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Bass Instincts: How Bassnectar Came to Rule American Dance Music 

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

Wednesday, Nov 28 2012

Inside San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the atmosphere is bass.

The bass rips through you, pressing against your throat, lungs, and stomach like an invisible vise. The pressure sets off alarms in that reptilian part of your brain, but it also feels comforting, like resting against the warm hide of a huge, slowly breathing beast.

It's a Saturday night in October, and there are 8,500 people in here, many of them more naked than clothed. Each throbbing climax sends ripples of smiles, screams, and raised arms through the crowd. Lasers shoot across the room. Vast screens show patterns of colors shifting in time to the music.

The whole scene looks like a tribal ritual, a ceremony honoring some invisible deity. In a way that's what it is: This is a performance of Bassnectar, the stage name of 34-year-old San Jose native Lorin Ashton, who has built these displays of low-end into one of the most successful, most revered brands in American electronic music.

As you may have heard from USA Today or your little sister, so-called electronic dance music is enjoying unprecedented popularity in this country. Recording charts, ticket sales figures, and major publications all tell the story of a mushrooming fan base. But just take a listen to Top 40 smashes like Rihanna's "We Found Love" or any uptempo Lady Gaga single, and you'll hear the bright, beat-heavy sound that's been popular in Europe for decades, recently rebranded here under the awkward acronym "EDM." Yes, this music was hyped as the next big thing in the late '90s, and eventually lost out to boy bands and bling rap. It's back now, with more crossover appeal than ever.

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

Bassnectar is one of electronic dance music's biggest homegrown acts. Ashton's DJ sets draw sprawling crowds at festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, Coachella, and Bonnaroo. Last year alone he sold a quarter-million concert tickets, a number his managers claim is greater than any other electronic artist.

But Bassnectar's perch among the new crop of superstar DJs obscures an artistic philosophy and a musical aesthetic that are strikingly different from the likes of David Guetta or Deadmau5. Ashton was born into a South Bay commune and espouses his leftist political views and militant atheism, sparking arguments with fans online. Before he discovered dance music, Ashton played in death metal bands. He's famous for the long black locks he whips around while performing. He doesn't use drugs anymore, and urges his fans to think hard before they do. He also abstains from the party-boy antics and indulgences common to big-name DJs: no signing fans' breasts, no throwing cakes at the audience, no dating pop stars or courting the media spotlight.

It's Ashton's music that stands out most dramatically. He's commonly associated with a heavy, slow electronic subgenre called dubstep, whose wobbling basslines have spread from underground clubs in London to mainstream pop in the last decade. (Remember the trembling bass hits in Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me"?) But along with dubstep's signature drops — sections where most of the music falls away, leaving only the gut-shaking bass — Bassnectar sets weave in many other sounds: classic hip-hop and rock, punk, and electronic subgenres like drum 'n' bass. Many Bassnectar tracks begin from scratch, with Ashton building them piece-by-piece in the software program Ableton Live. But some of his best-known songs are pop hits he's uploaded to his laptop and then remixed, often adding glacial slabs of low-end.

Ashton calls his sound "omnitempo maximalism," an allusion to his unusual willingness to leap from a very slow song to a fast one, or even tweak the speed of the rhythm within a track. Bassnectar sets can shift from a mosh-inspiring assault to a patient plod best suited for mellow swaying. Granted, every good DJ works a crowd by bringing the music from a lull to a climax, but Ashton's sets are some of the most diverse in dance music — and that's helped him make fans out of people who might not otherwise go see a DJ.

"It's an amalgamation of so many different styles," says Aaron Axelsen, music director at Bay Area modern rock station Live 105, who has seen Ashton rise from playing house parties in Berkeley to producing tracks that his station spins up to 80 times a week. "He incorporates some of his punk and death metal ethics into his music — rock and rave culture. That's what makes Bassnectar stand out."

At first glance, Bassnectar's sold-out San Francisco show looks like a rave. Not the underground gatherings of the '90s, where a few thousand in-the-know people would dance all night to hypnotic beats, but the 2012 version: There are preteen girls wearing scandalously short shorts, sequined bras, and fluffy leg-warmers (as seems to be required at EDM events). There are bare-chested young men with tight muscles and baseball caps that read "Let's Get Naked." (Shirts are widely considered optional.) There are scattered couples furiously making out, totally oblivious to the music. Strangers smile and strike up conversations with a grinning ease — they're either the warmest people on the planet or have had their brain chemistry thoroughly altered.

Viewed at a distance, though, this looks like the diverse crowd you'd expect at a large pop or rock concert. Alongside kids with glow sticks, there are upscale thirty- and fortysomethings dressed in dark jeans and leather jackets. There are Burning Man types wearing dreadlocks and baggy pants. There are young men in oversized white T-shirts breakdancing in back.

Standing onstage before two laptops, dwarfed by the video screen behind him, Ashton plays his own tracks and remixes of other artists. His own songs are varied: Some, like "Timestretch" and "Empathy," are built on slow, gargantuan basslines; others are frenetic and jackhammering. But Bassnectar's remixes are especially interesting. Ashton shows off a bass-enhanced take on Led Zeppelin's reggae-flavored "D'yer Mak'er." He drops a minute of Dr. Dre's triumphant rap hit, "Still D.R.E." In an ode to a band Ashton saw in this very building as a teenager, he loops a few bars of Helmet's bludgeoning alt-metal single, "Unsung," using it as a prelude to Bassnectar's signature track.

That's when the show peaks: As the funky, farty blasts of "Bass Head" come tumbling out of the speakers, fans stream onto the room's main floor. Over the beat of his best-known song, Ashton drops a sample of Jay-Z imploring, "That's the anthem, get ya damn hands up." Confetti rains down from the ceiling, and everywhere, the crowd is losing it. Watching the climax of Ashton's set, it doesn't seem underground, or exclusive, or specialized. It seems like a hyperactive synthesis of many sounds that have been popular for decades, plus a few new ones. And it's not at all hard to see why audiences are so enthralled by it — and by Ashton himself, the wizard behind these towering curtains of bass.

Hanging out in his dimly lit dressing room before the show, Ashton comes off calm — and dead sober. He's wearing an old Bad Religion T-shirt, Nike sneakers, and long shorts, which is what he'll wear while performing. Stretching his long, spindly limbs, Ashton moves his head in slow circles, preparing for the headbanging he'll do later. He says proudly that he learned one neck-stretch from a roadie for the metal band Slayer.

When you're around Ashton, it's easy to forget that you're talking to one of dance music's most in-demand DJs, the head of a traveling operation that spans two tour buses and three semi-trucks. He's shy but easygoing, polite and humble. He drives a mid-2000s Toyota Camry he bought used, and wears what he calls "old clothes." But while he's hesitant to talk about money, it's safe to say Ashton brings in an unusual amount of it. Local promoters estimate the act earns around $75,000 to $100,000 per show, and Bassnectar plays about 150 shows a year. "I'm in the 1 percent, for sure," Ashton says. "I pay a fucking sickening amount of taxes — sickening." But, he quickly adds, "That amount of taxes I would happily double or triple if it meant there was a way to guarantee free healthcare and amazing education."

In a lot of ways, Bassnectar is a cult of personality. Ashton serves as a kind of tribal leader for his fans, a big brother with bass. He sees the project as a cultural and social concern, not merely a musical one, and speaks of his hardcore fans, known as Bass Heads, like a family. Every concert includes a "family photo" moment when Ashton is photographed standing onstage in front of the audience. Bass Heads in turn show loyalty for Ashton and a communitarian spirit. It's a subculture of thousands across the country who are ready to show up anywhere he plays, coordinating their rides, outfits, and after-parties through lengthy comment threads on the Bassnectar website.

Ashton once planned to become a high school guidance counselor, but he now serves that role as a musician, taking questions and responding with long, thoughtful letters on his website. His answers are serious and sincere, and may not be what the questioner wanted to hear.

Take drugs, for instance. It's clear that many in Ashton's San Francisco audience are under the influence of something, even if it's just a few furtive pulls of vodka or puffs of weed. And the famous-DJ lifestyle has been known to include its share of partying. But Ashton doesn't use drugs anymore, and seems to drink mostly wine, if anything. Asked what advice he'd give fans about substances, he brings up the "preciousness and irreplaceability of your nervous system."

"I don't have an entirely negative opinion of drugs," he says. "I've seen beautiful things happen from certain kinds of experimentation." But, "It's crazy to think about kids taking designer drugs at age 18, having no idea what they are, just getting some research chemical and putting way too much of it in their bodies. It's nuts. And I certainly wouldn't want to propagate that rock-star lifestyle."

Ashton says he found pot "really inspiring at one point." But he quit using it regularly around age 22 or 23, and would smoke once a year until giving it up three years ago. "I don't have any interest in bragging, but I do have an interest in looking back at the last 15 years of my life and seeing how productive I've been compared to some of my friends, who are probably more talented than me but who do too many drugs."

So while Ashton is easygoing, he's also very serious about what he thinks and how he lives. And that's never clearer than when discussing politics or religion. DJs are expected to be party-starters, not lecturers, but Bassnectar went through a phase last decade where Ashton, enraged by the political realities of the day, would stop mid-set to opine on the evils of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Ashton still shouts his take on sensitive subjects elsewhere: This fall, he sparked fiery debates online by blasting Mitt Romney (he has harsh words for Obama, too) and by dismissing American reverence for Christopher Columbus as a "fairy tale." He believes that "religion is a terrible thing" and equates worshipping a God to believing in the tooth fairy. And he doesn't mind alienating those who disagree. "I'm not a public clown who's there to try and get fans," Ashton says. "I don't want fans who I think are idiots."

In the Bay Area, it'd be strange if a long-haired musician didn't call the Iraq War a crime. But Ashton's fan base is far bigger than party-loving Nor-Cal lefties. Even before electronic dance music became a pop phenomenon, Ashton had accomplished something no other American DJ had: He built large followings in rural states like Missouri, Tennessee, and Nebraska, turning listeners far outside of the dance music circuit into the next generation of Bass Heads. Which is all the more surprising considering Ashton's quintessentially Northern California background.

The man behind Bassnectar never planned to become a DJ. In his teens, Ashton was part of the underground metal scene, playing in bands, promoting shows, and trading demos with fellow fans around the world. He would regularly listen to a late-night metal show on Stanford radio station KZSU. After the metal program, the station aired a program specializing in European dance music. At that point, Ashton was listening almost exclusively to bands like Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and more obscure acts. But there was something he grew to like about what he then considered "techno."

Ashton had spent his early years in a sort of commune in San Jose. The group split around the time Ashton turned 5, after which Ashton and his parents began attending a fundamentalist Christian church in San Jose. He says he had a happy childhood and a mostly harmonious relationship with his parents. By his early teens, though, he had abandoned Christianity, after finding that he kept losing arguments with friends and couldn't support his beliefs through logic.

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

As a child, Ashton says he displayed an almost self-defeating concern for the well-being of others. He remembers talking to a psychologist around sixth grade about feeling sorry for other kids who were getting teased. "My dad was always telling me, 'You're too empathetic, you've got to not worry so much about everyone else,'" he says.

So at age 17, when he went to his first rave, he felt immediately comfortable — the atmosphere a friendlier, more welcoming version of the underground spirit of the death metal scene. Metal shows, Ashton says, "felt a lot of times threatening or physically intense. To be in the direct polar opposite of that ... I was magnetized to it right away."

Ashton walked out of that rave in 1995 determined to produce a similar experience for others. More than making music, it was the urge to put on stunning events that drove him into dance music, and is still at the core of what Bassnectar does today.

Initially Ashton was simply a promoter, booking DJs to play at warehouses or secluded outdoor locations. Then, a year into his tenure as a rave producer, a DJ friend showed him the turntables. "I realized all it was is: You're playing one song and then you prepare the next song and then you fade into the next song," he says. "So the second I tried, because I had been drumming for so long, I just locked the beats. I realized this is the easiest thing in the fucking world!" And thus did Lorin Ashton, death metal kid and rave promoter, become the record selector subsequently known throughout the Bay Area as DJ Lorin.

At first Ashton spun acid house and psychedelic trance, styles that featured druggy melodies layered over hypnotic beats. Then in the late '90s, he got into breakbeat, an electronic genre built on the funky drum samples that also fueled hip-hop, but played at a much higher speed. This offered more aggressiveness and rhythmic variation, but Ashton, still a lover of heavy music, was looking for something more — "not too slow, but not frantic, more like the way an elephant would feel in a stampede," he says. Ashton tried pitching down records on his turntables to emphasize the bass, which sort of worked. But what he really wanted was for the more aggressive breakbeat styles, like nu skool breaks and drum 'n' bass, to go half-time, summoning the thundering heft he knew was there, but which hadn't been realized yet. In a few years, that's exactly what would happen.

In 1997, Ashton went to Burning Man for the first time — just for one night, to see a DJ. He stayed for the full experience in 1998, and ended up going every year for 12 years, sometimes playing five to seven sets per night. In those days, the annual festival in the Nevada desert was one of the only large gatherings of people in the U.S. who were into new, underground electronic sounds. And DJ Lorin was increasingly recognized as a supremely talented spinner.

Ashton performed as Bassnectar for the very first time in 2002, at a party thrown by friend and promoter Zack Darling in the North Bay. The night saw Ashton play with a Gamelan Orchestra from Bali, dancers on stilts, circus performers, and a 15-foot Golden Buddha onstage, all for a bunch of hippie kids after the Harmony Festival. The name change alluded to a new voraciousness in Ashton's sets, a new willingness to combine disparate musical elements. After that, Ashton never performed as DJ Lorin again.

Soon, Ashton began to play dramatically with tempos. It helped that by the early 2000s, U.K. producers had slowed down breakbeat to emphasize the heavy bass, spawning a number of new sounds, including what would become known as dubstep. The effect was mind-blowing to audiences at Burning Man."What he was playing to me sounded way more like funk and hip-hop, but I'd never heard it approached that way," says Robbie Kowal, a local promoter and fellow DJ who first saw Ashton at Burning Man in 2004.

Bringing the plodding tempos and shuddering bass to Black Rock City only expanded Ashton's reputation in the culture further. "He had a number of years there where he was like the Burning Man guy," Darling says. "He was playing dubstep before anybody even knew what dubstep was. They didn't even know what to call it. They just called it Bassnectar."

That strong identification with Burning Man eventually made Ashton uncomfortable — and it didn't help that he got tired of the festival's mix of hippies and dot-commers. "I kind of lost interest in it around 2002, but I would still go because it was an awesome crowd to play for," he says. "I just never really felt like a Burner."

But playing for so many years at Burning Man provided him with a laboratory of art-loving weirdos to impress. And it helped him develop a national network of fans, some of whom hired him to play parties in their towns. "He had an audience everywhere, he had these acolytes, this cadre of true believers in all these markets," says Kowal.

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

By the mid-'00s, Ashton was playing 150 shows a year around the country. (One October, he remembers playing 21 shows in S.F. alone.) After so much time on the playa, he'd earned what Kowal calls "a master's in how to blow people's minds." The problem was, many of the small-time promoters hiring Ashton didn't share his ideas about how put on shows — and he refused to compromise.

Lorin Ashton is an endlessly thoughtful individual. His obsessiveness and concern extends to nearly every aspect of Bassnectar, from ticket prices to the behavior of security at shows. It's perhaps most evident in the live experience, where Ashton is relentless in ensuring that fans have a fun and safe time. He takes song requests for each show online, and plays as many of them as he can. He recruits volunteers (called amBASSadors, naturally) to help distribute free earplugs and water, and to roam around the venues checking on other fans. Even Ashton's website has moderators that patrol the forums, answering questions and giving advice.

In the mid-'00s, when Bassnectar was playing midsize parties around the country, electronic dance music was not the big deal it is today. Many of the cities where Bassnectar performed didn't have dance clubs. The local rock venue or theater soundsystem wasn't up to amplifying the low-end assault that Bassnectar brought. And promoters didn't know how to make one guy on a stage with some CD decks exciting to watch.

Ashton, however, did — and plenty of friction ensued as he tried to get promoters to configure the stages, lights, and soundsystems the way he wanted them. "Promoters aren't used to dealing with another promoter showing up and telling them exactly how it's going to be," Kowal says. "He was willing to fight to get it how it needed to be, and he was constantly arguing with people who didn't understand."

Kowal remembers booking Bassnectar for San Francisco's Sea of Dreams New Year's Eve party in 2008. The plan was to have Ashton follow Thievery Corporation, which was performing with a 15-piece live band. After demanding that the stage be rearranged to accommodate his video setup, Ashton said he wanted the screens raised and six projectors set up within two minutes of Thievery Corporation leaving the stage. Otherwise, he argued, all the energy would go out of the room.

Kowal was initially reluctant to comply. But his team got the whole thing done in under 120 seconds — and the show was successful. "The amazing thing isn't that he was so demanding," says Kowal. "The amazing thing was that he was right. If we hadn't done it in two minutes, all the energy would've gone out of the room, and his set wouldn't have been anywhere near as good."

With video screens, rearranged speaker arrays, and sheer, sometimes brutal determination, Ashton helped blaze the way for dance music in smaller cities around the U.S. And as he went to increasingly obscure places, he became obsessed by it — and still is, saying he prefers touring North America to playing Europe. A few years later, in a surprising move for a dance DJ, Bassnectar began playing the jam-band circuit, touring with groups like Widespread Panic and STS9 for huge audiences of mostly white college kids. And Bassnectar — armed with the rock-like aggression of dubstep — won them over, helping build a broad and deep network of fans that he still plays to today.

Ashton isn't the king of American dubstep, though. That title belongs to Skrillex, the stage name of Sonny Moore. Ashton considers Moore a friend, and their music shares a number of similarities: Both came to electronic music from playing in metal bands, and have a fascination with big, rumbling bass drops. Their contrasts are more striking: Where Bassnectar tracks often have a sensual funkiness lurking within the throb, Skrillex is aggressively mechanical. And while Ashton tries to avoid the cool-kid spotlight, Moore revels in it, dating pop stars like Ellie Goulding and hitting the L.A. party circuit.

So when Skrillex won three Grammy awards earlier this year, Ashton felt relieved. "I had been really nervous about being the one on top, and getting too much hate for the popularity I had," he says. It "let me feel more like the Les Claypool or the Frank Zappa of the movement, where I just felt much less restrictions and much less expectations." Ashton's fans, who enjoy a sort of rivalry with Skrillex, were less enthused. But even the fact that one of Bassnectar's peers won three Grammys is an indication of the popularity of dubstep and dance music today.

Ashton rejects the narrative of electronic dance music's "recent" explosion. For him, it's been a much longer, more gradual process. "By 2004, 2005, I thought it was just unbelievably big," he says. "And every year thereafter, it doubled or tripled. It's extremely old news — even though it's beautiful news." But even Ashton admits that Bassnectar is part of the mainstream music landscape in a way that he never expected.

At times he seems uncomfortable with the breadth of his fan base, and he says he's reached a point where he's no longer interested in expanding it. "Obviously, I'm not underground anymore, but I feel like I am," Ashton says. "My personality is underground, my tastes are underground, and I feel very protective of the underground."

Dubstep, the music Bassnectar helped popularize, is no longer underground either. After arriving on the pop charts, it seeped into advertising, and is now practically inescapable. Kowal has a theory about why this sound found success in the states while higher-tempo electronic styles like house and techno struggled. "Maybe kids didn't want to dance as fast," he says. "Maybe we're all fat and out of shape in this country. Dubstep is a perfect electronic music for Americans because we eat too much."

Or maybe there's another reason. Mainstream rock has declined in popularity in recent years, selling fewer and fewer records. That's meant a lack of the deep, aggressive, intensely physical music that many young males — especially white ones — spend some part of their youth listening to. There's an easy line to be drawn between the gigantic riffs of Metallica and Nirvana and the pounding assault of Bassnectar and Skrillex. If anything, the new electronic artists unleash a rumble from their laptops that even an amplified guitar couldn't match. The origin of this music — European clubs — seems unlikely at first, but less so when seen through the biographies of Ashton and Moore, both of whom came up playing metal. So could America have turned dance music into the new frontier of heaviness?

"The answer is absolutely yes," says Live 105's Axelsen. "To the new generation, this is their rock show. These are their rock stars."

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

About The Author

Ian S. Port


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