A death metal ex-pat drawn to bass music in the late Nineties, long-haired low-end theorist Lorin "Bassnectar" Ashton has spent more than a decade crafting an abrasive-yet-nuanced take on headbanger boom that might be dubstep's brightest and boldest link to rock music. His charity initiatives make him its Eddie Vedder, his devoted fanbase is EDM's Kiss Army, his earthquaking sound makes are a hit at both metal and dance fests and he's been known to drop the occasional Rage Against the Machine remix. His tenth, and most fully realized album, Noise Vs. Beauty has the hooks of indie rock, the rhythms of Nineties alt-metal and the low end of a head-on submarine collision. We tried to get to the bottom of things.
The volume and vibrations of your live show can create an oppressive, kind of suffocating feeling. How important is that to you to deliver a physical sensation to an audience?
It's definitely part of the ethos, you know, wanting to deliver an experience that engulfs the senses, that takes you out of your mind but activates your mind at the same time. Or at least you look back on and realize that, for a moment, you were both thought-provoked and stimulated and terrified and inspired — because not a lot really excites me about what's going on in music of any genre. The dynamic of 30,000 humans gathered together looking at one to five humans on a stage with some fancy lighting — no matter if it's Snoop or Dr. Dre or if it's fucking John Lennon back from the dead or the Tupac hologram or whatever — it's like, this stuff isn't as impressive as it once was.
What's your favorite physical sensation on a stage?
I wear earplugs at every show, and I wore earplugs at every death metal practice so it's become a part of second nature to me. I rock the foam. I do 33 dB foam just jammed in and, for the record, we give away free earplugs at every set, unlimited amounts. I really am like a big advocate of ear safety. That said, the feeling is really the solar plexus. You can feel bass in your legs and you can feel bass in your throat or your ears, and that's not a good feeling. It's when it's nice and just like punchy and full in your chest. I just love knowing that it's thick. I don't actually like it to be too loud. Sometimes you're on a system and you're amazed at the fact that you feel like it's an earthquake, but, out in the crowd, I want it to sound like you're in a truck, and like a nice truck with a nice system.
Have have people said, "Oh, you know, I got nauseous watching you."
Anytime that we've had negative feedback about the sound, I take it really seriously and we've either had to let employees go or make a real deal seriously about the sound. My own father told me, the space between his lips and his nose wouldn't stop vibrating, and he wasn't enjoying it. That's not the goal. I'm not out there to physically torture anyone. I do want to fill up the bodies the perfect amount. It's more searching for perfection. It's not like a testosterone driven accomplishment.
What do you think is the heaviest riff of all time?
I think every question and every answer in that vein has to do too much with historical context to hold relevance after that moment's past us.
Well as of right now, as we sit here in 2014, you know, what is the pinnacle we have reached?
Well, you know, every time I master the record it takes months to do it and I'm comparing all this new music to my previous music and making sure that its as loud and heavy or heavier … and consistently getting heavier and heavier. I remember when I was really into death metal saying, "What are my kids going to listen to? There's nothing heavier than this." And then, you know, bass music comes out and, obviously, it's way heavier than death metal. I was 16 when I was thinking that, I'm 36 now and I'm not really trying to be the loudest or the hardest or the heaviest.
I do like going deep and that's what Noise vs Beauty is about. It's like, you're asking about the noise, but the beauty is a huge aspect of it. It's almost like if music is the message, noise is the vessel that carries the message. The two can really fuse together, they can oppose, because noise can be hectic and annoying and screechy, haunting, frightening. Beauty can be calming, loving, ethereal, enchanting, inspiring, but the two can come together in these combinations that are worth theming a record over.
You work in electronic music, probably the first genre that I can think about where you don't even have to make records. You can be incredibly famous and sell out arenas…
By throwing cakes in people's faces…
Why even release a record? Like why bother?
I wanted to take six months off the road, which I'd never done, I'd been on between 10 and 11 months of the year for over a decade hardcore touring. I wanted to take six months off and make sure I could take a bike ride on my beach cruiser every day, go to the same Whole Foods, just hang out with the same friends and just work my ass off and get really creative and just make music.
I was constantly being like, "Damn this is so different." I mean I tried a couple new techniques. One was creating music without drums or bass. After I got songs together that sounded like Bassnectar songs to my ears, I remixed them as only acoustic guitar, piano and my vocals. My terrible vocals just holding a vocal melody. I took those interpretations of my songs and I sent them to MCs, vocalists, singer-songwriters, indie bands, and started working on these new personalities with these other people and collaborated with over 50 people, many of whom didn't end up being on the record — like Busta Rhymes, Azealia Banks, Cool Kids, none of them are on the record. All of them rock, love them all. But it wasn't about the profiles for me.
I wrote over half the lyrics on the record, I had a say in every vocal performance and I got it to sound just the way I wanted it to sound. That technique of really digging in, creating an entire record of indie rock — it was independently created rock music that I then got to remix as if a band hired me and said, "Hey, remix our song," and I had access to all the pieces. So it was really deep.
So there is a really unique indie-rock version of this album sitting on a hard drive somewhere.
Yeah, multiple hard drives that will self-destruct soon I hope. Some of it's awesome and it has no home, it has no genre, it's kind of like Bon Iver meets Slayer — or more indie than that actually because it wasn't really finished music.
Send it to Anti-.
I mean, I was thinking of releasing some of it, but I kind of like having those secrets too.
Record Store Day?
Or of the worst DJ set of my life… People will be like what the fuck? I met this guy Simon [Morel] who was Lupe Fiasco's engineer and the guy who sat and controlled the console while we recorded Va Va Voom. He ended up singing on the record as a placeholder. I just kept him. Something I didn't realize that maybe has gone on forever, but big artists these days are oftentimes being presented with finished songs and they listen through 50, 60, songs until they hear one they like and maybe they keep everything there and just do a verse on it. The vocalists who make those [demos] are people who I was working with and it was really interesting because none of them expected to be used. The girl Hayley [Gene, a.k.a. W. Darling] who's on "You and Me," she was really like, "I don't think you need to use me, you should take what I did to someone else." She was like, "I'm a team player and I just want to contribute." She just works for hire for different people in L.A., I don't even know if she even has a profile and again, I wasn't searching for her profile.
You're in a genre that's mostly faceless, giving a star turn to people who are definitely faceless. It's like the 20 Feet From Stardom of electronic music.
I wish it was more faceless because the problem now is that you have acts that are mass-marketed from Europe, with guys who are like… it's like the boy bands. You're hiring these good looking, popular, confident guys to fake like they're producing something by standing in front of a CD player with their arms up and all the teenagers think it's legit, so they're allowing it to continue.
Would say that there are big name DJs right now who don't do anything?
There are big name DJs right now who buy their own Facebook followers and manufacture their profiles and don't write their music, have other people write their music for them and then don't play their music live, but stand there during prerecorded sets while they run around onstage and congratulate themselves. There are impostors in every genre. There are bad artists in every genre. EDM is so easy to critique because most of the biggest and most successful artists are the phoniest.
Then there's all the credibility that exists, all the underground artists who are truly gifted and Mozarts. A guy like Kaskade is so fucking smart and so deep and so real that I can't necessarily critique EDM because there's a guy like Kaskade who totally deserves everything he's ever gotten. It's the phonies and that mass marketed dynamic of culture that I'm revolted by, whether it's EDM or pop music or fashion or whatever.