Bassnectar may not be a household name, but for underground electronic fans, he's a musical maelstrom. He's a painter whose canvas is musical waves and ambient beats. He's half metal, half underground-style aficionado, collector, and librarian, and all electronic-music guru. And when that bass drops, watch out. The fans lap it up.
While electronic dance music (often referred to simply as EDM) and dubstep have exploded across America in recent years, Bassnectar is quick to point out that he's been performing on his own merits — and playing to large crowds — for longer than that. He has worked with the likes of Perry Farrell, Gogol Bordello, RJD2, and Ellie Goulding.
"I feel pretty much like I'm on the fringe when it comes to the EDM scene," says Bassnectar (real name Lorin Ashton). "And so when the EDM scene really blew up...it's cool for what it is, but I'm not really that into house or techno, and I don't really get that turned on by DJs using CD players or whatever. So I'm not really that much of an expert on the EDM scene. It happens that I DJ as well and I make electronic music, but I'm way into underground styles and way into the creative process, and the hyper-marketed EDM thing is about as boring to me as Britney Spears and pop music."
Bassnectar started creating music in high school with as part of the death-metal band Pale Existence. He worked to create a scene around himself in San Francisco, and even then his intense work ethic shone through: rehearsals every day and working on drum beats in between classes were not uncommon.
"Making up songs in my mind became something I would do kind of relentlessly," Ashton says.
Ashton took an interest in the production side of music. Using a four-track recorder he was able to make demos for his band, and the more he knew on the production side, the better.
"As I began to learn electronic music production and how to kind of realize the sounds in my head, it was kind of like an exponential growth period. You learn one new technique, it's kind of like kung-fu — you are on to the next level and constantly progressing," Ashton says. "As that progressed and got more and more nerdy and more geeky, I found new equipment and new tools, and it happened to be electronic tools."
Although death metal and EDM may not seem like the closest of musical bedfellows, that progression was a natural one for Ashton, following the path of the various underground styles that he was into.
"DJing just kind of happened," Ashton says. "DJing is just playing music you love for other people, so it's the easiest part of it. I just wanted to make music, and I wanted to make events happen."
And make events happen he did. His devoted fans — appropriately referred to as Bass Heads — flock to his giant shows, including back-to-back sold-out New Year's Eve shows at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Bassnectar is certainly no stranger to festivals and large-scale festival-like shows.
It's the crafting of live shows that is constantly on Ashton's mind. "I use [the songs] as kind of like magic spells in my set," Ashton says. "I'm all about the live set, and I'm writing music for the live set."
Along with the explosion of live DJ music, there has been increased criticism of the artform from more pop- and rock-centric music culture. But the static image of a DJ letting a show run on autopilot could not be further from Bassnectar's live performances. Frequently turning himself into a whipping web of tangled hair, Ashton isn't sitting back and resting on stage.
"You know, when I was at Ultra [Music Festival, in Miami], every DJ I saw pretty much stood there behind the deck with both hands up in the sky," Ashton says. "And I was like, What is this guy doing, what is the point of this? And you look out and the crowd was going off. So on some level I don't think people necessarily care what the DJ is doing, which is weird for me, because I'm working pretty much nonstop and I go into kind of a trance and can barely think straight. It's just kind of like this spaz of madness."
That madness includes controlling and sequencing a song live, weaving in and out of layers of different songs, and actual reordering the liner progression of any given song. It's not quite the rock generation's simple chord progressions and verse-chorus-verse structure patterns.
"It's kind of like this infinite grid of possibilities," Ashton says. "So a lot of what I'm doing up there is navigating the course of what I'm broadcasting over the system and what I'm about to play, and figuring out the best way to loop and layer the sounds."
When Bassnectar was first getting started, America didn't have a lot of venues that could support the large systems his music requires. He was playing mostly rock clubs, jazz rooms, or theaters, which aren't always the most acoustically pleasing for EDM.
"I think in a large part we paved the way in North America for sound-system culture to be able to tour," Ashton says. "Because when I was touring in 2004-05, it was like pulling teeth to get venues to even add subs, even if I'd bring them myself."
These days, it's a lot more complicated than that. Three semis full of gear follow Bassnectar on tour, along with two full tour busses and a crew of 20 to 25 people. Ashton is quick to credit them: "Most of the guys on the road are Jedis and shaman when it comes to lights, video, and sound."
"Customizing a room to very high standards, it's mandatory," Ashton says.
Rochester's own Main Street Armory must have met those standards, as Ashton returns there this weekend. "I've only been [to Rochester] once, and that was last year, and it blew us away," Ashton says. "And not only because the venue was this weird abandoned castle, but because I didn't expect to have more than a couple hundred people, having never played there. And we had well over 4000 people show up — it was a mob scene. One of the most epic shapes of a room, just a pure old-school box."
"We're extremely stoked to make sure that we came back on the spring tour," he says.
"The hyper-marketed EDM thing is about as boring to me as Britney Spears and pop music."