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Baths: the Great Escape 

Valley boredom inspires electronic musician to unforeseen heights

Thursday, Jul 1 2010
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Welcome to Chatsworth. The hills are dotted with homogenous people-boxes. Most places to eat are national franchises. The dominant industry is pornography. And all else is barren, dusty and reddish. Aside from the city's historic movie ranches (abandoned, demolished) where Westerns were filmed throughout the first half of the 20th century, what you see is pretty much what you get.

The latter could also be said for Will Wiesenfeld, the 21-year-old electronic artist known as Baths, except that you get a whole lot more in your viewfinder. We're sitting down at an Islands Fine Burgers and Drinks five minutes from his home, and in the short time it takes for those titular comestibles to arrive, I learn all of the following:

Wiesenfeld sleeps exactly eight hours a night, every night. He recently stopped eating hamburgers and sodas due to severe acid reflux. He's never owned a fake ID, though he tried salvia once and wound up spitting in his brother's face. He dearly loves his brother, an aspiring astrophysicist. The two of them eat like beasts. Also, he's squeamish, and threw up during the pool scene in Final Destination 4. And, finally, "It's so boring in Chatsworth."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY HANNA DRYLAND SHAPIRO - Baths: an electronic artist with a songwriting streak
  • PHOTO BY HANNA DRYLAND SHAPIRO
  • Baths: an electronic artist with a songwriting streak

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But some folks are destined to overcome their surroundings. Wiesenfeld's openness, gusto and unspoiled youthfulness make him an awful candidate for suburban living. Just look at the uninspired trail of bodies his employment history has left behind over the past couple of years: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, the Barnes and Noble café (a smaller Starbucks).

And for contrast, catch a glimpse of his burgeoning new career path. Baths is currently one of Los Angeles' most hotly tipped new music-makers. He recently became the first guest artist to hold a residency at the renowned Low End Theory club. Last month, he compiled a mix for tastemaking BBC Radio 1 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs. "All Things Considered" and KEXP have swooned. Pitchfork won't stop writing about him, and mash-up kings the Hood Internet were so inspired that they impregnated Baths' track "Maximalist" with R. Kelly's croon.

His reaction to the mounting buzz?

"It's just so tight," he says, beaming. "I literally don't know what to do with myself. I spend so much time in that Internet ether, looking at blogs. Having read Pitchfork every other day for the past couple of years, to discover my name on there one day ... I mean, nobody pushed anything. They found the music on their own, and then they wanted more."

The fame came almost overnight, and with very little prodding. Baths didn't exist 10 months ago, and Wiesenfeld doesn't have a slick marketing team or viral stratagem to back him. Yet he already has a built-in audience for his first album under the new moniker. Cerulean is due out July 6 on downtown-based indie label Anticon.

Cerulean is, frankly, a gorgeous record. It surges and seethes in dulcet waves of dense texture and bright melodies. It's rightly been touted as a stylistic conjoining of L.A.'s beat-music scene and the greater chillwave genre (wherein ornate digital hip-hop production meets sunbaked shoegaze ambiance), but even that's far too reductive. Explore the aqueous depths of songs like "Apologetic Shoulderblades" and "Plea," and you'll discover the classical flourishes, choral elements and field recordings that give the album its gravitas.

All that, and Wiesenfeld's voice — an often falsettoed thing that gracefully soars over the burbling tracks or dives directly into the pool, where it's refracted into a dozen rays of light.

His Low End Theory shows actually had the staunchly rap-loving crowd singing along.

"I did 'Lovely Bloodflow' and apparently when I started singing, all these thuggish guys started throwing their hands in the air," Wiesenfeld says. "Afterward, this one guy who pushed by my brother really rudely came up to me and was, like, 'Yo, man, your voice is beautiful.' "

Having sated ourselves on bland meats, iced tea and Endless Fries™, we head to Wiesenfeld's house, where he lives with his parents and brother John, 23. His bedroom is pretty much what you'd expect — organized chaos comprising boxed-up samplers, jagged runs of books, artwork made by friends, a guitar, a keyboard, multiple Sigur Rós posters and an unmade mattress — with one notable exception: an upright piano that's been in the family almost as long as Will.

The Wiesenfelds bought the thing with John in mind, but their younger son demanded lessons at the age of 4. Precocious doesn't begin to describe Will's trip through music. His folks would choose his middle school, Walter Reed, because of its acclaimed Individualized Honors Program, which allowed him to focus on the aural arts.

By 13, he'd started recording his own songs by computer — "I spewed out an album's worth of shitty trance/Euro beats" — and within a year or two of that, he learned the viola, the upright bass and guitar. He then attended Hamilton High, near Culver City (riding the bus from the Valley down the PCH to get there), for its electro-acoustic curriculum.

And adopting the alias [Post-Foetus] along the way, he began to blaze a trail of unusual music that'd grow to include an Aphex Twin–inspired album of solo piano and glitch, an 18-minute string-laden song-poem about wolf-on-wolf rape, and numerous experiments spurred on by his profound love for the always iconoclastic Björk.

Wiesenfeld's thankful for the support his parents have given him — a kindness which, despite their conservative Christian background, has grown to include his sexuality.

"I came out to my brother first, and I wanted to make it really epic," says Wiesenfeld. "So we drove out to Malibu in the middle of the night and walked out to Point Dume with the ocean all around. And I was just, like, word for word, 'John, I've got the fags real bad.' He was, like, 'Oh, duh,' but it was a little more intense for my parents."

If that's the case now, you wouldn't know it. Inspired by L.A. artists like Daedelus, who introduced him to Anticon, Nosaj Thing and Flying Lotus, Wiesenfeld relaunched as Baths last October with the goal of creating something more listenable.

"We were always hoping for the day to come that someone would appreciate what he's doing — understand his genius, as far as we're concerned," says Jude Wiesenfeld over the objections of her son. "He took three semesters of composition at Cal State Northridge. I was hoping he'd get his degree, but his father was in agreement with Will that he should get going on his career."

Staying in one place, philosophically speaking, has never suited Wiesenfeld. He frequently cites Valley boredom as his biggest motivator to create. And when he's not making music as Baths — a name inspired by his taste for escaping into the tub — or under his other active alias, the minimal-music project Geotic, he's usually watching outsider animation or reading Japanese manga.

"I feel like that sort of stuff is almost more realistic to me than everyday life because it's more emotionally resonant," Wiesenfeld says. "It's that perfect mix between very real human interactions and the outlandish. You feel like because there's so much more happening in that world, your heart can just expand and experience so much."

And he's just accidentally done better than any blog has at describing his music.

Baths throws his record-release show at the Troubadour on Saturday, July 3. Daedelus, El Ten Eleven and Matthewdavid support.

Reach the writer at christopherlmartins@gmail.com

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