Lorin Ashton, the San Francisco-based DJ and producer known as Bassnectar, has become a sensei of sorts for heavy bass music in North America, showing how it can sound both disciplined and devastating. Ashton thinks intensely about the spaces between beats and their impact on a crowd, which feeds into his vision of danceable social networking. He believes a simple, seemingly repetitive act such as DJing can ultimately have deeper intentions.
First and foremost, however, he is known for laying down seismic trills that greatly appeal to genre-agnostic fans at prestigious festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Camp Bisco, and Shambhala. He owes at least part of the face-melting, "omnitempo" phenomenon he has cultivated to Northern California. "My first experiences with bass weren't musical," he says. "They were experiences like the Loma Prieta earthquake [and] storms — that ultralow, grinding sensation that conveys something more powerful than a human."
Since those formative events in the late '80s, Ashton has done plenty of grinding himself. After beginning his low-end explorations in high school, throwing death-metal band battles in libraries and community centers, he was drawn in the mid-'90s to the rave scene. He specifically liked the "stretchy, panicked alien noises" of psychedelic trance music.
Bassnectar: With Vibesquad and ESKMO. 9 p.m. Friday, September 17, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $39.50; livenation.com.
Following rave's implosion around the beginning of the millennium, Ashton went from unflaggingly pounding the local pavement to cultivating a national presence for his beat-freak showcases (including more than a half-dozen albums and dozens of singles). Cross-pollinating drum 'n' bass, dubstep, glitch-hop, ragga, and nü-skool breakbeat, he tours constantly under the Bassnectar name. He travels armed with thousands of eclectic sonic clips, including malleable bootlegs of Pixies and Metallica alongside commercially released tracks, such as the ones off of his recent Timestretch EP. This pan-genre maximalism, accompanied by his prodigious curtain of bobbing brown hair, has become a festival circuit fixture.
Live, Ashton uses digital editing to toy with the interplay between double- and half-time percussion and a sub-bass intensifier. "This isn't like, 'Ooh, I'm gonna dominate you, show you how masculine I am because my bass is so loud,'" he says. "I've always been a happy person, a gentle person... but real fun for me musically is found between extremes, moving back and forth, combining the most beautiful sounds with the ugliest to get people to surrender to any kind of emotion."
Merging people and musical movements is certainly a decades-deep San Fran tradition, and Ashton still rents in Berkeley. He has lived in San Jose and Santa Cruz and is ultimately proud of his association with this region. However, even if the Bay Area is where he calls home, he says his community extends to the growing crowds his appearances generate on the road.
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He wants Bassnectar to be a portal, drawing fans together to sidestep corporate agendas and participate in sincere interaction. "I wasn't so much like, 'Oh, I want to be on a stage,' as I was interested in helping see events happen that might trigger the sensations I experienced when first going out," he says. He acknowledges the role his sound technician and visuals director play in establishing the performances as kaleidoscopic, bass-thickened sweat rapids.
Ashton explored the electronic music program at University of California, Santa Cruz, taking courses in vintage synths, sequencing, and musique concrète, but for the most part, he is self-trained, aided by fellow producer ill.Gates (Dylan Lane). In school, he harbored an interest in becoming a guidance counselor, and you can see this interest in the way he repeatedly turns the conversation about music toward one about catalyzing people to find ways "to get involved that surpass the mundane aspects of life... and avoid predictable scripts of behavior that unfold because you've seen them on sitcoms your entire life."
There is certainly more to Ashton than subwoofer punishment. His conversational style cuts back and forth between imagery and tempo. He describes music in constructs, such as a DJ set being like a comedy routine, with referential notes, setups, fakeouts, and punch lines — anything to avoid predictability. Ashton is as protective of his words and intentions as most DJs are of their exclusive white-label singles. Whether sharing soaking bass or sociopolitical beliefs, he's all about showcasing something that resonates.