Bassnectar (Lorin Ashton) clearly remembers his first rave. It took place in what he describes as a “random warehouse” in San Francisco in 1995. He went with the guys in his band and they all wore death metal shirts because that was they were into at the time. Makes sense. Bay Area natives Metallica would’ve been huge at the time. But the rave experience was something different, and it was a seminal moment for Ashton, who’s now one of the most creative DJs on the circuit.
“I never danced before,” he admits via phone from New York where he was prepping for his fall tour. “I only knew how to headbang. I didn’t notice the DJ. I didn’t even know what a DJ was. I wasn’t geeking out watching them play. I danced for nine hours straight. It was epic. I remember the atmosphere. It was the first truly friendly musical atmosphere I ever went to.” He had been to house parties before, but he says the “macho” atmosphere turned him off. And the death metal shows he’d witnessed had been “really crazy.” The rave was something different.
“I felt completely safe at the rave,” he says. “I remember bumping into someone and thinking that I needed to apologize but I was spontaneously hugged by a stranger. I just remember it being really friendly. It changed my life in a positive way to the point that I want to create an atmosphere where music is the catalyst for friendships.”
Even though he wasn’t making electronic music at the time, he had enough gear to start producing his own mixtapes.
“I got a four track and an effects processor,” he says. “I was already collecting tapes of college radio broadcasts of college radio shows that featured electronic music. I would make remixes that were electronic but I made them with guitar and drums. The next day after that first rave, I was trying to get behind the scenes and work my way into the scene. It just snowballed from there.”
He released his first album in 2001 and started touring in 2002, putting on fantastic concerts distinguished by stunning light shows. By the time he released Divergent Spectrum in 2011, he began creating music for really large settings.
“I guess my musical tastes were more obscure in the late ’90s and early 2000s and I was creating music for headphones and car stereos,” he explains. “My shows were more intimate. As the shows began to expand, my music would intensify to fit the setting. By the time I released Divergent Spectrum, it was about making mega fucking anthems. That’s continued through Vava Voom and Freestyle and Take You Down. The frenzy of the crowd is something that I’m playing off of. I’m not there to play lullabies, though I do enjoy the occasional lullaby.”
His latest album, Noise vs. Beauty, features a bit of everything. Hip-hop numbers like “Now” and “Lost in the Crowd” have a classic, g-funk feel to them and suggest his old school influences.
“I was in sixth grade and I listened to Straight Outta Compton,” he says. “I was listening to Young MC and hip-hop dance music that was on the radio. With ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ I don’t know what it was, but I memorized those songs. I did my own censorship. I would say ‘n’ word and ‘b’ word when I rapped it. I was in love with that music. It was just the happiness of those beats.”
He says he admires the way N.W.A. produced Dr. Dre can dig up old funk and soul grooves and turn them into hip-hop anthems.
“We just take a previous decade’s music and update it,” he says. “The next generation hears it and thinks it’s something new but it’s just an updated version of the past. I think it’s beautiful. That’s the same thing you could say for every song I ever made.”
For the current live show, he plans to mix visuals and audio in a way that’s distinctly his own. He’s got his own special set up that enables him to transform venues into immersive environments.
“Combining the audio and the visual together is something that’s been a long journey,” he says. “Last year, we unleashed this Ultimate Nerd Server system that syncs up my samples and songs with video imagery and with video content. I can control the video show from the same computer that I control the music from. It’s really interactive and allows me to be spontaneous and improvise but to have every song I play has some kind of video. You can dazzle people’s nervous systems or send them messages with video.”
As electronic dance music popularity has risen, so has the demand for Bassnectar. Ashton spent the summer playing big outdoor festivals and says he’s now looking forward to taking his show into smaller, more intimate spaces.
“The key for me is to not change what I do,” he says. “As EDM has exploded, it moved in a direction that’s not interesting to me. Instead of trying to respond to that, I still try to play my heart out and reinvent the wheel on an artistic level and keep to the ethos of the punk rock music scene that’s more DIY. What we’re trying to do is more like teamwork than it is about showmanship. We’re creating immersive environments all over the country. We’re playing music we love and it comes down to that first rave and how it changed my life and I want to give that back to the world and give that experience back to people. That’s what Bassnectar is about.”
Bassnectar, Kill Paris, Son of Kick, 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $43, clevelandagora.com.