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Bassnectar On Change: "I Want To Make A Social Impact"

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The following interview originally appeared on Causecast.org

Bassnectar is Lorin Ashton's multi-faceted electronic music and social experimentation project. Started in nineties San Francisco, Bassnectar's open-sourced "Omni-tempo maximalism" combines beats and bass-lines across genres, rhythms, and time signatures to create infectiously raw, danceable tunes, connecting youth culture with social action.

Causecast's Brandon Deroche spoke with Bassnectar's Lorin Ashton at this year's Austin City Limits Festival on Obama, the Internet, Bassnetwork, local activism, and what motivates him to impact social change.

BD: It feels to me like we're living in a very unique time in history. Technology has made it possible to connect with people anywhere in the world, and to me it feels like we're on the brink of something, some sort of shift in culture. I'm wondering if you would agree with that?

Ashton: I tend not to get caught up too much in the present day to day, because I think a lot of these things tend to move in cycles, politically. I also don't feel intelligent enough to pass judgment all the time since a lot of times when i have done so in the past, I turned out to be a 180 degrees wrong. Or sometimes there are just situations that are complex politically, like you're given a choice between Democrats and Republicans in this country, and both of them are controlled by the same corporations or competing corporations. So, you find yourself spending all this time and energy supporting Obama, because you know McCain is a fucking horrible man, but then you get Obama and you realize you've been duped: He's controlled by the banks and lobbyists (right at the time the economy is completely swiped by the banks and called a "bailout"). You end up asking yourself 'why did I put all this energy into that guy who's just faked me out?' So if you asked someone a year ago about Obama, they would've said one thing and now they're going to say another thing, so making a judgment about the present is less important to me than coming down to basic human principles.

The most important to me is empathy, which is, I think, one of the defining characteristics of a human; the ability to intellectually perceive another person's experience and care about it. And I think most of us humans care about all the other humans, for the most part. And we can be jerks and we can be lazy, but we're also caring individuals and caring creatures. So I think that to educate people and then let their own internal empathy be the gauge that anticipates what kind of response they're going to have, is a really safe way to play it. As opposed to telling people 'here's what to think and here's what to do,' it's more like, 'here's some unbiased information, why don't you compare that up to your internal systems of morals and what do you feel like doing about it?' For the most part, it just comes down to the fact that people are uneducated. They don't know what's going on with the issues and they don't know what to do about it. So I think that empowering people by educating them to what's going on and then empowering them about what they can do about it is key. That way you don't even need to get bogged down by the issues, because you might be rooting for the wrong side and not even knowing it.

And that's basically the philosophy behind Bassnectar at this point: I want to create kind of a magnetic phenomenon that would inspire youth culture and make youth culture curious, thus expanding my sphere of influence, and my ability to interact and contribute on a deeper lever. I have some strong counter-culture beliefs and a lot of energy to act on on them, to make a social impact, because I care.

While studying politics in college, I took was a class about this woman named Hannah Arendt, who wrote about how to expand your sphere of appearance, or your sphere of influence. You could use various techniques; terrorism, like the Unabomber, or you could use fame like Michael Moore or John Stewart or you could use politics like Rush Limbaugh or Tom DeLay, or whatever, or you could use money. And since I don't have any of that I chose to use music as a way to gather attention and then be able to deliver energy towards the areas that I think are important in life, which would be education, health, family - basic principles that are lost in the inundated shuffle of stupid gossip macabre media stories, and pointless sidetrack political distraction ceremonies. There's a lot in our society that's been boiled down to easily digested sound-bites, to a corporate, marketable, product. And I think that there's a lot to life that supersedes that, and so to an under-funded-education-system bred population, which is the youth culture we have today, I feel really excited about contributing to their education and helping to inspire them.

BD: Would you say that is what drives you?

Ashton: Well, I definitely have to say, right off the bat, that I change my mind a lot. And I change my focus a lot, which I think is healthy. But sometimes I feel extremely focused on one political objective, and at that time I'll obsess about it and spend all my time broadcasting my thoughts on the issue. And then other times, like I said, my focus is much more general, basically more humanistic. At that point I almost think that the cause is aided by me not being preachy and not betraying the sentiment of inspiration with doctrine or dogma, but rather by building a relationship with the community, developing perspective and waiting for the ideal time/context to discuss it. I think we all have our roles and trying to do everything at once doesn't make sense; it is a team effort. So, what I'm focused on doing is creating this really weird anomaly, and letting people enjoy it and finding others creative partners and contributors to enrich it with content and to find local organizations to feature at every stop on the tour, or to interact with online, etc.

And, that works really well in my experience, as a way of combining music with substance. It's not setting people up for burnout, because it's really easy. And that's good, because the odds are daunting in the war between the serfs and the lords. There's only a couple Lords, and they own everything, they control us all, and we're all kind of stupid and living in the mud, and working for the Lords. And that's still true today; it's not really about nationalism, that's kind of a disguise - it's about corporatism. And the people who own it were born into it: it's a lineage. I don't think it's so much of a conspiracy; I just think it's a reality. You and I would probably be a lot different if we were born from this long line of upper class people, and always told that wealth was our right, we'd probably be assholes. We probably would not be here in Austin, Texas talking about art and social change. We'd probably be behind closed doors talking about how to keep our money. I have compassion and understanding for that. I don't approve of that, but I can understand it. So, I do think it's a daunting task to try and take that on. Taking baby steps helps people not get burned out.

BD: Is there a specific cause you're passionate about?

Ashton: Yeah there are a couple things. One is facilitation. I feel like there's so many very proper nonprofits and organizations, but a lot of times when I come up with an idea, I'm tempted to start a new organization that focuses on it. But if you do your research, you find out there's five to 500 other pre-existing organizations doing the same thing, so I'm just really interested in facilitation. Whether that's bringing exposure to those causes or inspiring people to get involved with them, and that's what Bassnectar is about: contributing to people's sense of education, empowerment, exchange of ideas, mental health, quality of life. At least that's the intention.

However, that said, to contradict myself, I think one of the potential weaknesses of the liberal Left is that we're too divided. Everyone has their own cause and pet project ('save the trees,' or 'save the forest,' or 'save the whales,' or 'gay marriage') and most of it is pretty proper and comes from a good place, but then you look at the Right, and they're all in line and organized with deadly precision: Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, they'll die for the cause and they are focused. And that's why they succeed a lot in politics, because they have this cut-throat loyalty to their speaking points. Meanwhile those of us with a more independent, liberal outlook are watered down by caring about too many things at once, giving voice to all of our passions. And I'm guilty of that, too, because, like I said, I want to facilitate causes that people are passionate about. It's riding that balance between not letting the messages get too cluttered, but also supporting everyone and giving everyone a voice.