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Jamie Thomson , October 14th, 2013 07:32

Ahead of this week's UK shows, their first since last year's devastating tour bus crash, we talk to the band's frontman John Baizley

Photograph courtesy of Doug Seymour

It is just over a year ago since Baroness, the progressive metal band from Savannah, Georgia, hit national and international headlines after they were involved in a horrific road accident outside Bath. Given the nature of the crash – their tour bus broke through a crash barrier and fell 30 feet from a viaduct – it was little short of a miracle that no-one was killed. Almost as miraculous was the fact that Baroness, albeit with a couple of line-up changes, were back out on the road within a year.

In the run up to the band's first visit to the UK since the accident, the Quietus spoke to frontman and founding member John Baizley, who was hospitalised for two months as a result of his injuries, about his path to recovery, battling the fears thrown up by a return to the road and the rehabilitating effects of sharing this brush with death with their audience.

How long did it take for you to decide to go back out on the road after the crash?

John Baizley: I think I made the decision while I was laying on the ground outside of the bus - cracked in half, essentially. The severity of the situation was very apparent to me. Immediately following the crash, I knew I was more or less fucked for a while. I just remember laying there in four inches of water with a mouthful of glass and my own blood, thinking: "There's only one way out of this and that's going to be fixing myself and touring again." I knew then – we all did – that this is the worst thing that can happen to you on tour without somebody dying. Frankly, we all should have died, and the fact that we didn't gave us this instant perception that, because we survived, we are obligated to get up and do this again.

You broke an arm and a leg in the crash. How long was it before you could start playing guitar again?

JB: I was in hospital in Bath for almost two months, and I didn't have the capacity, or the instruments, to do anything. I was quite immobile. The day that I got back home, I spent the afternoon looking at my instruments and wondering whether or not I could play them. It took some effort to get a guitar into my hands, but once it was there, I was shocked. Of all the things I couldn't do that afternoon – unscrew a jar, peel a banana, let alone pick up my daughter or walk across the room – one thing that was comfortable was having a guitar in my hands and playing it. So it became, as much as anything else I did, part of my physical therapy routine.

You mention your daughter, which prompts the question: how did your family feel about you going back out on the road after the accident?

JB: My wife, my daughter – they know me as a musician. Any other choice I made, they knew very well, it would have been me clipping my wings. There's a very warranted amount of anxiety that I think my wife has when I go and hop on the tour bus. Even for her, it's a better option than me neutering myself, finding something lesser to do. She knows the value music has for me, and is very respectful of that, and was incredibly supportive of my choice to go back out on the road. I have nothing but love for her as a result of that.

How are you feeling about returning to the UK?

JB: I'm excited to do it. It's an age-old truism, but if there's anything in my life that causes me the slightest bit of fear then I make it my mission to engage that fear, wrap my arms around it and give it a fucking hug. That's how we get past these things.

If there's one theme that metal, heavy music, whatever you want to call it, always returns to, it's our sense of mortality. Has the accident changed your perspective on that in any way?

JB: That's the one thing that has changed for me: the way that I deal with my own mortality. I've become very sensitive to how finite our lives are and how fragile we are physically. The way I saw it was that I could view that in one of two ways. Yes, we are fragile, we are finite, so we should protect ourselves from harm. But I adopted a slightly different angle and said, because we are fragile, because our time is relatively short, I just have to do things more quickly. So if something comes up that is interesting to me, I'm not going to weigh up the pros and cons. I'm going to drink it in while it's here. So bring it the fuck on. There are things – like fear – that are designed to put us in a position of stasis. And I was in that stasis after the crash. It was dark and lonely, and I never want to feel like that again. So I just try to have an appreciation and joy for the good things. It reeks of soapbox platitudes, but I've experienced it and it feels real. We really have to put as positive a spin on things as possible.

Given the dark themes it usually trades in, positivity isn't necessarily an easy sell in metal.

JB: I disagree in a way. I think we write music about the difficult things because we can all identify with them. There's nobody alive that doesn't understand heartache, or struggle or anxiety or fear or anything on that list of the uglies. So that's what good music is about, or at least what I listen to… maybe I'm just a downer [laughs]. But I listen to that because it connects me with those musicians. It's a universal theme, the human condition. More people are going to be brought together by that common struggle than they are by positivity. So what in essence sounds like negative music is actually a means by which people come together and learn to reflect on these things.

Because, y'know, there's no church for me. There's no place of worship other than the venue. I think it's important that we recognise what Hendrix called the 'Electric Church'. And inside those hallowed grounds – inside the confines of the club, the hall, the basement, whatever – we come together in a different kind of worship. It's not of the higher power variety, it's the common ties. As a result of the accident, there's a sympathy and empathy from people who have gone through what we did, and now people share their stories with us. It's not a one-way street – it's not me and a microphone telling my story, that's just the first part. But after the show, the audience get to tell me theirs. We're from different walks of life, different races, genders, whatever, but we've all gone through painful things. And by articulating them, we learn to reflect on them and ultimately we get past them.

One thing that struck me was the response you got from other bands, in terms of the charity auctions and offers of support. I thought that showed an incredible sense of community.

JB: Oh yeah! Look, I've been in this game a long time and I've spent my fair share being really jaded by the egos, etc. But I got proven wrong by that. When we were hurt, all of these people – some of whom were in a much better position than us, some of whom were in similar positions as us - they all rallied together and helped. That was a show-stopper for me, I couldn't believe it. That's why I'm so proud of where we've come from. When I was a kid I was really drawn to punk rock and hardcore because I liked the sense of community there. But you get that point in your twenties when you lose that and people start dropping off and getting on with their lives. But to feel that reciprocated, feel that reflected on you from people you've known for so many years...

We've all gone through the musical struggle together, so when we went through a different kind of struggle where we felt powerless and lonely, then all of a sudden there's a warmth coming to us from those bands, from our friends, from our family and from total strangers, it was a potent pill. It helped. It literally helped. I was more or less miserable with my condition in hospital: "If non-existence is slightly less painful than this, then please bring it on. I'm having a really hard time dealing with this." Then the phone would ring – a friend, a relative stranger, whoever – and we'd talk about it, and I'd feel better, and this would happen over and over again. So now I'm a hopeless fucking romantic about it all – and I wouldn't have it any other way!

Baroness' UK tour starts at Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton on Saturday, October 19; head to their website to get hold of tickets. The Live At Maida Vale EP is out now on Relapse Records