Bassnectar Biography

A lot of electronic music DJs and producers lay claim to the "underground" mantle, but San Francisco's Lorin Ashton, a.k.a. Bassnectar, is the real deal. For a decade, Ashton has quietly established himself as a fixture on the dance music scene, first in the Bay Area with his mind-blowing parties and mixtapes, then internationally with a series of self-released albums, 12-inchers for labels like Om and Six Degrees, and remixes for the likes of KRS-One and Spearhead. The Bassnectar sound -- an indescribable mix of hard-edged breaks, head-nodding hip-hop and trippy, world groove textures -- had grabbed the ear of forward-thinking DJs from James Zabiela to Rennie Pilgrem.

Now Ashton is ready to take his Bassnectar tag "above ground." The release of the ambitious double CD Mesmerizing the Ultra announces the arrival of a full-fledged visionary, a producer who mixes progressive politics, block-rocking beats and head-expanding sounds in ways no one else has conceived of.

We were curious to find out more about the man behind this mind-boggling music, so we got Lorin on the phone and had a long talk about his musical background, his politics, and the dance community as a whole. Here are some highlights:

AD: Are you from the Bay Area originally? Where did you grow up?

Lorin: I grew up in San Jose and lived there till I was 18. Musically, I got really inspired when I was like 14 by Nirvana and Metallica. I kind of ended up being more of a metal head. I was quite involved in the international death metal and black metal scene until I was 18. But I always kind of felt like the odd one out in that scene because I’ve been a pretty gentle person my whole life, and also pretty inspired and friendly. And a lot of people in the death metal scene were very dark and aggressive and internal. But I love the energy of the music. I didn’t really care about the imagery and I wasn’t like, satanic or anything. I just loved the high energy, the orgy, the mass.

Were you picking up an instrument at this point?

Oh yeah. I was involved in many bands and putting on shows and doing promotions, from like 14 to 18. It was terribly underground. It was all in strange little nooks. We used to rent the Cupertino Library, which is in the basement, and put on 200 person impromptu shows and "Battle of the Bands."

But when I was 18, I went to my first dance party and my life was instantly changed. From that point on, the second party I went to I contacted the promoter. The third party I went to I was helping to promote. Within a year I had a record store and was throwing parties.

I’ve always loved to be involved. I’ve been kind of djing, producing since '95, and throwing parties. It was just kind of instant. I was like, "Oh, this is where I should have been the whole time. This is my home."

So I moved to Santa Cruz in 1996 to go to college. I got a minor in Electronic Music and a minor in Education. I majored in Community Studies, which is kind of social work and politics. I did a 9-month field study working at Juvenile Hall where I started a Music Therapy program. I thought I was going to be a teacher until the music career just took off. I hooked up with Perry Farrell at Burning Man in 2000 and got hired to produce his album and remix Spearhead. Things all kind of switched. I just found myself deeply deposited in the San Francisco underground dance music scene. Within a year it started going national and then international. It just kind of happened really naturally and really extremely.

Is a lot of the work you do as a producer kind of solo stuff, where you’re either doing your own tracks or getting the tracks for a remix? Do you get to work with the artists face-to-face much?

A lot of my collaborations with fellow producers have been sitting down together and working out songs together. Like with Sayr and with Majool and Kraddy. But then with bigger acts, or bands, or remixes, it usually works better to get their files and kind have some privacy and personal space to let the magic happen. That’s what I do with Spearhead and Michael Franti, who's one of my heroes. I’ll just end up with an ADAT with say 60 separate tracks where I can use one of them or 60 of them and kind of mirror the track if I want or take little bits and complete re-edit it. Same as with production techniques and same as with style, there’s so many different aspects and directions, and I kind of like to experiment and tamper with all of them and just see what ends up flowing organically.

When you first got into electronic music, did you start producing tracks and djing right away or did one kind of inspire the other?

I started producing first. It’s not that I didn’t have an interest in djing, it just never occurred to me. I just wanted to make the music. What I think I was doing, without really knowing it, was just emulating my death metal songs via synthesizers. Kind of making drum beats that were more of what a drummer would play and playing really dark, monstrous basslines and weird torquey psychedelic noises and very experimental loops and stuff. And not even wanting to fit it in but just like wanting to make love with sound. I wasn’t thinking, "I need to make this for a dance floor" or, "how will this affect this club?" Never thinking of it like that.

Actually, I was shocked, but the first time I tried to DJ at a friend’s house, I asked her what the hell a DJ is doing. She said, "All they’re doing is matching the beats and making the speeds of two different records match each other." I’ve been a drummer since I was 12, so when I put on the headphones, my first records just matched up right away. It was just like, "That’s all fucking djing is? What are you talking about?" I thought they were like making everything happen. I didn’t realize they were just playing music. And that’s not to say there’s not a lot more involved in djing, which I have found out.

The reason I started djing was I wanted to hear specific things that I wasn’t hearing. I was just playing at my own parties that I was throwing and wasn’t even trying to get booked at other parties. I was just concerned about making sure that the music at my parties was really on.

You've had other releases, but this is sort of the official Bassnectar debut, right, as far as an album goes?

Like everything else it’s really organic. I was self-managed and self-agented for the past decade. That led to a lot of great stuff but also a lot of chaos and radical switches of direction because I’m trying to run the label myself. That’s why I think of Mesmerizing the Ultra as really my first full Bassnectar presentation because it’s on a label, it’s the first time I’ve been in stores, it’s the first time that I’ve had distribution. I’ve been doing this for a decade, and I’ve been getting my CDs out by the thousands through websites and whenever. This is the first time where it’s like actually above ground.

Were you hesitant at all to make it a double CD?

No. In fact, it was a big insistence of mine -- the reason being that a lot of these tracks came out on what was actually my second artist album, which is called Diverse Systems of Throb. I’d been working on that music for over a year and a half and I was like, "I want this to get a proper release. I want people in Oklahoma to hear this. I’ve got Noam Chomsky on here. I’ve got Mumia Abu Jamal. I want this out there."

[And] one quick note: It's a double CD but part of the deal was that I gave them the tracks for free in exchange for them to pay for the extra costs but keep it priced as a single CD. So it’s a double but it’s priced as a single.

Them being the distributors?

Them being my label. I kind of wanted it to be a gift. To come out and have the first presentation just be very generous and basically give away 35 original tracks.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Noam Chomsky and Mumia Abu Jamal samples and how those came about?

I'm very politically involved and very politically interested. I wouldn’t even identify myself as a DJ and maybe not even as a musical artist. I’m more of a participant in the global community, and music is just one vehicle that I am riding on in an attempt to affect social change and network with my community. I am a huge fan, and almost a disciple, of Noam Chomsky and as well as many others; Howard Zinn, Helen Caldecott, Saul Williams, almost anyone on KPFA, Michael Moore, Mumia Abu Jamal, Michael Ruppert. I spend a lot of time on the Internet listening to speeches.

One thing about Noam Chomsky -- who I think for some reason or another is my favorite -- reading him is very dense but very understandable. Listening to him is very dense but sometimes hard to understand, because he’s got such a low rumble of a voice and he says "uh" a lot. And you can hear when he says "uh," it’s like his RAM scanning, trying to catch up, because he’s just a fucking fact vessel.

I get into this drone when I’m listening to him, and it’s like an hour has passed, and I don’t really understand what I heard even though I remember feeling outraged and inspired at different points. One thing I was doing, just for my friends, was editing his speeches just to take out his "uhs" and really trying to communicate -- like, concisify -- his speeches. If you go to my website you can download "So Butterfly" and that’s like, I think, an 11 minute track. The last 7 minutes of it is just a musical patch playing and just one of his speeches about Republicans and war crimes and things like that.

But you edited out all the "uhs" so it kind of flows a little.

I took out the "uhs" and made a lot of things repetitive. I just really tried to bring out the force of his point. I would be pleased if everyone reading this article would go there, it’s a free download, and just have a listen:

Has Noam Chomsky heard it?

Yeah. I sent him that and contacted his manager. They were amazingly helpful and made it very easy for me to license and get out [the track] there.

[On the second disc of Mesmerizing], I just used him as the intro and he’s talking about freedom. He says, "It’s really important to remember that a lot of people whose names we’ve completely forgotten are responsible for the freedoms we have. And it’s not a gift that is given to us by Bush and Cheney. It’s something that is built in. It’s a legacy that is left to us. It’s constantly trying to be snatched away and taken and is only going to remain as long as we defend it." That was kind of the battle cry opening of Diverse System of Throb.

I think there’s kind of a stereotype of the dance music community that it’s very hedonistic -- that when you go into the club scene, even in a fairly progressive city like San Francisco, it’s all about the drugs and hooking up. Do you perceive some of that, in that you’re actually educating people -- or do you think that’s a misconception and that the dance music community actually is more politically aware?

In terms of the dance music scene, I don’t really aim to educate as much as inspire and live by example and be someone who is coming up and involved but who is also educated and speaking their mind and addressing important issues. I don’t assume that I have a lot of facts that I need to distribute to the dance scene because I think they’re pretty much open-minded people. It’s more that I’m just kind of putting things in their face and really maintaining my political integrity in my music.

But then, outside of the dance scene, with the downtempo, listening music that I’m making, that’s the kind of stuff where I think there’s the potential for actual education or eye-opening. In the club scene, yeah, it can be hedonistic and can also just be party, party. A lot of times in the rave scene, it was very positive and all about love -- almost to an extreme. It wasn’t within specifics. Love is not the worst things you can promote, it’s one of the best things you can promote. But I think that at this point I’m also into promoting sacrifice and responsibility, and activism and consciousness and direct action. Another Noam Chomsky quote that I love says, "Freedom confers responsibility." That is a life motto for me. We’re so fucking saturated with luxury over here in America and in the first world. And to the degree that we’re well off, I think it’s the degree that we’re responsible to use those blessings to empower other people and to help those other folks who aren’t in [the first world]. I think it’s kind of an offense to everyone else if we don’t make use of that.

Bassnectar's album Mesmerizing the Ultra is available now in the ARTISTdirect Store for only $8.99 -- a steal for two CDs and over two hours of music!

We also picked Mesmerizing the Ultra as one of our favorite albums of 2005. Click here to see the complete list.

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