"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
- Whitey Bulger
A few years back, one could have been forgiven for writing off as a group of inspired yet ultimately limited friends the bumper crop of talented and innovative young beatsmiths wonkily digitizing the Stones Throw formula of unquantized hip hop sensibilities . After all, the big names - Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Daedelus - were all aligned in one way or another under the same camps and regularly performed together. The work of LA's Brainfeeder and Alpha Pup labels was like an island; though it was critically praised it stood distinctly alone, without any true imitators or crossover attempts. It seemed natural that they would continue to play and get high together at Low End Theory for a few more years before eventually fading away into the endless evolution of Southern Californian trends.
Somewhere along the way that distinct LA beat sound got wound up in something altogether bigger, more organic. There was no grand crossover; there didn't have to be. Within the new class of exciting young LA electronic artists, there is an instinctive ear for accepting influence from all manner of new sources. There are new labels, new sounds, and too many new artists to count, but what matters is that the distinct LA sound remains reverently attended to throughout the current generation of artists and their alternative influences. No artist embodies this new sensibility better than Baths, a 21 year old classically trained pianist-turned-beatmaker who just released his debut album, Cerulean, on Anticon. The album is stunning in how it infuses melodic craft and range into a genre steeped in occasionally dogmatic formula. One of Lookout's own recently had the chance to talk on the phone with the young artist and trace his musical evolution in detail up to his current position as one of Los Angeles' most exciting new voices.
What do you think it is about Los Angeles that has allowed it to play host to the vast and fruitful collective of distinct yet varied artists comprising its “beat scene?”
Well, I think it’s the nature of the city itself. There are hundreds of different little communities and areas of Los Angeles. It’s the most open-minded, broadest city that I know of. I haven’t traveled travelled the world or anything. I don’t have a lot of perspective but it feels like every other culture in the world is in LA somewhere, in some form or another. I think that fosters a lot of inspiration and creativity in people. It’s such a mishmash of so many different cultures and ideas and thought processes about making music. Even within the beat scene people come from all different places. I think that girl Tokimonsta is from Galida or some place very far away, and then the My Hollow Drum guys are from Santa Ana, which is super far outside of LA but they’re totally deeply incorporated in everything. It’s amazing, there’s so many different things that are great about the city.
With so many new artists and labels popping up everyday in Southern California, what is it like navigating that landscape as an artist?
I’m super new to it so I’m not really sure. It’s amazing to have had a home find me. Me and my manager were sort of pushing my music into different people’s hands not really 100% on exactly where we wanted it to fit. Alfred Darlington and Daedelus really pushed my stuff and enjoyed it. They came to me and tried to get it in the right people’s hands. Sean from Anticon made a point of talking to me and making it clear that he had a plan for my music and everything and wanting to give me a home to put it out. The music that I’ve been making has led me through it automatically. I haven’t had to take that much initiative, it happened by the nature of the music. That’s the most bizarre answer ever.
I can see that you’re definitely a label aficionado, at least for the genres that your music fits into. What are you looking for from a label that you are involved with?
Devotion to the artist. That’s the best thing you could have from a label, to have the label cater to the artist and not have the artist have to cater to the label, you know what I mean? You don’t have to have a preordained sound that fits into the sound of the label. It’s more about making great music and wanting to put it out regardless of how it sounds. There is a little bit to be said about the similarity, especially in electronic music, and being able to promote it the right way, but the more open-mindedness there is within a label the better. Like with Morr music, I always talk about them being a huge influence for me with their catalogue and everything. There is an aesthetic there. It’s not an exact sound but a vibe that runs through a lot of their releases. Within that, there are so many different types of music that they put out and so many different worlds of sound and music. That’s the best thing that you could ask for. Anticon has been like that a lot lately. The Son Lux record that came out was crazy different from anything else in their catalogue but he’s just as much a part of the label as anyone else. It’s really cool.
What was your first experience with making music?
I was classically trained on piano from the time I was four years old until about eleven or twelve. It got to a point where I just couldn’t do classical music anymore. I didn’t event know what I liked about the music. I’m playing all the time and I’m performing for people but I don’t feel anything. It became robotic and I knew that wasn’t correct so I just cut it off completely. I wasn’t going to do music anymore. Because of that, I had this break of about a year and a half of not doing anything. The next time I sat down at a piano I didn’t want to play any of the old classical music that I used to play, so I just started fucking around on it. It hit me how much fun it is to make my own music, so I started to play tons and tons of piano stuff. Once we were able to get a synth and computer and whatever, my parents bought all these old midi-programming things. I started putting together all this weird, shitty Eurotrance stuff, because I didn’t know how to record it or do anything. That’s sort of how it started. I had a large gap in time between having the classical training on piano to doing my own stuff.
What effect do you think that training had on your later attempts at making music?
The classical training, it gets your fingers and your head in the right sort of space. They become a tool; it makes it easier for every idea that you have to come out, to come to fruition. That’s kind of how I thought of it. All the little things and plans and experiments that I have for my music can happen much faster because my fingers can move as fast as my head is thinking at the time, if that makes any sense. It’s a huge luxury to be able to have that.
How did you get formally introduced to the LA beat scene?
There was this podcast called “Uhh Yeah Dude” that I saw I online. I can’t remember exactly how I found out about it but it was hilarious. This guys Jonathan and Seth do it and it’s really funny. It’s hard to explain, it’s just hilarious. I found out that Jonathan from the podcast had a band, and that it was an electronic band. I went out with my friend Roxy to go see them play and he was there and we got to talking. I brought my album just as a thing, just like, if you’re interested I have this to listen to, whatever whatever. He got back to me and was like, “ I really, really like this and I’m friends with Daedelus and I want to pass it on to him.” I was like, whoa, what the fuck? I didn’t know that at all.
This was like two years ago and it was an album that was completely not like my Baths material. It was The Fabric under the moniker I have Post-Foetus. It’s a very different sort of electronic music but he was really intrigued by it and at the time was thinking of putting it out and all this stuff. I started a friendship with him there and over the past couple of years I’ve have a couple of one-off shows with him. That’s sort of how it happened. Once the Baths stuff happened, he passed it on to all the right people.
The new album, Cerulean, flows together really nicely and definitely has a consistent vibe. When you assumed the Baths moniker did you set out to craft a distinct sound or is the album a collection of similar projects?
Thanks, I’m glad you think that. There was definitely a goal in mind. I got to play as Post-Foetus with a five person band at this event that Daedelus hosted called Destroy LA. It happened at Henry Fonda in LA last year in September. It was a really cool night and we had a fun set and whatever, but afterwards I saw Daedelus play and Flying Lotus play and Nosaj Thing. I saw how the set up worked where it was just a laptop, a controller, and they could control an entire audience and move an entire group of people with just one person. All of their music was completely self-contained and it thrilled me, the idea of being able to do that. I was going crazy that night just geeking out. I said that my night to my friend that I needed to be able to do that. I need to have material that can do that and to be able to perform like that. I just want very badly. After that night I went home and for the next couple of months I put an album together that had that sort of idea in mind; live electronic beat oriented music that was still very, very “me” but at the same time it could have that sort of audience and movement.
Those influences are very clear on the album. It definitely has LA’s imprint on it, but there’s a whole other construction to it as well. It’s more melodic and it sounds a bit more organic. Where there other influences at play?
It’s definitely from my realm of listening, I would like to think. I listen to a lot of softer, more ambient, sleepy music. That’s my favorite sort of thing. I feel like the melodicism and emotional atmosphere of that sort of stuff has bled into it. That’s the best thing I could hope for and sort of what I tried to do.
What does it mean to you that your music has been identified by some as sort of a “missing link” between beat traditionalists like Flying Lotus and more left field electronic acts like Toro y Moi?
It’s great to have that people can get an idea of your music before they hear it but at the same time, as an artist, the most you can ask for is for some one to listen to the album on its own, to make an impression of the album by itself and not have a critical self-analysis. Initially, it’s great to have a stance on it, like it’s some sort of bridge between. It’s like, oh shit, what does that sound like, I want to hear what that sounds like! I’m definitely down for it.
What plans do you have for the live show at the moment?
Actually, it’s very weird. I guess have a mini-West coast tour with stops up the coast. There are three or four dates in a couple of different places. One of them is with Memoryhouse and then another is with Jogger. Then later this year, it’s not confirmed yet, but I might be doing a nationwide tour with El Ten Eleven. That’s not fully realized yet but it’s very soon.
What kind of experience do you have playing live?
It’s getting better and better all the time. It’s a constant evolution of the live set. Every single show I have I think about what went wrong and what went well and I try to adjust it and use new effects or move things around. It’s like a constant process. I’ve had a lack of doing that lately, just because I’ve been doing so many shows that I haven’t had a lot of time to move things in between. I love playing live and I have the best time ever. It’s great and it’s cool that it’s something that can always stay interesting because it’s never done. The process will go on forever. It’s cool.
A lot of electronic musicians have struggled in attempting to produce an authentic live expression of what is primarily a studio art form. Do you find it easier to recreate your music because you’re able to sing live vocals on your tracks?
It’s definitely a game. It’s hard to figure out how to do it. I come from a songwriting background. Like I told you I started on piano. That’s what I’m trained in: piano and singing. I learned bass for four years and I knew viola and upright bass and a couple other instruments. I have an instrumental background. That’s where my heart lies, in songwriting. With all of these songs, even through they’re beat-oriented songs, they’re songs. They’re not beats, they’re not designed to be whatever a beat is. They’re designed to be little emotional worlds, I guess. I don’t even know.
Is there any technology that you feel is missing that would aid in your live show?
I honestly think that it’s great so far. The MPD that I’m using is great but the goal, in the end, is to have a live band, a full band and everything. I was doing that. I had a 6-person band, including myself. I was signing and using a keyboard and computer and then there was guitar and drums and everything. It’s so much to have to deal with that and have so little to give the rest of the band at the end of every night. We’re not getting paid shit tons for every show. There’s very little money to give to the rest of the band so it’s much harder to start off doing that. That was the big goal of performing the way I am now. Because it’s isolated I can kickstart things in this way and still perform the songs by myself and have the singing and everything. It still feels like a human connection and not like a robotic performance. It’s a game. It’s definitely a game. You’re always trying to figure it out.