Riding Into Parts Unknown: Summer Welch of Baroness

Riding a wave of almost universal acclaim on their sophomore release, sludge metal pioneers Baroness are travelling even further South for Australia’s Soundwave Festival and a side-show tour with Isis. Summer Welch, the articulate bassist for the enigmatic quartet, talks all things brutal, blue and metal.

Every time a metalhead mentions “weird” and “metal” in the same breath, Baroness are invariably part of the conversation. With spiralling columns of sound that sound both familiar and otherworldly, the coastal resort town of Savannah, Georgia in the southern United States (a place that seems only to be infested with heat most of the year) is a breeding ground for eclectic and wondrous metal songwriters such as bassist Summer Welch; possibly because Savannah’s a “pretty” town with a nice “flow,” it’s still pretty “screwed up…in a cool way.”

Having a well-earned rest on the back of their almost consistently praised Blue Record, the second full-length for the group, Welch talks from his home in Savannah. He's cool and collected as he recounts the reaction to seeing the record’s name in drop-caps across so many publications, both metal and non-metal, declaring it one of the finest records of 2009.

“We’ve all been very pleased and surprised,” Summer describes, laughing. “I dunno. It’s been very flattering and it’s been a humbling past few months for sure. The amount of attention the record has gotten, none of us [in the band] really expected or really anticipated any of what has happened. It’s all been a positive surprise, for sure.

"We didn’t have any expectations, other that when we were recording, we all wanted to do the best possible job and put our all into what we were doing; as much as humanly possible. The only expectations were with each other. The commitment to writing and recording the best we could. Other than that, the expectations ended there."

Even when the record finally dropped, the focus still wasn’t on anything grandiose, as Summer tells.

“As for what happened when the record came out? There was none. To be honest, I think we were all scared shitless about it. It wasn’t until about a couple of weeks after the recording process was all over until we sit there and go ‘Oh wow, we just finished that.’ It was pretty intense, the whole process.”

As with many bands, Baroness prides itself on making the best music possible, and going through a rigorous creative process with the ultimate aim of “not writing a turd”: having time well invested throughout the genesis and conception of a record, Summer says.

“I think we’re pretty hard on ourselves when it comes to writing and recording music. We definitely spend a lot of time and put a lot of thought into what we’re doing, or at least try to.”

Baroness are renowned for their psychedelic, labyrinthine concoctions of sound that seem to whirl around and back again in and amongst listeners, taking cues from 70s prog jam bands such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer or King Crimson, as well as their heavier, sludgier bretheren in Mastodon or Neurosis. Even so, the sounds that they make on stage capture the sound that Baroness create definitively, Summer says.

“We are first and foremost a live band. When we started playing years and years ago, in basements or whatever, performing and playing live with loud amplifiers and drums, being in that atmosphere where you’re projecting this sound for yourself and for others has definitely what it’s always been about.

"Recording has always just been just us trying our best to capture that live element – which is impossible to capture perfectly. We’ve always tried to sort of remain true to that. We don’t experiment too much on stage; we take some liberties on that. There’s certain things in the studio on the songs that we don’t do live. We do that intentionally, though.

“The songs we do [perform] live we do put on the record - there’s no trickery there. It is what it is.”

The dividing line between structure and flexibility is always in flux in the writing process too, Summer says. As far as hitting the studio is concerned, the songs are never set in stone.

“There’s definite structure and there’s definite form,” he explains, “but within that form and structure its very flexible. I think to have longevity you have to be flexible and, well, pardon the pun, bend with the wind, you know? Flexibility allows you to bend around things that a strict set of rules just wouldn’t allow. One rule that we always kind of have is that ‘there are no rules’ as far as to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

“We had a basic outline of how we wanted the songs to go together but even up until the very last day of recording, things were changing. We changed things in the studio, we changed things on the record; we change things during our live set too. Our songs are constantly evolving. I guess there’s a kind of ‘jam element’ to it, even though that raises my hairs a little bit, for the lack of the better word. I guess its sort of like a structured jam, I guess,” he laughs.

Baroness extended their tripped-out sound into the visual realm, having produced a video for the Southern rock-inspired, yet crushingly heavy, jam A Horse Called Golgotha. Rich in metaphor and surreal imagery including writhing bodies, kaleidoscopic colors and otherworldly creatures, the video was again directed by Josh Green who also worked with the band on their previous clip for Wanderlust. Again, Baroness had ideas for the production but allowed for changes along the way.

“Again, we had a loose storyline or idea that we had and that we based the character on for the song of the same name. Talking to Josh, who has been a friend of the band for a long time, he had come up with some ideas as well, loosely based around what the song was based around. For this video, we had a few things we wanted to incorporate, but for the most part we just said ‘here’s a loose idea; just take it and run.’

“We kind of just took a back seat in the entire process of the video and let Josh and the people that he works with go for it and see what happens. Last time we were highly involved in it, but this time we let him have almost complete creative control.”

Summer’s bass guitar career started at the young age of sixteen, taking it up in his native Lexington, VA after getting into music “in a big way” when he was about fifteen, lapping up rock music, especially punk and metal that eventually molded Baroness into the band it is today.

“Everyone I knew were in bands at the time,” Summer reminisces. “Pete [Adams], our guitar player was the reason I started playing music; he was in bands during high school and middle school. I’ve known him since I was about eight years old. He and Alan [Blickle], our drummer was in a band together. Then we met John [Baizley, vocalist and guitarist] three years later. At that time I was really heavily involved in cycling and mountain bike racing and that was pretty much my life. I took a turn and I decided I wanted to take a turn and do something a little bit different.

“Not to undercut myself or put myself down, I’ve never considered myself a bassist. I’m a dude who plays bass guitar in a band and it’s what I like doing, but I’ve never thought of myself as someone who does that. For the most part, I’m a pretty quiet dude. As for being involved in Baroness, it’s always something that just spoke to me; that I felt really positive about. It always felt like I was doing something important, even from the very beginning, I can’t explain it.”

Baroness before it was so-named was in fact a punk group entitled Johnny Welfare and the Paychecks, later abandoning the style for the sludge metal or progressive metal; a label that so many metalheads squabble over constantly. Summer takes it in his stride and insists that the band never consciously said “screw punk, let’s play metal now.”

“Punk in its raw form is a style and a lifestyle that embraces youth and youth culture,” Welch muses. “When you’re young and you’re a teenager or even into your early adult years, it’s a way of expressing yourself. It’s different. I think it’s an amazing thing for people. However, it’s only natural that you want to progress from that. Everything in life is a progression and you should embrace it.

"As for labelling bands or music I think it’s necessary but it’s a necessary evil. It’s necessary for the media and people in general to call it something. You know, ‘it sounds like this or it sounds like that.’ As for the whole sludge metal thing, I can understand where that comes from. But I just like to play music and I like all kinds of music. I like rock, I like punk, I like country, I like hip-hop. If what I am listening to evokes some kind of emotion and speaks to myself in some way, it’s fair game.”

Playing with fellow sludge metallers Isis in Melbourne, Summer seemed excited about their upcoming co-headlining tour with them and their involvement with the Soundwave Festival too – but something was on his mind that was a bit more cuddly than playing a rock show.

“I’m sure tourists ask this all the time,” he asks, “but a friend of mine came to Australia a few years ago. He has a picture where he’s holding a koala bear and it struck me as very entertaining. Is that something that’s popular?”

I had to confess: it wasn’t  as popular as seeing cool bands playing rock festivals, but something that’s popular nonetheless.

Baroness's Blue Record is out now on Relapse/Riot: get it here!. You can catch the band at the upcoming Soundwave Festival shows in Australia.