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Bassnectar: Ignored by the press, but not the populace

September 9, 2011 | 11:30 am

Lorin Ashton does bass, not buzz. None of the hype-sensitive electronic music websites has covered his mutations of dubstep and drum 'n' bass, and Pitchfork, the era’s preeminent taste-making organ, has reviewed (and panned) only one of his dozen albums. Yet under his Bassnectar alias, Ashton, who performs a sold-out show at the Palladium on Friday, is one of most popular electronic musicians of his generation.

The explanation starts in Santa Cruz, where a college-aged Ashton had a Damascus moment while attending a rave after an adolescence of drumming in heavy metal bands. Soon after, the San Jose-raised artist went from wearing Napalm Death shirts to attending all-night electronic beach bacchanalias, sucked in by the scene’s sense of community.

“I’d never even thought about being a DJ — all I wanted to do was make death metal with cool synthesizer sounds,” Ashton, now 33, said via phone from Albuquerque, N.M., before another sold-out gig. In the first half of 2011, Bassnectar sold 78,000 hard tickets and Pollstar named him the second biggest electronic artist (behind Tiesto, a Dutch DJ nearly a decade Ashton’s senior). “I realized that DJs played music that they loved on big sound systems. I also loved the community that they’d built — safe spaces where people could dance for nine hours straight.”

With the late '90s rave boom cresting, Ashton’s career commenced playing Future Sounds of London and Thievery Corporation at late-night and sunrise sets in the woods surrounding Santa Cruz. He began organizing parties of his own, where thousands of people gathered at an hour’s notice.

Around the millennium, law enforcement crackdowns altered the tenor of the electronic music world. Unhinged forest dance parties turned into multi-day festivals, where DJs mingled among jam bands, artists, and thousands of body-painted, chemically inclined, free spirits.

Before Burning Man became the object of media curiosity, Bassnectar blazed sets during the early years of the festival, playing four or five times a day over a week-long stretch in 2000. Shambhala, an alternative culture festival held each August in British Columbia, prides itself on selecting different performers every year, but Bassnectar has rocked 11 consecutive summers.

Ashton’s success mirrors the jam band model: relentless touring, positive word of mouth and a peerless ability to make people dance.

“[Ashton’s] found and cultivated his own sound, which is difficult to do in electronic music,” said the renowned DJ Zach “Z-Trip” Sciacca, who has performed at Bassnectar’s Bass Center Festivals. “His crowd is amazing. It's like an updated Grateful Dead, but with bass. It gets bigger every show.”

The tipping point arrived in 2005, when Ashton signed with Madison House, a booking agency then primarily known for working with jam bands. With Phish on hiatus and audiences increasingly receptive to electronic music, Bassnectar’s star soared. Suddenly, he was selling out shows on weekday nights in podunk towns all across the South. Without a slick marketing strategy or media attention, Bassnectar became a veritable Jackie Robinson for jam kids — the bass artist it was OK to like.

“I’m not ‘hip.’ I wear the same clothes that I wore in high school. I’ve driven the same beat-up Volvo for 10 years. I’m more into anthropological stuff than being cool or partying,” said Ashton, who resides in Berkeley on the rare occasions he’s off the road. “The more artists view their listeners as music lovers, not scenesters, the better.”

At ease with his under-publicized but over-attended stature, Ashton derives deep satisfaction from the community he’s built around his live shows — with die-hard fans following him from city to city. Intensely dedicated to philanthropy, he’s sunk significant effort into publicizing ReachOut.com, a site that helps teens cope with mental health issues.

Simultaneously, Ashton has earned respect and admiration among his peers. Recently, he teamed with the internationally recognized imprint Alpha Pup to distribute “Divergent Spectrum,” the latest release on his own Amorphous Records. The partnership struck a happy medium between Ashton the populist sensation and the critically lionized local label.

“I don't claim to understand why the electronic music press ignored him for most of the decade, but I do know that success in the music business is generally based on presentation,” said Daddy Kev, the owner of Alpha Pup. “But if you've ever been to a Bassnectar show, it’s readily apparent that [Ashton] is a genius. His mixing ability and selections are top-notch. The production value of the experience is bar none. He understands the whole equation. It's not two turntables and a microphone anymore.”


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Photo: Bassnectar. Credit: Mel D. Cole