You’d think it’d be the ultimate musical ego trip, conducting an orchestra of sounds you’ve created, borrowed and blended, surrounded by thousands of adoring fans tripping out to your window-rattling bass beats. But for 40-year-old Lorin Aston, being the exalted DJ on a raised platform, high above the sweaty huddled masses swaying to his creations, has lost its appeal. The DJ, who performs under the name Bassnectar, still wants his sound to be heard and appreciated but with himself as part of the action rather than the titular head of it.
He’s been more outspoken recently about downsizing the glow of the spotlight on him as his career has progressed from his early gigs at Burning Man in the mid 1990s. But as far back as 2008, he was talking about being uncomfortable about being the center of attention.
As his alter ego Bassnectar, it’s all about the healing power of the music without the need for the usual social amenities to connect with people.
“Do I shake the hand, do I fist bump or hug them, or wave or not wave, or do I smile or wave or look in their eyes,” he asked me in an 2008 interview. “All that is just gone, and people are really vulnerable, making weird sounds and weird faces, moving in weird ways that pull them out of the context of that show. They might get arrested for moving like that in public.”
In an interview last year, with Kyle Harris of “Westworld,” Aston expounded on his feelings about being exalted.
“I truly feel so unimpressed by the concept of standing in a crowd and looking at one or two or three humans onstage dancing alone to music. It’s not that mind-blowing,” he said. “I love music. I love dancing. But I don’t care about staring at the stage. 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.”
He now says he wants to be on the floor, in a booth, so he can just be and not be seen. To that end, his latest presentation features a 360-degree rotating circular stage that Aston boasts encompasses an “omnidirectional sea of friends & family” that allows free-roaming from the floor to the stands.
But even a decade ago, he insisted that his approach is more like group experimentation.
“Not like an athletic ‘ha-ha, look at me up here on the stage, now watch me do this.’ The kind of raw aggression I would normally feel is in the theater of the mind and the intellect,” he said.“Other than that, I’m pretty gentle, and I have a lot of humility. So I think people recognize that and respond in kind, so it really sets up a music-playing format that is benign and encouraging and enthusiastic.
That takes care of the delivery, but explaining the package is a bit more difficult. Aston has expressed disdain for the EDM genre and denies he’s a part of it. He’s described his sound as “churning: it’s raw, it’s ferocious, it’s thick.” At any given moment, it may or may not roll up on hip-hop, reggae, soul, electronica, worldbeat, drum and bass, and whatever else wanders by. Over a sternum-rattling bass undercurrent, his Bassnectar persona cuts up snippets of artists from all over the musical spectrum from James Brown to the String Cheese Incident, as well as sounds of whales and dolphins, over counter melodies composed on a program called Guitar Rig. He used the program on “FSOSF,” (Future Sound Of San Francisco) from his 2007 release, “Underground Communications.” He released an updated version this summer on “Reflective Pt. 3,” a series of updated tracks of his own but ‘90s-era remixes other DJs have done as collaborations on a similar sound or vibe.
In his live events, Aston goes from cultivating favor with the crowd to challenging them with a barrage of sounds, trying to knock them out of complacency with a non-linear flow.
“If I was to drop an amazingly powerful super bass line on people’s heads, I’m not gonna follow it after another super bassline,” he said. “I’m probably gonna follow it after an awkward moment of tension, where maybe they are wondering if they should get off the dance floor and go the bar because its not really doing it for them.”
Aston’s approach is like a benevolent pugilist, punching hard but clean to get respect from an opponent.
“If you wallop them at that point, you put them in this music box melodic meltdown where even the toughest guy in the room is ready to cry, then you crush them with an absolute slammer. The room will be so much more appreciative than if you’re just hitting it with knock after knock. Sometimes I might bring people into an uncomfortable place intentionally, make them ride it out, and I have more respect for the people who stick with it.”