Exclusive Interview: John Baizley of Baroness on the Bus Crash, Recovery and the Future
On the rainy morning of August 15th the brakes on Baroness’ tour bus failed, setting into motion a panicked, frenzied two-minute sequence that ended in the bus careening off a 30-foot drop from a notoriously steep and dangerous hill in the U.K. Nearly two months, dozens of broken bones, countless surgical hours and untold emotional turmoil later, all the members of Baroness are miraculously alive and on their way towards recovery.
Last week guitarist/vocalist John Baizley issued a chilling recount of the accident itself, his recovery thus far and what the future of the band looks like, conveying a remarkable sense of optimism for someone who’s been through what he has. Yesterday afternoon I connected with Baizley on the phone to find out more. In the riveting and revealing interview that follows, John tells me all about the extent of his injuries, the marathon surgery in which his badly broken arm was taken completely apart and put back together again, how his recovery is going so far, how he’s dealing with the pain, the stress and the inactivity, and how he plans to push forward in his personal life and with Baroness.
First off, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling better than a month ago. Better and better every day. I’ve got a lot of work I’m doing, but yeah. Coming along.
What does that include, physical therapy I’m assuming?
Yeah, physical therapy is the only thing I’m doing right now.Based on the extent of my injuries I’m either on the couch or a wheel chair. Not able to get up and do much, can’t really support myself, so I spent most of my day bending my limbs trying to get them to move because they don’t do what they’re supposed to do yet.
It’s encouraging to read that you’re still able to play guitar a little bit.
Talk about being pleasantly surprised. I was very surprised at the fact that I could do that, especially in light of the things that I cannot do. Which include very incredibly basic things. At the time I started playing guitar again I wasn’t even able to touch my face with my hand. I can’t really get the top off a mason jar. I certain can’t push up or do anything like that, but my fingers have remained articulate.
It’s fucking crazy to hear: my arm was disassembled entirely down to the bone, then everything was rebuilt and put back in. Lo and behold the fingers still work.
My surgeons did an incredible job. I can tell that they even pleased themselves. Keep in mind the day before the surgery we were talking about amputation or potentially not having any use of my hands. Which of course, I did not believe. This was a discussion they were having with me, so the fact that today I can do the things as well as I can is pretty miraculous. It’s encouraging, it’s given me the willpower to reemerge somewhat positively and get back up on the proverbial horse and start doing things again.
Was it a serious possible outcome that the arm or the hand would have to be amputated?
I was told it was almost a certainty if the break in my arm had been worse, because essentially the upper bone in my arm was turned into dust. At the breaking point they couldn’t tell what bone fragments went where through the scans, the results were so chaotic and everything was so misplaced. It was a clean break through, with seven or eight large pieces and a bunch of fragments. They did not know which pieces went where.
They ran a seam up the back of my arm, removed everything, broke my forearm bone in half — that’s where all the muscles in my upper arm attach — peeled all those muscles back, pulled them out, and they were left with just the broken bones. Then they pulled all the nerves out — pulled everything out — tucking it in my shoulder or leaving it hanging out.
It sounded crazy the way they explained it to me. What was supposed to be a three hour surgery ended up being an eight hour surgery during which, of course, I was under anesthesia the whole time. During the whole eight hours the doctors were telling my wife and my mother that they just didn’t know what was going on, it’d be another hour, another hour, and everyone was just getting really worried.
When I woke up they asked me if I could make a fist, and when it was no problem they were happy. They told me they were surprised with what I had been left with but unsurprised with what I had not been left with, which is feeling on the top of most of my arm. I can’t feel a thing there, probably won’t ever, because there has been pretty extensive nerve damage. The rest has been really banged up too, and there’s a constant electric pain in my hand. It’s not an easy thing to deal with but by comparison to no arm or a useless hand, sure, bring the pain on. That’s much preferable.
Is that something that will get better with time?
I’m told it’s something that could get better but probably the major bits are not going to get better. It’s a matter of degrees. For instance, when I got out of surgery I could not feel anything on the palm of my hand or my fingertips. It felt like pins and needles, like I had been sitting on my hand for a couple of days.
Now, two months later, I’ve got most of the feeling back in my hands. When I came out of surgery I also had no feeling in the top of my arm, and two months later I still have no feeling in the top of my arm. It’s likely to remain like that. Same thing with the pain on the underside of my arm; it’s likely to be there in some form or another for the rest of my life, but I’ll get used to it.
How are you doing emotionally? Certainly the tone of the letter you published last week seemed to conclude rather optimistically. At least your outlook on life and everything. Is that consistent with how you feel?
Definitely. I have to remain optimistic. I have to, or I don’t think I’m likely to see anything improve dramatically. I have high expectations of what Baroness is capable of and what we will continue to do and I’ve got some patience, but not limitless patience, with how long it takes us to get there.
I’d like to say that we’ll be back as soon as we’re physically capable. That will be a huge component in becoming mentally OK again. It’s like having a fear of flying. There’s no way to stay on the ground and completely deal with your fear; you have to approach it, engage it and overcome it, and not without some pain. I see this as the same thing. If one of the after-effects of this is we all have reservations about touring or traveling by bus or whatever, if there’s some creative inhibitions or some fears about who we are and what we do or our worth as a band, the only way we can get tabs on that again is by touring.
So I see that, for us, as a major rehabilitation tool. I’d like to use that in order to make us better. If this tragedy has to happen to us, and it has, if we are caught in the backwash of this accident we need to see where everything settles and what we’re left with physically, what we’re left with creatively and spiritually and all that. Then the only option as I see it is to make an attempt with 100% of our being to come through this and benefit from it. Find a way to turn all of this into something that elevates us, that pushes us forward. I believe that by first going through the physical rehabilitation we are going to show ourselves collectively that we’re stronger than we thought we were. Through getting back into shape as a band we’ll show ourselves mentally what we’re capable of in the future. After we get our “sea legs” back we’re going to continue to write music. Its going to get better, it’s going to further the same goals we had prior to August 15th. There’s just no other option.
The only other thing we could do is just wallow in it. That’s not an option, not going to happen for me. I don’t have the time left in my life to wallow in some happenstance thing that happened to me. It’s random, it’s terrible and it shouldn’t have happened but it did. I’m not going to take any blame or fault for it.
It’s really good to hear you talking in those terms. People with less mental fortitude would be wallowing.
Honestly, this thing has simplified everything for me for the time being. Because what I’m forced to deal with is so inescapable that I have to look at things in very simple and blunt terms. I don’t see another course of action to take. We have worked for 10 years to get to the point we were on August 14th. One occurrence on the day following isn’t going to negate, neglect or minimize or detract me from continuing on the course that we have set out for ourselves. It’s going to alter the course and the pace somewhat but I’m not going to let it dilute our mission statement. If anything I think it’s going to strengthen it.
When this is all said and done, we’re going to look back on this and say this has to be something that defines us in one way or another. I’m glad that so far we’re not allowing this to define us in a negative way. It hasn’t pushed anyone apart; in fact, it’s brought us together. And it’s brought us together with our fans, with a lot of people whose intentions we weren’t so sure of. For the moment things now seem really simple to me and I look forward to re-complicating them in the next year.
It’s certainly been a year of highs and lows for you guys. Yellow and Green was released to tons and tons of critical acclaim, not that necessarily you judge yourself by what other people are saying. But it was certainly well-received, and to have this happen, after experiencing so much success, must have brought all you guys down.
I’ll dispute that. I think our experience was one of odd timing. We spent all of 2011 and the first half of 2012 just getting ready and putting all this work in. It was a lot of self-sacrifice. It was a lot of time spent in the creative bubble and not doing anything too publicly. We did one tour before the record came out, which kind of just felt like a stopgap kind of thing. We started the tour we crashed on in late June. We saw the record come out three weeks after the start of that tour while we were over seas. We never felt any of the critical acclaim; we never experienced any of the accolades being hoisted upon us. We never felt anything. I think when we had gotten home we would have understood it, and had some perspective on it. We had our crash while this was all going on, so we never really got elevated too high.
We kind of felt like things were getting better and better, and after the European tour we were on, which was a very long arduous tour, we felt like we’d get back home and work hard through the fall, but those plans got cut short. Rather than falling, I’m saying we just kind of stopped for a minute; the hope is we can pick up where we left off rather than having to clamber up too much to reseed ourselves where we were.
It’s too bad that you didn’t get to experience any of that here. It’s definitely is a big thing that people were talking about before the accident. Maybe you’ll see it at the end of the year when year-end lists start to be published and such. Maybe you’ll get to experience a little bit of the love, even though you’re not experiencing it necessarily in the way you would want to, which would be going out and playing in front of people.
It’s been awesome to have had the fan support that we’ve had throughout the past months. Suffice to say, when this first happened there was a pretty dark mood in the hospital. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos. Everybody really had a different experience and suffered different injuries and dealt with it in their own way.
But the one thing that was consistent and unified was the support that our fans gave us and the love that we felt, and I think that helped everybody in their own way. I’ve never felt that before, honestly. I’ve never felt a communal sense of care come our way such that it made a difference to me. I have to pay respects to that and to everybody that pitched in and helped us get through that.
We were in England so the system over there did not have a clear-cut protocol or a system of procedures for us. We really, from time to time, got lost in the system. Once I was discharged from the hospital I was very much forgotten about. It was a very difficult thing for me to actually coordinate getting back to the States. During my time, what little communication I had with the outside world — our fans, friends and family — was all I had. Everybody was so overwhelmingly supportive and helpful that I just have to give them a shout-out now, because it really helped me.
You had mentioned earlier that you were playing some guitar. Have you actually been playing or writing? Have you been drawing at all?
I just started drawing recently and I’ve been playing guitar for the past week. I’ve even started to write a couple of things, certainly not completed songs or anything, but look — if you put an instrument in my hand and I can play it, I eventually will start to feel the impulse to create something. That was so reaffirming for me. It had been two months since I had had the impulse to make something new. Now I can feel that backup sort of pressing at me at the back of my mind. I’m anxious for when I heal and get my energy levels back to see what comes of it.
How are the rest of the guys are doing?
I think the rest of the guys are doing really well, especially since what we’ve all been through. When I talk to anyone who’s in the band or crew, everyone is overwhelmingly positive and confident about things.
It’s almost like this crash has put us in a better mood or something; it’s really odd. It’s been a tough thing to contend with. There are certain aspects of the crash that have brought out the best in us. When I talk to any of the guys in the band, we’re just stoked we’re having a conversation with each other because we so nearly were cut off from everyone and the ability to communicate with each other ever again.
More than that, I think we realize the connection we have is a mutually shared experience. It’s something that is going to drive us forward in some ways and keep us together. I think that’s a really amazing thing if you’re forced to go through something or end up going through something that is as extensively damaging as the bus crash we were in. To have a group of your friends and brothers to share that with you, to help you get through it, to help you stay positive and move forward, I feel like the luckiest person alive. I’ve seen so many people just do what they needed to do in order to keep the mood light or in order for any of us to help another guy just through a moment, or to physically do something, or to talk about something. It’s really great to have the band together on this.
I just can’t imagine what things would be like for me without the rest of them. They were so crucially important for me to keep my head straight as things were starting to unfold and to come out of the traumatic haze of the wreck. To have my guys around me and to be around them was a wonderful thing; it really did highlight the relative importance of friends into a crystal clear perspective. When you’re put into that situation, you swim. It’s that simple. Everybody was swimming as hard as they could, because they had no other option.
Are those guys healing up alright?
Yeah, Matt [Maggioni, bass] and Allan [Blickle, drums] both sustained very serious injuries to their backs and have been seeing the right people here in the States in order to get rehabilitated. I know they’re out and about and mixing it up. It’s one of those cases where every day it gets a little better to manage.