Noise, Beauty, Bassnectar
Another portion of this interview will appear in the Parting Shots section of the upcoming July/August issue of Relix.
Lorin Ashton has come a long way since playing impromptu sets at Burning Man in the 1990s or opening for the String Cheese Incident in the early 2000s. A veritable master of the musical gumbo, Ashton—or as he is more commonly known, Bassnectar —has made a career out of throwing some of the wildest dance parties on the scene. It’s a relentless onslaught of ups, downs and more ups that fuses an assortment of seemingly disparate styles into a crazy, coherent whole. The uninitiated may have him pigeonholed as just another DJ, but his fans know he isn’t that easy to pin down.
Bassnectar’s penchant for working with different sounds is as evident as ever on his forthcoming album, Noise vs Beauty, which drops on June 24. The record, as the title suggests, is something of a rollercoaster, and that’s exactly what his fans have come to expect. We caught up with Bassnectar as he was gearing up to perform at the New York City edition of Electric Daisy Carnival after a rare six month touring hiatus.
Let’s talk about your forthcoming album, Noise vs Beauty. What can fans expect from this record?
I tried to give myself the time to create something that was as diverse as possible to reflect my multifaceted interests in music and culture. So I basically wound up with 15 different songs, each of which represents a different point on a spectrum—a clash of extremes, between noise and beauty. It’s kind of like I’m Goldilocks in this situation where I’m going from the hottest to the coldest and everywhere in between. Some songs are just really raunchy, aggressive, wild, loud, and some are really soft and gentle or just more on the beautiful end of the spectrum to me. I don’t really expect anyone to like it all, but I love it all. That was what was really gratifying for me at the end of finishing it up, was to feel a way I’d never felt. I’d never felt so final and so at peace and so inspired by a finished work of my own before. I always end and feel like, “Shit I don’t know if it’s done, or I should have done this differently or done that differently,” and this time around it was exactly how I wanted it to be.
On past albums you’ve collaborated with people like Lupe Fiasco and RJD2. Will we be seeing more of that kind of thing on this record?
Yeah there are a lot of collaborators. The creative process for this record was really intense because I was writing different songs with different collaborators at different phases of the song’s life. I might make a song, strip it down to only guitar, piano, sometimes me humming over it. Then I’d take it to a vocalist and we’d sit and write an entire vocal part to the song, write the lyrics or whatever, and then I might switch the song slightly and take it to a different vocalist to kind of give the song more dimension in that way. Then the end product was very different than what I started out with. So some of the collaborators were people who inspired me but who I didn’t end up using in the end. Some of the collaborators are lower on the profile and higher on the flexibility, which is actually something I gravitate towards. It’s always fun to have a name to throw around and be like, “Hey I worked with so-and-so,” but the reality is that having an artist who is totally open for creativity and collaboration is just more inspiring to me. So working with an MC who writes the lyrics with me, who I can say, “Hey can you try saying it like this; could you not say that and try this; let’s talk about that; hey try it in this tone or here let me show you how to do it like this,” makes it a lot more organic and interactive for me. Some of the more high profile people I worked with on the record, I didn’t end up using, because what they did, even though it was badass, I just couldn’t customize it enough, and I really just wanted to get deep. The collaborators, most of them are friends or kind of like indie singer/songwriters, and just people who I was inspired by.
So collaborations aside, what’s the process like for you when you’re in the studio? When do you start, when do you know things are finished?
Well I’d never done this process before. This is the first time I’ve ever taken six months off the road to be creative. The year before that, I was on the road 11 months out of the year, and every album that I’ve made, I’ve made on the road, completely exhausted, just trying to find a quiet hotel room with some headphones to get a second. This process started off last summer when I had basically a full album created but it just felt too electronic and what I was hearing from all the other artists in my field was just sounding really similar and I wasn’t inspired by it, so I kind of remixed myself as if I was an indie band remixing a DJ. I produced these soft indie rock remixes of my own music where it was just a couple chords, piano, guitar, and my voice. Then I took those around to different artists, different collaborators and wound up with these new versions that sounded like a fucking rad indie rock band. Then I took those files and remixed them and made them more electronically enhanced. So that process took many moons, and I worked almost every day of the year—so far this year, seven days a week pretty obsessively. Even though I told everyone I was taking a vacation, I was recharging.
You have a pretty big fanbase on the jamband scene. Do you have any roots in the Dead or the Phish scenes?
No. In fact, there were a couple other stoners in high school who liked The Dead and we were always kind of friends with them but their music was so light. When I was 16 I was so obsessed with death metal, I think I was just trying to get away from Christianity, so I just wanted the most offensive, freakish sound. Now when I look back I can see, there is so much musicianship. I love real deal country bluegrass that was recorded before 1950. Shit that was so authentic, rich, and vintage—I love that. Modern day, I just prefer louder and heavier sound. Working with [The String Cheese Incident’s] Michael Kang was killer though. One of my favorite Bassnectar songs in existence is “Dubuasca,” I created that with him based on recordings he made of a shaman at an Ayahuasca ceremony. We just took her voice and her chants and cut it up and he played all kinds of instrumentation over it—or most of it; half of it was played backwards, and then he played again over it. It went pretty deep [laughs].
A lot of festivals now have this sort of jam in the day and electronic at night format they’re going with. Where do you think the crossover appeal between these two scenes lies? Is it in the sense of community?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I was able to present a new and raw sound for the younger brothers and sisters of the true Deadheads and the true Phishheads in the earlier 2000s. Then as those kids grew into their own I think they made it more of their flag. Hitting a nerve like that without intending to is pretty interesting. When you set out to make magic, that’s one thing, but when you have no idea it’s going to come and it just happens and you’re kind of witnessing it more as a spectator your like “Damn, what the fuck, this is outrageous.”
During my days in the punk rock/ death metal scenes we were too few to make a community without reaching out to other people in other towns, and we were kind of bonding together over this shared love of something that was left of center, and the community that comes out of that. When you have something special and you’re sharing it from Milwaukee or Florida or you live in New York sharing it with someone in L.A., I think it’s immeasurable and special and it just fit right into my ethos. What I couldn’t believe was anyone liked my music in that scene, specifically because jamband music, to my ear, is lighter. It’s not as full, it’s not as hard, it’s not as heavy; and in a lot of ways I think that makes it better music for being at festivals, because it’s not so overwhelming. I’ve seen sets played by a band like Phish or something and the music and the tone is not as loud or as overwhelming, yet people are just going HAM. I feel like that is, in part, because their senses are not fully overwhelmed by the music.
The first time I played All Good, I came on after all these banjos and a tambourine and a guy in his 50s whispering about moonshine or something on the other stage, and I’m thinking, “Well I guess I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Then to watch that bowl of 20,000 people erupt; they didn’t not dance, they didn’t leave—they stayed and flipped out. I really developed a love for the eclecticness of that audience and I kind of assumed I would continue growing as an after party DJ or a warm-up DJ for those bands. I remember playing a 7pm opening set for String Cheese, or playing 6:30pm in Boston opening for STS9, just hustling in 2004 or whatever. Then sure enough, in 2005, Madison House started putting me into the same markets in small rooms, like a pizza parlor in Lafayette, or a random ladies night in Knoxville on a Wednesday night and it worked. We’d be the only artists in a room full of 300 or 400 people and we were the only people that ever brought in bass. They’d say, “What do you need the bass for?” and we’d tell them, “You’ll see!” and it just caught on. I think as the times developed and the culture developed, youth culture just started gravitating toward more of a crossover sound. That’s not to say that happened in general, but it certainly happened in force. I was lucky enough to have an infrastructure, a community, a network built within the country that allowed me to tour 30 cities in 30 nights, and I think it just allowed me to build on that.