Bassnectar in His Own Words: On Waking Dreams and Wild Moments

Alive Coverage/Taylor Wallace
Bassnectar photographed in 2015.

Lorin Ashton explores death metal parallels and next-level live performance in long-form narrative.

On paper, Bassnectar is a bit of an enigma.

Over the past year, he has sold out Madison Square Garden and topped Billboard's Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart with recent mixtape Into the Sun -- all without the backing of a major label.

In performance, the tireless touring artist is a force of nature. 

Commanding the same cult following as legendary jam bands, his shows are relentless rituals to which 'Basshead' fans flock early, clutching handmade totems bearing his shamanic 'Bassdrop' symbol.

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In person, Lorin Ashton is strikingly gentle.

The Bay Area musician's humble and soft-spoken demeanor may seem at odds with his heavy metal hair and ferocious music -- until you've been in his company.

Billboard's been there. Without further ado, Bassnectar in his own words.

You’ve described your latest project, Into the Sun, as a mixtape. Why didn’t you brand it as an album?

Bassnectar: I want to underpromise and overdeliver, and I felt that I’m overdelivering, in that I’m giving a lot of music for a really cool price: $10, 17 tracks -- and there’s a 70-minute mix. I didn’t create this as an album. I made it just to have a mixtape, and then it turned into such a wicked mixtape. Most of the songs were tracks I could release, so it made more sense than giving away a really long mixtape. I want the songs to be able to be streamed on Spotify or Pandora. It felt super-freestyle and free-form. Each song is there to play off what came before and set up the next one, to represent a certain moment in a set. 

How would you describe your live musical approach?

Bassnectar: Really dynamic. Even within a song or within a mix. Deep down moments... very delicate moments. Moments that feel like film scores, or rich with imagination and creativity, but not so much power. And then super powerful moments, where you could probably force it to be accused of being a certain genre, but in my mind it's just this freak-out wild moment. Building like the ocean, finding a current or a tide and maintaining that rhythm. The swellings, and the pulling back and hitting. Obviously you don't want to wail on anybody. You can play jokes too, get them to expect something and then pull it all away. It's different than being a DJ in a dance club, or even at a rave festival. When you have a crowd this size, a traditional DJ would probably keep the beat going continuously and make them dance, kind of like the disco mentality. This is much more of an expressive show.

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It's the difference between curating a club and delivering your own music in a show format.

Bassnectar: Yeah. Specifically in a festival, but you can do it at a show too. I used to play with only CDJs. You always feel trapped, you're waiting for the CD to end, or if you want to move on you need to mix out and leave the song. With Ableton Live, I feel as freeform as if I'm playing in a band. I feel like I'm holding a guitar, I feel like the strings are on my fingertips, and I really can just steer it however I want to steer it.

It's not really a DJ setup -- in that I'm not pressing play or beatmatching in the next song -- but at the same time, I am a DJ and I love DJing. I love blending. Ableton allows you to blend as many sounds at once. Instead of playing this song or that, it's this loop or that loop and that a cappella. Each song has a vertical strip of tracks, each clip launches a different part of the timeline of the song. So you can jump ahead or back, or go to a loop. There's also tricks and layers, maybe just the bassline or just the synths. I'll create a routine of six songs, six strips that flow together really well, but you can change the order around. And then I'll probably have 100 routines. It's DJing from a band mentality.

Now that you're playing to these massive audiences, does that change your creative approach in the studio?

Bassnectar: As far back as I can remember, I've never played a DJ set and felt like it could've been bigger. I remember in 2001, my friends asked me, "Wow you've made it... how does it feel to play 300 person clubs?" At that point it was a 300 person club with 500 people hanging off the ceilings, and it was at max capacity. I've managed to stay at max capacity from small to large, and it really doesn't feel much different now. Although I can look at a picture, the energy contained within a condensed space is the same.

When I'm working on music, it most certainly is created for that event or for that ritual. It's not so often created for a listening environment, though it can be applied there. I'm like a kid in a candy store. I have this amazing, unbelievable waking dream that I can make a song and play it for 30,000 people. I can experiment, try it out, realize it's a failure, or realize that it's not. That feedback loop is insane.

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Your fan base is so fervent. What do you attribute their devotion to?

Bassnectar: I'm just so proud of them, and in awe of them. I don't feel any kind of glam or glory about it... it makes me feel shy. It is awesome to see such a high level of enthusiasm and interactive engagement with people who are claiming something as their own, making it their own and really feeling it. People who pay such deep attention to detail. I pay horrendous attention to detail, so to have other people pay that attention is really neat and inspiring.

I felt so annoyed, if not alienated, by mainstream pop music my whole life. If anything just has that "we aim to please' feeling" -- big names, big fashion, marketing campaigns, big hooks you can tell were written in a board meeting -- it feels dishonest and uninteresting. What I love most about the fan base is that they're really supportive of me as an artist and they really support me exploring the directions that I want to go. It feels kind of like a relationship, because I'm working off of them and I'm also serving them. It's just an incredible feedback loop. You can't really walk off stage after 30,000 people just flipped their lids and not be humbled and be in awe.

Does the live show play a cathartic role for you?

Bassnectar: That's interesting. Not that it has to be selfish to do that, but I never really think about it. For me, it's a real act of giving. A real honest joy just to share fucking music. For me, it's a fucking honor to have that moment in time with a captive audience. To be able to play with people's nervous systems. At this point, it's not just a rock band playing for the ears. You're playing for the body, you're playing for the eyes, the mind, the imagination. That's fucking immersive. As an artist, it's a format -- almost like an exhibit -- that is unparalleled.

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I've been DJing since 1996, throwing events since 1995, and I was in death metal bands before that. It was more about shock and awe then. And when I was first making events, it was trying to create a sanctuary in our own world. Going out to the woods and throwing a free full moon party or whatever. DJing came about just because it was so easy to do. Like, "we got a sick sound system at 7 am, I wanna play some tunes." I never thought about that as a performance. 

Now there's no kidding, it is a big show. There's such a vast amount of moving parts. I think about artists like Banksy. How cool is his team? Who the fuck knows who he is, but what a massive team. I like the idea of working with a team. Having unparalleled artists, video artists, lighting artists, sound artists, sound obsessed artists all coming together. It's crazy. Tonight I peeked through my hair and spied on the crowd, watching people sing along, watching all these different mouths mouthing the same thing. It was cool. 

How does your time in death metal bands inform your current approach?

Bassnectar: It's definitely the same thing for me. I was very influenced by a band called Exhumed from the Bay Area, not only because I became really good pals with them in high school and they showed me the ropes. I remember going to their practice studio. It would just be me and one or two other friends, and the band. They'd practice for 2 hours, and we would all headbang. It was almost like this crazy show. The intensity was no different when they were on stage in front of a crowd or when they were in a rehearsal studio. My band followed in their footsteps, like those little kids that were so in awe of their energy. Let yourself go when you're rehearsing, and let yourself go when you're making music. No separation between the two -- just let yourself go.

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The death metal scene was very DIY. It was rejects and people who wanted to somehow reject the establishment, or who had been rejected by it. I was 14 or 15, and I was trying to overthrow religion in my life, overthrow whatever was going on and it was such a loud and abrasive and defiant vibe. I would feel that inside when I'd play shows as a 16 or 17 year old kid. This extreme power is coursing through you. It might be electricity or sound, but like the raw carnage and mayhem of human musical experiences. I felt that same vibe.

Do you feel like your fan base experiences your music in a similar way?

Bassnectar: I'm delighted by the fact that they seem to experience it the way that I did. I've always been very gentle and friendly, and prefer to be happy than upset. I would go to death metal shows and dance. (laughs) It was kind of weird, but I did it because it felt right. I see 30,000 people all head banging, and there's a ton of girls out there, a ton of hippies out there, people from all walks of life. It's not just all aggro dudes with long hair and black shirts. It's cool feeling that vibe. Also I've been influenced by them. I've been influenced by music that has nothing to do with death metal, like the Fugees, or Nirvana. There's a broad spectrum for me, and one hard end of it is that hardcore death metal flip out, and one hard end of it is the soundtrack to American Beauty. You cry when you hear it, it's so delicate.

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After releasing numerous mixtapes and albums, what’s next for you?

Bassnectar: I thought I was taking it easy this year because we’re not doing anything like a dedicated road tour. The problem is that a lot of festivals haven’t been announced yet, and the schedule is f---ing insane. I just found out that I’m playing on the same lineup as Paul McCartney and Metallica at Lollapalooza. I just got booked to do Jay Z’s [Made in America], playing right before Beyoncé. I’m kind of pinching myself. It’s this feeling of explosive vastness, and I’m just kind of holding on.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 25 issue of Billboard.