Before record execs plugged in to electronic dance music and dubstep, making them the hottest sound of the moment, there was Lorin “Bassnectar” Ashton. For more the 15 years now, the San Francisco–based beatsmith been toiling away—DJing, hosting and organizing electronic dance music parties and dropping albums and mixtapes strictly for the love of the music. It certainly wasn’t for fame or money.
“I was releasing albums totally unofficially to zero fanfare and to, like, no one as early as 1993,” Bassnectar, 34, told Complex from his hotel room in São Paulo Brazil weeks ago. He was there to perform at Lollapalooza, where thousands danced to his “freak-out” cuts, and promote his latest album Vava Voom. He pretty much never stops touring.
Here Bassnectar talks about how he connected with Lupe Fiasco for Voom’s lead single, why he turned down an opportunity to work with Flo Rida, and why he’s not mad at how, all of a sudden, everyone loves the music he’s been down with for decades.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
COMPLEX: How does your background in hard rock and death metal translate to the music you make today?
Since I was a little kid, I’ve just been really interested in the road less taken. I was always gravitating towards underground scenes and alternative culture in high school and in the early 1990s. There was an amazingly organized worldwide death metal scene that was comprised of maybe one to five weirdo rejects in school who were into this polarizing satanic fucking crazy sound. Being a young kid, it was fun to have that as my flag to wave. It was the shock value. I could scare the neighbors with it. I could blast it when I peeled out in my Volvo.
I’m not really a trendy person. I don’t have any style. I dress with the same clothes I wore in high school. I’ve got hair down to my ass and it’s not in season. It’s whatever it is. I’m happy doing what I do and I love human enthusiasm.
Who are some of those artists, some of those bands you were into coming up?
It’s really hard to get specific because my tastes are so enormously wide. I feel like the diversity comes from how much time I have been alive on this planet because every year I’m soaking up new sounds and old sounds. So I’m exploring old artists who died before I was born who have ideas that mesh with other collaborators and made things happen that to this day I never would have thought up on my own.
To me, it’s more anthropological than it is specifically musical—just experiencing other people’s imaginations and other people’s creativity. Through electronic music, being able to engage with Ella Fitzgerald. Being to introduced Ella Fitzgerald to Jimi Hendrix and fucking Beethoven and Dr. Dre. I just got goose bumps when I said that. It’s a special thing that never existed before.
How do you feel about your genre being the sound of the moment? Do you think it’s about time folks pick up on it?
I think it’s a happy accident. I certainly would still be here even if it wasn’t the sound of the moment. It’s naturally where I found myself with dumb luck and that was after almost 20 years of the complete opposite of literally liking music that no one else in town liked and being just fine with that. I wouldn’t get chased away from what I love by other people’s relationship to that. Whether I’m the only one in the room who likes the song or everyone in the room likes the song, I still like the song.
This kind of trend passes on to the next thing. That’s what happens. I’m not really a trendy person. I don’t have any style. I dress with the same clothes I wore in high school. I’ve got hair down to my fucking ass and it’s not in season. It’s whatever it is. I’m happy doing what I do and I love human enthusiasm. I think it’s one of the most special treasures of our culture. It’s finding things that trigger delight and passion in people. Having this rare and magical ability to have my hand on the button that triggers pleasure for large amounts of people and being able to push that button and turn it all the way to the max is fun.
What was it like for you as an artist before there was a big pool of people checking for EDM and dubstep? How did you survive? How were you making money?
I wasn’t looking to make money, I was looking to be a high school history teacher and a guidance counselor. That’s what I went to school for and got a degree for. So I never thought this would be a career, it was mostly just a lifestyle. It was something that I intended to do for love and for the rest of my life, as a “What do I do on the weekends?” I’m part of this community. I love music. I have a very authentically underground personality even if I’m involved in things that are intensely popular in the moment. I’m a freak and a reject and a happy one.
I’ve been on the road touring nonstop for well over a decade. In 2004 I’d be in a pizza parlor shut down on a Tuesday night in Arkansas and Wednesday night I’d head over to Knoxville, Tennessee and play a fucking nightclub for 500 people and so on. I’d play wherever, just small off-the-beaten path places where college students still would’ve fucking raged. Maybe there’s like three Rastafarians and five metal heads and that dude who likes hip-hop and that kid who doesn’t even like music but just wants to meet people and these kids who love rave music. You get them all together in a room and turn the sound up and just freak out. Like I said, this trend is… I don’t know if it’s here to stay or if it’s growing or if it’s coming or going. I’m just here to do my thing.
I make freak-out music and I love freak-out music. I consider it to be omni-tempo and it’s kind of like every genre. There’s no rules and no limits and I want it to be heavy and crazy and bonkers.
What do you listen to on a day-to-day basis, when you’re cooling out in your apartment, your house, on the tour bus? EDM is not really chill music. Is that something that you live to?
That’s just a beautiful question man. It’s really, really difficult for me to give short answers about the music I love, because I could legitimately talk about The Fugees and I could legitimately talk about the film soundtrack to Inception by Hans Zimmer or the film soundtrack to American Beauty. I love whatever but I don’t have time, as you said, to cool out. I don’t think I’ve cooled out since the ’90s and I would love to cool out, but I think that that time is ahead. I basically work seven days a week. I work a minimum of 10 hours a day and I love what I do. I’ll listen and love music in any situation, but I really like to get behind the wheel basically.
When I was listening to your stuff before the interview, I was like, “This music is for partying.”
You’re right and that’s a better question. You asked what I like to listen to when I cool out and just that phrase is awesome. But your other point is, “Hey man, your music is specifically this.” And I would agree and disagree. I make freak-out music and I love freak-out music. I consider it to be omni-tempo and it’s kind of like every fucking genre. There’s no rules and no limits and I want it to be fucking heavy and crazy and bonkers.
That’s kind of how I’ve been with music for a long time. However, each album does have what I call a “meltdown moment” to it, and that’s reflective of my love for down-tempo and trip-hop and acid. “Butterfly” on this latest record is a good example of that and before that, the Ellie Golding “Lights” remix and “Above and Beyond” on the last record, too. You can go through each one and you can find that one little meltdown moment—if not more—just because, you know, it is important to have music for all moods. But if I had to pick one it would have to be freak-out music.
For someone who has been doing this for 20 years, do you feel like you’ve been getting the recognition and respect that you deserve or do you even care?
No, I haven’t and no I don’t care. If I was doing this for recognition I would probably look much different. I would probably always have sunglasses on. My hair would be the right style. I would probably wear a leather jacket. My pants would be tight when they needed to be tight. I might show off my ankles if it was hip. I would be flashier. I’m doing this one million percent for the love. I’m absolutely fueled by an unstoppable force of appreciation for being alive and I’m authentically stunned on a daily basis at how mesmerizing life is.
Let’s say neon colors are what’s in right now and you could say that you’ve been wearing neon for the last 20 years. Is it annoying?
That’s a great way of putting it. It makes me smile for several reasons. It’s fun to watch people discover something. Let’s say you love a strawberry and you watch someone who’s never had a strawberry enjoy a strawberry. Why would you hate them for loving a strawberry? You can’t de-validate their love for a strawberry like, “Dude, I loved strawberries 10 years ago!” If I love strawberries and 10 million other people love strawberries it doesn’t make the strawberry taste different to me. It’s not like, “Oh shit, people are on to this shit. I got to move onto the next thing.” It’s, “Fuck it—I love strawberries!”
How do you feel about the success of Flo Rida’s single “Good Feeling”?
I think that it is deserved because it is extremely digestible music. When you have trance or house music, it’s essentially modern disco and it’s playing a beat that you can hear in a disco dance club or a roller rink or a 24-hour fitness center. And everyone knows it and everyone’s used to it in Europe or South America. It’s on every radio station. It’s what’s on every commercial and essentially the ‘80s was full of that—whether it was Tears for Fears or Madonna. Pop music has always had that kind of electronic dance beat underneath it. Michael Jackson also.
Flo Rida actually asked me to make beats for that record and I turned it down, not to be snotty or anything. But I knew that I did not have the sounds for that. I didn’t want to make the sound for that. The way that it came out is the way that he probably needed and wanted, but it’s not really my sound. My ears don’t gravitate towards that kind of music for some reason. But no disrespect, because music is a pretty personalized thing and I respect everyone having diverse tastes.
Let’s talk about your album.
First, I want to say thank you for even acknowledging that because people don’t acknowledge that a lot and having been doing it—working my knuckles to the bone for close to 20 years—it’s a life work, so I appreciate that question.
No problem. It’s my job. There are a lot of interesting collaborations on your album like the one with Lupe Fiasco. I’m interested in knowing what the process is. Are people knocking on your door asking to collab with you?
For the most part, I love collaborating and it’s actually a process that I prefer to making music on my own. Having made a lot of music on my own it’s gratifying because I’m a control freak. But it’s more gratifying to mesh with another mind and my background is being in bands. It’s fun for me. I don’t usually take the jobs like Flo Rida. I’m not looking for high-profile, but I wouldn’t run from it. I’d happily work with Mos Def or Erykah Badu.
Lupe’s just so unique and confident and strange and intellectual and so I wanted to make music with him just because I wanted our brains to play together.
Fuck yeah, bring that shit on. I really do what comes naturally, and usually that’s working with my friends. Like some of my best friends in the world, the way we cool out is by sitting there and geeking out. There’s no cooling about it—it’s all geek, and it’s just a fun way. Like, ‘What do you want to do? Let’s make a tune.’ With Lupe Fiasco, I’ve been a fan of his music and his personality for a long time. Getting to meet him, we realized we had the same birthday and he’s a really playful and intellectual phenomenon to me.
Lupe’s just so unique and confident and strange and intellectual and so I wanted to make music with him just because I wanted our brains to play together. I was really excited for how that tune “Vava Voom” came out, because I really wanted to make a big heavy 808 hip-hop banger. And I had that song that was kind of in form with the little circus loop and I started tweaking with it and it turned into that little hypnosis sound and I tossed it over that beat.
I had the chorus in my head and I kind of fake rapped it to him and he took it and he made it sound proper. He did the verses just completely off of his head like complete improv—just insanity with double meanings. The song was about two and a half minutes long and he ended saying “Boom!” and I was, like, “I got to fucking drop something here.” So I did.
What is the energy you try to bring when you’re performing?
It’s wild abandon mixed with full passion enthusiasm and I like that blended in a friendly atmosphere. I remember mosh pits breaking out in 2004, 2005, I remember kids rushing the stages and literally DJing on stage in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2005 with kids holding up my table because the legs broke and I’m just fucking gangstering it.
There is a freak-out vibe and as the crowds get bigger and bigger, I’ve outgrown the venues that make sense and now I’m moving into venues that are arenas and shit. The reason that it has stayed fun for me is that I can transform the venues, which is what I was doing back in the ‘90s when I was making raves happen. It’s a full power crowd and it’s a diverse crowd and it’s really kind of anything goes.