Baths comes clean
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The singer, who performs as Baths, reassesses his work as a producer and a performer of electronica.
It’s 3 o’clock on a bright February afternoon inside a downtown Los Angeles grocery store, and Will Wiesenfeld is on a quest. ”I’m addicted to this insane Japanese gum,” said the 21-year-old Chatsworth-based producer and singer as he searched the aisles of jelly-flecked soft drinks and exotic candies in a Little Tokyo market.
For the last year he’s released his woozy, love-struck electronica under the name Baths. But at that moment, he was in pursuit of a more immediate pleasure. “You have to try this. I’ve never tasted anything like it,” he said.
Alas, the gum never turned up. But Wiesenfeld’s unlikely rise to the upper echelon of L.A.’s thrilling experimental “beat music” scene, a loose collection of artists centered on the Low End Theory club night, has been all about such searches for rare and unexpected joys.
His sold-out headlining set at the Troubadour on Saturday comes after a year of heavy touring on his debut album, “Cerulean,” and a thorough reassessment of what he and his fast-moving music are capable of. Baths is in many ways the opposite of L.A.’s often brilliant but frequently scatterbrained beat scene. But he also might be one of its best — and most unexpected — hopes for a breakout pop star.
Among peers who make throttling, bass-heavy dubstep, “Cerulean” was shimmering, falsetto-strewn makeout music. In a scene full of straight male fans looking for the most intense drum machine fix they can find, Wiesenfeld is an out gay man with glasses and heavy sideburns whose idea of dance-floor lasciviousness on “Cerulean” is to extol a lover’s “Apologetic Shoulderblades” or “Lovely Bloodflow.”
“Most pop music is all about [sex] today, and in my music I’ve always had a reverence for the human body,” Wiesenfeld said. “I always rooted it in Bjork’s ‘Cocoon.’ That’s a very sexy song, but it’s also very tailored.”
This enticing apart-ness is part of what makes Baths’ music so compelling. Raised in the suburban maw of the northwest Valley, Wiesenfeld rode hours of buses a day to study composition at Hamilton High near Culver City, and that early love for Bjork led him down some experimental and truly weird musical hallways (an early, noisier project named [Post-Foetus] sums it up handily).
“He was sending me demos for years, since he was 16,” said Shaun Koplow, label manager of Anticon, the longtime avant-rap and experimental label that released “Cerulean.” “I didn’t think he was ready then, but I knew I wanted to keep an eye on him. And when he passed me ‘Lovely Bloodflow,’ the first Baths track, I had to fight with my friend over who got to DJ it every week. “
But his ambitions for music soon outgrew his bedroom compositions, and with Baths Wiesenfeld’s many talents — treating samples to make them gauzy and atmospheric; a way of cutting up vocals to feel celestial yet alien and a restless musicality — finally cohered into an original, inviting sound. “Cerulean” is beat-driven, with a drum machine patter, but the music atop it is airy and incandescent, like the closing score to a robot rom-com.
Wiesenfeld is near alone among his Low End Theory peers in singing pop melodies atop his productions, albeit in a screwy, harmony-stacked croon that both grounds the music structurally while making it feel uncanny.
“I always felt like my voice was just a tool in a larger sound,” he said. “But it makes sense for it to be the first tool.”
If Baths’ entrance in L.A.’s beat scene was an unusual one, though, his last year of touring has yielded even bigger changes. Live, Baths consists of little more than Wiesenfeld manipulating preprogrammed samples in Ableton Live software while singing and vamping like a Vegas showman.
It shouldn’t make for much of a performance, but the naturally reserved Wiesenfeld has come to like being a frontman. Stocky for much of his life, on recent tours he started regular hotel-room exercises and now cuts a svelte, almost Dudamel-intense figure onstage, seemingly in anticipation of pop successes. It’s led to some crossed-wire conversations on the road that, oddly, mirror a lot of his own questions about how malleable identity and music are.
“Drunk girls will not realize I’m gay and come hit on me after shows and be totally blind to it,” Wiesenfeld said, amused and bewildered by the attention. “Even when I was in high school, I thought the gay kids were total caricatures, and I’m just not that. But then you can’t be an out gay person unless you’re very out, otherwise it’ll eat away at you. It’s been a really cool process to meet more gay people on the road and learn more about that.”
But that’s just one informing aspect of the creative space Baths operates in. This has been a year of changes big and small. He finally bought his own car for touring (but still drives solo), plans on rebuilding his live set with a full band and is pondering a move from the mega chains of Chatsworth to more artist-hospitable climes near the beach.
But his environment is almost beside the point. It’s a long, solitary evening drive from Little Tokyo to the northwest Valley for him. Yet the world of Baths is interior, and there’s still much left to discover.
“Did you see ‘Inception’?” he asked, walking out of the Little Tokyo market. “I can look past the bad dialogue because he created a whole world. That understanding, that total awareness — that’s what I want to build to.”
-- August Brown