Bass God: Bassnectar Is Not a DJ. He’s a Movement.
Ruthlessly authentic, indifferent to fame, Bassnectar is the truth. Listen to his new track and enjoy our sitdown with the leader of the un-EDM generation.
"I had a very slow and steady development from the ground up, with no intention of getting famous," declares Bassnectar. "To this day I have no interest in it."
As a performer who shares festival stages with the many spotlight-seeking, champagne-spraying acts of EDM, Bassnectar is an outlier for his indifference to the trappings of DJ fame. Still, it hasn't stopped him from playing the biggest festivals, selling out his own headlining tours, and leading a cult-like following that gives jam band groupies a run for their money.
Stream "Hold On feat. TURSI" off Bassnectar's forthcoming album Noise vs. Beauty exclusively here on THUMP
Bassnectar, aka Lorin Ashton, strolled into THUMP at the VICE Brooklyn office a few weeks ago accompanied by a refreshingly small posse of one, wearing a black t-shirt and ripped shorts like he usually wears on stage, his waist-length mane tied in a tasteful topknot. He was all-business: focused, eager and as interested in me, my story and musical tastes as I was in his.
"The terrain was so different when I was starting," Ashton says. "The definition of a DJ was changing. I was in college training to be a guidance counselor or possible high school teacher and I began throwing free raves out in the woods and in warehouses."
The 36-year-old Bay Area-bred producer and performer has spent 14 years engineering his deadly blend of heavy dubstep, breakbeat, glitch, and hip-hop—and now there's nobody who sounds quite like him. On June 24, he unleashes his tenth studio album, Noise vs. Beauty. A further evolution in the Bassnectar sound, and a finished product that he refers to as "his most musical album ever." The fifteen track release features a whopping nine collaborations and travels the windy roads between vocal heavy 808 jams, hypnotic bass mind-benders and even some dashes of hip-hop flavor, a trend he's played with with ever since his 2012 collab with Lupe Fiasco, "Vava Voom."
Ashton started working on the album during a six-month tour hiatus—a first after being on the road for eleven months at a time, for ten years. "I was really able to immerse myself," he explains. "I started by writing music without beats and bass."
The recording process had several incarnations. One version only featured guitar, piano and random flutterings of his own voice. He collaborated with a host of singers, songwriters, vocalists, bands and MCs to have them record over Ashton's original, stripped down versions of the tracks for what ended up sounding like "Sigur Ros vs. Bon Iver vs. Mumford and Sons vs. who the fuck knows." The final version of NVSB found Ashton essentially remixing his own work that featured contributions from the album's eventual featured and guest artists.
"I wound up with songs that in some cases were dramatically complex musicals," he admits. "I felt liberated because I loved the music and for the first time I authentically don't really care if other people like it or not."
It's safe to say his fans will like it. As an artist, Bassnectar knows how to acknowledge that support in tangible ways. While he rarely plays at bottle service-type clubs, when he does—as he did at Surrender Las Vegas—he asks the venue to relax their dress code to accommodate the wild and wacky stylings of his fans.
"I identified myself as a member of an underground scene and not a DJ," Ashton explains. "I was never trying to commercialize it. I got Bassnectar.net in 1998 because I wanted to network."
Though he could afford a more lavish lifestyle, Ashton lives modestly, more like a guidance counselor or high school teacher than a globetrotting DJ. He gives one dollar from every ticket sold to a non-profit as part of his "Dollar Per Bass Head Program." And while he hasn't been to Burning Man in the last few years, he readily acknowledges the impact the festival had on the early years of his career in the late 90s and early 00s.
"Suddenly there was this freak festival where I could go play five sets a night for all of the rejects and weirdos from around the country," he says. "Someone would walk up to me in a crazy costume asking if I wanted to play their Halloween warehouse party in DUMBO or art collective Christmas party in Chicago. [Burning Man] was really a breeding ground for that culture."
Bassnectar Sunday morning sunrise set At Burning Man '09
While his sound has evolved, his live sets have always been characterized by a boundless and open format, presented via his method of rapid fire clips and thunderous loops from any genre you can think of. "For me DJing is gloves off. It's about a no-rules, high creativity sound collage--taking different cultures and ideas and smashing them together. It's an art form."
Despite his openness, Ashton isn't too keen on the discussions around EDM at the moment. "It's a conversation I would prefer to be on the outside of. I think that commercialized mainstream culture is more of the problem."
Ashton is adamant that he respects everyone's personal preferences while also realizing that people in certain parts of the country only have exposure to the mainstream side of the EDM spectrum. But it's not something he wants to endorse, either. "When it comes to most of the EDM DJs out there I don't have any respect or interest in what they're doing. They look like phonies to me."
Bassnectar NYE 2012 in Nashville, TN. Photo: Rukes.com "It's been hard to watch something so special to me be diluted and heisted and turned into this kind of shameless, cheap, fake carnival," he continues. "To that degree I hate EDM. I worry it's depleting the authenticity of DJ culture... but you really can't hate on 30,000 people having the time of their lives."
His concerns about authenticity apply to himself too. He repeatedly references the compromises he's had to make to bring his shows to large numbers of people while maintaining reasonable ticket prices, paying his crew of twenty members along with the cost of a massive visual and audio production that powers his shows. "I could choose to make a stand and say I'm only going to play to a 200 person pizza parlor and shut out 5,000 kids," he acknowledges. "But what good will that do and who will I be reaching? I'd rather play at an event at a venue like Red Rocks to 20,000 people over two nights."
Bassnectar at Red Rocks 2014. Photo: aLIVE Coverage.com "My intention is to make an impact on culture and human kind because I'm authentically blown away by life and I'm in awe of the magic of every moment. There's a lot of instances where true artistry and musical authenticity meet compromise," he adds "That's the threshold of selling out to me and I choose to compromise only when I feel like it will benefit my music and the fans. If it somehow ricochets and accidently enriches the culture then that's great. And if it doesn't then that's a problem. "
Believe it or not, Ashton says he won't be doing this forever. "I need to figure out how I can bring other quests into the mix--I'd love to write books, read more books, watch more films, hike and visit more waterfalls and wear weird costumes and meet strangers." Indeed, the man who takes "family photos" at every show--with the focus on the crowd of revelers, not the artist himself who often covers his face with crossed arms--is as curious about the people who listen to his music as he is about making it.
Towards the end of our chat, Ashton reads the lyrics to his song "Noise" that he says sum up what he stands for as an artist and human being: "I do what I want to do it's all that's ever mattered. / Never been one to chase what these other people been after. / Fame means nothing to me; their names mean nothing to me. / So if you're saying I've changed it's clear that you never knew me."
Then he says: "I just got goosebumps again." David will be blasting Bass Head straight to the grave. @DLGarber More stories on trailblazing DJs
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