On Sunday, September 27th, Lorin Ashton and Bassnectar return to the Bay Area to play at the Bay Area Vibze Festival. Bassnectar shows have been some of the most profound and joyful experiences of my life. And because Lorin’s music has touched me so deeply, as a student of creativity and Self-expression, I’ve asked myself, and had the opportunity to ask Lorin himself, why his music is so powerful.
In celebration of the upcoming event, here’s an article, “The Lowdown on Bassnectar: How the Loma Prieta Earthquake Inspired the Bay Area’s Most Indigenous Musical Genre” that I wrote on the links between creativity and destruction. In the article, I recall my own experience of the 1989, 7.0 Loma Prieta earthquake and its influence on the region’s prolific surges of creativity and innovation.
The Lowdown on Bassnectar: How The Loma Prieta Earthquake Inspired the Bay Area’s Most Indigenous Musical Genre
Late one afternoon in October of 1989, I sat on the steps overlooking UC Berkeley’s famed Sproul plaza, flipping through a copy of The Daily Californian, the university’s free student paper. The day was unseasonably warm and, perhaps because of the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants getting ready to square off in game three of the World Series at Candlestick Park, the plaza was unusually quiet. At the time, I was 19 years old, a sophomore at the University, and renting a room on the north bank of Codornices Creek.
Suddenly I began to notice a sensation in my hindquarters that felt like a muscle spasm. At the time, I was running 6 days a week, training for 30 mile trail run from Point Reyes to the north shore of the Golden Gate. I paused, felt into it, and then looked up, finally realizing the spasm wasn’t my own. The windows on Sproul Hall rattled behind me. Those who were walking stopped in their tracks. A girl in front of me poised like she was balancing on a surf board, riding the erratic movements of the brick pavers.
Several seconds into it, the earth did something I’ll never forget. Even the ground I sat upon was covered in concrete and brick, I felt myself lifted by the steps underneath me then set back down, as though an ocean wave had rolled through from the south. It made absolutely no sense to me at all: the solid ground becoming elastic for a moment, deflecting, then returning back to its place. But in that moment, I felt it in my bones, the intoxicating feeling of being lifted then set back down by something immensely bigger than myself.
Some fifty miles to the south in the city of San Jose, an 11-year-old boy named Lorin Ashton was riding along with his mother when the earth began to shake. Since seismic waves move at different rates through the earth, the distinct movements I had experienced in Berkeley, would have appeared more as a singular experience, a walloping blow rocking the chassis of the car. Coupled with his mother’s screaming, her protective maternal instinct giving voice to the power of Mother Nature, the experience left an indelible impression on the boy, one that was both frightfully chaotic and deliciously inspiring.
Based on Ashton’s experience, the Loma Prieta Earthquake would not only cause the collapse of a section of the Bay Bridge, pancake a 1.25 mile section Oakland’s Cypress Street Viaduct, spark fires in San Francisco’s Marina District, claim the lives of 57 people, and injure thousands more, it would also be the moment of insight ushering in a new musical genre, a genre that would rattle the foundations of existing musical forms, a genre inspired by the cataclysmic beauty of the earth making powerful, rhythmic adjustments, a genre inspired by the deep seated realities of life along one of the most active fault lines in the world, a genre inspired by the experience of the 11-year-old boy riding along in his mom’s car and being blasted by a 7.0 earthquake, the largest in the area since the notorious 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire leveled the crown jewel of the growing nation.
In time, Ashton would go on to become one of the Bay Area’s preeminent DJ’s, a force to be reckoned with, an orchestrator of sounds and rhythms from a mind-bending array of musical genres, most notably the raw energy of death metal and the love energy of the rave scene, and, like seismic waves rolling indiscriminately outwards from the epicenter, uniting them all with the cathartic experience of powerful, driving, ultra-low frequency bass riffs. Under the name Bassnectar, a testament to the undeniable sweetness that accompanies such low frequency cataclysms, Ashton called the new genre “omnitempo maximalism,” or more specifically “an amalgamation of every sound I’ve ever heard, mixed with ultra wicked bass lines.”
Knowing what we know today, a metropolis set in the frayed boundary between two immense tectonic plates may not seem like the smartest choice. But the origins of earthquakes were virtually unknown until as recently as the 1960’s. Furthermore, throughout history certain humans, myself included, have been drawn to such edge conditions. Those settlement that sit in the intersection of geological, cultural, economical, or spiritual crossroads, as does the Bay Area, tend to be the hotbeds of human creativity and innovation. Just consider the place the Golden Gate was name after, the Golden Horn of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), another region of fabulous tectonic cultural shifts, geological cross-pollination, and creativity. Or go back even earlier, to the dawn of humanity, where the first humans co-evolved with the landscape of the East African Rift, a place where to this day the earth is being ripped apart, a place which offered interesting geology for our ancestors to hunt, gather, and hide from predators.
While it is natural to want to ignore the destruction that accompanies every creative act, embracing it, as does Ashton’s music, can be incredibly liberating. Whether we are bloodletting a pen to fill our sketchbook, felling a tree to build a new home, or letting go of a narrow-minded assumption so something more loving can enter our mind stream, allowing ourselves to die and be reborn in each and every moment is the shaky, yet vital ground of creative inspiration.
For the creator in all of us, our beloved Bay Area with its grinding geology, provides such a landscape. Bassnectar provides the soundtrack.
Austin Hill Shaw is the author of The Shoreline of Wonder: On Being Creative. As architectural designer, teacher, and healer, his life’s mission is to empower others as creators. AustinHillShaw.com