An Interview About His Artwork Process
It’s time for the next installment in the Metal Injection artist series, Artists in Metal and it’s a big one! got a chance to speak with John Dyer Baizley, one of the most renowned visual artists in the metal/hardcore community and the vocalist/guitarist of Baroness!
Baizley recently completed work for Coliseum and Black Tusk, but has worked with several other acts such as his own band Baroness, Darkest Hour, Kavelertak, Kylesa, Pig Destroyer, Skeletonwitch, Torche, and even Metallica just to name a few. In this interview we chat about his beginnings as an artist, look into his process, and much more…
Michael: You’re a rare exception in that you are an established visual artist and in a successful band. What came to you first the visual arts or music?
John Dyer Baizley: When I was really young, I gravitated towards the visual arts first. I feel that’s what comes most naturally to me. I’ve always had an immediate proclivity towards making visual art and I was a really tactile kid. Both of my parents had a background in the arts; so that was a language both of them spoke fluently and as such, I developed my interests in art prior to music.
I should note: I think they both saw the creative impulse or drive in me; they tried to surround me with all of the tools that creative people would need in order to express themselves. At a very young age, I had access to a to many of the artistic implements which I continue to favor, and I was also given a guitar at a very young age. My parents weren’t musicians themselves, so I didn’t have anybody to help me work through those immediate musical issues, but honestly I’m glad that I didn’t. When I hit adolescence I discovered punk rock, where you didn’t need any training at all. I saw it as counterproductive in those days to have a formal or technical skill set.
Michael: Did you end up going to art school for college, or where you mostly self-taught?
JDB: At first I did teach myself and took the classes that were available to me, which were admittedly quite limited given my geography, in the Shenandoah Valley, southwestern Virginia. In middle school and high school I got the opportunity to develop a bit by getting involved in some of the local college courses. Once a week, I would drive up from my hometown of Lexington a half hour up to a little town called Staunton where they had life drawing classes. In Lexington, I took what art instruction was available. The importance of drawing and painting from life were impressed on me from a very early age.
Art came fluidly, so I was able to teach myself many of the things I thought were important by copying and mimicking my artistic idols. When I graduated high school I really had no other inclination other than going to art school. I ended up going to Rhode Island School of Design for a very productive three years, before dropping out in 2000.
Michael: RISD is a very established art school. Would you say it helped you a lot in evolving your art process, or did you gravitate towards you early beginnings from the DIY punk scene?
JDB: It’s hard for me to say what would happen if I didn’t go to art school. It wasn’t that I learned any specific painting or drafting skills at school that I felt I couldn’t have taught myself. However there is something quintessentially unique and important that you gain by immersing yourself in a scholastic and creative universe, and being held to certain academic standards while being surrounded by artists of varying disciplines. I think that the critical thing was to help me open up mentally and be exposed to a wide variety of artists with wildly different styles, mentalities, and processes. Through my exposure to such a diverse collection of artists I was learned to separate the artistic wheat from the chaff, and find the sort of things that would become useful to me in the future.
I’ll say it would have been a much slower process if I hadn’t gone to art school, but I don’t think it was critical towards my eventually becoming an artist. As far as I was concerned, that had already happened.
Michael: I’m not sure if this was during your time at RISD, but what got you into doing commission work for bands?
JDB: That’s sort of a funny thing. I was only in art school for three years, I dropped out because of some personal and substance-abuse related issues, and I stopped creating anything at all for about a year and a half. When I finally felt I was starting to get ready to re-enter the arts I moved from Virginia down to Savannah Georgia, where Baroness officially started. I began making album artwork out of necessity, though I certainly wanted to do it. Baroness needed merchandise, we needed covers for our EP’s and demos, so that started kicking me back into making visual art.
Baroness started out by sometimes playing 250 shows a year and, as it goes, we met a lot of other bands. They saw our merchandise and often said, “Would you be interested in working with us?” I also made a lot of friends on the road and always offered my help; it was just something that felt like an easy fit. I loved the sense of community, and I wanted to be part of it.
Several years down the line I realized that, whereas I had started out with an interest in becoming a fine artist, I now saw myself taking on commissions in the more proper role of an illustrator or designer, which I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. Through every path that I’ve chosen, I have tried to claim full authorship over what I make, so it can suit my needs as an artist first, and then, by proxy, the musicians and artists that I work with are happy with what they get. It’s a hard-line stance, but one which bears the most fruitful results.
Michael: Not entirely comfortable with commission work?
JDB: Not at all. I guess I’m skirting around the issue here, I hate art direction and the necessity to sell a product. It was one of the major hang-ups that I had with art school or art/design as a profession: that the idea that making a living off of making personally-driven art would at some point have me wrestling against art direction and commission-driven work. With that struggle comes the understanding that you’re ultimately trying to appease someone else with your art. That’s never been the impulse for making art. I must satisfy my needs as an artist first, and then if the message is good and the theme or the content is worthy, then the audience may find those qualities as well. I think that’s true of most good art, so yeah, I’ve always had this contentious relationship with doing commissions trying to “make other people happy,” or see their vision come to fruition.
Michael: With doing those commissions, I notice that you go back to a lot of bands. For instance you’ve done work for Skeletonwitch with two major releases, Beyond the Permafrost and Serpents Unleashed. Do you go out of your way to be a little more selective about the people you try to work with to allow a more artistic license?
JDB: Yeah, I think you have to. If you want to create something that’s worth doing you have to self-edit from the get-go. You really must be careful and selective with whom you work, you must constantly ask yourself the hard questions about your art, and you must set a nearly unattainable standard for yourself. If I’m in the business of making artwork that is designed on some level to sell a product, then I have to be very comfortable with the people I’m working with and I’d like to be proud of the end result regardless of its sale-ability.
I can say thirteen years into doing this full time, I really appreciate the artists I have had the chance to work with, even if it’s something slightly outside the box or something that’s very obvious, it’s what I want to do. I’m not going to put myself into a project that I’m disinterested in, because I think that the integrity of the end result will be threatened.
Skeletonwitch was one of the bands we hooked up with when Baroness first started touring, playing in basements, warehouses and anything just shy of actually playing inside a club. We’ve had this connection since the DIY days, they have changed so little in their enthusiasm, and that’s something I find myself gravitating towards, even though I’ve recently made a concerted effort to move away from focusing entirely on the punk/hardcore/metal community. Punk rock and metal has always been a home to me, it’s where I cut my teeth; and those are the friends that I have, and the bands that I love.
I really try to work with an artist who is trying to create a long legacy of quality rather than trying to jump aboard a trend. Frankly I don’t need to do that, but, and I can’t stress this enough, I’ve been fortunate in that I can eke out a living being this selective. A lot of my friends who are commercial designers and proper editorial illustrators often have to take whatever jobs are given to them. I’ve made a very strong effort to have the power to say no to something, and I think that’s a crucially important right for every artist. No one wants to be in a position where they are desperate for work; desperation breeds sub-quality artwork. I can’t say I love 100% of every mark that I’ve made, but more often than not I’m pretty happy, and I’ve learned the value of making personal improvements as a result of mistakes and missteps.
Michael: It really seems to me like you created this great situation with Baroness gaining popularity in conjunction with your artwork. Would you agree that’s what’s gave you the ability to be selective?
JDB: Oh yeah, for sure! They are both equally important projects for me, and I’m really lucky to be a part of both. I’m not like most album artists who have to create off of another artist’s pre-existing imagery. I make the music and the art simultaneously and there is really an elevated level of synchronicity happening, allowing me to be a little bit more personal. I don’t have to have conversations with the artist to find out what’s going on. I’m able to have that insight without a conversation; there is something nice about that; it streamlines the process as well. This ability to work on Baroness’s vision, has allowed me create and expand my style.
Michael: Would you say that it’s difficult as a commission artist to really take the time to do your own personal work, or do you feel that merch and album art of Baroness becomes that personal work, since you are involved in all aspects?
JDB: That’s a tricky question. For the better part of a decade I didn’t really delineate the difference between commission work and personal work, I just say “If I’m getting paid to do it, by virtue of that fact it is a commission; but I’m going to make it a personal work for myself, and I’m going to fulfill the need of the artist that I’m working for simultaneously.” It requires a little bit of pig-headedness and self-confidence to adopt that kind of stance.
I also get to create album art as a fan of the music, enhanced with the insight that the band gives me. Therefore, I know what they think it’s about, and as a fan I can make the artwork from the standpoint that I’m trying to figure out the music in a separate way. Concurrently, I have the insight of what it’s like to be the musician, the visual artist, and the listener. Working amongst these three tiers can offer a broader perspective on the work.
I think a lot of musicians have a very difficult time articulating what their music is about in a visual sense, and at the same time visual artists can have great difficulty taking something sonic and translating it to a focused visual work. There is such a great divide between the audio and visual. When the pairing works well it can open up new layers and insight for the music, and it makes the experience a much more rewarding one. That being said, when you miss-fire and when ideas don’t synchronize, things can be very confusing. No artist wants to have the weight on their shoulders of the failure or misrepresentation of a record, based on their visual content. Musicians are handing you their baby, this work that they have crafted and put all this love into, and you don’t want to fuck that up, you want to elevate it. You can’t honestly say your going to achieve perfection 100% of the time, there is always going to be that little bit of risk involved, which for me makes it exciting.
However, to get back to your original question, having done what I do in a somewhat linear direction for a while now, I’m starting to realize I do need to carve out some time and do something more personal, some art that that won’t have a logo and barcode attached to it. There is a space in my life that needs to be filled, concerning the purely visual side of things, where the concept for the artwork comes from somewhere other than packaging. I’ve started working on that recently, I’ve been lowering the number of projects that I take on, because I don’t want to become a market-flooding-ubiquitous -album-cover-artist.
Depending on labels release schedules, even if I try to space all of my projects out, sometimes three albums will come out the same month that will have a cover I have done. It’s not as if my work is incredibly dissimilar one piece to another; its all very recognizably mine. I know as a fan I will gripe about it whenever somebody seems to be ”too visible”, devaluing the individual pieces that they are doing. In light of all of this I have made an effort over the past two or three years to work with bands I am familiar with and pare back the overall output. I’ve also been quite busy with music.
It’s not like there aren’t good new bands starting; I just have limited time. I could spend all year just doing visual art and the same is with music. It’s become a difficult balancing act… For which I’m very fortunate! I am, however, an avid listener, and I’m always trying to find some great new artists to work with, as contradictory as that sounds.
Michael: Would you say you split the time you work on the visual arts and the time you work on Baroness, or do they sometimes have to happen in tandem with one another?
JDB: It would be probably be really nice if I could dedicate myself to split my time up evenly, but that’s almost impossible for me at the moment. The fact of the matter is that the average life span of a band is much shorter than that of an artist. Music is working well for me right now; it’s giving me what I need at this point in my life, and so I would say for the moment that it has become more of a priority. I realize that at some point the band won’t be there. I could become too old to play, or the well- spring of creativity will dry out more quickly than it will as a visual artist. On the other hand, I can’t stop making the art that I make, it’s important to me and to my sanity.
We schedule the band first, and we’re not active every week of the year, so whatever spaces open up I just schedule for art. It does sort of work out to be a nice balance, nearly 50/50. Sometimes there is scheduling cross-over, sometimes I have to make art projects on the road, or make sacrifices in order to meet a deadline.
I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where when I get tired of making art I can make a smooth transition into making music and vice versa. There is always something to do.
Michael: You mentioned you sometimes have to work on art on the road. Does the process become more limited in that scenario, for instance can you only work on drawings instead of paintings?
JDB: We were just in Australia for a couple weeks touring, I took a condensed but complete set up. I took pens, paints, paintbrushes, pencils, and paper, everything I would normally use. I spent a good deal of time in hotel rooms and in the back of clubs, working.
It’s definitely not the optimal environment to work, but sometimes you’ve simply got to get something done. I tend to overextend myself without really thinking through the realities of completing so many projects in a year, which generally means I’m going to be a little bit behind. I suppose that’s the nature of the beast.
Michael: So the road doesn’t stop you…
JDB: As long as the tour can support that. There are some tours where the entire day is spent working on tour-related issues. Some are easier and have more down time, and those are the ones where I can get artwork finished.
It drives me insane; it’s really draining to do both at once, so I try not to when possible. I do need to sleep at some point right?
Michael: What influences in your artwork? I do sense an Art Nouveau angle, mixed with heavy metal / hardcore punk art like Pushead, but you have a certain romance to your work with your use of female figures.
JDB: As I stated before, when I was young I was given a fairly comprehensive art history background. Both my parents, my mother especially, gave me that exposure. I was in museums frequently, and was exposed to the great masters from the Italian Renaissance, the Impressionists and the Northern Europeans like Caravaggio, DaVinci, Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Bruegel, etc.
As a teen when I got into punk and metal and saw those record covers that changed me, Metallica, all the Black Flag records, that became my initial exposure to the importance of album art. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a broader variety of influences from other album artists, especially those from the 70’s. For example I’m a huge Roger Dean fan, very much into his Hipgnosis and especially Storm Thorgersonalbum covers. I have a preference for 12”x12” vinyl layouts, so I try to refer to those artists a lot.
The classical elements I spoke about before, work for compositions, referring to those old master paintings. The Art Nouveau thing works very well for album covers, those bold lines and bright, but not comic-book-like colors, allows the imagery to be graphic, colorful, and expressive all at the same time.
There also is a little bit of a comic book reference to my work as well, and occasional pop-culture references. I do like to add a bit of classicism and romanticism to the artwork that I do. It’s always about my particular visual vocabulary; I think asalbum artists we all use certain elements unique to ourselves, and I feel in some way we try to keep our lexicon limited in order to be recognizable as an artist, allowing us to get our message across over the course of different records by different bands.
Each band has it’s own musical language that you have to pay respect to, but what I like to do is then take those things that are direct, immediate, and obvious. I‘ll start with the obvious imagery and themes and work backwards, utilizing my style and technique along with less-obvious references: icons and metaphors from old stories, a lot of Greek/Roman mythology (if the project I feel demands it). Of course there is a lot of pseudo/quasi religious stuff in there from the types of images that I make, they require a very specific sort of imagery.
It’s my intention to make something stand outside the realm of album art, but it also feels comfortable to me to be in it. It’s tricky and definitely a requires striking a delicate balance. I take myself seriously and want my image to me more than just something aesthetically suited towards selling records. I find the most intriguing covers those that least heavy-handedly refer to the direct album concept or title. In fact, many musicians are the happiest when the artist and audience re-interpret or re-imagine the content of the songs. Drawing from art history and mythology allows me to connect with viewers in a familiar, yet loose visual framework. Blending disparate histories and themes can give the overall presentation a recognizable, yet unique flavor.
Michael: When you work on album artwork, do you work together with the artist/band or is it more or less give me the record and I’ll listen to it and give you my interpretation?
JDB: I’ve learned over the years how important it is to be really up front with bands that I work with. When I first talk with bands the set-up usually goes like this: “I want to do this album, I will put 100% of myself into it, my aim is to make this the best album cover that you have, but I can’t take art direction.” It’s just not who I am, or how I work. I have no problem if a band moves on to somebody else because of that stance. If they want to have more influence that’s perfectly fine, I respect a band being in total control of their visual identity. Similarly, I know how important it is for me to adhere to my method. I’d rather not waste everyone’s time getting bogged down in a situation I know to be artistically harmful.
It can be difficult to mediate a compromise between what I have in my head and what the musician has in mind, which is often 180° different when it comes to the finished product, so it requires that element of trust from somewhere. The point I make to them is “You’ve seen what I do, so just trust me and we will come up with something exciting.”
Michael: Referring back again to you working with similar bands over the years, that trust is already there.
JDB: The times I run into problems are when the musicians get stuck on those very little details that to me, as a visual artist, are inconsequential. Sometimes they want something like a portrait and they are unhappy with their likeness, or they want less red or less blue, those elements don’t really cut to the core of what we’re trying to achieve. That’s the kind of criticism I struggle with, in order to give the collaborator a finished product that I’m proud of.
Michael: What is your typical process like when it comes to image creation?
JDB: The first thing I do is research, as I talked about before, most of my work wants to have an outside reference point to it, so whenever possible I get the music or the demos from somebody first and then get the artist’s interpretation of what it’s about. Then I try to figure out what effect the music has on me, and try to find some old story, maybe from mythology or from religious or historical text, something that I feel can work in conjunction with what I think the album is about. From that literary standpoint I can then start to develop a set of images, subvert things, twist them around, use them in an obvious or a figurative way, all to help get my point across. After all that prep work I start sketching.
I draw everything from life, so I’ve got to find models and go out and take pictures, set up lights, all that sort of stuff. I work a sketch until its finished and I show the band that sketch and say “Now is the only opportunity you have to weigh in on anything, if this isn’t working for you I have to start from scratch.” The main reason for that final warning is that I work in permanent watercolors and inks. It’s not like oils or acrylics where you can paint over things; once it’s there it’s there. So the whole set up for the band is “This is how I see it going, it’s going to change, it’s going to grow into something totally different once the color and the line weight is put in, but if your cool with this sketch I’ll get going and show it to you when it’s all done.”
After that nobody hears from me in a month, and then, “here is your album cover I hope you like it.”
Michael: With your visual artwork, are you trying to work on one piece at a time or are you doing projects in tandem?
JDB: I usually work on one thing at a time. I get pretty immersive in the process.
Michael: You also seem to do a fair amount of screen print work that seems based mostly off your paintings. Do you ever do screen print work that is planed form the start to be a print?
JDB: Yeah, the screen print thing is nice because one of my goals, from the get go really, was to make things that were worthy of collecting but not prohibitively expensive.
I don’t actually silk-screen them, I work with my friends at BRLSQ of North America who do that. For the longest time though the only place where you could get my work was at a Baroness show, which for me was really important, to have that kind of connection with the people who understand the sense of community in the little realm of the music industry that I’m a part of.
Since then I’ve outgrown that because of a larger demand than I could satisfy by hand-to-hand art sales, so I’ve taken on bigger silk-screeners, and its not because I love silk-screen, I just want to make things that people will display that don’t have to be super expensive.
It’s been fun to continually have some prints going on and things like that; it’s just not my primary goal. It’s what people like, and it’s a great way to get the work out there.
Michael: It could be my bias as a printmaker, but I feel it’s a great medium for the metal/punk community. While some of us are doing well financially, the majority of the culture is working class, so having that accessible art is extremely important.
JDB: When I was younger I was impressed when I could actually get my hands on something that I wanted. It’s important for me to have different tiers of value for the art. Some of the silk-screens are really affordable, but I do have some high-end silk-screens that are several color layers and a little more expensive, and then I have the paintings that can get way up there.
Michael: I’d be remiss not to discuss this a little bit, but after the accident that Baroness was involved in during 2012 a lot of reports focused on your recovery to playing guitar. I was wondering if you were still able to work on visual art during your recovery?
JDB: For the first eight months of recovery I couldn’t do anything, I was just in too much pain, too bent out of shape, and just too broken to make anything. Once the acute/extreme stuff had healed or at least scar over, I found it pretty easy to pick up a pencil again and start working.
I was fortunate that the side of me that was destroyed was my left side, and I’m a righty, so that was working perfectly by the time that I needed it to. Guitar was more difficult though, because I needed both hands to do that.
I think the first thing I did after it was the Kvelertak ”Meir” album cover. That was a big piece, lot of paint, lot of stippling. It was nice to get back into making artwork with a band I have a good relationship with, and to work on an album I knew a lot of people would dig.
Michael: Did you find it even more therapeutic than before, seeing as it was a part of your recovery in a way?
JDB: It had always been very therapeutic before the accident, but afterwards even more so. I would say that I have a high level of gratitude to still have the ability to create art. It was very nearly not the case, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to have survived, but I did, and I’ve got both arms still firmly attached.
There is an elevated sense of gratitude for that, its good.
Michael: You’ve done a lot of work in the metal scene and a little bit outside of it. Is their any artists you look at today that you would like to work with in the future?
JDB: Yeah, there are plenty of them. The thing is, I don’t want to mention any of them. I will stop making album art when there aren’t goals to me, or bands that I have yet to work with that I find important and they are still around. That’s in part what keeps me involved, I recognize that no matter how old I get, how many records I’ve done, or what the public perception of me is, there are still exciting things that I haven’t done. As long as that’s the case I will keep doing this.
Michael: What projects are you working on currently? I noticed your doing something with Coliseum.
JDB: I just did a re-boot of their self titled first record. Personally that was a fun project to work on. In fact, I remember back in the day when Baroness was coming up with Coliseum playing the first show they ever did. Ryan (Guitarist and Vocalist of Coliseum) and I have had that close relationship for many years. That makes it not just a passion project for me, but something that I can put a lot of history and a lot of weight behind.
Right now I’m finishing up something with Black Tusk that will be coming out on 7”, I got some big prints that are coming down the pipeline, and I’ve done some work on the new Baroness album.
Baroness records tend to be big, hundreds of hours, lots of research, development, and attention to detail. When I’m done with all those things I just don’t want to be seen for a week.
Michael: For sure, because it’s your representation on both ends, you got the full package on your plate.
JDB: It’s masochistic! I know it’s going to punish me and run me through the ringer. That’s the feeling I always get before getting into these things. I think it’s why I keep doing them, that demand of so much attention. The concept has to be strong, the heart, soul, and expression has to be strong, the presentation has to be strong, the music has to be awesome, the lyrics have to be good. It’s a total beast.
Michael: What advice would you give to younger people coming up in the art world that would like to do artwork for bands?
JDB: It’s the same advice I’ve given for years. If what you want to do is make artwork for bands, you have to love doing it because there is almost no money in it. In order to start doing it, you just have to put yourself out there, work for bands you love and for as little as possible to start, if not free, that’s what I did for years. Give your stuff away and if it’s good, people will come to you.
Do the work, and always ask yourself why, ask yourself what its about, be able to answer the questions other people will have about your work. Don’t try to make some overly pretentious statement, be direct and make your own shit. The important thing isn’t that your technically great, I think it’s the power of your expression. Speak with your own voice and be as unique as you possibly can.
This is a creative field and it’s all subjective, not everybody is going to love what you do, but you have to be yourself, that’s what’s most important. Bring it as hard as you can.
Here are a couple of images he did more recently.
Check more John Dyer Baizley’s work at www.aperfectmonster.com
Check out Michael Weigman’s work at www.michaelweigman.com