Black & Blue Romantic: Baths talks Obsidian

Los Angeles composer, beatmaker and singer extraordinaire Baths is back with his second offering for Anticon – he tells us about his battle with sickness, his love of dark music, and why Obsidian is the album he was born to make

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 07 Jun 2013
  • Baths

“I'm driving through the mountains,” says Will Wiesenfeld, on his way to a gig in Portland – in fact the first gig featuring his new live collaborator Morgan Greenwood. Baths used to be a solo project, and on his baroque, bleakly beautiful new album Obsidian [reviewed here], Wiesenfeld still wears all the hats. But now, he is looking forward to “doing the band thing” with Greenwood, in a setup which involves “a table of electronics, and Morgan and myself... we're both singing, he's playing guitar and I'm playing piano. There are a ton of live elements, so it's definitely more than it was. A lot more. It feels like a band, which I think was the whole idea.” This is the first time they have played live together. “We're a little nervous,” confesses Wiesenfeld.

For a man capable of producing an album as lyrically dark and ambitiously epic in its sweep as Obsidian, Wiesenfeld is a remarkably relaxed and cheerful interviewee. Where his justly-admired debut album Cerulean was wispy and fragile, Obsidian is by turns strident and plaintive, exulting in its romantic, doomed narrators' tales of sickness, suffering, and the longing for death. “Writing exact, literal, direct experiences in my lyrics has never been my style – I don't think I'm a raw, real person like that,” he says. “I'm trying very carefully to differentiate between my own personal feelings and artistic statements, and I'm not good at being able to say which is which. It's all sort of the same thing for me.”

So how much of the album was inspired by his own state of mind? “My personal feelings definitely inspired me to sit down and write,” he clarifies. “I mean, I'm not a hideously depressed, suicidal, apathetic person, but it was a perspective that was inspiring to me. I've always been into dark music. All of my favourite music, most of the music I've ever listened to, is a play on that.” He speaks passionately of art that combines the romantic and the dark: “The music may appear really beautiful, but the more you listen to it the more you begin to realise..." He leaves that realisation unspoken, but continues: "Either because the lyrics are a big contrast with that beauty; or it feels more dramatic, because the writer has dealt with something much darker.”

“I'm obsessed with escapism, realms of fantasy" – Will Weisenfeld, aka Baths

This rejoicing in the dramatic and the romantic aspects of suffering was an aesthetic choice he had long wanted to explore, because it fitted his creative inclinations: “I enjoy the embellishment to it,” he says. “I'm obsessed with escapism, realms of fantasy... So giving very personal feelings and experiences a larger emotional vein, or a heightened state of mind which is a bit more fantastical, is the right way for me.” But that was a challenge, because in his day to day life, he was not depressed. “I really had to tap in to what that was, to get inspired by that sort of material, to discover what it would feel like to be more... uncomfortable, and to write lyrics in that realm,” he explains. “It was a little bit of a test for me, to see if I could stay in there long enough to write something that felt real.”

Whether by coincidence or fate, a serious brush with the e-coli bacteria helped him to understand the darker feelings and emotions he was looking to capture on Obsidian. But, he says, the illness was not the album's genesis point, just a significant landmark along the route to its creation. “A lot of the ideas and the mindset, the whole feel of the record, was put together years ago, before Cerulean was even happening,” he says. “It was always the next thing I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do a darker record that had more brutal themes, more depressed lyrics. That was already in play, and in motion. What the illness did was reinforce that it was the right time to do it.” After antibiotics killed all of the bacteria in his system, good and bad, he became “nauseous” for an extended period, moving “from bed, to couch, to bathroom” and surviving on “bread, Gatorade and rice.”

It was a grim experience. “Dealing with that headspace – not being able to engage in anything creatively; like making music was just completely gone – that was in turn, after it had happened, eventually inspiring,” he says. Having researched the Black Death, and after immersing himself in everything from Dante's Inferno (he enthuses that it was “the kind of psychotic version of Hell which I wanted to tell”) and Silent Hill 2 ( he describes the video game as “terrifying, and very surreal – one of the darkest things I've ever experienced”), sickness, death, and what comes after were already very much on his mind.

His Dad recommended a history book, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, which dealt with the Black Plague and the Dark Ages. The sombre religious tone and sheer scale of the devastation and suffering of that era informed his aesthetic approach, and he was struck by how the Europeans “attributed all of this to God... The idea of trying to write pop music in the headspace of somebody in that time period, or in that situation; that was really the concept for me... That was the fun of it – trying to engage that weirdness, and that otherworldly state of myself. It was a lot of fun to do, but it was hard to do for long stretches – I had to take a lot of breaks when I was writing the lyrics. It was intense, but it was a good intensity, I forced myself into it. That was what I wanted to do.”

It's a very different beast to Cerulean, and both records are well-named – if Cerulean's hazy, wistful atmosphere and delicate harmonies conjured visions of blue sky, then Obsidian is the moment three months into a cloud-covered winter, or the darkest hour of the picth-black night. But rather than revelling in crepuscular bleakness, Wiesenfeld ornaments this dark subject matter with slick electro-pop, swelling strings, thunderous pianos and skittering beats. It's a world away from the sounds of the LA 'beat scene' characterised by the tight clique of artists around the Brainfeeder label, such as Flying Lotus and Daedelus. “It was a conscious thing to not be a part of the beat scene,” Wiesenfeld explains. “I never wanted to be a part of it. I think any artist only wants so much of that, y'know? That association immediately puts you into a category, or a label.”

He does feel more comfortable in LA than he used to: “I've integrated a bit more; I've met more people and I'm comfortable with them. But I've never made an effort to be deeply embedded in it,” he explains. “With the first record, I catered the sound a little bit more to that. It was really heavily focused on being beat-oriented, and on being something I could play out by myself, in the same way a lot of those guys do. So it was kind of built towards that, but it was never what I wanted to end up doing with music for the rest if my life, because that's not... totally my thing.”

In fact, even before Cerulean's conscious nods to the nascent beat scene, Obsidian's darker concoctions were brewing. “This album was something I actually started before that point, in a weird way,” says Wiesenfeld. “I had a couple of thoughts in my head that were of a darker pop aesthetic. But I didn't want to do that, for that to be the first impression, I wanted that to be a Cerulean-type record. So after that happened, I had to decide if I just wanted to make one of those types of record, or to do something that was more like the music I obsess over. I wanted to do something that was a layered pop record with vocals on every track.”

Perhaps that's why his music is such a good fit for Oakland-based label Anticon, home not just to a huge crop of well-respected alternative hip-hop artists such as Doseone, Serengeti, and more recently, Scotland's Young Fathers, but also to a wealth of more experimental, indie and pop-driven artists such as Why? and Son Lux. Wiesenfeld still sees Anticon as “a great home” for Baths, and is full of praise for label manager Shaun Kaplow: “Fuck man, he's the best,” he says. “He likes all sorts of music. I feel like anything that doesn't have a place elsewhere finds its home on Anticon.” For now, that fits his purposes, and he will deliver at least one more album for the label. “I'd like to remain with them for as long as possible,” he says.

A prolific producer and songwriter from a young age, the classically-trained Wiesenfeld once boasted he was sitting on 14 albums worth of material, much of it under his first alias of [Post-foetus]. But, he says, that statement is “not something to be taken seriously,” and he defines those tracks as “workshop-style” material, which taught him a lot, but aren't worth seeking out. “A lot of it would be me figuring my shit out,” he says. “For so many people, the first thing they make is the first thing that gets introduced to the world, and it's awesome... but I'm so lucky to have had that era of bullshit, where I made so much bad stuff. It's been very helpful to me, in terms of hunkering down and editing, and knowing when something is just fucking terrible or not, and being able to throw it out early." 

Of his classical training he says: “I can always rely on it to be useful because of the physical training involved. I barely ever listen to classical music now, but the thing is all the training of it, and the mechanics of playing music like that, that's never left me. My fingers think faster. I hear things exactly in my head before I play them.” As he sees it, this lack of formal training is an obstacle that many musicians face: “People can be naturally extremely creative, but then that's their roadblock some of the time. They have the ideas, and then they're sitting there, but then they got lost in the complexity of just getting them out; getting yourself to hear them.”

As Wiesenfeld's tour van approaches Portland, we have time for one more question. Given that the past few years have given us albums by artists like Grimes, Toro y Moi, Yeasayer and others, which have displayed some heavily experimental new takes on electronic pop, does he feel the audience of 2013 are more ready for Baths than they perhaps were in 2010? “I'm not sure,” he replies. “I've never thought anybody was really ready for anything. I honestly thought I would lose a lot of fans with this record – I was convinced people would think it was complete shit, or ignore it or whatever. I don't know what I thought. It's just not something that phases me, because I've always been very, very selfish when it comes to making music. Of course I want people to like it, but it's not something that factors in to me being creative. I don't think that's ever going to change.”

Obsidian is out now on Anticon.