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.
Viewed at a distance, though, this looks like the diverse crowd you'd expect at a large pop or rock concert. Alongside kids with glow sticks, there are upscale thirty- and fortysomethings dressed in dark jeans and leather jackets. There are Burning Man types wearing dreadlocks and baggy pants. There are young men in oversized white T-shirts breakdancing in back.
Standing onstage before two laptops, dwarfed by the video screen behind him, Ashton plays his own tracks and remixes of other artists. His own songs are varied: Some, like "Timestretch" and "Empathy," are built on slow, gargantuan basslines; others are frenetic and jackhammering. But Bassnectar's remixes are especially interesting. Ashton shows off a bass-enhanced take on Led Zeppelin's reggae-flavored "D'yer Mak'er." He drops a minute of Dr. Dre's triumphant rap hit, "Still D.R.E." In an ode to a band Ashton saw in this very building as a teenager, he loops a few bars of Helmet's bludgeoning alt-metal single, "Unsung," using it as a prelude to Bassnectar's signature track.