For Bassnectar, the Bay Area DJ whose punishing basslines have generated a cult-like following similar to bands like Phish or The Disco Biscuits, the future doesn’t lie in bass drops. Disenchanted with today’s EDM scene — or what he describes as club tracks spun by “mainstream douches in Vegas” — he has, in turn, only gotten weirder. And his legion of fans, also known as “bass heads,” follow him everywhere.
On Saturday, he’ll beckon them into Madison Square Garden, where he’s playing for the first time in his 15 year career. The event will include sets by Paper Diamond, Rusko and Big Gigantic, and will draw fans from all over the country decked in homemade flags, rainbow tutus and bathingsuits covered in lace and fur. At some dance events, such flashy weirdness has begun to feel contrived, but at Bassnectar shows, it somehow feels earnest. Perhaps that’s because the producer has been a champion for the oddballs since his first album, Freakbeats for the Beatfreaks, which was released in 2001. “I draw a community of people who love the whole beat-of-your-own-drum thing,” he said. “It’s a togetherness built on being yourself.”
Billboard spoke with the 36-year-old by phone about the state of dance music, his biggest performance yet, and why it’s important to let your freak flag fly.
You don’t seem like the kind of artist to gun for a big, flashy arena show. Is Madison Square Garden a big deal to you?
Yes and no. I feel just as at home in the random hole-in-the-wall venues, and sometimes more at home in those places, so in a way, it’s like any other show. The night before we’ll play an old armory in Rochester and a couple nights later we’ll be in a 2,000 capacity joint in Maine. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited. I haven’t played a proper New York City show in a long time, and to have this big moment is awesome for the whole team. Everyone’s families are coming out for it.
Is there a set stage concept?
The plan is to recreate the spaceship-themed Red Rocks show but customized for the Garden. So we’ll build a spaceship inside that room and the show will be it taking off. I’m amped about the music and I’m amped to play it in this massive contained environment where there isn’t tons of soundbleed like at outdoor festivals. It’s going to be heavy.
Can you explain the Bass Center theme for newcomers?
A couple years ago, we noticed that when we toured, kids were showing up to multiple shows with signs that said “ 75th show” or “just hit 100 shows.” That made us want to develop a road trip destination for those kids, and a one-stop kind of thing for people who could maybe only make one. It’s our way of saying: If you live far away, come out for the weekend and let’s raise New York City together. It makes that trip worth it for kids who come out from Canada and the west coast.
Do you ever feel like this generation’s Grateful Dead? No pressure.
No! Yes! It’s weird. I know I’m a DJ, and I love the nineties rave scene in the nineties, but I do identify more with bands than EDM. I have no interest in EDM. Bands like Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Coldplay, they get to do what they want because their fans aren’t saying, “I’m a rock ‘n’ roll fan.” No, they say, “I’m a Tool fan.” It’s about the band, not an umbrella genre, and that’s the vibe I get from my fans. They like Bassnectar, and they may also like Lauryn Hill and gospel music and K-Pop. They appreciate eclectic music, which kind of feels like the opposite of the EDM thing, you know? And they’re super engaged. To see them compare and argue over setlists between shows, getting all heated, man. If there’s any pressure, it’s from them.
After the tragedies at a string of dance music events this summer, do you worry about the fact that your shows are often all-ages?
I try to stay as inclusive as possible. When I was 16, I saw Cannibal Corpse and Ministry and I’m happy I got to be a part of that. We base it on the venue’s policy and that’s it. And you know, these deaths, they’re not at our shows. We take immense care with the atmosphere of our events. And we’re not boring — I cut my teeth in the underground rave scene and the death metal scene before that, and I love that wildness and abandon — but I understand safety. We’re not morons.
Do you think the genre’s culture will begin to change as a result of the reputation its gotten through these live events?
I feel less qualified to talk about it these days because it’s moving away from me and I’m moving away from it. I’m very disenchanted by a lot of what I’m hearing in the larger pop and mainstream stuff. It just doesn’t grab me, pretty much at all. Noise Vs. Beauty was just me making sounds I liked and not caring what tempo they were or whether they’d fit into other DJs sets. That’s the future for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the mainstream douches up in f—in’ Vegas.
There will probably be a number of fans at the Madison Square Garden show who have never seen you play before. What’s the one moment they should get excited about?
Honestly, especially in an enclosed area, it’s the point between the peaks and the valleys. And actually, sometimes, it is the valleys. This is what I mean when I say I’m more like a band and less like a DJ. I’m not just playing beats to make people dance. It can’t all be peak. Sometimes, the best moments are when film scores from Inception or American Beauty play as softly as possible before unfolding into something unexpected. It’s not about, “where’s the drop, where’s the drop.” It’s a musical experience.
It almost sounds like you plan to take things down a notch. Is that true?
No, no. We’re bringing the f––ing ruckus, for sure.