Metalocalypse: Baroness and the Southern Metal Renaissance

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Baroness, "Wanderlust," 2007

In the same way that Houston rarely inspires photos of snow flurries, people tend not to associate heavy metal with the South. But, if you look hard enough, you'll find a rich history of hard music with roots planted firmly in Southern soil.

In the '80s and early '90s, Louisiana produced sludge-metal bands such as Crowbar, Acid Bath and Down. Currently, Austin's retro-metal The Sword is gaining national attention by opening for Metallica, like they and Down did at Toyota Center last month.

Meanwhile, in Savannah, Ga., punk/metal band Baroness is trying not to be grouped into the "Southern sludge" genre. Still, in a phone interview after the band's recent national tour, guitarist and vocalist John Baizley (right) wears his self-professed "Southern boy" heritage on his sleeve.

Rocks Off: Where are you from originally?

John Baizley. The band all grew up in Lexington, Va. It's a very, very small town. We literally lived within a few miles of each other. In 2001, I moved down here [to Savannah], and everybody kind of filtered down here.

RO: Why Savannah?

JB. It's a relatively small city, and that seemed to make sense to me at the time. We grew up in the type of town that you're familiar with everyone, and with everyone else's business. There's something about the Southern cities that are open-armed in their treatment of citizens.

The first time I went to New York City, one of my friends' father's advice to me was, "Don't look anybody in the eyes," and that was one Southern boy to another, and at the time that was kind of a culture shock to me.

RO: How do you prefer your music to be described? A lot of people call it sludge.

JB. Aw, I think that's wildly inaccurate. I think just as a descriptive word, "sludge" seems to denote something with viscosity and slowness, something simple and base. I understand where people are coming from, though. It's a context point for a certain sound.

RO: So what word would you use?

JB. I don't think I would use a word. I can only basically say that I love music, I love rock and roll, metal, electronic, classical, hip-hop, anything. And I'm just doing what I'm doing when I pick up a guitar...If there were such a word, I'm sure it wouldn't be 'sludge.'

RO: Who are some of the band's musical influences?

JB. We tend to cast the net pretty wide. First and foremost, we are fans of the music we grew up listening to. Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Metallica. Where we grew up, there was a huge interest in punk rock and hardcore. We learned how to play the classic-rock and heavy metal-type stuff first and applied a punk-rock kind of thing to it.

Since then we've been drawing most of our influence from more divergent sources. If you derive your influence from obvious classic sources, you're going to sound obvious and classic. Everything's fair game for inspiration, I think.

RO: You're the designer of the band's album and merchandise artwork. How does the artwork connect to the music?

JB. It's always been sort of intrinsically linked to the music. When I was a kid, I was sort of equal parts into music and art. I don't really separate the two. From an artistic standpoint, it's about a vision, a unity of that vision, something that's cohesive.

There are a few bands that have encapsulated that look, sound, and feel, and it makes it more unique and mythical. I think people are receptive to that. It makes the experience more fulfilling to people.

RO: It seems like metal is the new hipster music - do you have any thoughts on that? How would you explain the trend?

JB. I think, personally, that metal is the one trend or genre that really has never died. It's certainly had its ebb and flow. What's kind of striking to me about this resurgence that's currently going on is that it's left some of the orthodoxy of past resurgences in the past.

Metal was created in one form, in the '70s. In the '80s and '90s, bands refined that same sound. I think what's happened recently is that in order for the genre to keep itself vital, it's invited in a new outlook and a more open-armed embrace of cool, obtuse ideas.

You've got all these bands that are basically trying to out-idea each other. I think that's awesome and creative and life-affirming. It's a little more dangerous, risky, and cool than it has been in years past for me. I wasn't born with an Iron Maiden tattoo on my forehead - and nobody was.

I was born with a passion to create. And when things become rote and repetitive, there's no challenge, and I'm not interested in it. Recently things have been come more challenging both to the musician and to the listener. That's why I'm interested in metal - it's challenging. On a technical level, on a social level, on a political level - on all fronts. - Linda Leseman

Visit Baroness on the Web at www.myspace.com/yourbaroness.

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