Parting Shots: Bassnectar
These days, the cross-pollination of the improvisational rock and electronic dance music scenes is something that younger music fans may take for granted. Partial credit for that development goes to Lorin Ashton (aka Bassnectar), who has pioneered the art of the post-jam electro throwdown with an explosive live show that provides the perfect late-night foil to a String Cheese Incident or Furthur set. Ashton’s ever-evolving, high-octane fusion of seemingly unrelated styles has a lot to offer the intelligent listener. His live performances take an important page from the jamband playbook, and unlike many of his EDM contemporaries, Bassnectar never plays the same set twice. Now, after an almost six-month touring hiatus, Bassnectar is hitting the road hard in support of his latest album, Noise Vs. Beauty. “It’s like I’m Goldilocks in this situation,” says Ashton. “Some songs are really aggressive, wild and loud, and some are really soft, gentle or just more on the beautiful end of the spectrum. I don’t really expect anyone to like it all, but I love it all.”
A lot of your appeal is in the live show. Do you take that into consideration when producing an album? How conscious are you of how things are going to translate in a live setting?
Every song was created for the live show, with some of them to be remixed for the live show. Some of the songs that are on the record, I doubt I’ll ever play in that form at a show, but I’ll design alternate endings or special editions of them. That’s actually one of the most fun parts for me—instead of hitting play on a CD player—having the ability to access all the various loops and components of a song and reassemble it live, or take it in a different direction night to night. My DJ sets are all about going on a journey and bouncing back and forth between extremes, so this record is just more fuel for that—allowing me more dimensions—where I can go into deeper, more lush and ethereal atmospheres, and into more wild-style, freak-out moments as well.
Let’s talk about your roots in the metal and punk scenes.
All I thought about in high school was death metal. I was one stoner kid out of three stoners in the school, and we had a studio down the street that we shared with five bands—one tiny little room. We’d go there after school every day and say, “Let’s make a surf rock band today,” or “Let’s make a death metal cover band of only Madonna songs,” or “Let’s do a Milli Vanilli gangster-rap band.” [It was about] just getting really creative and building the inner working for what would be our shows, which was really just extended rehearsals where we’d get all the bands together, everyone’s girlfriend and a couple friends and a few bands from out of town.
I remember the first rave that I threw. It wasn’t even a rave, it was a death metal show in the basement of a library in Cupertino, Calif. There was a rumor that there was this librarian that would let teenagers have a battle of the bands. I thought that was so weird and she was just this sweet elderly lady. I walked in like Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver: “Hello, madam. What a lovely dress you’re wearing. My friends and I have a drum circle we’d like to do.” I don’t know how it happened, but they’d give us the keys and we would show up without chaperones. It must have been illegal to do that, but we had full-on raging death metal shows, with kids spitting blood and worms all over the crowd and we’d clean up by 10 p.m.
There has been a trend of having live bands back producers and DJs on the road. Have you ever thought about doing something like that?
The first time I ever played a full-on Bassnectar set, it was live. It was in 2001 and I had a 16-track mixing board and an entire live gamelan orchestra. Gamelan is this Balinese kindof interlocked rhythmic chime. Everyone has a different like “cling cling, cling, clang, clang, clang” going on. There were 13 of them and me with 16 channels, and it was fucking insane. After that, I went back to DJing because it was so much. My DJ sets are really live and interactive. They push the creative boundary as far as I’m aware of it going. I can’t imagine how I could work anymore than I already do without it affecting the sound in a bad way.
Around 2002-2003, I started wanting to make the equivalent of a band in electronic form. I don’t think I’ll ever play with a dude on a drum kit jamming over me, but I would love to play with multiple individuals controlling some kind of futuristic music-making machine. That may be in the form of a guitar or in the form of boxes and knobs, where I’ll say, “You take the basses, you take the synth, you take percussion and drums, you take the vocals, you take this, you get in the back and run the sound and mix it all together, and we’ll just send you signals.” Someday I might do it. I imagine maybe when I get off the Bassnectar train and vanish into the mist, I might create some kind of fun collaborative band in that way, though I imagine it will sound different from Bassnectar.
The String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang was one of your early supporters. Do you feel he helped turn you into a national touring act?
Not only did Michael Kang help, but also I don’t think it would have happened without him. I have tons of friends who are in jambands and tons of friends and fans who love jambands. Most of my crew is some follower of some jamband and, like I said, I don’t think Bassnectar would be the touring entity it is without the jamband scene—specifically without Michael Kang and Madison House and also STS9 and the Disco Biscuits and on and on. Fully giving that respect where it’s due, my ears don’t love [that music] but I feel terrible saying that because I love the people. What I like about it is the scene, the community, the fanaticism and the intelligence of the listeners. That kind of supportive underground didn’t feel any different than my supportive underground, which was the death metal and punk rock underground.