What happened when BARONESS’S John Baizley met CLUTCH’S Tim Sult? Best turn to p.72 to find out…
It’s damn toasty in Jacksonville, Florida this afternoon. We’re at Welcome To Rockville – one of a growing number of US metal mega-fests that have popped up across the States in recent years – hiding backstage from the pummelling heat as a host of bands let riffs fly across the 32-acre Metropolitan Park. Joining us in this air-con haven are John Baizley, guitarist and chief songwriter with Savannah heavyweights Baroness, and Tim Sult, the axe-toting groove-machine at the heart of Maryland rockers Clutch.
These two men have helped craft some of the finest guitar music the metal scene has borne witness to in recent years, so we couldn’t resist the chance to get them together to talk riffs, the importance of local scenes and the value of knowing your shit when it comes to heavy metal history. The two guitarists – John dressed in an olive green t-shirt, black shirt and jeans, and Tim in a grey t-shirt, blue jeans and baseball cap – make for a relatively subdued and humble pair of living guitar gods. Having played together numerous times over the years, they’re also well at ease with each other, and what transpires quickly becomes less a meeting of brilliant minds and more a fascinating chat between two friends who know their way around a guitar lick or three…When was the first time each of you heard a riff that really moved you?
Tim: “For me personally, the first time that I ever recognised ‘the riff’ was probably Black Dog by Led Zeppelin. I’d heard Stairway To Heaven and my parents were cool enough to buy Led Zeppelin IV on tape for me, so I heard it in my room when I was eight years old. To this day, I can still barely comprehend that riff. To me, that’s the epitome of riffing right there.”
John: “I had a pretty similar experience with that particular song! There was a friend of mine whose father was a guitar teacher, and it was the same thing. I knew
Stairway…, and he was like, ‘Well, you should check the rest of their stuff out.
This is the guitar record – if you like guitar, you are gonna like Zeppelin IV. Black Dog is the first song you hear, and it leaves a pretty indelible mark.”
Did you both know pretty early on that you wanted to be musicians yourselves?
John: “I knew I wanted to play, but I think when I heard Zeppelin, I thought, ‘This is how it’s done,’ but simultaneously, ‘I’m never gonna do this, because I can’t come close.’ I was a terrible guitar player for a long time. It was bands like Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth and specifically Nirvana that changed that, ’cause at my age I was the perfect kid to hear Nirvana and go, ‘Oh, I can play music!’ So I think that in some ways I’ve always been playing from that foundation
and trying to work towards a Zeppelinesque delivery. It’s still hard work...”
Tim: “For me, it was called Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band. I lived in Georgia, and when they mention all the cities in that song, like, ‘Philadelphia, Atlanta, LA…’.
I loved when he said ‘Atlanta’. I was about five or six years old at the time, and that’s what made me fall in love with music. But then after Georgia I moved to Minnesota, and as I got a little bit older I wanted to take guitar lessons, and my parents were totally cool with it, but there were no private teachers around where we lived. So I had to wait until I was 14 when we moved to Maryland, and that was when I was finally able to really explore music, and finally hear hardcore music with Minor Threat and stuff like that.”
You both each have such a recognisable guitar sound. When did you feel like you were starting to hone in on that?
John: “The first time I realised was actually kind of recently; the band had gone through some line-up changes, and I was writing something, and it was a little left of centre, a little outside the box for us. The other guys in the band were like, ‘It still sounds like a Baroness song.’ They were talking to me as members of the band, but also outsiders at that point. That was the first time I felt like I had a ‘sound’. But I always felt as though – and I still feel as if – I’m working right at the edge of my technical capability. It always feels like I’m just about to lose control. Basically, I don’t think I know exactly what I’m doing!”
Tim: “With Clutch, we’re always just trying to feel like we’ve made a better album than the last one. We actually jammed together pre-Clutch; I met these guys and started playing with them in 1989. There was a different guy singing with the band, and believe it or not, Neil [Fallon, Clutch frontman] did samples! It was really, really weird. It was more influenced by Ministry and Nirvana’s Bleach, so it was kinda industrial but with riffy stuff on it.”
John: “Ha! That’s hard to imagine. So no go-go whatsoever?”
Tim: “Absolutely no go-go at all. I started playing guitar when I was 14, and I started jamming with these guys when I was 19. That’s not a huge amount of time, looking back, but I was never good at playing other people’s songs. I could never do it justice. I’ve been trying to play The Trooper since I was 14, and I still can’t do it. But I think honestly, the real Clutch sound of what we’re doing now didn’t really truly come into being until we started touring, because we had more time to play music, listen to music and be absorbed by music.”
John: “It’s like an exposure therapy thing that goes on. You tour, you don’t think that the bands that you’re playing with every night are gonna have a huge impact on what you do, but in retrospect, I look back and I can hear who we toured with, and I can definitely tell which influential albums have come out in the interim between us. I think that, as guitar players especially, we’re working with a really thick set of perimeters. Guitars aren’t pianos; you can’t do anything with them, you can only do specific things with them. It’s all co-dependent on you having enough fingers on the neck; there’s more strings than you have fingers, so you can’t create unlimited numbers of chords. It’s very finite.”
You can’t reinvent the wheel
John: “You can’t. Guitars are designed for blues, so it’s really easy to play certain bluesy riffs or mechanisms on them. The fun thing is to try and take what guitars want to do, twist that and make something unique. We’ve all been listening to riffs since Zeppelin and Sabbath, and since then we’ve been trying to find some new voice within an instrument. How can you put your personality into that? How can you build a song around that? Turns out you can build whole albums around that.”
John, it felt like at the turn of the 00s there was a wave of riffheavy bands coming out of Georgia, with yourselves, Mastodon and Kylesa at the head of the pack. At the time, did it feel like there was something in the water there?
John: “In the South at that time, most tours kinda skipped that whole section. Everybody was doing New York, Chicago, LA, Seattle, Portland, Austin… and then not a ton of love for the South. I was in Savannah at the time, and no major tours came through our town. There wasn’t an audience for it, so I felt like we were creating the music that we wanted to hear, and it just had a regional thing to it.”
Tim: “These things are not by design. There’s never a meeting between guitar players where we all say, ‘Let’s start a thing!’”
John: “Yeah, but every once in a while somebody would level up and get a real tour together, and somehow it got packaged up. There was a core of bands that all toured with each other, and it was super-inspiring. We’d play with Clutch - ‘Alright, we gotta bring it tonight.’ We’d play with Mastodon - ‘Alright, we gotta bring it tonight.’ The quality levels were so high, everybody had to keep up, and I think, to the greater world at large, Clutch, Mastodon, Kylesa, Baroness… that whole coast was so exciting and packed with these dense, angular, incredible bands. I think several of
“THERE’S NEVER A MEETING WHERE GUITARISTS DECIDE TO START A SCENE”