Baroness has been through a lot.
The acclaimed alternative metal outfit has made a career out of heavy-hitting songs mixing primal urgency with sophisticated songcraft. They’re also survivors, having picked up and regrouped after a devastating car accident in 2012 left the band battered, bruised, and without a rhythm section (bassist Matt Maggioni and drummer Allen Blickle left the band in the wake of the accident).
Picking up the pieces after an incident like that couldn’t have been easy. Thankfully, frontman John Baizley recruited bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson, two extraordinarily talented musicians, to push the band forward. Together they burst back into the scene with 2015’s acclaimed Purple, resulting in the band’s first Grammy nomination.
Four years later, and with the addition of new lead guitarist Gina Gleason, Baroness are releasing their fifth album, Gold & Grey. A more compositionally and texturally adventurous outing than Purple, the album finds the band employing a broader sonic palette to create poignant, evocative musical moments. Consider the musical progression the listener is taken through between tracks 6 and 11: we have the unnervingly quiet piano-and-strings vignette “Anchor’s Lament” leading straight into the abrasive, fuzzed-out kineticism of “Throw Me an Anchor,” then giving way to the spacey, plaintive “I’d Do Anything,” the crackling and otherworldly pirate-radio-broadcast of “Blankets of Ash,” the ambient contemplation of “Emmet – Radiating Light,” and the gently-plucked first half of “Cold-Blooded Angels,” which builds to a heavy, gritted-teeth climax. It is an incredible album. An exhilarating, profoundly emotional sonic journey.
The album’s secret weapon is Sebastian Thomson, who bashes the skins with nimble ferocity and precision, providing rapid-fire explosive fills to amp up the intensity of the songs while also laying down a steady heartbeat to some of the more steadily immersive tunes in the album (such as my personal favorite, the hypnotic and breezy “I’m Already Gone”). His drumming is expressive and dexterous, heightening the drama of each piece he plays on.
A native of Chaco, Argentina, Thomson lived in several countries before settling down in Brooklyn, NY. He spoke to us a few days ago, before the release of Gold & Grey, in anticipation of the band’s first-ever show in his home country on June 22. Tickets are on sale now.
I was so excited to learn that you guys were coming to Argentina. As someone who knows firsthand the level of passion and excitement that comes from Argentine audiences, how do you feel about bringing the show down here?
I have to tell you… the second time my family left Argentina was in 1990, so I have been playing in bands and touring for 30 years, and I’ve been waiting for almost thirty years to play [with a band] in Buenos Aires. I cannot tell you how long I’ve been waiting, it’s insane. I’m personally very excited. But also, you’re right, I remember seeing shows in high school. The chanting, the energy, the vibe. It’s amazing.
You’ve been gone for a long time. Do you feel like you have a significant connection to the Argentine identity still?
Yeah. Buenos Aires is where I learned how to socialize. For example, I live in New York now and — this is a small detail, but I call my friends at 11:30 PM to see what’s happening. [laughs] I don’t call them at 6 o’clock like my American friends. You know, they’re like… “Hey, let’s get a beer” at nine, and I’m like “What? I’m taking a shower at 9 o’clock, what are you talking about?” And I know that’s a small detail. But like a lot of people from Buenos Aires, I really put the premium on hanging out, which is different from a lot of Americans.
When you joined the band, you had to pick up the mantle after a pretty traumatic incident. Take me back — how did you end up joining? Was it through a typical audition process? Through contacts?
I’ve never auditioned. I’ve played in a band called Trans Am since the 90s, and I have a solo project called Publicist. Those are my two main things. So I’d never really done an audition. What happened was that when Allen decided he couldn’t tour anymore because his back was a little bit fucked up, John Baizley didn’t want to get just a studio session guy. He wanted somebody from a band that he liked and somebody who’d been on tour, somebody who had made records, that kind of thing. So he called Jon Theodore, who is one of my oldest friends. He’s a drummer who played in The Mars Volta and now plays in Queens of the Stone Age. And he asked him “Want to come play with us?” And Jon Theodore said “I just joined Queens of the Stone Age, I can’t do it, but you should call Seb from Trans Am.” John said “Oh, I didn’t realize was available.” He was a fan of Trans Am and a fan of my playing. I got his number, we talked, I learned maybe 5 songs and I went down and played with John and Pete. It was really comfortable. And it was literally like during the first break of that first audition/rehearsal that they were talking about the tour that was coming up. It was that fast.
This is your second album with the band. What is your role in terms of coming up with new songs? Are you involved in the songwriting or arranging?
I do play a little bit of guitar and bass, keyboards, stuff like that. In other bands, I did write some of those parts. But in Baroness, these guys can write in their sleep [laughs], so I don’t do that. What does happen is that for the songs that are like “full band” songs, a lot of times John needs a foundation from the drums. So I’ve done this for both albums; I’ll go to my home studio and I’ll record maybe twelve different ideas on the drums, you know, different grooves. Either something interesting, or challenging, or a beat that I think is hooky, or something from a song that I love that I’ve sort of changed a little bit. And I’ll send them 12 files and he’ll choose the 6 that he really likes, and he’ll start writing chords and riffs over those dream beats I sent him. Once he starts looking at that, I’ll go down to Philly, and he and I will start working on the stuff he’s been working on, and it goes from there. There are a couple things that come about from jamming, you know, but we are more sort of — our band is more analytical. Everything is planned out, I would say. Mostly everything.
Let’s talk about your new album Gold & Grey. How do you perceive the change when compared to the last album?
I have a bit more perspective now, I kind of didn’t realize how much of a concise rock album Purple is. I mean, there’s “If I Have to Wake Up” which is kind of a slow ballad, and there’s “Fugue” which is a little bit of a segue, but in general, it is very much a rock album. As far as Gold & Grey… you haven’t heard the full thing, have you?
Not yet, just “Throw Me An Anchor” and “Seasons”.
I would say those two tracks are not entirely representative. This album is way more varied. This time, we were just more accepting of whatever influences and ideas we had that weren’t traditionally “Baroness.” It is definitely more of a departure. It is somewhat related to Yellow & Green because that also, I think, was a departure from the more concise Baroness sound. But this is even more experimental in some ways. People use the word “psychedelic,” and I think it is a bit psychedelic, but I hesitate to use that word because people think of maybe 60s garage rock, or Pink Floyd, or 70s music. It’s not really any of those. But it is psychedelic in a more general sense. The two songs you’ve heard are the rock songs. There’s other sounds on the album.
One thing I noticed is that these two songs, the levels– they’re all in the red. It sounds like a deliberate aesthetic choice, as opposed to a mastering accident.
Honestly, it changes as the album goes. Those two songs are the ones that have that sort of intentional fuzz, especially “Throw Me An Anchor.” People think “Oh, the mastering is clipping,” it’s not that. It’s an intentional production decision. A choice. A distorted guitar is distorted on purpose. It’s the same kind of thing in recording and mixing. But I have to say that “Anchor” is probably the most fuzzed out production on the whole album. What I mean by that is there are songs on the album that don’t have that at all. It changes a lot.
This is your first album with new guitarist Gina Gleason. How’s that working out?
It’s been awesome. We’re having a great time. She’s a great player, she’s great to hang out with, great singer, great musician. She’s a really, really good guitarist. I think we haven’t really let her loose yet. Because she had to learn the Baroness musical language. It was the same for me. I also had to learn how to play in the style of Allen, which is a little bit different from the way I play traditionally. When you ask somebody to join your band, you don’t want them to totally re-create your band. You want them to have some sort of connection to the past. She’s done a great job and she also changes the vocals, which is great. The way her and John harmonize is different from the way John and Pete harmonized, and having a female voice really adds a different color to the music. And it’s really interesting because, traditionally, if you have a female singer, she’ll do the higher harmonies. But sometimes John and Gina switch and have this really weird sound. Sometimes to me it sounds like some weird sort of cult, some weird cult ritual chant or something. It’s cool, I like it.
Sounds like the new stuff will translate well to live shows. What can the fans expect?
Man. We’re just really beyond excited. For me, personally, and also the rest of the band. The furthest south they’ve gone is Colombia. They’ve never been to any of these places, so we’re beyond excited. With us, one of the things that’s different is when we’re playing you can really tell we’re having a really great time. We love playing together and we love being on stage. We don’t just stand there trying to act cool. We want audience participation. We give them something, they give us something. High energy, enthusiasm, and we’re just beyond excited.
I’ll be there cheering you on.
Have you been to Uniclub? Do you know what it’s like?
I have been to Uniclub! Not for a concert, but they used to host these big 80s-themed dance parties there. It’s a cool place and easy to get to, which is ideal.
That’s awesome. It’s around Almagro, right?
Yeah. Fifteen minute bus ride from me.
Do you see yourself ever coming back to Argentina and participating musically down here? Or has that ship sailed for you?
I would love to do that. I went there years ago and we did a solo show with Publicist, which is my acid house project. It was at a warehouse party in Almagro and it was fucking awesome. There were hundreds of people there and everybody was dancing and it was so much fun. Argentina has always had a really modern contemporary music outlook, more so than other Latin American countries. I would love to go back and spend more time. Honestly, Baroness has been keeping me so busy these last few years, it’s kind of hard to leave. Being in a band can be so busy, it’s kind of insane sometimes. And also we travel for a living, so sometimes I just want to sit in my apartment in Brooklyn and not leave. But yes, I would love to. Actually, yesterday I was with Nick and Gina from Baroness and I was playing them some Sumo records. I used to love that band. I was trying to show them Argentine music history.
These shows play an important role for a country like Argentina, which has been mired in financial crises for decades. They serve as a cathartic release for fans. I’m sure you’ve heard about what the country’s been going through lately.
I know. It’s unfortunate. My other band Trans Am was booked to play Buenos Aires when the big economic crisis hit last time, was it 2001? So we had a show booked in Buenos Aires and then just a month before — or even less, a couple weeks before, it was canceled. So we played Santiago, São Paulo, Rio, and then we went to Ezeiza just for a connection. It sucked. I was so pissed off.
I’m glad you’re finally going to be able to make it happen.
For sure. Muchas gracias. Come say hi at the show!