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Bassnectar on noise, beauty, and his legion of hardcore fans

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Bassnectar

On Saturday night, bass heads from all over the country gathered at New York’s Madison Square Garden for Bass Center VIII, the latest once-per-tour destination performance for Bassnectar fans who can’t follow the DJ/producer from city to city. They came in tutus. They came in tie-dye. They came with kandi and flags and posters. They came to party—and Bassnectar, the Bay Area artist they follow with religious-like fervor, did not disappoint.

Born Lorin Ashton in San Jose, California, Bassnectar released his first album in 2001, Freakbeat for the Beatfreaks. Since, he has toured constantly, churning out remixes, collaborations, and entire albums from the road. His fans rival Phish’s in their loyalty and he serves them bone-rattling low-end from a variety of different angles: dubstep, heavy metal, hard rock, trap, breakbeat. It’s heavy and punishing and somehow still delicately calculated.

This year, he released Noise Vs Beauty, his tenth album, and the first one in which he took off a significant amount of time from touring to put together. EW got the chance to chat with the 36-year-old as he kicks off the NVSB Tour about expressing his lighter side, the proper way to bend a genre, and all the reasons he shouldn’t be lumped into the EDM world.

EW: This is the first album you’ve taken a lot of time off to make. Why is that?

BASSNECTAR: I just had never done it and was getting to a point where it was almost like—touring is really hardcore as a lifestyle, and it’s something that I got used to as a reflex. And so every season that would roll around, it wasn’t like a question of “if,” it was just like, “How much touring can we get done?” And I was certainly addicted to it, I still am.

But I just was like, “What if I took a break and actually worked on music like a normal human?” Everything prior has been a mix of hotel rooms and airplanes and just shuffling and hustling…kind of approaching my albums more like a DJ set and a collage, piecing together ideas and tracks and stuff. And this was more really starting from scratch, and allowing myself to experience a different creative process. I already have basically the makings of a whole other album in that, just because so many ideas get generated. I’m going to take some more off this next winter and see what comes.

But my natural interest right now, having produced Noise Vs Beauty is to really focus on the beauty. Because at the shows it gets kind of noisier. I’m looking forward to making some downtempo this winter.

Live shows are and always have been an enormous part for you and your sound. When you’re making music away from all that, are you picturing your crowd when you’re writing? Or do you write the song you want and hope they like it?

I’m definitely sensing hypothetical future crowds. I feel like writing music because I have this extremely precious opportunity to broadcast it as soon as it’s made, whether I’m putting it out, or playing it out, there’s a lot of participation in it. But it’s not so much like wedding DJ style, where I would necessarily be compromising too much. It’s more just incorporating through sensitivity what other people’s experiences are like. But definitely still having a lot of gloves off, no limitations, fun, getting my hands dirty with different ideas.

There are a lot of interesting collaborations on this album. How’d those come about?

It was a huge creative process. There’s a lot of people I collaborated with who I didn’t end up even working with, or I saved the projects for later or I’m working on them still. And a lot of it was finishing up projects that I had started way before, and reinventing them. Then there was just throwing out tracks to different producers or different vocalists or MCs. Really organically, not holding on to the way I felt like anything should go, but letting the creative process ricochet back and forth. Which is fun, because you ultimately have control because you start the idea and you finish the idea, but in the middle, just taking the gloves and being like, “Well what would happen if we did this?” and thinking outside the box.

And really with the vocalists was where I felt the most creative freedom, because, I don’t know, it was something… I usually record people in my bedroom studio, or on the road somewhere. So to sit and take a studio over for a month, it was something I hadn’t done before. It was really cool.

How do you maintain the balance between noise and beauty?

It was really a way of me releasing myself from the expectations of whatever genre people think I might make, because I think so many people associate the brand Bassnectar with heavy bass music, and other people associate it with really ethereal, ambient styles, because I like it all. Kind of at least paying homage to the process that’s happening in our culture where there is such a crazy spectrum between that hecticity and you think of the shrieking sirens and that headache music at times.

And then also it’s in film scores and it’s the soundtrack to people’s lives, and so there’s these two different extremes. It’s also kind of like intensity versus daydream. I really have fun instead of picking anything, more playing across the spectrum, even in a given song or a set or a tour. Because that way you get to taste the best of both worlds.

More than any past collection, this album really expresses that lighter, ethereal side.

Yeah. And really wanting to express my music not through the lens of EDM at all, and if it didn’t hurt people’s feelings, I would just say “I f–king hate EDM and I want nothing to do with it,” because I really don’t care, but there are so many humans out there who really wave that flag. It’s something special to them, and I see the crossover, so I would acknowledge that, and I wouldn’t want to disrespect their love for it. But my own personal human ears respond just as much to indie rock, or film scores, or old classical music, or gangster rap or whatever it is. I don’t really feel beholden to one sound. In fact a lot of what I’m hearing generated today just all sounds the same, like unbelievably uncreative. Just kind of like a manufactured commodity, and I see music as the opposite of that.

A lot of people do still lump you into “EDM.” Do you not see yourself as any part of it?

I would imagine Bassnectar the way you would think about a band. It’s a lot better of a comparison, it’s more realistic. Not so much in terms of talent, infamy or sound, but like a band—like a Nine Inch Nails, or a Rage Against the Machine. We tour with a massive team; I relate to my fan base directly as a community, not so much as members of a scene but as interactors of my music. And it’s kind of a separate community that crosses over with EDM but crosses over with a lot of over things. I definitely feel like an outsider, but I prefer to be on the outside. Any crossover is welcome, but I’m just not that chachy Vegas f–king DJ. And I’m not in it to self-promote, or grandstand, or glorification. I’m on the other side of that.

What’s it like to have that community?

They remind me of myself, which is cool. They act how I acted, and that happened really naturally, which is weird because I’m a workaholic and a perfectionist, so I always am my harshest critic. And when I step back and look at things, I always see everything that I haven’t gotten to yet or everything that I could’ve done better, as opposed to seeing just the beauty. And I always am surprised when I see how tight knit the community is, because I feel like I could have somehow pushed it farther. And I’m always amazed that they did it on their own, and they did it the same way I did it. Because I got fantastic the same f–king way, and I jumped in headfirst and I got behind the scene and I participated. It’s like a punk rock ethos of discovering something that’s off the grid and really special, and committing to it and participating in it and interacting with it. I think that’s how subgenres and underground scenes exist and flourish.

So if someone had to put you in a genre, where would they put you?

Hopefully in some alternative section. Period.

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