His Own Mythology: the Art and Music of John Dyer Baizley
I first came across the visual art of metal musician John Dyer Baizley last year. I saw a band T-shirt that was so stunningly beautiful it made me stop in my tracks. The shirt, advertising the Norwegian punk/metal band Kvelertak, interlaced women and an owl with black ink outlines and delicate watercolor shading. The artwork recalled the style of 19th-century Art Nouveau lithographic artist Alphonse Mucha, and included women who looked like they stepped out of 17th century Baroque paintings. Intricately detailed animals and plant forms, intertwined together like Celtic knot work, hearkened ancient mythologies. Artist John Dyer Baizley is creating some of the most fascinating album covers in music today.
Baizley is the singer and rhythm guitarist of the American metal band Baroness. His art and music are intimately linked, with both informing and advertising the other. Over the last few years, Baizley’s art and Baroness’ music has gained a cult-like following. In addition to the artwork Baizley creates for his own music, he has also created ornate album covers for artists including Skeletonwitch, Kvelertak, Flight of the Conchords, and Gillian Welch.
On Saturday May 5th, I sat down with Baizley on the front porch of the House of Blues Sunset Strip, about two hours before his band played a passionate opening set for the Swedish metal band Meshuggah. Baizley, a charismatic and thoughtful artist, spoke to me about the creation process of his visual art and music. Baroness has put out two records, the Red Album and the Blue Record, and is about to release their third this July: a double album called Yellow & Green. Baizley uses ink and watercolor to create his intricate figure-based compositions that are loaded with elaborate symbolism. Baizley’s art is influenced by Baroque artists like Caravaggio, western classical mythology, the writings of Joseph Campbell, and the theories of the subconscious of Carl Jung.
In our interview, Baizley described to me how he believes in reviving the art of the vinyl album. Each of Baroness’ album releases are best experienced on vinyl, both in sound and their visuals. The art is specifically created at the size of a vinyl record cover and the albums are pressed in colored vinyls, which coordinate with the color themes of each album.
On a personal level, Baizley described making sacrifices and facing obstacles in the pursuit of his art and music career, much like what Opeth-frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt expressed in my last interview. Both Åkerfeldt and Baizley have demonstrated that creating a career that allows you to make exactly the type of art you want to is possible, if you do not give up on your vision. At the end of my interview, I came away inspired by Baizley’s dedication and commitment to his path in life.
Interview with John Dyer Baizley: (to view some of the interview click here)
How does your art and music work together? What is your artistic process?
When I’m working on Baroness artwork and music, there tends to be this sort of counterbalance between what I want to accomplish visually and what I want to accomplish sonically. Sometimes little bits of the artwork I am creating inform the music I am playing. More often than not, it’s easier to write music first and then, once those themes become apparent, you try to capture the imagery. For instance, for the Blue Record, I started doing the artwork while we were in the studio recording. I was doing artwork and writing lyrics at the same time. For the most recent record (Yellow & Green), the entire record was written and all the concepts for the artwork were on notebook paper- ideas or sketches and thoughts. The recording took a long time and was very mentally, physically and psychically draining. I couldn’t even consider picking up a pencil while (recording). On Thursday I was done with the record and on Friday I just dove into (the artwork) and spent hundreds of hours on the details (of the album).
How big do you make these album art pieces?
I’m old school when it comes to album design. I design it at about 13″ x 13″ or 14″ x 14.” I design it a little bit big so that when it squashes down by an inch or two, everything tightens up a bit… But it’s difficult because then you cut (the artwork) into this little square (of a CD), so much of the subtly and the detail… gets compressed away. Now you’re talking about 1 inch by 1 inch in iTunes. I think in some ways the art of making album covers is dying very quickly. I put my feet down years ago, at least in terms of the musical side of my art career. (Music) is always meant to be listened to on vinyl as far as I’m concerned. It’s the ultimate listening experience, so that’s how I design all my albums.
Would you say that your pieces are created out of dreamscapes or your subconscious?
They are entirely from my subconscious. Part of my process involves some very permanent media. The black ink that I use is a permanent media. There’s no erasing. The balance that I find myself striking is how to work in a permanent media and add spontaneity. I work very geometrically. I map out compositions that are appealing to me, that have the flow of air or textures I like. Then I start designing these symbols or icons that support the narrative that I am vaguely aware of, because I’ve just written a series of songs.
There is this narrative that begins to unfold itself when I am writing music. For instance, when you write a song, it doesn’t all hit you at once. You have to start with something simple that draws out the emotion, and then you have to refine, reflect, and balance things which have technique and things which speak to the heart. Artistically it’s the same thing. First I need to lay down a little bit of the heart and soul of it- the flow, the feel, the pulse- and then I have to become technical on top of it. When I am doing that, I try to leave as much up to happenstance as possible. Some people call it happy mistakes or lightning in a bottle… That’s what I judge the success or failure of a lot of my pieces on: whether or not something unintentionally cool happens with it. It’s the same with music. We could be talking about either subjects.
There’s an intuition and there’s subconscious at play in the artwork, but I am working rationally; I am working while awake. In order to access the intuitive aspects of the work, I have to really keep my mind open and allow for and embrace things that aren’t, technically-speaking or conceptually-speaking, very good ideas. In the long run, what I am doing is I am mapping out something that I don’t quite understand as I am doing it. Part of the fun for me is, I get to go back and look at these things and wonder about them.
Your design-style is reminiscent of the look of lithography. Have you done any printmaking?
I took a few classes in printmaking and found that it wasn’t for me. The process of printmaking requires a meticulous eye for detail and requires a whole lot of accuracy and you really have to fact-check yourself. I am the exact opposite. I am a very anxious person and (my artwork) happens very quickly and in big rushes. (The art) may appear printed on an LP jacket as something clean, but if you were to witness the creation of it, it’s anything but. I am more happy being looser and more expressive.
You are primarily working in ink and watercolor, correct?
Yes, I have been working with this same type of process for about 8 years. I think I am growing a bit tired of it now. I have enjoyed its limitations as well as its freedoms, but I think that in the not-too-distant future I will move on and do something that’s a little different… just in terms of media.
I think it’s important to note that I don’t use computers. I have used computers for layout, and I have only done that because I don’t want someone else marring up something I have poured my life’s blood into.
Are you inspired by mythology when you create your artwork?
I have been a student of art history and classical mythology. When I was young I read Joseph Campbell. I was thoroughly interested in the Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, and Babylonian mythologies. In recent years, I have become really interested in the writings of Carl Jung. I have applied the idea of the archetype… and I am creating my own (mythology) that works for the music.
You have made quite a name for yourself as an album cover artist.
When I started making artwork like this for records, there weren’t as many artists doing this. It’s cool to me that now you don’t have to sexualize women on album covers anymore. If you’re a heavy band, you can put something beautiful on your record cover, but it (can still be) dark and (tie) into the music being made. That’s the type of music that I am interested in. I thought it was funny at first that I was doing something that was running counter to the status quo at the time. Rock bands (at the time) used imagery of exhaust pipes and busty, illogical women. That’s not me.
I like your representation of the female body. It reminds me of the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.
It’s just my hand. It happens that the models I used for this record (The Blue Record) were pregnant.
Most of your album covers are brightly colored, but your piece for Gillian Welch’s album is black and white. How did that design choice happen?
When I did that, (Gillian and I) intended that to be a painted piece. I worked the line art to such a point, that when I showed it to her and we were talking about how we’d go and paint it and I said “I think the vibe’s there.” She and David (Rawlings, Gillian Welch’s long-time musical partner) agreed very quickly. The LP version hasn’t come out for it yet. The piece is considerably larger than an LP, (so) there’s so much detail that you haven’t seen yet.
What’s the story behind the artwork for Baroness’ Yellow & Green album (that comes out this July)?
With this record we knew we were going to do a double CD thing. I thought it’d be cool to do a gatefold that had basically two covers. At the time I was looking at a piece by Caravaggio where they are crowning Jesus with thorns and there are 5 dynamic figures composed in this very amazing way. Composing 5 people is a very, very difficult thing. Composing a piece that works in itself and then bisected is very daunting. I don’t think I was completely successful in it, but I think I did a good enough job. I am really happy with how it came out. It’s basically the same archetypal women who each represent some experience and some dream. The animals always represent something and then, of course, as always we have eggs being fertilized.
Do you have formal visual art or music training?
I have had some, but more importantly, I have always been creating music and art. My mother has pictures of me doing this before I have memories of actually doing it. She was especially supportive of my drive to do it. I always knew this was what I was going to do, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it.
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design (as an illustration major) for a couple of years before dropping out. It was a great experience because it opened my mind up in so many ways and helped me begin to understand art in a broader context with a world-view attached to it. I had some serious substance issues when I was in school, which forced me to leave. Beyond that, I was getting a bit disillusioned after two and half years at that school, because it was going to lead me to an artistic realm which was not going to be satisfying to me… (There was) talk of clients and making things commercial and developing a style, and all these things which they urged you to do in an illustration department. When I was taking fine arts classes, the mentality was more: “you have this inside you, develop what you have until it’s unique, until its challenging.” That became ultimately the lesson that I learned, even though I ended up in the wrong department for that.
My life was sort of falling apart. I stopped making art for two years because I associated it with some dark moments. (For two years I lived) deep in the country-side (of Virginia) with no car, no phone, (and) no TV. I lived on the side of a river, I just painted houses, and just sort of sweated out my demons. This is when I met the guys in Baroness. We started playing music and eventually turned into what we are now. (The band became) a great reason for me to start making art again.
When I started Baroness it became the best outlet that I could come up with. I had all this stuff that had been pent up for so long and I didn’t know what to do with it because I didn’t want to do it for someone else. The fine art world was so far from where I was and I didn’t understand it at all, so I just decided to work in my own world for a while. I worked for other bands for free. I wasn’t making any money. When we’d tour we’d go out and make $25 bucks a day, enough for a tank of gas to go play another show. We did that for years and years and years, and while it sort of physically crushed me, it freed me up in so many ways because it allowed me come up with a way to be self-sufficient making this type of artwork and this type of music. The way that I did it… I would never consider doing it another way.
To do (art and music), you’re asking a lot of the people who love you. My parents thought it was crazy. Everybody thought it was crazy. It didn’t seem like there was ever going to be any bills paid through that. I came up through the ranks, I worked in clubs and restaurants. While that makes you money and that will get your rent paid, it just screws your spirit. So at a certain point, I just said fuck it, I’m just going to live extra lean for a few years and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t… we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. So far, it’s basically worked. There’s no real money in it, but there’s a real satisfaction for somebody like me. I don’t want to work for somebody else. I’d rather my path be difficult, arduous, and sort of draining externally, but internally my fire continues to grow.
For more information on John Dyer Baizley’s art: http://aperfectmonster.com/
Photography by Kale Stiles