Lorin Ashton, the electronic-music producer and DJ who plays under the name Bassnectar, grew up throwing death-metal concerts at his hometown library. He turned toward deejaying and producing music after partying at moonlight raves and warehouse dance parties in the ’90s. Even though he performs on a stage, orchestrating the ups and downs of his fans, he disdains EDM, finds DJs dancing behind tables boring, and turns away from the religious devotion that some Bassheads, his devout fans, have for him.
He aims to stay humble and grounded and to honor the artistic vision of his younger self, who prefers going deep rather than going big. That's the goal of the Freestyle Sessions that he'll be bringing to the 1STBANK Center for three nights this weekend, starting today, July 7.
For starters, Ashton will ditch the stage for a DJ booth on the floor. He's been hunting through record crates and SoundCloud files for music to mix on the spot. And he's producing a show like no other, one that defies his stardom and opens up the crowd to the era of raves — even if it's at the 1STBANK Center, not on a beach or in an abandoned warehouse.
Westword caught up with Ashton, just after his appearance at the Electric Forest Festival, to learn more about the Freestyle Sessions.
Westword: How are you?
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Lorin Ashton: I'm good. I'm in the middle of this double dose of Electric Forest, laying low, and working on new music. Yeah. I'm feeling good.
I have to confess, I have never seen you live. I hate to talk to someone without that, because there's a certain context that I'm missing. But the people I've talked to who have seen you talk about an ecstatic religious experience that fans have. How do you relate to that? How does that feel?
What would your question be?
What does that feel like from your perspective?
To be honest, I really truly — from a mindset perspective — I want to choose what I focus on, and I want to choose the lens that I view it on, no matter what it is, and I really want that lens to be grateful and appreciative and aware and humble and realistic, and I don't want that lens to be cocky. I don't want it to take simple facts of life for granted. I just don't like to focus on my successes. As a personal exercise, it doesn't feel right.
Knowing that people like my music or have a lot of fun feels great. Knowing that it goes past that, I'm going to focus on something else.
Because it makes you uncomfortable? Or it's just too much?
In any moment, if I'm going to think about music, I'd rather think about the tracks I'm working on now or the set I'm daydreaming up or the set I just had or the experiences that I've had musically, and think a little bit less about whether it's somebody loving my music or hating my music or all that kind of stuff. Maybe I'm avoiding your question, but mostly it's because I avoid thinking about that kind of stuff.
What I noticed this weekend [at Electric Forest], which was really striking to me, is that it is one of the most fun festivals of the year to play at. It's like this maximum 25,000-person crowd of Bassnectar fans at a festival, and they just take over this festival for this hour and a half, and it's just always so ridiculously fun.
What I noticed is that even though it was so fun, it wasn't the highlight of my weekend. What the highlight of my weekend was was volunteering inside of this little treehouse in the middle of the woods with this nonprofit called To Write Love on Her Arms, which, among other things, is involved with self-confidence and mental-health issues and teenagers. I had to set up all these phones on tree trunks. I was at a switchboard, and it was this old-timey switchboard, and I had an old-timey headset on, and I'd basically see a light pop up, which meant that there was someone at a phone, and I could ring it. Or I could just ring a phone until someone picked it up, and then I would talk to them. I was slotted to do it for an hour, and it was literally four hours past, and they were literally pulling me out.
When I walked away, I was like, that was so much more fun than playing a set. That was so much more fun than making music. People were wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and they were crying, and talking about suicide and losing their friends, just deep principles of life. I was marveling at that for the past couple days, that at this place in my life that I never intended to get to — I'm almost forty years old — having this dreamlike music career, what stands out to me is just getting to visit with some people and talk about life and death with strangers.
Did they know who you were?
No, no. I just dove right in. I asked them where they were from and who they came with, and I mostly focused on friendships. I asked who their friends were, what they thought about friendship, and if there was any advice that they wanted to give to a friend that they hadn't been able to put into words. It was crazy. I kind of expected half of the people I spoke to would be distracted because they were at a festival in the middle of the day. It was crazy how receptive they were.
That anonymity is interesting when it comes to thinking about DJs and EDM or whatever. When I would go to a club growing up, the DJ was always completely anonymous.
I'm right with you. When I was growing up, I didn't care who the DJ was or where they were. I didn't care. And now, it's such a preposterous parody of itself: some goon — myself included — on a stage. It's so preposterous to me. No offense to anyone. I'm friends with a lot of DJs. I'm not saying this rudely to talk shit on anyone, but I truly feel so unimpressed by the concept of standing in a crowd and looking and one or two or three humans on stage dancing alone to music. It's not that mind-blowing. Again, I'm not saying that all DJs suck except for me. I'm saying, me included, it's preposterous. I'm glad that people are affected by it. I'm not wanting to dis their experience. For myself, I love music. I love dancing. But I don't care about staring at the stage. But also, I just see so much of this stuff. Again, no disrespect. It's baffling to me that tens of thousands of people would want to cheer for this guy, who's just a computer programmer standing up on a table cheering for himself, waving his arms in the air. So strange. So strange.
That really has been the inspiration for Freestyle Sessions, was "Holy shit. I just played the biggest show of my life in Colorado. This was monumental. No, I don't want to go back and do it again. I really want to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and go super-special, super-intimate, super-creative, super-old school. It's funny how many uphill battles you have to fight to get to do that. Getting them to let you play on the floor — like, I want to be on the floor, in a booth, and not looked at — not because I'm hiding. I want to provide people with this experience that I don't think they necessarily get these days, which is just to be immersed in music and not be at a show, just to be at an event of dancing and immersion.
What are the Freestyle Sessions going to look like? What's the audience going to experience?
I don't know the extent of the details of what you experienced when you say "back in the day, when I would go to a club." I didn't really go to clubs in high school. I was going to death-metal shows I was putting on myself. And I was very much behind the scenes, but also out in the crowd where the other bands would play. It was usually in the basement of the public library, so we were all on a floor. There was no barricade between the crowd and the band. It was all your friends. Everyone's facing every direction. There was no fancy light. It was just the white light of the library basement and killer music.
When I started going to raves, some of them were outdoor full moons. You'd have 400 of your friends out on the beach or in the forest, or we would hijack a warehouse and take over some kind of abandoned building. Not that it was safe, in that sense, but it was definitely about a community feeling and being immersed in music and lost in sound. It wasn't the reality-TV era, and I think that's kind of the quickest way I could explain it.
EDM is to reality TV era what Freestyle Sessions is to this different daydream. It's this concept of interaction and participation. I don't want to create a lot of expectations. I'm not trying to say this is better or it's going to change your life or anything. It's something that I know is meaningful to me that I don't get to do. I don't get to play music without being a spectacle. And I don't get to play music to a smaller crowd. There are all these tiny little factors that I'm trying to put together to create this experience with other musicians and for the attendees. A lot of it has to do with the ergonomics of the event, trying to not centralize the focus, not have a stage.
The thing I'm most excited about is the music — not wondering if this is going to crush a stadium of 25,000 people, but more like, do I love this song? When I hear this song, can I not get it out of my head? Would I want to play this song at a house party where everyone's hanging from the living room ceiling? Yes. Okay, cool. Is it a Biz Markie song? Yes. Or some trip-hop track? Or some old rave record that was just a white label? What happened is that it became even more reflective — or even more cool to me and exciting to me was, after we started planning this, then I went back, and I've been reinventing my record collection, which is enormous, kind of as a creative project. This became a palette or a painting project to try out new paints with. I've been taking old reggae records and old drum-and-bass vinyl and weird down-tempo songs that I could never play because they sound ancient, and remastering them or tweaking them up, or even collecting tracks from fans and tracks some young kid will send me, or I just hear something on SoundCloud, and it's like, "Oh, that's a cool little movement," and download it off SoundCloud or hit the kid up and get the parts and remix it and put it in with some Led Zeppelin sample and some weird trip-hop record, and all of a sudden you have this three-minute sequence that I wouldn't really play at Bonnaroo or Coachella. But in a space of more subtlety or musical immersion, it has a new context — or at least I can experiment with that. And if it fucking fails, it fails. But it's certainly what's most exciting to me.
How often do you fail in what you're doing?
[Laughs.] Let's see. I don't feel a sense of failure very often. I don't actually think of it. Maybe I do and I don't notice. I don't know. I wouldn't want to say I never fail, but I never feel like I'm wallowing in failure. I think creativity is not really about winning or failing. I don't feel like I won, and I don't feel like I failed. I feel like I was creative.
It's always interesting how different people relate to that idea of failure.
Yeah, I know. I do remember being told one time that Babe Ruth was the home-run king; he had the most home runs in history. But he was also the strikeout king. The more attempts you make, you can't really have a million wins like you have a million losses. Again, it's the fun of creativity: taking risks. The stakes aren't high. If you fail, what does that even mean? I have knocked a table over while I was playing, and the sound cut out. I guess that's a fail, but it was funny, you know?
In this moment that we're living in, the impulse to get off the stage, get on the floor, create this collaborative experience: Is there anything political to that?
Do you mean in terms of actual American politics, or do you mean in a different way?
I think in a different way. But also in terms of concrete poltiics. Either, really.
Well, I hadn't thought of it that way, but explain what you mean.
I'm thinking about this Trump moment, where we have this national fixation on this singular powerful force who is bigger than his party, bigger than this, bigger than that. He's the thing that we're all looking at right now, whether we want to or not. In some ways, that mirrors the architecture of the concert — the idea of the concert, the idea of a band or an artist who is the center of attention. I guess I wonder if there is a way that reshaping that or consciously re-creating what those club dynamics are is challenging the idea of central authority?
I can answer you by saying that I have a lot to say about Trump and politics, and I would happily discuss it, but my vision for this and my excitement for it is literally the furthest thing from it. I have never thought about him in the context of this.
In fact, what this really has been a response to is that while I'm grateful for how fucking big and impactful Bassnectar has become, I also just miss another side of the coin, and I have just been realizing with almost a sense of awe, remembering my sixteen-year-old self or my twenty-year-old self or my eight-year-old self and being like, "What would that kid want to do if suddenly they found themselves a part of this career or this art project?" And I think it's not always wanting to go bigger and better, but just wanting to go deeper or left-field or just experiment. There is a bit of it with me being an old geezer, where I'm like, "Fuck. This old-school shit is amazing." It's so fun. It's so fun to dance in slow motion to a song that you've never heard, that you may never hear again, and maybe being remixed live and that's super-slow and quirky in a room where it's too dark to see, and you're in a room with your best friend, and your eyes are closed, and you do that for an hour. It's fun as hell. You're not on your phone. It's awesome.
Do artists and musicians have a responsibility to intervene in politics and the public sphere, and if so, through the music or not?
I can't judge what responsibility is for anyone. I think if someone feels they have an opportunity, then making the most of that opportunity would be great. But I also don't want to name names and sound rude, but I can think of a lot of amazing artists whose opinions I'm not that interested in or who I don't see being very aware of the nuances of social justice or politics — being very well educated or being well spoken on that. So in that situation, I can see myself thinking, so-and-so really knows how to make a great rock-and-roll song, but I don't really care what their political views are, and there might be someone [for whom] the converse is true.
I really think it's important for anybody who cares about the outcome to get educated, to assume that they and we and I have a lot to learn, and even what we feel like we know, we probably don't know the full side of, and the more we listen and the less we broadcast, the more we'll learn.
Once we really have something ironed out that's really necessary to broadcast, let's fucking broadcast it. But there is so much crying wolf in broadcasting with social media, where it's just inundation. It's hard to know when's the right time to talk and what the right atmosphere is. Certainly, at Electric Forest, I played a montage I had done off of the Zeitgeist movie that has some Bill Hicks words and some really intense images, and that will make a statement. Sometimes I'll go in that direction and sometimes I won't. I'm certainly not afraid to speak my mind, but I also don't just want to do it for the thrill of doing it.
Do you feel like EDM has a political role at all?
Well, to be clear, I 100 percent don't feel like I'm any part of EDM any more than I'm part of hip-hop or rock and roll. And I don't mean that coyly, like I'm dancing around the reality. I really, truly have never felt like I was a part of that. Even in 2012, when I was doing interviews and a whole interview was about EDM and Skrillex and deadmau5, of course I would respond to them, but that doesn't mean that I had any business weighing in.
Like if you asked me, "Do you think hip-hop should do da, da, da? Should Kendrick Lamar do blah, blah, blah? What do you think about Drake's new blah, blah, blah?" — it would be kind of silly for me to respond. Or if you said, "What do you think about talk shows today? How is Stephen Colbert doing versus Johnny Carson or blah, blah, blah?" I don't know. I watch them, but I don't have anything to say. I don't speak on behalf of comedians or rock stars or EDM stars or anything.
I feel EXTREMELY — and you can put that in all caps — disinterested in EDM. There are very few EDM artists who I like musically. There are very few EDM artists who I'm impressed [with] or intrigued by their personality or what they're projecting. But there are some artists who are making electronic music who are absolutely fantastic. And there's more and more underground artists who — God knows what the fuck to call them — are just very talented.
It's becoming easier and easier to make music, just with technology evolving as it is. So, you know, whereas I used to collect and always collect promos and buy music and go treasure hunting, constantly crate digging for new records, in the last year, I'll find a lot more good music than I did the year before. I think there's a lot of good, inventive minds, but I don't think they're EDM. And I think EDM is something I just don't know anything about. But it looks really silly to me.
In terms of deejaying, even beginning to unpack that world and where EDM and other forms of electronic music collide or don't collide is a constant frustration as a writer.
Yeah, totally. We could talk for hours on that.
And frankly, if we had a conversation about that in public, in broadcast, on Westword, we're going to have to leave stuff out in order for it not to take up the whole issue, and by leaving it out, I think there's enough people who aren't aware of the rave scene of the 1990s and what predicated that with the house, warehouse, techno scene of the ’80s. And they're not part of that backlash against rave music that was that trip-hop, ambient, side-room vibe, which is that Ninja Tune, K7, Thievery Corporation, that kind of vibe. There is so much left undiscussed.
That's potentially a little baby step of what I'd like to do at Freestyle Sessions. Not educate like I'm the teacher or something, but just share a bit of what I love from those lost worlds and those forgotten eras.
That education is what's needed in figuring out the language around electronic music.
I appreciate your point. Figuring out the language and unpacking the terms is so effing hard. It's almost like the discussion can't begin until you do, but is anyone paying attention past 140 characters? No. If there is no dick pic or controversy or stupid status attached to it, they're probably not reading anyway.
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It gives us something we can cry about. God knows we need more to cry about. So in Freestyle Sessions, how much are you consciously orchestrating an experience for the audience?
With Freestyle Sessions, I'm definitely putting ungodly amounts of work into curating an experience. I don't know exactly how that experience is going to go, but I'm trying to set up the parameters and set up the content and honestly micromanage the details on as many levels as possible to try and create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. In saying that, I sound like I'm over-promising. I'm really more interested in under-promising and over-delivering.
I'm going to play some throw backs. I'm going to play some experimental shit. I'm going to play some stuff I don't often get to, and also play some stuff I do often get to. Who knows what I'm going to play? But if you want to try something a little bit different and something that feels a little bit more intimate to me, then let's go for it.
Bassnectar, 7 p.m., July 7-9, 1STBANK Center, 11450 Broomfield Lane.