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Bassnectar takes his show on the road, to ACL Fest and beyond

Peter Mongillo
Bassnectar is among the electronic dance music artists playing ACL Fest this weekend.

Lorin Ashton, who is more commonly known as Bassnectar, started his latest tour in Greensboro, N.C., a couple weeks ago. On the day of the first show he rehearsed with a team of 12 people, who worked on 20 computers.

“I’m trying to hold it all together,” Ashton said in a phone conversation during a break. “We’ve been in rehearsals for a couple days in the venue with a whole new video installation, lighting system and a bigger crew than I’ve ever had, and a lot of new music.”

The following night, Bassnectar was scheduled to headline the Counter.Point festival, a two-day electronic music festival in Atlanta put on by Austin’s C3 Presents; this Saturday he takes the stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, another C3 event. It’s the second time at the festival for the San Francisco-based DJ, who, along with Skrillex, Deadmau5 and a host of others, has become a staple at Bonnaroo, Coachella and similar events in recent years. Beyond the festival gates, electronic music — specifically EDM or electronic dance music — has found its way into popular culture, appearing in television commercials and in music from superstars including Jay-Z, Kanye West and others.

Bassnectar’s performances play out like a miniature version of ACL Fest, with bits of rock, rap, reggae and other types of music blended together and spit back out over an audience-captivating beat. Ashton manipulates the flow of the music from the stage, at times letting himself fall into a frenzied dance along with the crowd.

“I’m really into an eclectic variety of music. I prefer to comb through various genres, concepts, styles, eras, ideas, and select the most A-plus quality out of any of those genres and then blend them together,” Ashton said. “So variety festivals, I feel right at home.”

A quick YouTube search offers an idea of what he’s talking about. Bassnectar at Coachella, 2010: The cavernous tent is packed with people squished over the front rail; Ashton goes into a remix of Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” off their 1983 album “Kill ’Em All.” Strobe lights flash as the crowd sways back and forth; the grinding guitar riff builds over an industrial-sounding techno effect until it peaks, bottoming out in a slow-motion earthquake of wuuub-wub-wuuub-wuuub-wub. The crowd is entranced; a thousand heads shake up and down in unison.

Despite elements of his sound that share common characteristics with dubstep or other types of electronic music, Ashton said that he’s not a fan of attempts to pin any type of label to what he does. “I can get very nerdy with genres, because I’ve been paying attention like a scientist for about 20 years, and I understand genres, subgenres, the history of genres, the future of genres, but I’m also very resistant to containing my artistic whim in any way,” Ashton said. “I really produce music with a sense of abandon and resistance to limitation or rules … any time I feel confined it’s just boring to me.”

A few weeks ago on his Facebook page, Ashton linked to an excerpt of David Byrne’s new book, “How Music Works.” In it, the former Talking Heads frontman writes about how he shapes his music to fit pre-existing formats, including venues. “Crazy relevant to my own experience in North America back in 2004 & 2005 trying to convert all the rock clubs and dive bars across the continent into BASS ROOMS,” Ashton wrote on his wall.

Asked what he meant by that, Ashton said that the intensity of a Bassnectar show hinges not on the size of the crowd but on density. He said he remembered having to tailor his set-up when performing in Austin rooms like the Parish and La Zona Rosa in order to create a vivid experience. “Rooms that can fit 80 people that have 100 people in them are often way more intense than a room that fits 20,000 and has 10,000 in it.”

Following Bassnectar around the country is a team of technicians — two buses full — and three semi-trucks of equipment that they use to ensure that Ashton can harness the highest possible level of intensity each night. “Very seldom do I take no for an answer or do I accept when I’m told by a venue ‘oh no, that can’t be done’,” he said. “It can be done and we’re going to do it.”

In June, electronic music star Deadmau5 addressed the question of what it is DJs actually do when they play. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the DJ/producer, whose real name is Joel Zimmerman, said “even Skrillex (a friend of Zimmerman’s) isn’t doing anything too technical. He has a laptop and a MIDI recorder, and he’s just playing his (expletive) … People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what – but there’s still button-pushers getting paid half a million. And not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons.”

That interview sparked an online conversation that Ashton addressed on his website in a lengthy post titled “Pushing Buttons or Pushing Boundaries.” “During a set I work nonstop, frantically combining unlimited loops & sounds & samples & effects into customized ‘live remixes.’ I also get the (expletive) down, I let myself dance and enjoy the music the same way I do when I am at home working in the studio,” he wrote.

Ashton said that even before Deadmau5’s comments, people often asked what he does on stage, and he thought it was a good opportunity to explain. “In the ’70s or whenever, every kid had a guitar, just like every kid can be DJ now,” he said. “I just wanted to kind of explain that while it is possible to do very little, it is possible to do a lot … it wasn’t really a dramatic thing, it was like hey, I’ll explain another side of the coin here.”

Bassnectar on electronic music’s relationship to rock ’n’ roll: