Blending devastating beats with his own pensive tendencies, meet the eclectic Swedish producer hypnotising a whole new generation of ravers
It’s Thursday night in a video-game bar in Dalston, and Baba Stiltz is talking about one of his favourite pastimes. “I enjoy watching people play video games by myself,” he says, tucking a lock of dark, shoulder-length hair behind his ear. “It’s extremely therapeutic for me, and so disconnected from everything I know and do on a daily basis.” What the 23-year-old Swede does on a daily basis is music: having written his first song in kindergarten, he’s rapidly gaining attention for his weirdly introspective dance tracks that pulsate with a new, hypnotic energy. Amid a wave of musical talent emanating from Sweden (think brooding rapper Yung Lean and his Sad Boys crew and the Staycore collective), Stiltz stands apart – associated, but distinct.
Of mixed Swedish, American and Filipino heritage, you might summarise Stiltz’s looks today as part-1980s, Gianni Versace-era male model, and part-CGI avatar. “I wanted to go for the Jennifer Aniston look,” he jokes, pointing at his coiffed locks in a Polaroid from the shoot. He turned up, it transpires, with unwashed hair and an unshaved face – “It worked out, though,” he says. “They kept the matador moustache.”
Stiltz grew up in Stockholm, living in the same building as Sad Boy member Axel Tufvesson, better known as Yung Sherman, who he remembers as being shy – the two would often play together in the back yard. And while Stiltz also spent a brief stint in America, which he loved on account of the “Nickelodeon and Cap’n Crunch”, he’s a proud Stockholmer, quick to extol his hometown’s burgeoning music, fashion and art scenes, and the city’s “level-headedness”. “(Growing up there), you’re very much a city kid,” he says in his perfect and softly accented English. “But you’re not a cynical drug addict by the age of 14 – unless you want to be.”
“I was bullied at school, so I learned pretty quickly that you either get really sad about it or you become an individualist, you build your identity quickly and create your own world” – Baba Stiltz
Much like his fondness for video-game “voyeurism”, as he calls it, Stiltz’s route into dance music hasn’t been conventional. While he’s been writing songs since his childhood, it wasn’t music that occupied his youth, but dance – specifically, ballet. Placed in a dance class to work off his “extra energy”, he demonstrated a natural knack, and was encouraged to apply for dance school. He was quickly accepted by the Royal Swedish Ballet, where he endured six years of rigorous training, performing in major venues such as Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Opera House and dancing in ballets like Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. “I have fond memories of running around these old, regal buildings with my friends,” he recalls. “It was cool, but it was tough, too. (Ballet) is a tough, tough thing. I think it left me with discipline. It taught me the value of spending time on something so you get better, and that’s a gratifying process.”
While Stiltz’s ballet days are now behind him, the work ethic has remained – and he still dances. Watch his “Cherry” music video and you’ll see him bop around his bedroom wearing socks and Birkenstock sandals, watch him live and you’ll see him bounce around behind the decks like he’s dancing on hot coals. What is clear from “Cherry”, his live sets and, indeed, spending any amount of time with him in person is Stiltz’s supreme self-assuredness. He’s clearly comfortable in his own skin – though not for the reasons you’d expect. “I was bullied at school,” he says, “so I learned pretty quickly that you either get really sad about it or you become an individualist, you build your identity quickly and create your own world. And that’s what I did.”
A big part of his time is spent reading: aged just 11, Stiltz lost himself in the works of Russian novelists such as Bulgakov, Dostoevsky and Gogol. Virginia Woolf was another favourite – her 1928 novel Orlando, in particular. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he found solace in Woolf’s tale of another man’s journey to selfdetermination. “I was a really pretentious little shithead,” he admits with a laugh. “I was the worst.” Now it’s political science that he sinks his teeth into, describing himself with a self-aware cringe as a “pseudo-intellectual”. Though Stiltz is evidently politically informed and engaged, when quizzed on Sweden’s current political climate, specifically its immigration policy, he declines to comment, saying, “It’s a far more complicated issue than a little shithead DJ could answer a question (about).”
“Since I was a Bright Eyes fan, I was big into prescription drugs,” he says later on, revealing another pastime of his early years. “(Bright Eyes lynchpin Conor Oberst) liked pills, and I wanted to be like him. I didn’t drink until I was 18, but I’d smoke weed and take a bunch.” Later, he’ll pull off his baggy grey hoodie and reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with “It’s all fun and games till the drugs run out” (his cousin’s design).
Taking his cue from esoteric folk artists like John Fahey to begin with, Stiltz performed as a one-man folk band called The Bethlehem Beard Corporation during his mid-teens, releasing two albums. But he soon began to crave something harder. “I was a teenager and just wanted to hear fast music and vulgar lyrics,” he recalls. It was his discovery of Moodymann, who Drake recently sampled on his new playlist More Life, that proved most galvanising. “‘Don’t You Want My Love’ was the only thing I listened to for days,” he says, recalling the time he first heard the Detroit legend’s 2000 house anthem.
“It’s about really simple things most of the time,” says Stiltz of his own music. “Like being sad that someone did something, or that you did something – being happy, being drunk, being high. There’s not too much happening, it’s fairly straight to the point.” When I suggest he’s reflecting on the human experience, he counters that that sounds “way too smart”. “I wrote this song recently called ‘On My Way Home’ and the lyrics are ‘On my way again’ and then, ‘On my iPhone again,’” he says. “So it’s kind of like when you’re on your way home and then you’re on your iPhone, and you’re like, ‘Again?’ You know, when you catch yourself.” Ultimately, these are songs to soundtrack the early hours – moments of euphoria and drugged-up delirium when you find yourself in a packed club, lost in the music and the realisation that you are, ultimately, a soul on a spinning rock hurtling through time and space.
“I’m just doing the exact same thing that I was doing when I was 14, the only difference is that now I get paid for it” – Baba Stiltz
Back on Earth, Stiltz has worked with one of the most respected and enigmatic experimental dance labels around, The Trilogy Tapes (on 2016 single “Keep It Lit”). In May this year, he released ‘Can’t Help It’, a mesmerising ode to being so enamoured with someone that “you don’t see the person, just your own projections”. The track throbs with a sparse, knife-sharp tension, with Stiltz’s aching vocals rising above: “I’m selfish, can’t help it, I love you so much.”
“I think certain people are noticing some stuff now. But I’ve been releasing pretty hectically for the past seven years,” says Stiltz. “I’m just doing the exact same thing that I was doing when I was 14, the only difference is that now I get paid for it – which is pretty amazing.” One person to notice Stiltz is Drake, who namechecks him on the production credits of “Don’t Run”, a song the Canadian rapper co-wrote for PARTYNEXTDOOR. But while more mainstream success looks like a possibility, or perhaps even an inevitability, for this young Swede, it feels like he’ll always remain an elusive figure of the musical underground.
On paper, Stiltz is a difficult person to pinpoint – the Jennifer Aniston hair, the matador moustache, the video-game voyeurism, the ballet, the Virginia Woolf, and his simple, instinctive approach to house. In person, though, he makes complete sense. He is, as he said, an individualist – a layered personality and maybe even a modern-day Orlando. Sitting on a “large amount of material”, Stiltz’s music feels like a totally natural byproduct of who he is. It’s not forced or contrived, but, rather, innate and simply what makes him happy. It’s not even playing to a rammed club (which he did at the Pickle Factory in east London the following night) that gets him going. “I don’t have a mission,” he says of his modus operandi, or lack thereof. “The moment I’ve made something and I put it on my iPhone and show it to my friend – that’s the best moment.”
Baba Stiltz’s new single “Can’t Help It” is out now via Studio Barnhus
Hair Louis Ghewy at Management + Artists using Dyson Supersonic, make-up Daniel Sallstrom at CLM using NARS, set design Thomas Bird at Bryant Artists, photographic assistants Alexa Horgan, Edgar Chudoba, styling assistants Camille Marchand, Hilal Mohammed, set design assistant Joshua Parker, production Ellie Robertson at Mini Title