Lorin Ashton's future holds sold-out arenas and packed festival grounds, but his past is full of empty spaces.
There were the various beaches, the artichoke fields in Watsonville, the wooded hillsides — all places that Ashton helped scout out as part of a group of young musicians who brought parties to places that initially held more potential than people.
DJing, producing, and performing tirelessly under the name Bassnectar since 2002, Ashton has cemented his commitment to the twitchy melodies, physical force, and collective magnetism of heavy bass music. "The pie chart of my human being has really been about 90 percent Bassnectar for 15 years or more," he says.
Powered by a do-it-yourself philosophy he maintains on "full fucking overdrive," he can now effortlessly sell out the 8,000-capacity Bill Graham Civic Auditorium or co-headline festivals such as this weekend's two-day Bay Area Vibez event. Damian and Stephen Marley, Aloe Blacc, Super Cat, and many more will perform on Saturday, and Bassnectar and Nas will share the marquee slots on Sept. 27.
But speak to the 37-year-old San Jose native about his musical evolution and he'll tell you about the importance of those formative, pre-fame locations and how they were more than lost weekends.
"When I was at UC Santa Cruz [in the late '90s] I was part of the 13 Moontribe, which was a special group of friends that gathered at a coffee shop every Wednesday to talk about different lands we found where we could throw free parties on the full moon.
"I've always looked at parties not only as a lover of music, but as an instigator of community, someone very much wanting to participate and bring people together to network with each other and enrich themselves."
Years removed from his moonlit nights appearing as "DJ Lorin," Ashton now fiercely wobbles his long hair silhouetted against towering video screens, saturating Day-Glo bass heads with lasers and distending low-end rumble. Asked teasingly about the parallels between taming his hair and his audio files, he laughs and confirms he does have a head of split ends, as well as a musical sensibility to match where "everything is interconnected but uniquely separated in its style or reference."
His highly tactile sonic interplay references the psychoactive melodies of open-air parties and a kick drum assault influenced by N.W.A. and Public Enemy, strafed with equal nods to trip-hop, acid jazz, drum 'n' bass and hippie drum circles. And this foundation of dilating funk dovetailed nicely with the rise of dubstep.
Before becoming shorthand for unrelentingly aggressive mechanized bass drops, dubstep emerged from East London in the early 2000s as a conduit for dark riddims drawing from two-step garage, jungle, dub reggae, broken beat, and tech-house; mutating subbass seemed like the only common denominator. While Ashton's strain of breakbeat pressure is more chest-palpitating and grin-inducing than some of dubstep's moodier originators, he carries on the tradition of pitch-bent tempo shifts in his recombinant style.
Ashton's sonic fringes have always included springy reggae and bangin' hip-hop alongside wonky future bass, making Bay Area Vibez a perfect showcase. It's not only an opportunity to test the elasticity and volume of his tonal coif; the show has personal resonance and will be dotted with references and sonic humor extending all the way to his roots.
"Getting to play outside, down on the water in Oakland is something I've been begging my team to do forever.Then I heard it was Pretty [Damian Marley tour manager Albert 'Pretty' Cooke] and his family organizing it and it became something mandatory I play," Aston says. "Pretty is a big presence, a long dreadlocked Rastafarian dude who really took me under his wing in the late '90s when I was opening for Spearhead. He'd laugh at me for setting up my gear on basically a fold-out kitchen table, tell me to get a black curtain to hang in front so people wouldn't be laughing at my legs. So it's great to get to do this with him. Plus, it's the only Bay Area play I have this year in celebration of the mixtape Into the Sun released back in June], and it's my chance to play for all my friends, people who were at Bassnectar shows in 1998, that became fans in 2008, and potential new fans. There's such a history here; it feels like an avalanche of momentum."
Ashton's aggregate of sounds and scenes has been snowballing from Northern California since he picked up a guitar at 16 to rebel against a conservative Christian upbringing and explore various shades of extreme. The influence of the underground led a young Ashton to put on free death metal shows in the Cupertino Public Library basement. The tribal energy generated almost blew his mind. "I cracked my head on the ceiling the first show, and I had to go to the hospital," he says.
His interest in death metal led to an obsession with electronic music thanks to Stanford's radio station, KZSU. "I'd record the death metal show late at night and my tape would turn over while I was sleeping and record the experimental techno show," says Ashton, who took that chance discovery as a sign to search out San Francisco's warehouse raves.
"I loved the dynamic of the hardcore psychedelic acid trance main floor and the side chillout room where people were fearlessly playing a record of waterfall sound effects into a record of storybook spoken word into another of chanting Gregorian monks," he recalls. "It sounded like artistic collages."
That freeform, overlapping aesthetic has served Ashton well as he transitioned far beyond dorm parties, commandeered beaches, and five short gigs a night at Burning Man. He has been part of waves of what he calls "youth culture riot music" without getting caught in the current. "You can talk about genre all day, but I talk about it as different levels of intensity. Even my Exhumed and death metal influences get slipped in still, but you wouldn't know it. They rarely take the concrete shape of a guitar; it's more in the heaviness."
Even though he says Bassnectar may condense to a six-month-on/six-month-off model so he can "appreciate being in the present" rather than worrying about expanding, Ashton promises to be in "maniac art mode" when active. The "long-haired stoner" that never fit in at Bellarmine College Preparatory school still sees the Bay Area Vibez show as just another open field, scouted out by a friend, and ready to be serenaded.