UCSC alumnus, Bassnectar, looks forward to playing his home away from home
Anyone who listens to pop music today is familiar with wobbly bass lines, wooshing filter sweeps, epic synth melodies and frenetic, stuttering collages of fractured digital noise. Electronic dance music took the Top 40 by storm in 2011, and four months into 2012 it is showing no signs of letting up.
Artists from Kanye to Korn have sought to incorporate facets of the wildly popular genre into their own tunes and Skrillex has become a household name.
But long before any of that, in the mid- to late-’90s, then-Santa Cruz resident Lorin Ashton (better known as Bassnectar) was creating many of the sounds that would ultimately influence some of today’s most popular DJs.
On May 3, Ashton will return to the city he “never wanted to leave” to play for a sold out crowd at the Civic Auditorium. It’s a venue he never imagined he would be able to fill as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s going to be epic,” Ashton says.
As an adolescent growing up in Campbell, Ashton was heavily influenced by San Jose’s punk and metal scene. The two genres might seem far removed from the realm of electronic music—guitar driven and devoid of laptops and samplers. Ironically, though, it was his interest in these heavy, non-mainstream sounds that led him to the music that he is known for today.
Around the time he was 16, Ashton had discovered a late-night community college radio show that played heavy metal. Years before Napster and Bit Torrent, he engaged in the music piracy of his day—taping the show on 120-minute long blank cassettes while he slept.
When he awoke the next morning he would have an hour or so of bone-crunching guitars and blast-beats. But he would also capture much of the show that followed, which played early electronic, techno, jungle and acid jazz. He describes listening to those sounds for the first time as a “pivotal experience.”
“All these weird, bubbly, experimental sounds would come on, and I loved it!” Ashton says. A few years later, as a senior in high school, he went to his first rave. “It absolutely changed my life. The atmosphere was friendly and free. It changed my life on an emotional level, and I wanted to recreate that atmosphere for other people.”
He left high school with a head full of electronic beats and headed over the hill to enroll at UCSC. Ashton fell in love with Santa Cruz during his college years. “I never wanted to leave,” he says. “It’s one of my two favorite places on earth (the other is Lake Tahoe). I still consider it my home.”
As an upper classman in high school, he learned a great deal about the electronic music scene, but it was in Santa Cruz that Ashton became Bassnectar. He had learned a lot about promoting during his years playing with punk and metal bands in and around San Jose. Punk rock’s DIY aesthetic made him a natural for putting together DJ sets at house parties and at clandestine, generator-powered raves out in the forest.
Punk and metal left their mark on Ashton in other ways. As a DJ, he has always displayed a preference for heavy, distorted sounds. From his earliest full length, Freakbeat for the Beatfreaks (2001), to his latest, Vava Voom, Bassnectar fans are familiar with the buzz-saw bass sounds that clearly reflect on Ashton’s hardcore roots. That caustic, sub-growl can be heard on the new album’s Lupe Fiasco-featuring title track, and Ashton’s metalhead tendencies are apparent in the song’s supporting video, which features a darkly dressed head-banging band.
Ashton says he loves chopping up older sounds and remixing them with newer tones. “At its core, electronic music is really just a system of enhancement for any genre of music,” he says. “You can have an electronic music song and make it sound like anything.”
Ashton hears electronic music everywhere he goes. “I think I’m just a reflection of things that I see and witness around me,” he says, explaining that he hears music on the street, in his house, and even in the zaps, speech fragments, and explosions in movie trailers.
Case in point: on Vava Voom’s fourth track, Ashton transforms a game of ping pong into a massive womp-fest of a track. “Ping Pong” starts out with the sound of a table tennis ball being batted back and forth; that sound is sampled, chopped into pieces, modulated, pitch shifted and ultimately turned into something so utterly unrecognizable from the original sound that for all intents and purposes the sound of that tiny plastic ball bouncing off a wooden table has become something else entirely. “I truly believe that music is bigger than the human confines with which people try—and fail—to harness it with.”
Just as he seeks to transform music, Ashton strives to modulate humanity for the better. In high school he volunteered for multiple charities, including a center for the blind and a convalescent home. At UCSC, he started as a sociology major, and switched to community studies—a combination of sociology, psychology and political science, intended to teach students to be community organizers. For his thesis he worked with at-risk youth, conducting music therapy sessions at group homes.
“I’ve always been a pretty empathic person, ever since I was a little kid,” he explains. “I really look to give back to the world around me.” And now that he is selling out large venues all over the U.S. and in Europe, he is able to do that in a very big way. Last year he raised $250,000 through his Dollar Per Basshead initiative—which takes a dollar from every ticket sold to an official Bassnectar show. That money is given to many charities and organizations, Ashton says. More recently it has been going toward the creation of an online advice database.
“I always thought I was going to end up a high school teacher or guidance counselor,” Ashton says. In an effort to fulfill this interest, he has been working on a wiki where anyone interested can go to find non-partisan, only-the-facts information on topics such as sex, drugs, suicide and even how to make friends—“anything from the most serious to the most basic of questions.” It’s something he wishes he had as a teenager.
Beyond working toward his online database and crafting new music, Ashton doesn’t really have much of a plan, other than doing what he does best. “I really couldn’t ask for more,” he says. “I’m just totally grateful.”
Bassnectar performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Sold Out. Call 420-5260.