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Bassnectar: From Death-Metal Kid to Superstar DJ

How the curious Californian found his niche

Lorin Ashton of Bassnectar performs at The Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.
June 21, 2012 3:25 PM ET

Lorin Ashton, the outspoken 34-year-old whose DJ name is Bassnectar, sold over 250,000 tickets to his solo shows last year – more than any other dance music DJ except for Tiësto and Deadmau5 – but he's cut from a different cloth than most EDM DJs. He has a slender physique and a gentle, upbeat manner; he also grew up in a commune in Silicon Valley but his parents took the family out when he was five, becoming born-again Christians.

In part as a reaction to this upbringing, Ashton became a metalhead. "I went from heavy to death to black metal, always looking for something harder, darker, more underground," he tells Rolling Stone. In the early Nineties, he became a fan of a Stanford college radio metal show, taping it at night before he went to sleep. One time, the tape flipped over and recorded an experimental techno show instead. "That music appealed to me immediately, and I started going out to raves," he says. "I appreciated the mystique of being part of something dark and underground but where the general atmosphere was very friendly. When I went to death metal shows, I was definitely the friendliest person in the room."

Before long, Ashton began making electronic music and became part of a group that threw full moon parties on remote beaches and in the woods of Northern California. "I would spend a lot of time driving around, following the telephone poles until they ended and figuring out where we could park the cars," he recalls. He also became one of the most beloved DJs at Burning Man. But when dance culture died between 2000 and 2005, he found himself at a crossroads. "I only survived that time period because I'm such a DIY creature that I never wanted to be playing in the clubs where Tiësto was playing," he says. "I wanted to make weird, random events happen with small groups of people who were fanatical about underground music."

Ashton still looks like a metalhead – he has straight black hair that extends about 20 inches from the crown of his head – and mixes diverse genres like dubstep, rap and circus music together in a freestyle manner. It's rough stuff, but he is conscious of who he is playing to. "Last night in Vegas, I played with some of the hardest dubstep DJs, and I was watching from upstairs as three mosh pits formed," he says. "Look, I love mosh pits when the energy's good, but this didn't have that vibe, so I played something that was intentionally deeper and more musical."

Earlier in his career, Ashton was known for making bold political statements during his performances about the Iraq war, American colonialism and unhappiness with the "party scene." (He does not take drugs, because he is "naturally high as fuck," but says that his feelings about drugs are too complex to summarize in a short article; he will say that "taking bath salts is the most idiotic thing you can do, like smelling your own poo.") These days, however, he abstains from commenting on political issues during his performances. "If I were to suggest that my fans read The People's History of the United States or watch the documentary Why We Fight, I would likely have to deal with more arguing and ignorance than I can engage with," he explains. This being said, he is excited about his success and playing for a mainstream audience. "I feel really confident and excited to play for all kinds of people," he says. "I don't judge anyone as unworthy, or assume they're not going to get it, or that I even know what it is that they could get."

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