keeps me sane to have that kind of variety.
Absolutely dude, I completely agree. I mean I’ve been listening to heavy music for well and truly over a decade, with all sorts of punk, metal and hardcore stuff, but sometimes I like to switch that part of my brain off and just sit at home listening to Frank Sinatra record. You have to change it up a bit.
Yeah! You got to change it up, for sure. The fact that with Baroness, I get to play this heavy music and play these shows, and I can meet Metallica and hang out, and then on the other hand, with my solo thing in Publicist, I can hang out with Carl Craig [producer, DJ], the Detroit techno godfather. So I think that’s very cool you know, that I’ve got these two different worlds that aren’t related, but they’re both musical and they’re both totally satisfying to me.
That’s great dude, and brings us to the end of our chat for today. Thanks for making the time for KYS today Seb, and best of luck with the tour.
You’re very welcome. Thank you very much, and see you in December!