Hot on the heals of his highly anticipated second studio release, Underground Communication, Bassnectar is back in true pioneering form. Since arriving on the music scene a decade ago, San Francisco’s finest has been creatively honing his craft of performing purely passionate music, capable of being enjoyed by just about everyone with ears. Defying any frugal attempts at classification, he has remained one of the underground’s most intriguing DJ’s by concocting a sound so colorful, labels will just never do it justice. Unique and sonically soaring, Bassnectar has amassed acclaim by producing music that achieves success in just about all walks of life. His eclectic approach to making beats and especially to performing live, has garnered much attention and affection throughout the underground and more recently, in some of the more mainstream press.
Glide caught up with the genre-bending DJ just before Coachella while on tour to discuss all things Bassnectar. Believe me, that covers a wide swath of territory-from politics to breakbeats, becoming a teacher to lap dances.
For starters, from "Mesmerizing" to "Communication" you’ve assembled an ever-increasing barrage of sounds and styles. How have various personal life experiences and musical moments facilitated such an array of sonic growth?
A funny thing started happening to me when I was 18. I started feeling behind. Like WAY behind of where I thought I should be in terms of musical accomplishment, or maybe just social involvement in general. And that feeling grew exponentially stronger.
Your educated political beliefs seem to play an integral part of who you are as an artists and person. There’s moments on Underground Communication where you can feel the subtle, or not so subtle, undertones of empowered politics. How do you mesh diverse musical tastes with strong political beliefs and form one, cohesive product?
Honestly I am not really meshing or forming anything.
I am just expressing myself very honestly. I have so many thoughts and ideas, and everything I do is a reflection of them. I love to think and debate and ponder and wonder and share and ask questions and learn, and after decades of doing that I have some very strong beliefs. And I am so down for the cause. And I’m sick of people not speaking up, not acting up, not GOING for it. Life is so short and so precious, and I am giving it my all. I hope you are too.
Discuss the new album a bit. I’d like to know more about your selection of the album’s various MC’s, the songs you chose and why, the extent of the mixing process and most importantly, how do you feel about the complete and polished album compared to when the concept and tracks were still in their virgin phases? Throughout that process, how did this differ from "Mesmerizing", what were the highlights and were there any snags in the road?
Wow. Just like the previous question, I am struggling to keep my answers short. I could talk forever about political/philosophical beliefs and/or music!
Well, first off, I have been into hip hop way longer than electronica or death metal, since the 80’s. Not only do I love the concept, the groove, the vocals, the beats, but I love the principle and the potential. I see hip hop as one of the most potent forms of resistance music, potentially. And after so much corporate interference, and so much media conglomeration and fake-ass corporate radio, most of hip hop is ineffective now for serving the needs of the masses, for giving voice to the oppressed, and power to the peaceful, and inspiration for the public to rage against the dying of light. So I wanted to kind of make an album that incorporated it more than before with the strength of dance music, and all the tricks I like to play on people’s ears.
I could talk about that forever, but I hate giving long answers and having the press cut them down, cuz everything I say is long winded, but each sentence relates to the sentences before and after it. So moving on, I am very happy with this album. I felt a great release in creating the songs, and let go of any concern of whether people would like it; which is something I never do. Each one of these songs, at one point or another, stayed up very late with me, all alone, night after night, as we danced and played games and told stories and gave each other massages and fucked and giggled and spoke and developed inside jokes and bizarre habits. I worked on each one for at least a month and we will be friends forever. Even though they are all just sketches. Sometimes, live, they take on whole new personalities.
What makes for the best live moments? For you does it get any better than playing music for a living? You play everywhere from arenas to clubs to warehouses to festivals. Is there any preference?
AAHHH!!! You ask great questions!
On some levels I have become so used to playing live that it is one of the most comfortable scenarios for me. I trance out completely and interact openly with energetic spirits and let weird ideas channel through me, and just let it go. I love enthusiasm, I love energetic participation. I love when the joint is packed and the sound system is perfect (huge and warm, and doesn’t hurt the ears but instead fills each cell to the brim). Pleasure-wise, Does it get any better? No – it could not get any better. I am so blessed.
But in reality, I am seriously bothered by the wealth of our society, the American Lifestyle. I am burdened by our gross narcissism and indulgent addiction to luxury. I do not live my life to enjoy it, but to participate and serve. I don’t think I actually enjoy much of life, technically, even though it is so good and I give thanks for that. I just don’t stop and enjoy it very much, necessarily. I want myself to, but anytime I do I think about all the people suffering in the world, who do not have the opportunity that I do, and I feel a strong relationship with them. Even with people who no longer exist, or maybe never will exist, but who remind me of the extreme need to be honest with my empathy, compassion, and deep connection to systems of solidarity and generosity. Sorry, I am not trying to be preachy.
Really, this topic is probably too long for this scenario. But thank you for letting me express a little bit of it.
What were some of the precursors that led up to Lorin Ashton becoming Bassnectar? When you began your career over 10 years ago, how did your artistic vision compare to what it is today?
I want to make an impact in people’s lives in a way that enriches their experience here on earth, because I feel so utterly touched to be here. Music has been a path that has allowed me to touch people. I thought I was going to be a U.S. History teacher, and work as a guidance counselor with at-risk youth, but I am just going with the flow. Thank you.
Discuss this whole idea that making music is like a ’7th grade science project.’ Which was more challenging? Enjoyable? When performing, either in your house, studio or in the live setting, do you ever get that feeling of complete purity, like say, being back in naptime in the first grade?
Well the metaphor is more in reference to the relative maturity of each work of art, as opposed to a juvenile experience of creating it.
I meant that for me, creating music is kind of an ever-morphing project of constant discovery and mutation. I do not ever feel finished necessarily, but rather engaged in a lifelong love affair with sound. So the tunes on the new album are just different takes on the certain motifs that move me. I do not consider them finished compositions, but just kind of like freeze-frame updates. I love the freedom in that; basically I can always change and adapt and revisit, and maintain a forward-thinking zest in the present.
Changing directions a bit. What’s your take on today’s state of music? Feel free to elaborate freely on this one….mainstream vs. underground, Ludacris vs. Mos Def, the return of Genesis….Does Phil Collins still have it?
The term music is so broad-too broad in fact. Commenting on today’s music is the content of a major thesis, not an answer to an interview question. I would love to expand, but there are too many aspects to cover. Too many nuances in terms of topic and subtlety, and too many factors to address. I definitely think about it all the time, though!
Mainstream versus underground: our society is unbelievably streamlined and monofaceted. With such a vast media warship established here, every city feels like the same collection of strip malls and suburbs surrounding the same downtown with the same malls, and shops and Starbucks/HomeDepot/Cheveron/Combination. Media and music are the same. All the TV and radio is this same UN-clear channel of propaganda, and mental/emotional opiate. Mainstream Culture is the dildo of choice for the apathetic, and it propagates apathy. Mainstream culture is the vessel of propaganda and thought control. Underground culture is Resistance to that control. It is the unstoppable response to any attempt at trying to squish us all into the same mold; at dulling our relationship to enthusiastic human essence.
It seems to occur spontaneously out of an urgent necessity (an expression of youth, emotion, raw energy, passionate defiance…even if it is utterly un-political on the surface. It is still defying the cookie cutter mold of mainstream American Idol Robots), and as our society’s mainstream culture grows deeper and deeper into the droning parade of drab-ness and drivel, underground music and art are all the more powerful and important. And its interesting that whatever new sounds that emerge will be first an explosion of resistance to mono-culture, and a reflection of something real, true, and NEW. Something with undeniable novelty, and fresh perspective. And then it is quickly sucked up as a marketing tool, because authenticity is what sells product. And underground culture is authentic, while mainstream product is wholeheartedly contrived and fake.
Now it seems that so much modern music exists as the background to car commercials and as the perfect corporate LURE for consumers (every goddam festival and event these days has a corporate sponsor. In fact corporate sponsors are really the only way most entertainment can be circulated, sadly… Every sports arena in the Bay Area is no longer “The Coliseum” or “Candlestick Park. It’s fucking ORACLE Stadium, MCAFEE Stadium, SBC Park-ridiculous. I just want to smash it all. Next time you are on Myspace, or listening to the radio, watch for this. Notice how everything is branded; all the events are “Brought to you by Yahoo” or the new party with that dope lineup is called “The Scion Party”. I see this as a touring artist as well, getting outlandish offers for events with corporate sponsorship, and either taking it or scraping by without it.
Sometimes it is frustratingly necessary to lean on it-even if you do the Robin Hood method, and take from the rich to feed the poor-because the systems of circulation are so dependant on the Deregulated Media Mafia, that in order to enrich yourself and your mission, you need to dip into the corporate pockets, get some support, and then continue bringing the NOISE by any means necessary. And as all of our tax dollars funnel through an illegal government into the hands of illegal industries that manufacture and conduct illegal wars (and whose crimes and intentions are covered up by the mainstream media – check the new PBS special on this topic if you would rather trust an actual TV Newscaster grey-haired-white-man-in-a-suit-and-tie to tell you this so you don’t think it’s only coming from a long-haired freak like me), our nation’s financial body is in ruin, and you can see it in how dependant we are on corporate sponsorship. They are trying to shut us out; all of us, in every style from every walk of life that doesn’t conform to the mono-culture, because the mono-culture is easy to control, and no this cannot be written of as a conspiracy theory, its just what’s really going on.
Underground Communication is the title of my latest CD. But I had the difficult time choosing between that, and Resistance is Fertile because I am so inspired to rage this shit. I know it is easy to be apathetic, or even just daunted, but I trust in the human swelling of empathy that arises in response to suffering, which is why education is so important. If we cannot run from the truth, but must face it, then I think undeniably we will zealously resist the current power grab, although it is an age-old saga. And the Media Mafia is 100% committed to helping us never have to think about what’s really going on. So when we commit to indie media: Non-corporate news, active research, etc, and to defying mono-culture-including underground music as a means of communication and inspiration-we see what’s really going on, and our internal code of empathy and compassion requires us to stand up for the raw beauty that every human being prefers to pain and suffering. I trust in that fully.
Referring back to a question I asked you earlier, yes, what were some of the moments on ‘Communication’ that have truly caught you, and made you take a step back and say, ‘damn, that beat is fresh!’ What about when the album was finished, mixed and mastered, what’s your overall impression of the product?
Oh wow. Well, I love brutality of lots of these big bass line drops. Like in the remix of “Kick It Complex” As soon as it hits, every time that it hits, my face contorts helplessly into the ugliest expression of delight. I love how the heaviness of death metal and the power of what I guess you would call gangster rap, that sounded so good to me as a youth, come through in this way that I have always wanted to hear hip hop sound like “Select Frequency” and “Stomp.” Not too flashy, not lots of tricks, just immense thickness.
I die for “Impossible and Overwhelming. It’s just really important to me personally, because the melody is an old song I wrote on guitar when I was like 16. Hearing it now in this new way means so much to me. And also, in “FSOSF”, that epic melodic drop of rolling mesmerization that happens right in the middle, …that shit does it for me. I don’t mean to sound all conceited but you asked.
As for the final product, if I could change one thing it would be the mastering. It almost killed me. We started in October, went through so many places, and it wasn’t finished until late January. By that time it just HAD to get done, so we went with what we had, which was the best option but not at all how I wanted it to sound. It got comical, like no matter who we went to, something absolutely random would always happen. The final product is cool: its huge, its loud, the bass is ridiculous, but there is not enough breathing or space, or nuance. In the original mixes, when a buildup comes, or a breakdown, the song thins out, and throughout each piece the sonic spectrum constricts, expands, like lungs. SO when the drop hits it is EXTRA utterly heavy in juxtaposition to the tension of stripped-back frequency that I architected intentionally. The final product is by no means bad, but we were at a point where we just HAD to move forward and by that point everyone thought I was crazy, and impossible to please (pretty close to the truth)…but Craig and I both knew it wasn’t perfect. It is so important for music to breath, to allow the massiveness to come UTTERLY, not forced in constant assault of fullness that is kind of smeared across the music like non-dairy creamer.
Please note, I am not talking shit. The crew who mastered us is fully skilled, and they were bailing us out last minute, so what they did the best possible job with what they had to work with in a rush-job of necessity. But next time, the songs with have more dynamic, like they do in my original mix-downs..
That said, if you are only going to print something, stick with the mainstream versus underground rant. I am way more interested in that.
Again going back to one of your previous answers, how different would life be if you went the American History teacher route? It seems as though you’ve made the right choice…
I am so happy with the choice.
As always, I struggle with how good life is for us here. It doesn’t seem fair, taking into account how many people suffer on a global scale so that Bush and Cheney can protect our American Lifestyle. Those fuckers. So my response is to offer a balance by working full time to help make other people happy, and that makes me feel more at peace with the happiness that surrounds me.
I guess I really believe in the golden rule.
What was the first instrument you picked up, the first records you mixed and who/what were the people/life occurrences that facilitated this beginning?
I jammed all the time on old Casio keyboards, and I loved air guitar immensely all throughout childhood. I still do!
But if I had to pick one single moment, it was the hand drums that my Uncle Joe built for me, and taught me the “boom taka booms” and all his crazy Moroccan riddims. That and the three guitar lessons that my folks gave me, before I quit and started trying to be too metal for my own good.
My parents have been utterly supportive my whole life. I really can’t do anything with the ocean of gratitude that exists within me, except share it with others, and give back to those around me.