Interview: Bassnectar, the anti-hipster 

click to enlarge Bassnectar headbangs
  • At a Bassnectar show, "you’re just as likely to see a frat guy as you are to see a Rastafarian as you are to see
    some kind of weird, long-haired freak."
  • Submitted photo.

Lorin Ashton, better known as electronic-music DJ/producer Bassnectar, has a new album out next Tuesday, Vava Voom. Like his other offerings, it features an array of sounds reflecting a variety of electronic subgenres. The commonality? Bass.

Ashton brings his low-end-intensive sound to the Egyptian Room next Wednesday. We caught up with him recently after a headlining gig at the massive Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Fla.

NUVO: You played Ultra last night?

Bassnectar: Yeah, it was fuckin' insane. Closing out the third night was - I just hadn't seen that stage even half as full the whole weekend. It was just absolutely apeshit, from left to right and front to back. I hadn't expected that many people: When I looked at the stage during the day, I thought, "Oh wow, this is kind of a small area," and then it was well over 10,000 people just kind of crammed into this bowl. It was a really unique vantage point because the stage came out forward into the crowd, so I could see very far to my left, and very far to my right, and up the hill. It was really wicked, really fun.

Excision was in Indy recently and had a setup that launched more bass at the audience than most people had probably ever experienced. Do you think there's such a thing as too much bass at a show?

Absolutely. It's all about a balance. I started bringing my own bass and my own soundsystem to shows back in 2004, 2005, when there wasn't really an understanding of bass music at the time in America. There wasn't even really a DJ scene or DJ clubs to play at unless you were Tiësto or Paul Oakenfold.

So I was playing in rock clubs and rock venues and theaters and rooms that, you know, the night before might've had Slayer, the night before that might've had a jam band, and the night before that, a punk-rock band. And so we'd roll in, and they'd only have like one sub, so we'd have to set up our own subs.

The key to me is to make it sound like you're inside of a pickup truck with a nice soundsystem in it, so it's an enclosed space without a lot of echo; it's really tight, really warm, really full. And to me, sound is physical. I want to think about sound in terms of weight and physical texture, and not so much ear volume. If you turn the bass up too loud, it washes everything else out. So you have to have just enough to vibrate the cells of everyone's body, but the melody is really important too, so it's all about that balance.

The diversity in your crowd never ceases to amaze. What do you think accounts for that in the music you play?

I always have a really creative approach to music. I'm a person of very diverse musical tastes. I am just as interested in satanic death metal as I am in Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill as I am in the film score to American Beauty. I just really like all different kinds of music, and I like to combine everything into one kind of unified, thick, heavy sound, and I think that appeals to a lot of people. But I'm also kind of a nerd, and I'm not really into being cool [laughs]. I'm the anti-hipster, so I think it's just opened doors for an eclectic group of personalities, you know. You're just as likely to see a frat guy as you are to see a Rastafarian as you are to see some kind of weird, long-haired freak, and I think that people of all shapes and sizes come out, and everyone really gets along. It's exciting to watch the community building.

Your new album, Vava Voom, comes out soon. Did any one thing in particular inspire it?

The concept for the record, similar to Timestretch, was feeling like life is moving at such an unbelievably fast rate - it's like warp speed for me, and it's 10 times faster than it was last year, and that's 10 times faster than it was the year before, and 1,000 times faster than I ever thought it would be.

Vava Voom is really like, instead of reeling from that or instead of trying to slow it down, it's really just diving in headfirst and saying "Fuck yeah, here we go!" It feels like being hypnotized almost, when things are moving that fast. Because you lose a sense of what's present, what's past and what's future, and it's all just kind of like a whirlpool of action and activity, and that was the theme for the track I did with Lupe [Fiasco], and it kind of just held for the rest of the record.

The record's kind of like a sequel to Divergent Spectrum because each song is really different from the next, and it continues to show and express that I don't really have one specific Bassnectar sound. So when people online are like, "You should play your old style. You should go to your roots!", to me, it just shows that the person has no idea what my roots are, because I do really like punk rock music. And I really like dubstep. And I really like downtempo. And I really like music that doesn't even have a beat. I like music that doesn't even have bass: I like tender, emotional music that makes you cry, and I like ugly, filthy, dirty music too. It's important to me to represent every point on that spectrum.

Do you have a background in music? Did you learn how to play an instrument in school?

No, I'm foolishly clueless. I learned hand drums on a drum my uncle made for me when I was 12. Then I heard Nirvana and Metallica, and I got a $100 piece-of-crap guitar, and I took free guitar lessons and I learned "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath, and "Enter Sandman" by Metallica and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. I quit classes and just started making my own music that was basically ripoffs of everything else that I heard.

So I'd take, like, "Iron Man" and learn how to play it backwards. Then I'd play it double-time or half-time. Then I'd change a note around and make a song of that. And to this day, I don't know chords, or scales, or keys or anything - I still use my pointer finger on a keyboard when I'm making basslines.

And part of me wishes I would go to school and learn music, but it's been 20 years now that I've been doing it kind of "adventurally" and I'm kind of addicted to my process. It's a little bit more mysterious and playful for me.

You were here with Major Lazer in 2010, then at a smaller headlining show in Bloomington at The Bluebird. What's new on this tour? What can fans expect when you come to Indy this time around?

The ethos is just more of the same. I'm really happy with how things have gone over the last 10 years, and I'm not really looking to change - I'm just looking to turn the volume up in every direction.

The live set is feeling stronger than ever; I just have more new weird loops and musical ideas and layers. And the crowds are getting it: They're getting exposed to more music all the time. It's like being a standup comedian and everyone gets the jokes. It's fun!

Do you prefer smaller clubs, like The Bluebird, or mid-sized theaters, or large festivals like what you played last night?

I love it all. And everything's different. A festival is more like a big freakout, full-blast anthem after anthem after anthem, and everyone's attention spans are short, and there are a million things happening all around. Then an actual show is much more focused if it's an extended set that gets up to a few hours, and it can get more cinematic. I almost plan out my sets like special acts in a play. That goes deeper.

Sometimes the shows are just as big as a festival, kind of like the best of both worlds and everything in between. If it's a smaller venue, that probably means I'm going to emerge covered in sweat, because things get hot!

You've collaborated with a lot of artists. Who else would you love to work with?

I would be perfectly happy if every song that I made in the future was a collaboration. I really enjoy making music with other people - I actually prefer it these days. I've kind of proven to myself that I can do whatever I want on my own, and it's just more fun to me to interact with other people.

Although I am a control freak. I like the way it is, because I can work with other people but I still get to make the final decisions on what I feel like. For that reason, I don't work with people as publicity stunts; I'm not seeking to work with the next pop act. Flo Rida asked me to make some tunes for the last record, and David Guetta ended up making them instead, and I was happy with it because I just didn't feel attracted to making that music.

So I usually end up working with people whose music I like - as opposed to who I feel like I should work with for my career - and it usually ends up being with my friends.

  • "I don’t really have one specific Bassnectar sound."
You're a self-proclaimed workaholic. Skrillex and Deadmau5 - both electronic artists with huge followings - are similarly obsessed with what they do. Do you think bass-music producers tend to need that obsessive nature about their livelihood more so than traditional rock musicians, just because of the complex nature of the technology they work with?

It's hard to say. I think truly creative people are an anomaly. We are the weirdos and the crazies, kind of. So it's hard to box everyone together because, by nature, we're really individualized and creative, which means you take a different approach to your life than the norm.

I think that's kind of the most beautiful aspect of it - everyone can do their own thing in different ways - and when you become empowered to do so, say like by a strong fan base. For me it's just the only natural response, to work harder and more nonstop. Because it just means so much to me how enthusiastic fans are about my music, and it makes me want to make more of it for them.

What's your favorite piece of software or hardware for making your tunes?

I use Ableton [Live] both for live performance and in-studio. I took a minor in electronic music at UCSC in college, and I learned all kinds of hardware and software.

One thing that my teacher said is if you find something that works for you, cancel your subscription to the music mags and don't ever update - just stick with what you know because you'll be more functional. I try to avoid the latest software or the latest toys and just be as productive as I can and really master the terrain as well as I can.

You're doing what you love. What one piece of advice would you give your fans who might be stuck in a dead-end job, or might not even have a job at all, and have no idea where to begin to - like yourself - do what they love?

I think it would be two parts. On one hand, I think it's important and extremely empowering to remind yourself what you do have, to be grateful for it. Even if your problems appear to be outweighing your blessings, whenever I feel like I'm dealing with an insurmountable challenge, I just stop and make a quick list of everything I'm happy for: you know, I love my family, I've got a functioning body with eyes that see in color, and legs that move me where I need to go - and not taking those simple things for granted, but really, truly giving thanks for them, and knowing Bassnectar could collapse and disappear, but I could still run up a hill, and see in color. That, to me, is just terrific. So that's part of it, not losing sight of what you do have going for you, even if it's the most basic thing - like a digestive system that works! - because those natural blessings are what make life so magical. And it's easy to forget them.

And then the second thing would really be to take life on in the same way you would take an important class in school. You know, most students get C's and B's, and sometimes you get a D, and a couple times an F. And some people get A's, and some people get all A's - but not many. Striving to really be an A+ student in life and be proactive in taking each challenge as you would a really important term paper or a really important exam, and studying hard and working with other people to study is how I achieved a lot of success in life. Constantly trying to be proactive in improving myself and working toward my vision. And I think that it's really possible for anyone in any circumstance - whether, like you said, they're trying to decide what to do with their lives or what to study. I think life takes discipline and hard work, and that makes it all count. It's like exercise.

You gave $250,000 in sales from tickets last year to charitable causes. Are you doing the same this year?

Absolutely. I'm committed to doing that the rest of my life. Any time we have a Bassnectar show, we collect a dollar per head for some type of contribution to a social organization or a community organization or nonprofit.

I'm working on creating a customized system of online free advice that's kind of like a Wikipedia. It would be non-partisan, non-religious, non-denominational - just a really healthy means of assisting young people when they have tough choices to make. It could be anything from personal choices to emotional dilemmas to scholastic to just social issues or a challenge they're having. It would be facilitated and moderated by professional guidance counselors, like colleges have. It's in the planning stages now, and that's probably what we're supporting this year.

We don't have a name for it yet. We're working with an organization called Reach Out. The whole concept has been about 10 years in the making. It's a pet project of mine, but it's incredibly dynamic and complex and I haven't gotten to the naming stage yet [laughs.]

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