Lorin Ashton, better known to his fans as Bassnectar, is one of 21st-century dance music's true trailblazers. Emerging in the early 2000s with an elastic, alien sound that combined the trippy ambient soundscapes of The Orb and the glitch of Aphex Twin with elements of hip-hop, breakbeat and dubstep, the Bay Area DJ and producer pioneered bass music before that term even came into use. On his most recent album, Unlimited, he continues to push his sound in new directions, collaborating with such fellow innovators as The Glitch Mob and Rye Rye to create tracks that defy easy categorization while still having enough catchy melodies and enveloping bass drops to rock the main stages of major festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, EDC Vegas and HARD Summer — the latter of which he'll perform at this August.
This weekend, Bassnectar returns to his West Coast underground roots with a headlining set at Lightning in Bottle, the transformational festival taking place May 24-29 in Monterey County — which, last year, became the first music festival he ever went to just as an attendee.
Dede Flemming of the DoLaB, the collective behind Lightning in a Bottle, had this to say about his old friend and collaborator: “We had Lorin play one of our first shows in our warehouse back in 2005 when we were still in the underground. I remember tugging on his leg with about 20 police and fire fighters behind me. He looked up and said, 'I guess I should stop now.' We're stoked to have him back!”
I spoke with Ashton by phone about Lightning in a Bottle, the importance of silence in his sets, and that time he and Trent Reznor fucked up each other's sets.
You’re playing HARD Summer this year, but I gather last time you played you had some problems. The sound system couldn’t handle your bass.
No, I wouldn’t say that at all. A lot of times I’ll get someone reassuring me, “Don’t worry, buddy, you’ll be plenty loud.” But I’m not concerned with overpowering or dominating with sound as much as creating, ideally, a palette that’s free of sonic interruption. Because I really love to play dynamically. And in a festival environment, the most inspiring setting for me is to have the ability to go to complete silence.
My ideal is to be [in] a sonic environment where you’re not hearing the [other] sound system from across the way coming in at some other frequencies. It happens at every festival — it happened at Coachella, last time I played there. I was playing during Trent Reznor [and Nine Inch Nails] and half my set I was kind of cringing because I could hear their music in every little moment. And it turns out the next day we were on the same flight [and I said], “Hey man, I heard you last night.” He was like, “Yeah, you fucked my set up the whole time.” I was like, “You fucked mine up, too!” [laughs]
So it’s just an ideal. Like playing Middlelands last weekend in Texas, there’s zero sound bleed. I found this old Black Panther speech off this vinyl — it’s just very delicate, and very soft tones, and you just don’t wanna hear sound bleed at that point.
Speaking of the Black Panthers … what’s your take on how or if politics should intersect with dance music? That’s something you’ve always made a point of weaving into your music. Do you feel like the dance music scene in general needs more of that, especially in this political climate?
I would shy away from commenting on anything that involves the word “should.” Everyone’s so different — what people want is different, what other artists want to do is different. I’ve said things before that included the “S.H.” word but I just don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to dictate, “Oh, artists should do this and that.” I just focus on music and the ears that are tuned into my frequency, and just do what feels artistically appropriate.
The thing is, [that doesn't] make me any less politically educated or opinionated. I felt really frustrated and kind of checked out over the Obama years. The problem with Obama for me was, he was doing so much good and he was such a great person, yet anyone on the far left could so easily criticize him, and say, “Well there were bombs dropping during Obama, and he’s actually tied to Wall Street.” It’s like yeah, totally. I’m not saying he’s a saint, I’m just saying he’s so much better than Dick Cheney, he’s so much better than fucking Trump.
Now with the Trump thing, what’s so frustrating to me is not what he’s doing or how bad he is, or how bad the entire Republican Party — it’s actually the citizenry, who seem so misinformed and confused. I could see overthrowing Donald Trump as an easier quest than changing the minds of 40 to 50 percent of American citizens.
Right. And to circle back to your earlier point about how you approach your music, I guess the notion that you’re gonna change anyone’s minds during your set at a music festival is maybe a little far-fetched.
Yeah, it’s certainly not my intention to — I guess I’m looking more at symbolism [in my] music than I am at politics. I’m just really interested in inspiring and finding catalysts for critical thinking, catalysts for inspiration, catalysts for emotionally triggering someone or opening someone up to a euphoric experience that just provides a sense of relief from daily life. Letting the magical spells take less of a verbal, literal form — I find that to be more powerful. It’s not like I’m pussyfooting around it or feel muzzled — if we’re gonna have a political discussion, if we’re gonna have a debate, I’m not gonna answer you with a song. [laughs] To make a point, I’m not gonna be like, “Well, listen to this Metallica song and then we’ll talk.” But in a musical context, it makes more sense to wield the magic of music.
On a related note, and not to make this entire interview politically themed —
I wouldn’t mind. But yeah, whatever you want.
You play the festival circuit like crazy, from mainstream festivals like Coachella to more alternative festivals like Lightning in a Bottle. Given what came out earlier this year about the politics of the owner of Coachella’s parent company AEG Live, do you have any thoughts on the importance of supporting more alternative and independent festivals?
I didn’t hear that story about Coachella and I almost don’t even want to. There’s almost like this tiered system of controversy and I’m so bored with these lower-tiered, “Did you hear this about —?” Dude, I’m fucking — I don’t got time for that. But with LIB, definitely the organizers are dear friends of mine and have been for countless years. Even the various teams that run different stages are actually my Burning Man camp from back 15 years ago. So it definitely feels like family.
Interestingly enough, last year in 2016, I went to Lightning in a Bottle just as an attendee. And on the first night I was there, just running around, giggling a lot, I stopped and turned to my friend and was like, “I think this is my first music festival. I think this is the first time in my life I’ve ever just gone and not played.” I was well into the rave scene when I started DJing and anytime an opportunity to go to a music festival arose, I was always playing it. So [LIB] was actually literally my first festival. And it was fucking awesome.
Any advice you’d give a Lightning in a Bottle first-timer (which I am)?
The DoLaB are very artistic people, and who they choose to [have] play on any stage at any given moment is state of the art. So exploring is kind of my favorite thing to do. Also because there’s always the road less traveled — a little random side stage, a box you can get into where the DJ and three other people and yourself are the only ones who fit in there and it’s on wheels. It’s just an adventure.
Is it true that you don’t do conventional tours anymore? You only play festivals and your own annual event?
Hearing that sounds a lot more scripted and strict than I experience it. But I certainly have not done an extended tour in several years. I remember, it was the year we played Madison Square Garden, so 2014 was probably the last time we did a full-on bus tour. I don’t know how other people do it, but I know that for myself and my team, we have such an attitude of the overachiever, always going above and beyond, always trying to deliver the best experience possible. And it became just insanely difficult to pull off. We would have four semi trucks. We were [in the top 10] highest grossing touring acts in the country for several years in a row, but losing money on tours because it was so expensive.
“I’m not impressed by standing in a crowd and looking at some dude dance along to his laptop.”
But it wasn’t so much that as it was: Or, I could announce a location, have 15,000 people show up for two nights in Atlantic City and have everything exactly how we want it and it’s just like a big playground. It’s almost like I get to take people in a time machine back to the early warehouse parties, the old rave scene, and let them feel what that was like.
We’ve really been taking a lot of steps to diminish the DJ and the performer, which I just really find garish and unimpressive. Myself included. I’m not impressed by standing in a crowd and looking at some dude dance along to his laptop — or even play. Even play guitar really well. It’s like, great. That doesn’t blow my mind. It used to, maybe, but it doesn’t blow my mind anymore.
You’re from the generation where the crowd is the show, and the DJ is just there to create the soundtrack.
Maybe it’s that. I don’t know if I’m hearkening back to the past or I’m longing for the future. But I certainly feel interested in exploring a different dynamic. And that dynamic would be full participation. Much, much more interactive. And much more based on experiencing special moments and less on stopping and staring or paying too much attention to one person.
It’s very difficult. Obviously at a festival, you’re given the parameters and you just go up on the stage and you perform. In that situation, we just try to bring the highest level of art that we can across all mediums. But when we’re setting up our own room, then — well, why can’t the DJ stand on the floor like everyone else? And we’ll put all the production out in the middle of the room and try to create reasons to make people turn around and face all directions and meet new friends.
Do you feel like your sound has moved towards other styles of dance music and EDM, or do you think it’s the other way around, where the sound you were pioneering 10 or 15 years ago has been more widely adopted by other artists?
I would say yes and no. Human thought and human experience [is] very reflective. That’s kind of the theme of this next musical project I’m in the midst of right now. My intention for playing a set isn’t the glory or the attention. I want to give back and I want to catalyze an experience in fellow human beings. And my intention for making music isn’t to get famous or to get rich. It’s partly chasing the sounds in my mind and getting to that moment where you’re like, “Ah, yes, this is the sound that I’ve heard in my dreams and now I can hear it out loud.” But really, it’s about providing an experience for someone else, or for many other people.
I don’t believe that many human beings are broadcasting original thoughts. I don’t think many people are born and raised in a bubble and never hear or think of anything anyone else has done and then just spontaneously develop something completely brand new.
Even the world’s best guitarists or most impressive pianists … how did they write that music? Where did that song come from? Was it really created in a vacuum? Whoever you favorite painter is, Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dali — did they really create something original? Does it matter? It doesn’t matter to me. [And] I don’t think they did necessarily create it out of thin air. I think it was a process of reflection. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and I think you can see it in today’s social media and today’s culture — we’re all very reflective, and we all want to broadcast and share our experiences. And in the process of sharing, if you’re loud enough, you start to echo, and those echoes come back to yourself and they come back to other people.
I start to think, “Well maybe every song I’ve made is some collection of echoes and reflections of every song that’s ever been made already, and it’s just this crazy remix in my mind.” Who knows? I’m just letting myself give in to that process.
Bassnectar plays Lightning in a Bottle on Sunday, May 28. More info.