Bass Instincts: How Bassnectar Came to Rule American Dance Music

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

Bass Instincts: How Bassnectar Came to Rule American Dance Music
Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen

Inside San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the atmosphere is bass.

The bass rips through you, pressing against your throat, lungs, and stomach like an invisible vise. The pressure sets off alarms in that reptilian part of your brain, but it also feels comforting, like resting against the warm hide of a huge, slowly breathing beast.

It's a Saturday night in October, and there are 8,500 people in here, many of them more naked than clothed. Each throbbing climax sends ripples of smiles, screams, and raised arms through the crowd. Lasers shoot across the room. Vast screens show patterns of colors shifting in time to the music.

The whole scene looks like a tribal ritual, a ceremony honoring some invisible deity. In a way that's what it is: This is a performance of Bassnectar, the stage name of 34-year-old San Jose native Lorin Ashton, who has built these displays of low-end into one of the most successful, most revered brands in American electronic music.

As you may have heard from USA Today or your little sister, so-called electronic dance music is enjoying unprecedented popularity in this country. Recording charts, ticket sales figures, and major publications all tell the story of a mushrooming fan base. But just take a listen to Top 40 smashes like Rihanna's "We Found Love" or any uptempo Lady Gaga single, and you'll hear the bright, beat-heavy sound that's been popular in Europe for decades, recently rebranded here under the awkward acronym "EDM." Yes, this music was hyped as the next big thing in the late '90s, and eventually lost out to boy bands and bling rap. It's back now, with more crossover appeal than ever.

Slideshow: Bassnectar in San Francisco

Bassnectar is one of electronic dance music's biggest homegrown acts. Ashton's DJ sets draw sprawling crowds at festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, Coachella, and Bonnaroo. Last year alone he sold a quarter-million concert tickets, a number his managers claim is greater than any other electronic artist.

But Bassnectar's perch among the new crop of superstar DJs obscures an artistic philosophy and a musical aesthetic that are strikingly different from the likes of David Guetta or Deadmau5. Ashton was born into a South Bay commune and espouses his leftist political views and militant atheism, sparking arguments with fans online. Before he discovered dance music, Ashton played in death metal bands. He's famous for the long black locks he whips around while performing. He doesn't use drugs anymore, and urges his fans to think hard before they do. He also abstains from the party-boy antics and indulgences common to big-name DJs: no signing fans' breasts, no throwing cakes at the audience, no dating pop stars or courting the media spotlight.

It's Ashton's music that stands out most dramatically. He's commonly associated with a heavy, slow electronic subgenre called dubstep, whose wobbling basslines have spread from underground clubs in London to mainstream pop in the last decade. (Remember the trembling bass hits in Britney Spears' "Hold It Against Me"?) But along with dubstep's signature drops — sections where most of the music falls away, leaving only the gut-shaking bass — Bassnectar sets weave in many other sounds: classic hip-hop and rock, punk, and electronic subgenres like drum 'n' bass. Many Bassnectar tracks begin from scratch, with Ashton building them piece-by-piece in the software program Ableton Live. But some of his best-known songs are pop hits he's uploaded to his laptop and then remixed, often adding glacial slabs of low-end.

Ashton calls his sound "omnitempo maximalism," an allusion to his unusual willingness to leap from a very slow song to a fast one, or even tweak the speed of the rhythm within a track. Bassnectar sets can shift from a mosh-inspiring assault to a patient plod best suited for mellow swaying. Granted, every good DJ works a crowd by bringing the music from a lull to a climax, but Ashton's sets are some of the most diverse in dance music — and that's helped him make fans out of people who might not otherwise go see a DJ.

"It's an amalgamation of so many different styles," says Aaron Axelsen, music director at Bay Area modern rock station Live 105, who has seen Ashton rise from playing house parties in Berkeley to producing tracks that his station spins up to 80 times a week. "He incorporates some of his punk and death metal ethics into his music — rock and rave culture. That's what makes Bassnectar stand out."

At first glance, Bassnectar's sold-out San Francisco show looks like a rave. Not the underground gatherings of the '90s, where a few thousand in-the-know people would dance all night to hypnotic beats, but the 2012 version: There are preteen girls wearing scandalously short shorts, sequined bras, and fluffy leg-warmers (as seems to be required at EDM events). There are bare-chested young men with tight muscles and baseball caps that read "Let's Get Naked." (Shirts are widely considered optional.) There are scattered couples furiously making out, totally oblivious to the music. Strangers smile and strike up conversations with a grinning ease — they're either the warmest people on the planet or have had their brain chemistry thoroughly altered.

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6 comments
ih8hipsters
ih8hipsters

Folks like Bassnectar & Skrillex will say they got into it for the music not to get girls, however, when screamo & metal quickly became a sausage fest, they were as quick to become DJs & computer dance music "producers".  The problem is they brought all the testosterone from metal and left out all the sexiness of dance music, which is why it sounds like some nerdy boys making epic computer game music.   And it's why all their farting and mating sounds attract girls that are far too young for them.  Sorry boys

max_rovo
max_rovo

@SFWeekly bassnectar is an American icon for Dubstep music. It's cool to know he came out of the bay area n is representing the genre well

devo2
devo2

This is probably one of the worst written articles on electronic music I have read in a while. It actually upsets me that this is i the SF weekly. It reads like a PR one sheet of bad information. Much respect to Lorin and his bass movement. Unless you died 10 years ago and have risen from the dead you know what dub step is, the very fact that you say "he uploads a song to his laptop and makes a remix of it" sounds like you have never used a computer, as If this article was written for a 100yr old who has never driven a car or used a toaster. please Try Harder.

Meh_its_andrew
Meh_its_andrew

Please, house was created in Detroit waaaaaaay before the French even heard about it. Electronic music started in America. People Forget that.

Basserina
Basserina

I'm very surprised that in a 5 page article, he doesn't mention his crew even once, except for them having 2 tour buses (Lorin only flies). If it weren't for his road crew, he would not be where he is today. Much love for all the guys and gals making sure his shows are looking and sounding the way they do!!! 

neodiamond31
neodiamond31

Lorin Ashton is an incredible individual. I respect many things about him and his music, which pulled me in and captured me in about 2006. What I respect the most is that although his music has become more popular, it has never cheapened him. It is a special thing that a part of the status quo has been able to get a glimpse into the beautiful freak show that we lovingly call the underground, however, Lorin and people like us, will remain true and some other butterfly will capture that status quos interest sooner or later, and he will still be making 'Dubstep" or 'Doom Metal' which is the name he gave it, after they are said and done with it.. And I will still be dancin to break-beats and mash-ups to his left in the Pittsburgh city nights...Great Article..much respect~ L

 

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