It turns out if you want to get the Los Angeles-based musician Will Wiesenfeld, stage name Baths, talking about video games, you should ask him about Diablo 2. In video game circles he’s known for the theme song for this summer’s Dream Daddy, as well as the understated trailer music for Hyper Light Drifter’s stunningly successful Kickstarter campaign. Listening to Baths’ densely packed electronic music for the better part of five years, I never once imagined the person behind it hunched over a computer deciding which synergy of Barbarian abilities to pursue.
“The thing that excites me more than anything else is a skill tree, like a good ass skill tree,” he tells me over the phone. “It’s like my favorite fucking thing in the world and I still think that the skill trees in Diablo 2 were my absolute favourite.”
I’m stuck in traffic outside of Philadelphia as he starts to talk a little faster. “It wouldn’t show you what the skill was, it just had a symbol and a sort of vague description, so it was enough to entice you,” he says. “And then when you actually got the thing it was like this big well-earned surprise. The time that it took in order to get that new skill always felt really appropriate, that you had to work for it. But then it was such an amazing feeling whenever you got a new thing… I just love that shit. I love the skill trees.”
Wiesenfeld broke out with a hit 2010 album Cerulean, which was recorded in his bedroom over the course of two months. He’s forged music out of everything from his jittery vocals to the deconstructed fragments of pulling the ethernet cable out of his computer, and as a result the album surpassed and outlasted the American West coast chillwave miasma in which it percolated. Three more albums and an EP later, he stands out in the crowded field of electronic music in part by embracing his own idiosyncrasies, all of which are on display at his prolific Twitter account (he has a soft spot for Overwatch shipping) and scattered but intimate musical compositions.
Obsidian, Wiesenfeld’s third album, opens with a track called “Worsening” and the words “Birth was like a fat black tongue / Dripping tar and dung and dye / Slowly into my shivering eyes.”
Prior to writing it, Wiesenfeld suffered a short bout of E. coli. While the bacteria only lasted a few days, the medicine he took for it laid him out for weeks. That bleakness, barely able to get out of bed and unable to consume real food, permeates Obsidian. The mild body horror reflected in some of the album’s lyrics are also mediated by fantasies that helped Wiesenfeld escape at the time, chief among them Skyrim.
“I was able to muster up enough [energy] to, like, play video games because it was like the easiest thing for me to accomplish,” he says. “It just became the perfect thing where I could squeeze in a couple of hours each day in between all the other bad, negative things going on.” Few games are easier to lose yourself in than Skyrim, which is what Wiesenfeld did, despite being physically debilitated. “I just went through it really, really slowly and had the time of my life. The music especially was perfect in that game.”
Specifically he mentions the Whiterun theme, a sweeping pastoral track in the game’s main city structured around a piano and violin. “I think that is the most beautiful track for me in that game. I have it on my phone and my iPod and I play it all the time.”
Wiesenfeld calls Obsidian a “Medieval-tinged dark pop experience” and notes both Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame 2 as touchstones for the album’s grim atmosphere. Much of the material is inspired by games and anime. Sometimes the references are oblique, as with Skyrim’s effect on Obsidian. I’ve listened to “Turian Courtship,” a particularly forlorn track off of a Baths B-Sides compilation, close to a hundred times without making the connection to Mass Effect. “I was obsessed with gerus and I still am,” he confirms during our call.
Other connections are more explicit. The B-Sides track “Seaside Town,” samples Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. “This is just the kind of place I’ve always imagined,” a sample of the movie’s voice actor Kirsten Dunst declares breathlessly five seconds in. “Seaside Town” perfectly captures the feeling of the movie over the course of a brief three minutes. More than that, it suggests a version of the port city of Koriko that exists outside of the narrative arc of the film. Like Skyrim or Mass Effect, it feels a part of a world that keeps on existing even when you’re not around but that you can visit through Wiesenfeld’s music.
finally living ur truth pic.twitter.com/zTMzUUijF6
— ● Will Wiesenfeld ● (@BATHSmusic) October 28, 2017
Baths’ latest album, Romaplasm, is less coy than earlier Baths and flaunts its allusions more openly. It starts with “Yeomen” and a more buoyant Wiesenfeld declaring in sing-songy fashion, “Man, it’s good to see you / This must be the airship / And are these your fellow crew? / Where are we headed? / I have nothing to do.” At one level it’s a permutation of the Reading Rainbow song, trading books for mornings spent watching Cardcaptor Sakura (“decent,” at least in the beginning), My Love Story!! (“very cute”), Hunter × Hunter (“watched the entire thing in two or three months”), and Haikyu!! (“my favorite of the past year”). It’s also Wiesenfeld’s invitation to the listener about to embark on Baths’ most pop album yet.
“Towards the end of making the record I was trying to figure out what was connecting everything within it,” he says, “because I’d made all the songs that were just exactly how I was feeling about things and making these little odes to different pieces of media in my life that I had just obsessed over. The common thoroughfare was this feeling of romanticism where it’s super outside of myself and my own experiences.”
Romaplasm (a play on Romanticism and the fourth state of matter) is closer to being a musical re-interpretation of his media diet than a diary entry. “Engagement with these other realms of stuff just keeps things very interesting for me and feels the most real because that’s where my passion is and where I feel the most at home.”
Dragon Age is a good example of the kind of home Wiesenfeld is referring to. “It just completely sucked me in,” he says. “There’s so much to explore and it’s so much fun to actually play the weird sort of top-down ‘survey the battlefield’ kind of thing. You get to pick and choose the way that you operate.”
Wiesenfeld was particularly obsessed with Dragon Age’s character creator. “I was kinda obsessed with my Inquisitor that I made,” he said in a follow-up email after our call.” He romanced Dorian, loved Vivienne and Cullen, and thought Solas a bit of a creep. “In the back of mind I thought something was up with him, and then when the ending hit I was like WHELPP.”
The one part of the game that’s stuck with him the most is the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts side quest. “It’s a detailed and entirely singular quest in the game where you have to navigate through this opulent, gorgeous gathering of royals and high society while committing as few social faux pas as possible,” writes Wiesenfeld.
“I was SO INTO it. The extreme attention to detail in those environments, the secrecy of the whole experience, my simultaneous gay romance with Dorian all the while— I was RIVETED!! I could play a MILLION hours of a game like that. I’ve always been obsessed with narratives that deal with some deep political or royal hierarchy, and to actually PLAY through one was such a blast.”
Pockets of the scene he describes show up on Romaplasm’s third track, “Abscond.” Lyrics like “If I scale the castle wall, will that do? Win your affection if I fall, call truce / We boys like bells, like gongs that put the town into a song” could fit seamlessly into a Dragon Age side-story without feeling derivative or borrowed.
Owning up to the uniquely 21st century constellation of art inspirations and influences took time. “Growing up in the San Fernando Valley [in Los Angeles] it was all like BMX culture and pickup trucks and shit like that,” he says. “And I couldn’t engage with any of my friends about, like, Sailor Moon.”
When it came to creating tracks for Dream Daddy and Hyper Light Drifter, Wiesenfeld’s exacting nature as a musician hit up against the process of making themes to complement what already existed. Questions about what the music should be and logistical obstacles threatened to mothball the collaboration until one day Wiesenfeld called up Dream Daddy co-creator Vernon Shaw and said, “Can I just do it and we’ll worry about whether or not things are proper for it after the fact?” He ended up turning in the theme music a week and half before the game came out. It’s a simple, melodic repetition of the game’s name that’s proven to be one of the more memorable opening menu songs.
With Hyper Light Drifter, there were plans for Wiesenfeld to contribute more than just the initial trailer soundtrack, but Wiesenfeld thinks in retrospect an entire game’s worth of music would have been an impossible task at this point in his career. “I think I would have fallen short scoring an entire game like that,” he says. “I sort of get really self-conscious about recycling things when I’m stretched that far.” Praising Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for the game as “perfect,” Wiesenfeld thinks the few minutes he did contribute for a trailer, which came to define the game throughout much of its long development, was the right amount for him personally.
At this point, Wiesenfeld doesn’t feel the need to point toward some loftier impulse behind a lot of his music. “Being an out person I told myself I kind of had nothing left to hide. All of those other things just sort of came along with it where I just became way more open about all the otherwise dumb shit I was really into.”
The result so far has been a catalogue of sounds and melodies that feel readily familiar to anyone raised on the sonic limitations of earlier video games or the sincere melodrama of anime romance, but which doesn’t ever lose itself to crude idolatry. Romaplasm just happens to be the purest expression of those influences yet. Wiesenfeld describes his morning anime compulsion as a sort of “safe space” where he can be completely, unselfconsciously himself: a dude writing some of the most purely exuberant electronic music in between binge watching the latest Crunchyroll translations and waiting on Dragon Age 4.