With debut album Cerulean, LA’s Baths merges complex beats with emotive songwriting in spectacular fashion
Trying to group the LA beat scene under one heading is an exercise in futility. Like the city which birthed it, the conveyor-belt of producers which pours from its studios form a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-talented musical amalgamation. But even in a world so indefinably diverse, the arrival of Baths made everyone sit up and take notice.
A large, bespectacled, openly gay young man complete with delicate yet prodigiously intricate percussion, euphoric synths and heartscratchingly sincere lyrics delivered in vulnerable falsetto producing structured, memorable songs … was this another LA beatsmith? Another name to place under the increasingly oversubscribed banner of ‘chillwave’? Or a genuine singer/songwriter who just happened to spill his guts via the laptop rather than the 6-string?
“I know it’s super frustrating for a lot of people who are in that LA beat ‘scene’ to be told that they’re part of a scene, especially for someone like Flying Lotus, who’s making records that are so far reaching outside of that”, states Will Wiesenfeld, Baths’ by day alias, of the success the movement has achieved on this side of the Atlantic. “I think just because there are so many names under that umbrella making good music – I’m not necessarily talking about myself here, I’m talking about people like Nosaj Thing, Daedalus and Flying Lotus – that I think the positive reaction is pretty much unavoidable. They’re getting positive reactions in all parts of the world, the UK being one of them.”
A self-conscious, and even self-deprecating interviewee, Will’s reluctance to place himself as a peer to the acts he mentions belies a confidence in his own ability. Perhaps this reluctance is born, in a sense, from a certain separation from much that goes on. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is undoubtedly as much songwriter as producer. It’s a distinction of which he is conscious.
“I come from a songwriting background, and I’ve mentioned plenty of times that Bjork was my first obsession. Songwriting; that’s the type of music that I fell in love with, electronic music being used as a vehicle for that. I think music I’ve recorded in the past has been a lot more rhythmically abstract, whereas I think for Cerulean it was much easier to understand the beats. That’s sort of the point, I think, with that album.”
This aesthetic is something which stems from a background spent not hunched at a desk, face aglow with the laptop screen, but sitting at the piano stool. “I was classically trained on piano from age 4 to 12 or 13, around 8 years,” he tells us. While this training may have served as ideal preparation for Will’s future vocation, that was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. “It was really brutal and intense for me playing classical music. It was all muscle memory, I was running through the motions of playing that music, but I really wasn’t feeling anything I was doing, and at that point in time I asked my parents if I could stop taking lessons. I thought I hated music and that I wanted nothing to do with it, and it was only after a long hiatus of not playing piano that when I came back to it, I completely discovered how in love with it I was and how important to my life it had the potential to become. Almost around that exact time I heard Bjork first and everything just flowed together. I started playing and recording and I was desperate to start trying to write my own music.”
But beyond a doubt, those gruelling years have paid off. The sense of structure and instrumentation in Baths’ music is nothing short of remarkable for one so young. In retrospect, Will recognises the role his formal musical education continues to play in his methods. “I see piano as the thing which makes it easier for my ideas to come through. The classical training that I had makes it so there’s not this barrier of tinkering with music to try and achieve a particular sound. It’s kind of like if I have an idea, I can just play the part almost immediately, or figure out what I need to do right away and I don’t have to dwell on something for too long. So yeah, I owe a lot to that.”
What’s more, Will stands alongside the likes of Nicolas Jaar as a truly forward-thinking beatmaker, seeing the medium as an opportunity to experiment with sounds, rather than reassemble percussive standards. His beats are constructed from a complex range of indefinable sounds, clicks and snaps and crunches, a daring and painstaking technique which has seen him compared to the great J Dilla. “It’s the way I’ve always made music,” he states, seemingly unaware of how striking and innovative his methods are. “I’m drawn to the idea of not being able to pinpoint what you’re listening to. If you can’t identify a sound, I think that’s the greatest thing. It bugs me a lot in music, particularly in my own music, if you can very easily tell the instrument that you’re listening to, particularly with something like a synth where you can hear midi notes or synth parts which are really obvious.”
A true rarity in the electronic world, where anonymity and a sense of enigma are to be revered, Will’s readiness to present his bare bones is genuinely refreshing. From fragile vocals to lovelorn lyrics, many of the tunes presented on Cerulean are seemingly paeans to relationships past, present and future. When asked whether becoming vocalist as well as producer was a longstanding intention, he is typically understated. “I always wanted to be, I just couldn’t sing early on. I gradually worked my way into being more confident with it. I guess at some point there was a switchover where I become comfortable enough to start singing on my own music.”
What’s more, he laughs that even the terminology of the world in which he now thrives evaded him until recently. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘producer’ was, by the way, up until maybe three years ago. I really can’t give myself much credit, I was totally out of the loop. I just thought it was … I just thought you were called an ‘electronic musician’ or something!” And as to whether penning sincere love songs likeLovely Bloodflow, Rain Smell and Departure was a natural step for him, he explains: “I don’t know if ‘natural’ is the right description for writing lyrics. I definitely have to put effort into it, but when it happens it seems to be drawn randomly from inspiration. I’m not sure if the songs in question were intended to be ‘love songs’ either. Love is pretty much the most broad subject in the world so I think there is stuff in them about love, but they’re also meditating on other things.”
While Will may be uncomfortable with a description as simultaneously limiting yet vague as ‘love song’, there’s no denying the fact his sound is one which seeks to move the listener, utilising drawn out, melancholic synths and samples of children’s voices on the likes of Aminals. “Absolutely,” he says, “I’ve a real affection for atmosphere and being able to invoke an emotion not just with lyrics, but with the music itself, or vice versa, where the lyrics inform the emotion and the music serves to pull that out even further.” This is a quality he also looks for as a listener. He explains: “Stuff that sounds very honest, very emotional, but in a realm that’s maybe not the most accessible way to talk about those emotions, like electronic music.”
Of course, another aspect which separates Baths from the pack, and surely provides inspiration to many, is his sexuality. Will is quick to point out that while this is something he is entirely open about, he has no desire to be thought of as a ‘gay musician’, rather that he is a musician who is gay. “The two things aren’t separate, it’s just an extension of who I am. Once I came out I was able to write more truthful lyrics, to write about things I actually cared about, like writing about male subjects in the songs. That’s basically the only big difference that occurred with that, just that I could be more honest. Sometimes it makes for a more interesting subject matter, but I don’t want to delve too far into that because it’s not a major focus for me musically.”
Such is the intensely personal nature of the project, it seems hard to imagine Baths as anything other than a solo venture. However, when discussing Baths’ future, particularly in the live arena, Will seems entirely open to the concept of expanding to include further members. “I only was a one man show for this first album out of necessity. I wanted to be able to travel. It’s a big scheme to be able to pull all of it off”, he jokes. “But I come from a band background, like the group as Post-foetus that I had before this. I still wrote all of the music, but it was six people onstage and I had a live drummer, cellist, guitarist, bassist that I wrote parts for, an additional singer, and then myself singing and playing keyboards and doing some computer stuff and we were switching roles. That’s what I’ve always wanted for this, but it just didn’t make sense with the material on this first record. But I’m intentionally building the second record for a band, and that’s been the goal for a while.”
Although Baths is the project which has brought him wider UK attention, Will has long been known to anyone with their ear to the Los Angeles ground. Despite his tender years, Baths is his third project of note, having already made considerable waves with the aforementioned Post-foetus, and the more ambient leanings of side-project Geotic. So does Will see Baths as his final goal? “The name Baths is really just the next name for Post-foetus, it’s an evolution of that, and it’s basically the name that I’d like to ride out for my whole career I think. Just because it’s the most simple and sounds the best, looks the best, all that other stuff. I’m very fond of it. But to say that I’ve arrived at my final goal (laughs), that’s a little weird, cause I was really happy with the first record, but I feel like I’m not even close to achieving some of the sounds that I’m aiming for. I still feel like I’m starting out, and with everything I do I always feel like there’s so much to learn. I hope that, from album to album, it’s going to be different and it’s a different project every time. But I hope the name Baths will stick for as long as possible.”
It’s an alias which resonates with an almost iconic simplicity, though Will can’t pinpoint its exact origins. “I don’t actually know how I got there. I very much enjoy taking baths. There’s a lot of good connotations with the word to do with cleanliness and purity and maybe introspection I guess. I take baths and retreat into my own head, go over things and come up with ideas. It’s a name that feels very natural and that I was going to use for an album or maybe a song title or something like that, but I was able to adopt it as a pseudonym.”
It’s hard not to cringe oneself into powder about having asked if Baths was Will’s ‘final goal’. In our defence though, it’s equally hard to remember that he has not long turned 22. His life as a musician is in its embryonic stages, as indeed is his life as a whole. “There are a lot of goals in my life that I’m sort of embarrassed to admit at the moment. I have other aspirations outside of music, but music is 100% all I’m focussed on right now.” And having taken a huge step with his much-lauded first album, yet with panoramic scope for development, there’s plenty to focus on, and plenty of focus to steal.
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Words: Geraint Davies
Photo: Michael Freeby