Baroness: "I realised that death is a lightswitch..."
Reeling from their horrific bus crash in 2012, Baroness turned to music to make sense of their ordeal. New album Purple is a story of pain, sickness and steadfast determination.
John Baizley rolls his sleeve all the way up and stretches his left arm out in front of him. There, running like a miniature pink river from his lower forearm to just below his shoulder, is a vivid, half-inch-wide scar. It’s a permanent reminder of where the doctors at the Royal United Hospital in Bath opened up the Baroness singer/guitarist’s arm to save it from amputation.
“My arm was reconstructed,” he says in a voice that sounds more matter-of-fact than you’d expect given the potential outcome. “The humerus bone was broken into 12 pieces immediately after the accident. My arm was bent 180° backwards. I had to break it twice to get it in front of me. That pain you feel once or twice a year that’s incredibly sharp and nauseating is basically what I feel all the time. I’m talking about something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
It’s just over three years since his life was turned upside down and inside out following a horrific bus crash on the outskirts of Bath that left all four members of Baroness and five others hospitalised with injuries of varying severity. Such was the trauma of the accident that only John and guitarist Pete Adams remain from the lineup involved in the crash (drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni left soon after, replaced by Sebastian Thomson and Nick Jost respectively).
For John Baizley, at least, that trauma is ongoing and will be for as long as he lives. And just as it impacts on every aspect of his life, so it has become fused to his band’s entire existence. Baroness’s fourth album, Purple, finds the frontman channelling pain into art. ‘When I called on my nursemaid, come sit by my side,’ he sings on the album’s near-seven-minute centrepiece, Chlorine & Wine, ‘but she cuts through my ribcage and pushes the pills deep in my eyes.’
“I can’t help it,” says John, perched on a sofa at Hammer’s HQ. “Every moment of my life is dictated by what happened on August 15, 2012. I have 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year pain. It nauseates me persistently. Along with that comes a whole host of auxiliary issues. And those are basically the themes of the album.”
The shadow of what happened three years ago looms large over Baroness, to the point where it’s easy to forget what a unique and compelling band they are. Their third full-length album, 2012’s experimental double-disc Yellow & Green, transcended the riff-heavy approach of its predecessors. It was the sound of a band busting through the restrictive walls of the underground metal scene they rose up through. Yellow & Green had been on the shelves for less than a month when their tourbus crashed. Purple sounds like the work of a band picking up where they left off before they were almost terminally interrupted.
John is incredibly candid when it comes to details of the accident, and the specifics of what it did to his body and mind. When the crash itself comes up, as it inevitably does, he doesn’t hold back.
“I never blacked out during the accident,” he says. “But there was a moment where things went dark for me. The best description I’ve come up with is that it felt like my nose was against a matt black mirror. It was like I was staring into this mirror that was cold and devoid of light, devoid of anything. I realised then that death is a lightswitch – you’re off, and beyond that is nothing. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but that’s how I feel. That’s what was shown to me.”
That nobody died in the crash was a miracle. Emergency services arrived on the scene and cut people free. John was taken to hospital in nearby Bath, where surgeons debated whether his arm needed amputating. He remained in the UK for three months, unable to fly home. When he did finally return, he was confined to a wheelchair. And that’s when his physical and mental recovery truly began.
“I’m sittingin my studio, in a wheelchair, staring at my guitar, going, ‘Alright, me and you got some work to do…’”
It’s hard to suppress a laugh at the thought of a man in a wheelchair having a conversation with an inanimate musical instrument. He notices and waves it off.
“No, no need to apologise. I have to laugh at it myself. If I’m not laughing, then I’m really not in a good place.”
It took him a week and a half to pick up the guitar, and when he did he could barely feel the strings. But he strummed three chords: a G, a C and then an E. For the next two weeks, he played every day. He got a little better every time. In those early days of recovery,did he ever think Baroness might be over?
“No,” he says. “Well, maybe the first two days [after the accident]. Because they were going to amputate, definitely. When that was the discussion, I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ But as soon as the surgery was over and I could move my fingers, it was, like, ‘Nah, we got it.’ I was being cavalier, but it was then that I hung my definition of recovery on the ability to perform.”