RAVE IN THE MACHINE: The Story of Skylab2000’s Dennis Barton
“WHAT do YOU want to DO!?” a voice shouts. “RAVE!” answers another, followed by “Happy! Happy!” “Joy! Joy!” from the cartoon Ren & Stimpy — Paperboy2000's song “Joy,” from 1992
Dennis Barton was the acid punk. He was a pioneer of the American rave scene and a hacker of the holographic — the invisible electronic sounds that flooded the world. He relentlessly pushed an improvisational style of live machine music; he burned open new worlds by breaking it down and making it happen.
Yet few have heard of this techno Noah and his Ark, who played more than 380 shows over 20 years, starting in 1994, from small towns in Kansas and Nebraska to cities far across the globe, from Istanbul to Nagasaki, in front of hundreds to tens of thousands.
Like so many of his generation — navigating the tumults of punk, rap, rave, computers, cold wars and a fragmenting world — he rarely looked back.
But then something happened. The horizon darkened. The sea heaved.
So came the techno twilight…
On a clear day in Fountain Valley, California, just south of Los Angeles, on December 7, 2014, two decades after Dennis helped kickstart the future, I met up with him at dusk to talk. We both got out of our old used cars and walked to each other across a strip mall parking lot. We shook hands and hugged.
“It was ridiculous,” he said of his ’90s trip. It was wild, absurd, crazy.
I knew exactly what he meant. It was one raver to another. We had met so many ravers from different walks of life that it felt like the web before the internet: DJs and cyber jockeys knitting telepathic narratives with jammers, musicians and programmers; college kids, old hippies, castaways and runaways negotiating a common identity; visionaries, writers, designers, filmmakers, doctors and lawyers unspooling their intellects; the breath-takers, breakdancers, strippers and wanderers tracing patterns unseen; foreigners, Southerners, Mormons, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Euros, atheists and agnostics worshipping music as one; whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, mixed, gay, straight, dreamers and dealers, the deaf, the blind, the low, the high, you name it, all imagining a better world.
Indeed, it was ridiculous. It was the in-crowd and the out-crowd, grooving on the grid of a new society. There was no map. Just faith.
Two decades after the technological revolution that had transformed our lives, we were still trying to make sense of it. Yes there were map-points and flyers that clued ravers from one rave to another. But the topography was virtual and completely unknown. It was a spirit world expressed through data, music and movement. What did all that energy and invisibility mean? Where did it come from and where were we going now? We were no longer raving. Not really. We are all off in our “post-rave” lives, part of the technological assimilation just like everyone else. Assimilate or die.
And yet talking to Dennis that afternoon brought back the burning dream that still smoldered inside us. It was not unlike chilling off to the side away from the dance floor, reflecting on the universe, when ravers so often make new friends. Maybe sitting on some desert rocks at an outdoor party. Or like we were now, sitting by the asphalt of a parking lot.
Every rave was a fever dream. They seemed like echoes of a deeper thought — bursts of sonic light that strobed from a great distance, every beat flashing through the ghost in you. Was it the past or the future? One could never quite tell, listening to a limitless present. Time was liquid. The music prophesied a new perception: that history in all its weirdness was becoming machine-like, predictable, reliable, fast, even dance-able.
Caught in its pulse, some ravers freaked out. Others geeked out. Moving between modes, each raver became a free radical with its own unique data points. Volatility was the form and the norm. It was exhilarating. If there was an archetype Dennis fit, it was the misfit. He was hooked into the network’s alternating current. In other words, there was no archetype. There was just a zone…with the pulse of humanity.
Acid — the elastic space between the lines — was where he thrived.
What one brought to it was the open question. That was where we believed we had a choice. Forever chasing the horizon. Charting the course. Guided by a deep deep vision of freedom.
But not freedom without decency or compassion. Skyward, yes. But still earthen. In this, Dennis’ acid-type had a loud human echo inside all the wires and bytes and electricity. It was as if he lived in some permanent past that pressed in upon the present and gave the future a conscience. Testing boundaries. Staying humble. Tuning things.
Somewhere in that vast static of confusion, he had reached out to me. Why? Did he not want to be forgotten? What was it that we could not forget?
Every raver has a story. Dennis had many. What he was really trying to do was simpler but harder to get at. For a movement that seemed to never stop or rest, he kept pointing at its wheels. He wanted to keep alive something he rode to the fullest — the art of raving as a handmade, heartfelt thing.
After we talked about the beginning of the future as he had known it, we told each other we would pick things back up some other time.
But there was no other time. He was gone.
Life slips through our fingers fast like the sand the internet was built on, from startups to smart phones to A.I. to a growing ambient nerve-ness. Making his way through tempests of change, Dennis helped define how we can face what has become a hyperactive rat race. In a landscape that’s still being excavated, he stands out.
Because he always looked back up — at people raving, at machines turning the world on —looking for constellations in the things he touched: acid machines … soldering irons … ravers lost in time.
On the night of October 13, 2000, he pushed into the frontier.
Someone else headed there too: Stefan Weise, who was 23 and going to college. He walked into the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, on Camp Bowie Boulevard — its stone tower with its illuminated letters beckoning to “Cow Town” since the 1950s — where Barton’s band Skylab2000 was headlining the rave Superstitious.
Entering the old theater’s main hall, he stepped into a different world: Twisting lines of electricity. Grooving bass lines surfing on ones and zeroes. The fearless attitude of old school techno — wobbling scratches, flashes of soul — the peaks and valleys of drip-drip acid stripping down everything that had come before.
“It was raw and edgy, but driving,” says Weise, who was just starting out as an electronic musician. “They were not messing around.”
Formed in 1993, Skylab2000 — named after NASA’s first space station Skylab no. 1— was among the first live electronic dance bands to break out of Los Angeles. Along with The Crystal Method, Electric Skychurch and Uberzone, they helped lead the charge to today’s popular dance wave.
“I wasn’t sure if anything I was doing had any meaning,” Weise says of his own techno forays. Seeing Skylab2000 changed that. “What intrigued me about them was the few records I had heard that they had put out were absolutely nothing like their live performance. Their performance had a raw power to it that you couldn’t get off a vinyl record.”
From afar, Barton was just a shadow among shadows behind racks of equipment: drum machines, synthesizers, computers, effects units and sequencers with cables coming out everywhere. There was confusion in the audience too. Most had never seen a live electronic band. “What are they doing!?” some ravers asked Weise. “They’re not holding guitars!”
“Back to the beat! Back to the beat!” a voice shouted to sirens and crashing drums. It was Barton going for it. “Come on! Come onnnnn!!” he growled, stretching the groove out. “That’s it! Acid! Are you on!?”
“It was so passionate. It came so out of the blue for me,” says Weise. “I was so used to seeing nerdy dudes up on stage. And when I saw this guy pick up the microphone and sing really nice, I was like ‘Wow!’ He didn’t back down. He was fully committed and people were picking that up and were like ‘Yeah!’”
When you talked to Dennis, you got this feeling that he was well ahead of you, patiently guiding you forward. Not because he was worldly, which he was, but because he never forgot where he was. He wasn’t just a dreamer or a seeker. He was more a quiet frontiersman who tracks the wilderness, a Jim Bowie or Davy Crockett type, ranging the Great Rave Unknown. That may sound ridiculous, but not if you take the long long view.
Sitting on a bench that day by the parking lot, at the 20-year anniversary of Dr. Freecloud’s Record Shoppe in Orange County, five miles from the ocean, surrounded by Mongolian BBQ and Japanese restaurants, in his usual t-shirt and jeans, he took me through his rave baptism-come-evangelism.
“I kept dragging people into it,” he chuckled. “‘Come see this thing that is so crazy!’ A few would go one time: ‘OK, that was interesting.’ And a few it would grab immediately, and we would go every week.”
Working as a sound man at Costa Mesa’s Concert Factory, he had been heavily involved in Southern California’s underground music scene. He set the sound board for tons of bands, from X and The Cramps to the Go-Go’s and The Vandals. By the late ’80s, he went to break-in dance parties where DJs played songs by New Order and Depeche Mode. In 1989, he was 26 when he noticed things started to change.
“Little bits of acid house started creeping in,” he said, recalling how he caught local after-hours in Chinese restaurants and legendary DJ Sean Perry’s “Happy House” weekly at the South Coast Plaza mega-mall. “They got bigger and bigger and eventually we had a rave scene.”
Most Americans knew nothing about raves. One of the events that began to change that was Les Borsai’s O3 show at the Long Beach Convention Center on September 14, 1991.
Headlined by Manchester’s 808 State, who had broken through internationally with “Pacific State,” Bjork gave a famous surprise guest appearance for their song “Oops.” But Dennis hardly remembered that performance. His attention was elsewhere.
“There was a maze that was a scary dark maze. You would go in and there were no lights and you would crawl around,” Dennis recalled. “There was a hard section and a soft section where there were mattresses or foam; so a bunch of people in complete darkness back when everybody was doing E. It seemed Sean Perry was skating around on roller skates. And big giant lasers at a time when I don’t think we’d seen giant lasers and a big sound system.”
“O3 was incredible because it was a brand new thing for a bunch of people,” he added. “I was really nervous because I had brought a bunch of my friends who knew nothing about the music and nothing about raves. I remember being anxious until right when we walked in the door and I saw it all and I thought, ‘This is good. Everybody’s going to like this.’ I was just relieved and everybody had fun.”
One of his friends who went that night was Stuart Breidenstein, who worked with Dennis at a vintage high-end stereo repair shop. Dennis was a technician and Breidenstein did sales. Together, they would form Skylab2000.
“L.A. was a great little melting pot,” Breidenstein says. “Because we could have raves and a lot of the early parties we went to were break-ins and warehouses and big over-the-top stuff like 808 State and Bjork performing on stage with them: O3. They went together.”
As Dennis and I talked outside Dr. Freecloud’s, Steve “Mr. Kool-Aid” Hauptfuhr DJ’ed inside the store; he co-produced and played O3, and was a co-promoter behind the legendary Double Hit Mickey and Mickey’s Holy Water Adventure raves; Dennis Simms, who still runs KUCI’s long-running “Riders of the Plastic Groove” college radio show, talked outside with old schoolers; hardcore DJ hero Ron D. Core, Dr. Freecloud’s owner, welcomed people inside; and “DJ Dan” Wherrett walked up with a box of vinyl.
Just in those four was a wealth of history. Plucking just one connection out of the air, Dennis recalled that he and his friends went regularly to Dan and Ron’s weekly “Xenon” at Club Postnuclear in the picturesque beach town of Laguna Beach. “That sounds ridiculously unlikely now,” he said. “But it was a weekly and people went. We were just ravers out having fun.”
“You’re living in the past, Peter.” That’s what Dennis would often say to his younger brother when they debated music. They were just two years apart. Peter never warmed to techno much. But punk was different. That’s where they met. They both loved its do-it-yourself ethos and energy.
Born in 1962, the same year the astronaut John Glenn became the first human in space to orbit the Earth, Dennis was precocious by all accounts. Growing up in New York and then London before the Barton family settled in Huntington Beach in 1977, it was in England — a two year orbit — that Dennis caught the music fever. He was 13 when they moved there: Queen was huge, David Bowie was a god, and punk was just beginning.
One time, their uncle came to visit them in London when Dennis was 14. When he left, Dennis and Peter presented him with a vinyl copy of the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks.
But it wasn’t just music that expanded their horizons. It was also the city’s libertine youth culture that beckoned to them with adventures in psychedelia.
Once, as Peter remembers it, when they were walking with their father, a guy came up and asked, “Hey man, do you want to buy some acid?”
“We’re with our dad,” they replied.
“Oh man! Oh, sorry!” the man said. Paused. “So, do you want to buy some acid?”
That was London in ’77. They didn’t buy any acid. But “acid” would define the years to come.
“Each year, I would go back to England for a month,” Dennis told me. He was drawn to Manchester’s “Madchester” scene, typified by rave rockers like The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses — and New Order’s famous nightclub, The Hacienda.
“There was all this music happening that we didn’t have here,” he said, noting he could go back once a year because his older brother David had stayed in England. “I would come back and go, ‘Alright, why don’t we have raves? Why don’t we have acid house?’”
Acid house, from a British remove, was heady American dance music — played at clubs like Danny Rampling’s Shoom in ’87 and ’88 before spreading like wildfire across the British Isles. “Acid” was built on a wild unruly sound created by a strange throwaway Japanese synthesizer called the Roland TB-303 (short for “Transistor Bass”). Throwaway, that is, until black Chicago artists — specifically DJ Pierre, Spanky and Herb J of Phuture — picked one up and uncorked its inner djinni. It was a sound that captured Dennis’ imagination for life.
His annual pilgrimage to England also altered his sense of space and time. The long delays in cultural waves between continents taught him to look farther and deeper. Even in London, he had to search for the best stuff, listening to pirate radio and DJ John Peel on BBC, digging through bootlegs and acid house mix-tapes in the packed stalls of Camden Market.
As a result, he had a stellar music collection. His suburban bedroom became the neighborhood temple for bored kids and curious introverts. “Oh Dennis, play this, play this!” they would beg. One day, Peter brought over his friend Brad Logan, who would go onto become a legendary figure in the O.C. and national punk scenes.
“Dennis played me my first punk record,” says Logan, who heard it in a cloud of marijuana smoke: The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” The Misfits, F-Word!, 999, the Sex Pistols. “Those songs were not accessible back then where we lived. He was the only guy who knew that was connected to that world at all. He was ahead of the curve.”
Dennis would read the U.K.’s New Music Express religiously, go to the Capitol Records Swap Meet in Hollywood once a month, and listen to shows like KROQ’s “Rodney on the ROQ” late into the night. The next morning, they would pile into his car and drive down to Zed Records in Long Beach and grab the latest punk singles. Hunting for Devo’s “(I Can’t Get Me No) Satisfaction,” they mistakenly grabbed The Resident’s avant-garde “Satisfaction,” which led Dennis deeper into electronic post-punk, discovering Art of Noise, Tuxedomoon and Chrome.
“He still has every Chrome record ever made,” his brother says.
When Dennis was seventeen, he got a gig doing sound for local post-punk rockers Mnemonic Devices. “We felt he was more passionate about it than we were,” says Kevin King, the band’s leader. “At the time, a lot of people knew about bands like Cabaret Voltaire. But then later, I realized, 17-year-olds don’t know about that shit.”
Dennis’ attraction to electronic music was natural and inexorable. As a little boy, he had a soldering iron and Radio Shack kits. He would take appliances apart and put them back together. He was fascinated by machines. It seemed he loved them because he understood them.
“He could buy a piece of shit car and he could make it run,” says Peter. “He had such an agile, inquiring mind. He built crystal radios and potato batteries. Everything was a puzzle that could be solved.”
Yet in even in sunny California with his crazy gizmos and his anglophile antennae sharply tuned — true to punk — he never really fit back in.
“Why do you love electronic music?” I asked Dennis.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It just feels like there are certain kinds of music that you’ve heard enough of. Hasn’t changed. So, what’s next?”
That obsession with the next fit perfectly with techno’s acceleration into the future, relentless in its drive, often to the extreme.
“I spent $16 many times a week for records,” he said, laughing at his obsession, one shared by so many other techno travelers from that time, Dr. Freecloud’s a fitting memorial to that fever. “I don’t even know what I was thinking! I have a ton of records and a ton of CDs and no idea what to do with them now.”
In this, his zeal for the edge reminded me of a certain archetype that fell out of fashion in the ’00s only to return to our popular imaginations via Russian hacker squads and Wikileaks intrigue: the cyberpunk. Not the leathered up Keanu Reeves variety of The Matrix. Nor the state-sponsored or corporate sleuth. But the real deal. Independent. Underground. Restless. Renegade.
It’s what the author William Gibson famously called a “cowboy” in his classic 1984 sci-fi novel Neuromancer. I take it to mean washed-up or yippee-ki-yay — “roughin’ it on the Frontier” — riding code, not just writing. So it was with ravers too, especially those who made music. In fact, the two modes ran well together. To me, Dennis wasn’t a macho cowboy but a principled one — a cyberpunk codebreaking the safe so rhythm could escape.
If the original pre prefix-punks were anything, they were upstarts sick of conformity and the corporate state, whether in London or Detroit or Los Angeles. It was a rebellion against apathy: no surrender. (The word “punk” itself has an unknown origin, perhaps from an old Algonquin word ponk for dust or ashes, or Irish Gaelic spong for tinder — both from peoples oppressed by imperial powers. By 1900, it came to mean “bad.”) By 1979, disco was dust. And punk had played a role in its murder.
But the beat returned stronger than ever: the new wave soul of Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, the wild MDMA-fueled social scene of the Starck Club, the sexy machine gospel of Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse, the elastic madness of Ron Hardy at The Muzic Box, and the techno future blues of the Belleville Three — from New York City to Dallas to Chicago to Detroit. It was the Alamo and The Haight and Selma and the Stonewall Riots rippling through wires and code.
That long squall mutated, merging with punk and industrial in England, from London’s Mute and Rough Trade to Manchester’s Joy Division and Factory Records, absorbing Germany’s electronic kosmische musik while picking up the broken beats of Bronx hip hop — all that “Losing My Edge” nonsense — like estranged brethren coalescing again. Dennis knew the coordinates. And now the wave was rippling back West.
It all came together in acid. Parabolic. Hyperbolic. Crazy swings and murmuring quiet. That rhythmic “wow-wow” sound. The TB-303’s knobs for tuning, accent, resonance, envelope modulation, cutoff frequency and decay with a 24dB (decibel) octave range — its notes running into each other, its sounds in dynamic overdrive, an electric cursive ink spilling out into the air that radically rearranged people’s minds in warehouses before they walked back into the world, the light of morning creeping into the sky, their cars asleep in some forgotten part of town: raves as engines of change.
That’s what Breidenstein encountered when he met Dennis in 1990, who was knee deep in that epic confluence of humans and machines, helping trigger a Cali counter-wave. Breidenstein was a new employee at Recycled Audio & Video and had just moved down from Sacramento; he had played in wedding bands and knew nothing about L.A.’s byzantine music scene. By contrast, Dennis was a gritty tech who worked in the back repairing hi-fi equipment and wrote the store’s sales software but never went to college. Like his soldering — melting metal alloys by hand to form new pathways between circuits and chips — he was connecting the dots through acid’s social and musical alchemy.
“We were coming from two different points,” says Breidenstein, highlighting the human connection that completed the current. “I had studied some music theory and that included jazz. He was coming more from an electronic background and really having his finger on the pulse.”
Realizing they had something, they pooled their gear together. Breidenstein had a Roland Juno-106 keyboard synthesizer, known for its oceanic “pads” and voluptuous bass tones. Dennis, of course, favored the tiny silver “303,” famous for that squelchy bubbling “acid” sound that can be described in a zillion different ways — perception turned to liquid.
There was no plan, only an overriding instinct to play. So they hacked their machines into a single real-time system of triggers and synchrony. “We were using equipment that was just on the cusp of pulling it all together,” says Breidenstein. It was painstaking. And in a way, Dennis loved that. He used an MS-DOS floppy-disk sequencer called Sequencer Plus Gold that had a text-centric interface to arrange their compositions. Despite its no frills, it gave them an edge when performing live because they could rearrange anything on the fly with exacting detail.
In the studio, he also began to map out a sound that was grounded in the early fervor of the global rave scene — mantric and explosive at once. He loved UK bands like Acen and The Prodigy, who favored a punk-ish, bonkers attitude, throwing in spastic breakbeats and blaring riffs. He also admired bands like Orbital and Underworld, who rode trancier grooves high into the sublime. His favorite songs were Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash” and A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” — rave’s spectrum swinging between the apocalyptic and the romantic.
Looking hard for what made them tick, he saw A Guy Called Gerald perform in 1990 at a Palladium show called “Call the Cops” with the Happy Mondays and Adamski in Hollywood. “There was some kind of backstage area. I was back there talking with A Guy Called Gerald,” he said, asking him how he made ‘Voodoo Ray.’ “There was no security. He was just a guy. You could talk to everybody. It wasn’t like now.”
Early 1992, before kicking off Skylab2000, Dennis was inspired to put together his first real song solo as Paperboy2000: “City of Angels.” The Rodney King verdict had declared several LAPD police officers “not guilty” of police brutality, setting off a firestorm across the city’s southern districts. Recording the L.A. Sheriff’s curfew announcement on the radio and King saying “let’s try to work it out” on TV, he weaved them together into a virtual riot of thrashing beats and distorted synths.
“I had always made music for fun,” he told me. “In the ’80s, I had synths and a guitar and a bass and a 4-track reel-to-reel. I was in a record store called Noise Noise Noise in Costa Mesa, right after the Rodney King Riots … I was talking to Dave James, the owner, in the record store, and I said, ‘Does anyone around here write electronic music?’
“And he said, ‘No, nothing at all.’ I said, ‘I’m doing some.’ He said, ‘I’d like to hear it.’ I had a cassette in the car. I brought it in and played it for him. He said, ‘This is really good. I could sell this.’ I had never considered the idea of writing music to sell.”
It was the best church he had ever been to: Truth. In 1990, DJ Taylor, L.A.’s original progressive house and trance maven, was playing top 40 hits and Latin dance songs at Club Fantasia in Downtown.
He lived off MacArthur Park in the Asbury across the street from the Park Plaza hotel, stately architectures built in the 1920s that by the 1990s stood in a run-down part of town following decades of decline.
One night he noticed lines of funkily dressed people outside the Park Plaza and a steady boom coming from inside. It sounded like a radio beacon from another civilization. It was the rave-club Truth, thrown by promoters Tef Foo and Steve Levy.
Taylor had moved to L.A. in 1987 from a small town in Washington state. “I studied percussion,” he says. “I wanted to be a rock star. I worked at Guitar Center, the original one in Hollywood. I was so out of my depth. It was packed all the time, at the peak of the big hair metal bands. It was so phony. I got disillusioned.”
Making his way into DJing through a girlfriend who introduced him to Downtown’s club scene, he was instantly intrigued by what was happening across the Asbury. One night, off duty from Fantasia, he went for it.
“Once I heard Italian piano house the first time I went out to the Park Plaza, everyone was like being in church, the best church you’ve ever been in,” he says. “As soon as I went there…in that big old cavernous scary hotel — ‘This is it!’”
Learning to play from East L.A. backyard party legends like Pebo Rodriguez, who he worked with at Fantasia, Taylor had developed a patient, smooth mixing style using a turntable’s pitch control rather than nudging beats into sync with his hands on a turntable plate. He was drawn to dark sounds but loved putting them in a sensual wrapper, building a repertoire of alternative grooves. Soon he found a home for his spacier, harder edge at after-hours like Sketchpad.
“You had to be a person who really wanted to be there. But that’s what was good. It cut the fat,” says Taylor of Sketchpad. “If you gave them something, they were there. It was on. You would look around and see the weirdest things. I remember seeing a guy dancing in a diaper. I remember thinking, ‘What is going on!?’ They were throwing down.”
A fateful partnership also began around this time between Taylor and a savvy raver who ran the Sideshow Hotline: Jenn Harrison. Pre-Internet, the Hotline was a voicemail ravers could call to get details on underground parties. She was a visionary in her own right, and fun-loving with a sharp ear for what’s next. Taylor wisely asked her to be his manager even though she was not yet 21.
One of the big breaks she pushed was a new Thursday night in conservative Irvine, 50 miles south at a new club called Metropolis, owned by brothers Jon and Gregg Hanour. Taylor was initially lukewarm on the idea. Harrison, who straddled both “scenes,” knew it could work. The original L.A. raves had attracted misfits from all over the Southland. She was from Pomona herself, so she understood people would go the distance. And they did, gravitating to Metropolis from as far away as Mammoth, Las Vegas, San Diego and San Francisco.
“There was an In-N-Out Burger right there,” she says of the location, which was right across the street from UC Irvine in a university shopping plaza. “It was the weirdest place to do it. But we just wanted a place to play our music.”
“I was a little judgmental,” says Taylor. “It’s not in the ‘epicenter.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go check it out.’ As soon as I heard the bass in there, one time… Jon had it going all the way down. It was ridiculously stupid expensive to do what he did. But as soon as I heard that, I was in.”
Not only did Metropolis have enough bass to create another epicenter, but it was in Skylab2000’s neck of the woods, where many of the movers and shakers of the L.A. rave scene had hailed, from Daven “The Madhatter” Michaels and Beej Ryan, to DJ “Simply Jeff” Adachi and Jason Blakemore (aka “DJ Trance”). It became an important rendezvous for many and for Dennis a steady source of inspiration.
“I wrote music for a long time that was slow,” he said. “It’s super hard to make people dance. I would go to Metropolis by myself sometimes and sit on a speaker and listen to the bass lines and kind of learn from what other people were doing.”
And so a new satellite fired up in the darkness, from one outpost to another, from Truth to Metropolis.
It sounded like the air was on fire. Like an artillery barrage. It was Skylab2000’s first big show and it wasn’t going as planned. They had miscalculated the sound levels and the technology was getting away from them fast.
Weeks before, to their surprise, their chutzpah had landed them the gig on June 4, 1994. Tef Foo, who had done Truth and formed the production group CPU101 with Texas journeyman Wade Randolph Hampton and Tef’s mentor Richard Duardo — the “Andy Warhol of the West” — was going to throw a second followup to their innovative “Circa” show from 1992 (originally thrown just days before the Rodney King Riots) at the Shrine Auditorium in Downtown L.A.
“We sent Tef a tape,” Dennis recalled with a smile 20 years later. “Wrapped it up all pretty and fancy. I remember writing on a piece of paper, ‘WE WANT TO PLAY CIRCA.’ We wrote it literally with Crayon and stuck it in an envelope with the tape.”
Undeterred by their Crayon, or perhaps amused by it, Tef called them up and came over to Breidenstein’s house. They were set up in the living room with their singer, Alissa Kueker. “He sat there and listened to us play,” said Dennis. “And said, ‘Alright, come play at Circa.’ That was really the first proper show we ever played. We had never even played a club before.”
Breidenstein describes the show like it was last night.
“I don’t know how many people were there but it was a lot,” he says. “We got up on stage and Shredder’s sound system was running 40-stacks wide underneath us with subwoofers and huge bins and everything,” he says, referring to speaker boss Manny “Shredder” Gutierrez’s infamous “Wall of Sound” set up. “It was surreal. We had just formed.”
“I remember we had done a sound check and we had made adjustments because it was so echoey in there before. Our set started out with a bunch of kick drums, with kick drum 16th notes — ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da! — but we had screwed up the sound so that it was way too loud. I know Shredder was probably going to kill us. I was like ‘It’s way too loud!’ We’re standing on this stage and everything was just shaking. It was like that scene from The Simpsons when the THX thing comes on in the movie theatre and Grandpa Simpson’s teeth are shattering and everybody’s glasses are breaking.”
It was a blast-off that got the whole rave’s attention.
“We looked at each other, ‘Oh shit, we twisted too many knobs!’” he laughs. “But we got it all straightened out. It was just a very fumbling start. But as soon as we started going, within 15 or 20 seconds, a bunch of people were running in from outside. The floor filled with people. Then it was alright.”
Their Circa ’94 performance turned into a breakthrough. Dennis had grasped the odds too. As he saw it, the best DJ’s, like Doc Martin who played before them, had the choice of the best music in the world. “They’d go to a record store and buy what everybody else thought up and we’re suddenly up there trying to be as good as the world’s music,” he said. “It’s super intimidating, especially when you’re new.”
He was startled by the drum explosion, nearly unhorsed. But there was a guy in the front row that night that threw him a lifeline. “I had never met him before that night,” he recalled. His name was Joe “DJ Grover” Cancino and the two would later become friends. “He was in the front row standing there and would yell and scream when I did certain things. I just concentrated on him and he made it all work.”
“It was super scary,” he added. “We didn’t know anything about anything. We had only played house parties and stuff. I listened to the set recently, and it’s not very good. But it changed everything for us.”
It was all sparking in chain reactions. Brian Natonski, who would make a name for himself as Gearwhore — and would later become a favorite of David Bowie’s — arrived in Los Angeles in 1993 from Chicago. He was escaping a miserable winter and following his Thai girlfriend to sunny Mission Viejo.
He had grown up steeped in the Chicago acid house and Wax Trax! industrial scenes. He frequented Frankie Knuckles’ Warehouse, did sound for house pioneers Darryl Pandy and Vince Lawrence, and shot photos of KMFDM and Ministry shows. When he was eleven to thirteen, he had watched L.A. KROQ DJ Richard Blade on a TV series called MV3 present music videos of The Clash, Thomas Dolby, punk and new wave.
He was eager to see what L.A. had in store, diving right into its underground nightlife. He saw Skylab2000 at a show the next year and thought they were outstanding. Eager to put out music, he started a record label called Fatal Data and began to seek out collaborators. At Metropolis, he met Shaheen Shary, a shirtless, shaved-head drummer that played to DJ sets, often creating a circle on the dance floor like a second whirl to a greater vortex. “Shaheen” was a star in his own right, introducing Natonski to other movers in the scene, including Dennis.
“Back then it was a core group of hardcore computer nerds and the music was going to bring everybody out of it,” he says of the electronic musicians of the time, a once rare breed who loved music as much as machines. “Dennis was the kind of guy who created circuit boards. If you’re doing blues, you talk about guitar chords. If you’re talking about electronic music, you talk about ‘ghosts’ and ‘tchotchkes’ that reside in the computer.”
Convinced of Skylab2000’s potential, he approached them about putting out a record, but the band had already committed their first release to Germany’s ZYX Music. He wasn’t discouraged, so he waited.
“L.A. was heavily into this groove thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t say house music. It was more of a funky electro dance music. It just really hooked me. That was something Dennis really excelled at, was creating these grooves. He would really get intricate with his riffs.”
It was also at Metropolis, waiting in line at the club’s opening progressive house night in December 1993 with Taylor as resident, that Skylab2000 met Kueker. Not only were locals making connections at the club, but a host of great acts came through Metropolis from 1993 to 1998, including the Chemical Brothers’ first U.S. appearance, Goldie, Sven Vath and Sasha. Skylab2000 would play there multiple times.
In 1995, the band was hitting escape velocity. Skylab2000’s next release was on Fatal Data and would become their most important record, the classic Auburn. As an underground document, it had many authors. It was a unique nexus of personalities and events, anchored in Metropolis. Its core started with Dennis and Breidenstein. “I had the part with the Juno-106 going through a distortion pedal,” Breidenstein says. “There were two main parts to it, the Juno-106 and the TB-303. They both switch back and forth as the lead instrument.”
Those lines crackle with a kind of telepathy, each finishing the other’s sentences, drums breaking through various zones of rhythm. When the bass line drops into a hypnotic groove, Kueker’s sermon begins: a battlecry for the local scene. “It was all ducking and weaving to avoid the police busting parties,” Breidenstein says of the time. “Even perfectly legal things were getting shut down.”
“I remember them making a vocal booth in the living room,” she says. “And covering me with a blanket over the closet door to close the sound. It was a life-changing experience. First record I was ever on…It was a beautiful mix of friendships, adventures, freedom, lights, laughter.”
“Woo! That’s right, just like my mama told me,” she sings with a righteous twang. “Your word is worth your weight in gold. Not fool’s gold, honey. You can keep the change.”
As it builds, the TB-303 takes the lead, exploring and exploding into a fever as the Juno-106 slows and howls to her words.
“I’m talking about love. I’m talking about light. I’m talking about right,” her voice soars. “Your word is your life. Your sisters! Your brothers!”
It was a sonic freakout as much as a message, its helter-skelter energy coming from their fiery live approach: every measure seemed to hold a new surprise, a ballsy, sassy middle finger from the local underground to everything standing in its way. It ends with the feedback of microphones and electric signals thrashing, leaving it all on the stage. In many ways, it prefigures other local statements, from The Crystal Method’s “Keep Hope Alive” to Skrillex’s “Stranger” — a slower kind of “Auburn” with its helium-pitched acid lines and vocal build ups.
“It had a little bit more of an edge that I dug,” says Taylor, who got an advanced copy. “That was our thing. In L.A., the energy to me is a little more raw. Now you’re starting to touch on an L.A. progressive sound. It had some of the L.A. breaks. We’ve got a much more mixed race here. You have the new wave and goth kids. You have the hip hop kids. They come to this scene and they fall in love. But this is their roots.”
“Auburn” was not only the first local dance track Taylor played out, it was also one of the greatest studio team-ups the California rave scene ever produced. That collaborative spirit continued on the record’s b-side with Taylor’s own “OneInMetropolis” remix. While the original was five minutes, he stretched “Auburn” out over an epic fourteen. He had done productions before, including the rain-swept trance beauty “Ask Me” on the UK’s Planet Four label and with B.T. on “Anomaly Calling Your Name.” But it was on “Auburn,” with Skylab2000’s blessing, that he went all the way.
“That was right at the time progressive was peaking with the big, big arrangements. I had all these dreams and visions and I tried to cram it all on this first mix,” he says. “We piled so many tracks on that thing, the bandwidth was just smashed.”
Working with the tools available at the time, he and Natonski used a Kurzweil K2000 and a sampling application that took ten minutes to render every edit they made. Any mistake could cost hours. Making the remix in itself was a journey. Even Taylor’s protege Sandra Collins showed up for a session to contribute some ideas. One of its most distinctive elements is its long meticulous opening, built on a looping truncated riff that sounds like a guitar jangling inside a motor, doubling with another more resonant gear, gliding over land before riding into a storm of breakbeats.
“We let Taylor take the wheel of the ship,” says Natonski. “When we had it where we wanted it, we took it to this guy with a golden ear. He did mostly Gospel music…We spent the rest of whatever money I didn’t have on that mastering session. It was really a true group effort that was tremendously successful for all of us, not financially, but spiritually.”
“They were some of the people that inspired me,” says Timothy Wiles, better known as Q of Uberzone, one of L.A.’s most inventive electronic music producers, who saw Skylab2000 play at Metropolis just when he was starting out and producing his first record.
“I had meandered for a while about what I wanted to do,” he says. “It was a very welcoming scene. ‘Yeah, you should do it.’ It was total encouragement. The people performing on stage were acting the same as the people who were on the dance floor dancing. Dennis was one of the first ambassadors of that for me.”
Metropolis brought seekers together in a space that was both underground and overground. It had pool tables and a big student clientele. Its design was sleek with a touch of surrealist humor: it had portholes in the bathroom looking out to the club and a circle bar with a tree in the middle. The adjoining sushi bar, called Octopussy, served VIPs cheeky dishes like the “Sex Roll.”
“If you fucking knew how to play the didgeridoo you could show up, ‘I have a talent!’” says Peter, teasing fondly, having joined his brother many times. “If you had video skills you could do projections. ‘Hey kids, let’s put on a show!’ Everyone was welcome.”
That anything-goes mix was at home in Metropolis. The space itself was previously a hip clothing store called SOHO that looked like a proto-club where Ron D. Core had DJ’ed from time to time. Two unsung heroes of the scene, Joachim Vance and Dana Watanabe, computer science majors at UCI who worked at the college radio station KUCI, met Ron there and invited him to guest DJ on their Friday night show “Riders of the Plastic Groove” (still running more than 20 years later).
Vance, who was KUCI’s program director in 1991, conceived the show. Harrison, who was a friend, helped come up with the name. It featured techno DJ’s spinning records and live electronic music performances. It was also one of the first venues that Skylab2000 played.
“His set ups would take two hours,” says Vance of Dennis. “He would set up all of his equipment, which was all this amazing stuff, four or five boxes of it. I was blown away. Especially the 303, you had to play it live back in those days. It was just incredible to watch him play.”
Vance and Watanabe expanded the scene in other ways. By starting the SoCal-Raves email list in 1992 (inspired by SF-Raves), they helped connect the region’s disparate ravers into a formidable network from Santa Barbara to San Diego, lighting up isolated dots and clusters among a population of over 20 million: a “cyberspace” where scattered and remote ravers could exchange ideas, find parties, and form alliances.
“We weren’t rave DJs,” says Vance, who even threw small parties on campus called Bounce, plugging sound into the power source of track and field lamps or on KUCI’s rooftop, blasting The Orb’s ambient opus “Blue Room” over the main quad. “We weren’t musicians. We weren’t rave promoters. But we were fans, and we wanted to share it with people.”
They first borrowed a host server from UCSD’s email postmaster Andy Ferrell and would eventually team up with ravers from Harvey Mudd College’s engineering school, the same crew that would go onto found DreamHost, one of the country’s top web hosting providers. “They used to throw parties that Dennis played at,” says Watanabe. “So they let us move SoCal-Raves there.”
Dennis was one of the first subscribers to SoCal-Raves. He had been on CompuServe, before AOL, and had used it to connect with music fans around the world, recording and swapping tapes of local radio shows like pen pals. “Dennis would talk about reading computers downloading information off the Internet,” says Breidenstein. “He said he got faster at reading because computers were getting faster at downloading stuff. He could read at the rate a computer could display text from the Internet.”
One of SoCal-Rave’s most active early sub-groups went by the name B-Sides, or b-siders. Dennis would become close-knit with the crew, as would Jenn Harrison. B-Sides would go onto produce an infamous run of desert parties called Dune, inspired by L.A.’s Moontribe.
“We connected together first without seeing each other,” says Kirk Cameron, who became one of the group’s ringleaders. “Someone would say you should really meet this person and you should meet that person.”
Cameron remembers Dennis behaved the same way online as in person: observant and low key but laser sharp. “Some people would write these long diatribes and stuff,” he recalls of SoCal-Rave’s email debates. “He would just slice it with one sentence. ‘Yeah, but you’re whole argument is based on this one premise which is off because…’ Just two words and you would be like, ‘Ahhhh!’”
Perhaps nothing captured those heady days of technological potential better than the California rave scene’s fascination with mind-expanding tropes, especially L.S.D. and psilocybin mushrooms, echoing the ’60s Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties. It was connected to a new psychedelic wave unleashed across the state by the powerful combination of computer technology and freeform dance music. It was essentially the first digital counter-culture. There was lots of talk of a new civilization.
Adequate words were hard to find to describe it. Concepts like Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone and PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) were attempts at developing a language that captured the surging shifts expressed in techno music.
“I’ve got this thing about resonance,” says Stephanie Stearns, another b-sider who met Dennis through SoCal-Raves, pointing out his sensitivity to “vibes” — sonic, social or otherwise. “There’s no one I connected with on that in a more whole and complete and understanding way as Dennis did. We would talk about frequencies and resonance. He’s twisting knobs and fucking around with that shit.”
Anything seemed possible. The future was blindingly bright. Psychedelic prophets Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary joined the mix, attending raves and mentoring some of its leaders. Spacetime Continuum’s spoken-word ambient album Alien Dreamtime with Terence McKenna from 1993 is quintessential of this “resonance.”
Skylab2000 would give this flirtation with techno enlightenment their own over-the-top take with an ambient side project. They never released much of it — other than a 1995 compilation appearance on San Francisco’s esteemed Silent label — but they performed live several times.
As Watanabe remembers it, how they came up with the name for their spaced-out offshoot was more wit, than trip.
“‘All these other bands, when they’re playing, get offered way more drugs than we do,’” he remembers Dennis half-joking: “We’re never offered anything,” Dennis faux whined. “Scott and Ken, when they play, Crystal Method gets offered a lot of crystal meth. If they ever need crystal meth, they’re covered.”
It was a good natured dig at Scott Kirkland and Ken Jordan’s controversial band name. “It would be nice if people offered us something,” he said. “So let’s give them something to focus on.”
His answer? Mushroom Nation. Hallucination meets the “Halluci Nation.” Altered states and mushroom clouds. It was classic Dennis Barton, bringing all the pretensions back down to Earth. It was ridiculous.
“I don’t think about him on the stage,” says Harrison. “He didn’t have to be the center of attention. I think that was what was amazing about seeing him perform. Knowing him as a friend, as that guy you would have these deep conversations over off in the corner; then he would get on stage and he would be this persona. He had that under control.”
And yet “control” meant something different to Dennis, who would express himself energetically on stage, often dancing mad to the wire.
“It was always complete mayhem,” he said of playing live. “Havoc was entirely possible and happened all the time. And I like that. Seeing a band where it can all fall apart is nicer, for me. I was always nervous I would say. Every show. Even after doing it for 18 years, I was still getting nervous before every show and sweaty on stage and the whole bit. Everything can and will go wrong.”
A longtime peer, James Lumb, who founded Electric Skychurch, one of L.A.’s most famous live electronic bands from the ’90s, describes that mayhem as the deeper story behind music and technology: “You have to like it, because if you don’t, you won’t do it. ‘Oh, let’s get all those synths up there!’ And they get up there, but then realize what makes it live is failing in front of an audience. ‘Yeah, you’re computer just blew up.’ ‘Yeah, this thing just went out.’ It was always something, and that’s how they knew you were really doing it.”
Like Dennis, Lumb first came up through punk. He got his start in the Athens, Georgia music scene, known for hatching R.E.M., the B-52’s and Widespread Panic. He was the first bass player for the Atlanta punk band, The Woggles, before moving to L.A. in 1991.
“The most punk thing is to bring a truckload full of gear and turn it up as loud as it can go,” he says. “We both come from the whole punk-rock-with-synthesizers tradition. The thing about Dennis was he showed up with this heavy stuff. People nowadays don’t appreciate how difficult it is to cart. It takes a regular person a week to hook it up. You’ve got an hour. You get it running and it sounds amazing. It just doesn’t sound like what you get on a record because a record is a can of soup with music stuffed inside it.”
For post-punks who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s era of Atari and IBM, with Radio Shacks as common as Starbucks, both reading Forrest Mims’ book Getting Started in Electronics as kids, rave culture’s make-or-break ethos made perfect sense: playing live was about facing a greater unknown.
What was wrong, as Dennis put it, was right. Because as much as it felt at times that Skylab2000 could break apart — living gig to gig in the ’90s — it was that same knife’s edge that opened up new creative possibilities. It’s what Weise, who runs his own record label 3KM today and has pondered techno most of his adult life, calls “character.”
“What an outsider might not realize is that as you make music and as you interact with these machines, there is this undeniable sense that there’s a character in that instrument,” he says. “It’s there. It’s something almost indescribable. The best example of that would be the Roland TB-303. Its original intention was to be an accompaniment instrument for guitar players. But it’s become a genre-defining instrument.”
“And it only does one thing,” he says with emphasis. “It only has one sound. It doesn’t do anything else. It doesn’t play strings or drums. It just makes that acid sound and it’s because somebody recognized there is a character to this machine and that character could be exploited. That’s for me when the machine begins to talk.”
Dennis had his own take on that character. His persistence and low-key personality informed his own unique 303 style. One that was poised and playful. Complex yet relatable. Hard yet supple. Alive and warm.
“Because electronic music is really shifted down an octave into the sub from rock ‘n’ roll, it plays bass lines the way an electric bass guitar would, but contextually it works in a more melodic place,” says Lumb, who also favored the 303. “It kind of takes the lead. If you hand it to the right person, it can be quite amazing. Energetic. Or beautiful. It can be slow. It can be fast. It can hold things down. Or it can be the whole song.”
“The 303 is definitely the electric guitar of that California rave sound,” he continues, calling to mind other Cali acid artists and contemporaries like Darwin Chamber, Xpando, Freaky Chakra, and E.B.E. “Dennis had choices with the electronics that just sounded like Dennis. That’s what was great — his personality shone through. You don’t get that a lot with electronic music. Most people make electronic music with presets. And the allure of electronic music obviously is you don’t have to put time and practice into learning how to physically play. You can master it with your mind alone.”
“The thing is,” he says, “After you’ve put in 10 or 20 years working with electronic music, you have put in a lot of time physically working with that music. You start to make choices with your hands, with your body, and you don’t think about it anymore. You can really hear that in Dennis. If you’re working with synthesizers and people can tell it’s you, you’re doing it right.”
That charisma — both the man and the machine—kept pushing forward. In 1996, Breidenstein and Kueker bowed out to pursue other projects, including Breidenstein’s Bassland Prophecy. Adapting, Dennis enlisted his old friend David Ewing, a multi-instrumentalist and architect. In many ways, Ewing, with his gentle nature, was the perfect partner for Skylab2000’s next phase. Dennis’ longtime girlfriend Christina Payne also joined. She was an adventurous roadie, providing vocals from time to time.
With gigs almost every weekend by the late ’90s, Skylab2000 had less time for finalizing songs for release in his Brainforest studio, except for Rollergirl — inspired by Heather Graham from the movie Boogie Nights, who once raved and coincidentally heard Dennis play “Rollergirl” — and Shak (Rok Yer Sol) in 1998, followed by the Daybreaks E.P. in 1999. That was to Dennis’ natural mode of thinking.
“So much of what we did was for live,” he told me. “There’s lots of stuff we played live that we never released. Right from the start. I had always come from seeing bands. To me, playing live just made sense. Always.”
“Any time he had to stop playing and commit to something on record, it never really translated in the way his live stuff did,” says Brian Golub (aka Brian Seed), an accomplished producer and Moontribe DJ who assisted on “Rollergirl” — a gnarly acid techno stomper that best captures Skylab2000’s live energy, slowly tweaking riffs that claw at the sky calling to mind Dennis melting open a rooftop with his soldering iron, peaking with the sample “Anyone can dance! That’s the law!”
“It was always about setting up the most possibilities for fun in the moment,” says Golub. “‘How do I make this synth work with that drum machine? What happens when I do this? I press this and this series of events happens. And then I run over to do this.’ He was the grown up kid that got to play with toys and made them do things that nobody else could.”
“He could change the arrangements on the spot, which is actually more than a live four-piece band can do, unless it’s kind of planned out,” echoes Ewing, explaining that their antiquated sequencer, long preserved on a refurbished Toshiba laptop with a 200 meg hard drive, allowed Dennis to improvise quicker than anyone.
Taking that masterful “mayhem” on the road, they played all over North America, from New York City to Memphis and Madison, to Edmonton and Puerto Rico. “I remember just some of the most interesting shows were places I would have never gone to: Wichita, Cincinnati, Cleveland, which are beautiful,” says Ewing. “I just remember the people being so excited.”
“It was not about personalities but experiences,” he says. “It was more about being part of this whole flowing thing through the night. As opposed to rock artists where you wanted to hear something familiar, people wanted to hear something they had never heard before” — a Johnny Appleseed calling that Dennis, who loved to travel, answered with glee.
And not only did he influence musicians like Weise, but inventors too.
“I was in nowhere land, smack dab in the middle of Kansas,” says Jered Flickinger, who met Dennis through a friend when Skylab2000 came to perform in Topeka, Kansas in 1997. “Sometimes there would be three acid lines going on and there would be these trippy weird synthetic sounds. When you’re listening to them on a giant sound system with lights, you’re just waiting expecting aliens to fall out of the sky.”
Flickinger would start the Future Retro analog synthesizer company in 1997, known for its “777” model that emulated and enhanced the TB-303 for live performance. He showed a prototype to Dennis in Topeka for feedback. The next year at DreamFest in Oak Shores, Illinois, he brought Dennis the first real version of the 777. “He bought the thing that day,” he says. “And within a couple hours had programmed all of his bass lines from his 303 in the 777 and was using it instead for his whole show that evening. It was a real treat for us because we had not heard it on a loud system before. He just instantly took to it like he knew it in and out. He was just very talented.”
“They were the first major band to use our product,” he adds. “They were playing with Uberzone and Crystal Method so they were quickly using our products too. I don’t know if our business would have taken off like it did without Dennis.”
By 1999, Skylab2000 started performing halfway around the world, bringing their signature American sound to new audiences. Their first overseas gig was in Hong Kong. At the same time, they became huge in the Midwestern rave scene where acid house and techno were born.
“It was a disembodied international music that happened all over the world simultaneously,” says Ewing. “It was all about space. It was all about secrecy.”
“For him it was a spiritual sort of feeling,” says Payne of Dennis’ long search that took him to distant lands. “Even though he probably wouldn’t describe it that way. He was always moved by music. Different types of music. He didn’t believe in God or have any religion at all. But I think music for him and the feelings that music could evoke was something similar.”
Payne met him in 1993 at Metropolis when she joined her roommate to meet up with Ewing, who in another connection had designed the club’s interior. Dennis had a charisma, she says, that was about people more than machines. It wasn’t just his passion for music that took them around the globe, but his intense curiosity about others.
“We played in Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Russia,” he told me. “We did a gig in a city called Samara. It’s this weird industrial town somewhere in the south. We got to do some cool shows. It was nice. It was all weird because we never planned it. To be on a plane to Russia, seemed ridiculous.”
In 2002, they traveled to Moscow in the dead of winter and met up with a promoter known as the “Fat Man.” They flew to Samara, which sits on the Volga River, with the production crew and a fashion entourage that booked a whole airliner. They arrived at an airport that was closed with no lights on and they stayed in an old grand Soviet-era hotel in disrepair, with no power until they checked in. Then, at Samara’s “Manhattan Nightclub,” Dennis played in a rave fashion show that felt like any other rave fashion show.
But it was two years earlier that they reached a kind of peak just as the free world reached a kind of peak. They went to Istanbul with Gearwhore to perform at an outdoor music festival on June 17th, 2000, called “H2O000” — the first of its kind in Turkey — on the same bill as Gus Gus, Bush, Lamb, Republica, and others.
“We were lucky to be there at a more open time,” says Ewing, noting it was a year before 9/11 and the unfolding of many conflagrations to come. “It felt dramatic to be there from L.A. in this ancient city.”
“All the tents for camping were in the neatest rows you had ever seen,” says Natonski, who estimates 40,000 people where at the festival. “There’s no trash in the streets. I mean the media paints such a grim portrait of Muslim countries but Turkey was beautiful. The people were amazing. Everyone wanted to talk to us, smoke those hookahs with us, feed us. I loved it.”
After performing, he remembers going to see Skylab2000 in the rave tent. “He and Christina had these LED lights you twirl in the air and Dennis had programmed them to read SKYLAB2000, which cracked me up,” he says. “If he visited the New York Stock Exchange, he would figure out a way to make the main board read SKYLAB2000 … He was a total MacGyver.”
A couple days later, a woman they met at the festival invited Dennis and Payne to her Turkish home. They debated whether to go because they had an early flight out the next morning but decided to stay up all night with their new friends. When the sun started to come up, muezzins began the Muslim call to prayer.
“There are minarets all around the city. It was a very quiet time and everyone went onto the rooftop,” says Payne. “I remember we were just standing there, and the sight of the morning, I can’t even describe the feeling of it: the call to prayer was echoing across the city and these birds were being displaced out of the towers and filling the sky.”
“Everyone was standing there quietly listening,” she says, awe still in her voice. “We started holding hands. We were both really moved.”
“One of the times when I went to London, there was a little comic book party,” Dennis said of his early rave days when he went to Camden Palace in 1992. “The comic book was 2000 AD [famous for Judge Dredd]. It was just a party to celebrate their fifteenth year. So there was maybe a 100 people there or 200, and Orbital played.”
“It was after their first album came out,” he remarked of the great techno duo. “I met them afterwards and they let me look at all of their equipment and how it was all hooked up. That was pretty pivotal…They were very normal. Every single person I ever met seemed very normal. I can only think of one or two people the whole time who I have a bad story about.”
“It was one of the catalysts,” he said.
Looking back, he never lost sight of his own improbable run: “We thought we would do it for two years. And then there would be some young kids who take over and do it and we wouldn’t get to do it anymore. That was fine with us … Then we thought in the year 2000, the name won’t work at all. Someone else will be here. And it just kept going.”
When he mostly retired Skylab2000 in 2011, after many years touring by himself (Ewing had to spend more time at his architecture firm and Payne went back to school), he started working as an electrical engineer.
“He was so bitter when he had to get a job,” says Watanabe, who remembers Dennis cursing one gig in particular: making a mock robot. “He was so annoyed. Six months of his time wasted on a ‘fucking’ robot.”
“He was saddened, obviously, and knew when it was coming to the end,” says Payne, who witnessed his transformation up close. “But he always knew what to do. He could always make something happen.”
One of the most important things that happened was meeting Todd Rogers. Rogers was not a raver, but he and Dennis struck up a fast friendship in 2011. Dennis came by Rogers’ Tonebutcher effects pedal shop in Costa Mesa after he heard about his synthesizer jam event “Synthonic Moon Days.” With Dennis on board, it evolved into a loose band called SynthCult.
“There was nobody I knew who spoke like him,” says Rogers, who remarks that Dennis always just figured it out. “He was playful. He made you feel very comfortable. He was a character. He didn’t, ‘Oh hey, I’m this famous DJ’ or whatever. He was testing the waters to see what I was really all about.”
SynthCult was radically freeform. It was mostly ethereal space music until Dennis started bringing rhythm into the mix. “That’s when it would just gel,” says Rogers of their shows. “He would bring up a drum beat or a bass line and everybody would come together.”
There was another side to Dennis that Rogers was amazed by. He told Rogers one day, “Hey I’ve got this little device thing, I don’t know what to do with it.”
“He brought over what pretty much looked like a bomb to my work shop,” says Rogers. “He’s setting it up. He just shows up with a cardboard box, pulls out a power strip with all these wall-worts taped on it. It was a mad scientist vibe.”
Dennis had printed a circuit board, soldering wires and components and coding software for it. The gizmo — which looked like a little city viewed from the sky or an inside-out droid with knobs, switches, circuits, pinouts, and transistors — could sync analog instruments to a tempo and chop their sounds into repeated patterns live in realtime. He called it the Energy Flash, named after Joey Beltram’s famous techno song, its name printed on the board and signed with Dennis’ bracketed lowercase initials: “[db].”
He also made a pocket synthesizer he called the TimeFly. It was a tunable oscillator with clicks that accelerate closer together into a square wave, like an insect beating its wings faster and faster. He and Rogers showed it off to kids and the curious along with their other sonic inventions at maker fairs. The mission was simple: demystify electronics by showing the power of being hands on.
“I was a crude electronics engineer,” says Rogers, who collaborated with Dennis on some of his machines. “And he was way more refined and I know he had done it all by myself. He taught himself. He was just ridiculous.”
“He’s been on a strong kick of making all sorts of gadgets,” adds Watanabe. “It was funny, every one of them he showed off to me, he said, ‘I don’t know if anyone or more than a few people would want this.’ But he always made something that anyone who did want it would end up pretty happy. There’s one sitting on his computer.”
It’s called the Floornado. He sagged the voltage of a pedal for a deeper frequency range and added neon flashing lights that modulate with its intensity. All of his inventions have an undeniable whimsy: floor tornado, time flies, a lightning chorus.
“All over the world there was ‘Skylab panic,’ and worry that it would crash onto a populated area or a major city,” Dennis wrote in 2002 on a mailing list via San Francisco’s Hyperreal.org for the Midwest region, giving a backstory to the Skylab2000 name.
“Way back in 1973 the US government launched our very first space station,” he described, having followed the saga of the NASA space station as a boy. “It was called Skylab. Pretty amazing stuff for its time, but initially it was plagued with problems … Communications broke down, a solar panel never deployed, and stabilizers didn’t stabilize. After a shaky start, the station was amazingly successful and three crews lived aboard over the next few years.”
“Now the bad part!” he continued. “It was now about to fall out of it’s orbit and the 78 tons space station was to crash to earth. There was worldwide panic as there was no predicting where it would fall.”
In 1979, Skylab burned up like drops of acid in the sky, crashing in charred bits scattered across the ocean and western Australia, a local ranger hitting NASA with a $400 fine for littering.
It was a heady era for humanity, where failure was not yet defined in the zero sum logic of the data-sphere. Just two years before Skylab’s crash, Voyager 1 was sent out to explore the solar system. Just ten years earlier, the first humans walked the moon. Skylab2000 was an homage to that bravery.
“It very much felt like the command center of something,” says Breidenstein, who had a pet turtle he named “Skylab” as a kid, drawing a line from their childhood memories of the space age to the band’s name and performing live.
“It was like we were controlling this big spaceship,” he says. “That’s what it felt like. You have this giant engine of sound that you’re controlling; minuscule muscle movements and movements of knobs and sliders — something like the TB-303 — you’re turning it an 8th of a turn and it’s creating something so big it’s like people are dancing through it, being affected for the rest of their lives by this stuff.”
It was about human space and cyberspace as much as it was about outer space. That optimism fit perfectly with “2000.” It was retro, resurrecting the crashed space station as version 2000 for the new millennium with images of satellites crossing the heavens and talk of moon bases and missions to Mars. While Dennis panicked briefly about it sounding dated as the year 2000 approached, he left a riddle that reveals an even deeper message.
“It started with Paperboy2000,” explains Watanabe. “Which is from Chris Elliott’s Get A Life [sitcom] — Dennis loved Chris Elliott. In it, he was a paper boy and in one of the episodes — he’s a loser — he’s being replaced by this robot, the Paperboy 2000. That’s 1991. He stole that name for his solo project, before Skylab2000. I think that’s where it came from.”
This means Skylab2000 is a clever portmanteau, with intricate meanings and inside jokes — just like the music itself or his inventions. That is, Skylab2000 is not just about the lofty idea of space exploration, but doubles as a terminating doppelganger. What Skylab is to Chris Eliott, Skylab2000 is to Paperboy2000, the unrelenting and sometimes merciless drive of technology. It’s dark techno humor at its best and it was his way of bringing even his own ambitions back down to earth.
From the beginning, Dennis didn’t just have a sense of humor about machines. He understood them as more than bytes and bots. And he understood them as part of humanity, not its replacement. He was intimately aware of how his own fallacies and faults transmuted into his creations. Humility yet heart. That was just as true of his peers and newcomers, the people who inter-connected the larger mission, who he always helped along.
Electronic dance music, as his generation perceived it — equally loved and cursed as “EDM” — was supposed to harken a utopian matrix of space and time measured out with an electric pulse. But reality is not so supple. Dennis was old enough and early enough to see that dream turn to a kind of dust, and strong enough to keep searching for a way to ignite its phoenix. Alas, since the ’90s, it seems clearer that tech is less governed by rhyme or reason. It’s ruled by laws, maybe, but not ethics.
Instead, we have Uber scandals, YouTube beheadings, InfoWars, Madoff, and Deadmau5. We’ve entered the age of the Techno Ego, everything connected to an addiction code. In the name of efficiency, human decency is less and less a part of the equation. It’s the opposite of acid. (The word “acid” derives its meaning from Latin acidus for “sour” taste or “sharp” feeling, a chemical deconstruction biting away at the surface to get to the core.) Which is both incisive and reviving — erosion in real time.
Satiric. Hydrochloric. Sulfuric. Lysergic. “LSD” — the ergot fungus-derived lysergic acid diethylamide, as in “lysis” (based on Latin for “loosening”), the breaking down of cellular walls and the activation of neural networks — an entheogen that catalyzes a spiritual experience. Taken with “MDMA”— or “ecstasy” — ravers called their new sacrament “candy flipping,” honoring the past and the future in the present, from the ’60s to the ‘90s. It was a mental bulldozer and bullshit detector. Like the original “acid test” using nitric acid to distinguish gold from lookalike metals — revealing the noble. Or the nucleic acids that help generate DNA out of nucleotides — the tidal, molecular notes of life. Powering batteries of all kinds. Cells and organelles. Biosynthetic. Organic. Electronic. Music.
If acid was transformative, not the drug but the spirit of it, then Dennis was the transformation punk, who blazed the technologic with compassion.
“It was less about the gear than what he did with the gear,” says Q of Uberzone on Dennis’ sound of solidarity. “He could have done something with anything. If my 303 broke, ‘Oh yeah here,’ and he would be back stage helping me reprogram it.”
The core of Dennis was not about “Dennis.” It was about everybody.
Empathy, not ecstasy. But psychedelic. Humanistic. Pluralistic.
What’s inside that acid smoking core? What’s left when all the computer chips, circuits, batteries, solar panels and stabilizers burn away in the crash back to reality?
“His sound became part of our local scene,” says Vance, noting that it was also Dennis’ humble connection to people and his funny acid optimism about the future that made him so emblematic of what was best about the SoCal scene. “It wasn’t just that he reflected us. These local artists coming together and we all interfaced together and of course it was going to rub off on each other. But he had to practice a lot with the 303. He had to make tools to help him play it better. There were other acid techno artists in other parts of the world. But he was our acid band.”
Being a doer and a uniter was what Dennis connected on with Vance, Harrison, Natonski and others. “Dennis was very much about creating a community of people interested in doing stuff,” says Watanabe, noting that Dennis would often drive out of his way to pick him up and take him to undergrounds. “He did a lot to foster that whole thing.”
He remembers a couple stories in particular that illustrate Dennis’ commitment to community versus hierarchy. When Dennis was recording a remix for “Rollergirl” with DJ Thomas Michael, he sent over someone to Watanabe’s to sample a record he had. “Oh, I’ll just have someone come pick it up,” Dennis said on the phone.
“A bit later there’s a knock on my door,” says Watanabe. “I opened the door and Mena Suvari was standing there” — the actress from the Academy Award-winning film American Beauty. She was Michael’s girlfriend at the time. He called Dennis back up: “This courier service you have going for you, I figured you would mention that beforehand?”
He just replied, “Yeah, no.”
“It wasn’t a thing to him,” explains Watanabe, who points to another memory, when Dennis brought him along to a NAMM music convention in 2005. In a hotel room, he watched Flickinger show the 777 synth to an old man he thought was someone’s dad. Turned out it was Robert Moog, one of the founding fathers of electronic music and inventor of the Moog synth.
Later, they all went to dinner, joined also by Q, Breidenstein and Mike Fixx (another key figure of the early L.A. rave scene). “He was so dry about it,” Watanabe says of Dennis. “He didn’t sell it. The rest of the night was just casual conversation.” Moog would die six months later.
“In L.A., there’s a constant come and go, a constant tide of talent that comes from all over the world to make it but that never really has anything to do with the local culture,” says Lumb, placing Dennis in his native, core context.
“All we really cared about was getting away from what was happening in pop culture at the time, if you look at Tom Cruise movies and Whitney Houston records,” he says. “We were out RAVING. We didn’t want anybody to know where we were. And we didn’t want anybody to know who we were. And this is so important: people cannot fathom that we were anti self-promoting.”
That afternoon at Dr. Freecloud’s, as DJs mixed away inside, Dennis left me with a word of wisdom. A few years before, he said he played at a party with a bunch of ’90s DJs, including one who had fallen out of the circuit due to dwindling gigs; after 9/11 and the dot-com bubble burst, most of the scene’s pioneers aged out, stumbled or were left behind.
“She was one of those DJs when it all fell apart. She wasn’t at that right place,” he said. “So she ended up being a waitress again in San Francisco. She crept into DJing again a bit. One of the other DJs was so mean to her, for her to stop playing. I’m just surprised anyone has any ego about this. We’re just playing music. It’s NO big deal.”
There he was, like Skylab2000’s classic “Auburn” said. Talking about love. Talking about light. Talking about right.
What he really wanted to know was what people did after the rave scene. How were they faring? Who were we after all the fun? How did technology change us for the better or for the worse? He still believed in rave’s original vision, bringing us together as one. It’s what he loved that made people go “Yeah!” Back to the beat.
You have to look through the past to see the future. To put on a couple zeroes like goggles looking through “2000” or “3000” to what’s next. Not Google. It’s an attitude more than a beginning or an end— a resonant whirring sense that anything is possible — a warp called acid.
On February 4th, 2017, at 54, Dennis died of natural causes. His heart stopped and sent a shock of sadness through a tight-knit L.A. and O.C. music community. He joins the growing list of California rave pioneers lost to the mainstream: Scott “Hardkiss” Friedel. Mike Kandel. Dennis Barton. In their lifetimes, they never got their due. Hardkiss brought a spiritual thirst to the Bay Area’s cyber surf. Kandel’s Tranquility Bass put the real trip in trip hop, bridging East and West. Barton played machines like guitars, “burning the elastic” live and turning acid into an article of faith.
And yet they leave a world where machines have become more alive than we are, our voyeur eyes sucked into glowing needy screens, everyone handed techno these days spoon-fed by the tyranny of algorithms. It’s like we’ve twisted too many knobs with no time to think. No one even calls it cyberspace anymore. The cyberpunk is dead.
Now it’s data empires. Money for nothing. An overheating climate. A hall of mirrors. A hail of bullets. Taking pictures of screens. People pointing fingers at each other. Screen on screen. Trolls. Screeds. Friends quarreling. Safe distance. In your face. Hyper-punk. Deleted.
It’s Cyber War. What is it good for?
But Rogers told me a story that shakes it up. Not long ago, Dennis took him to a small factory where he used to work to help Rogers get a part. “He was always trying to help me out,” he says with his voice growing emotional. “As soon as he walked into that place, everybody, you could tell, they just lit up. There was a girl running the solder table. She was just a packager. He had noticed something good in her and thought she would be good at running this machine. As soon as you saw the interaction between him and other people…” He stops, overcome.
“It’s a massive blackhole,” he says in disbelief. “I lost an older brother when I was younger. Dennis kind of instantly felt like that kind of brother. Dennis was kind of a weird dude. But I loved. I loved. He was such a cool guy. He was so unique.”
“He always wanted to be kind to other people,” says Payne. “That was driven by his personal sense of what was right and wrong.” But where did that commitment come from? “Here are all the things I can do rather than be afraid of failing,” she says of his philosophy, noting he was stubborn too. “He shared that same kind of passion with his dad. He remembered fondly, that his dad would be waiting up for him at night when he got home.”
“Dennis was really human,” says his brother Peter. He could be aggravating and was a difficult kid growing up, angry at the world, fighting with their parents constantly for what he thought was fair. “He always wanted more freedom.”
His will came from somewhere else too. He felt less close to his mother, but that changed as he learned more about her narrow escape. “We went to this museum in Portugal,” says Payne of one of their travels. “While we were there, they happened to have a display of the last ship to leave Europe for the United States escaping the Holocaust. It turns out that was the same ship his mom and her family were on when they fled the Nazis.”
Reading her journals, written daily from when she was a little girl fleeing a continent, he was deeply affected, says Payne. That history — how close it was — became much more real to him. Each turn of the page was a new unfolding of the past in the present.
He got more involved in politics too. Last year, he rallied activists to help reshape the Costa Mesa City Council, never mistaking the opposition for the enemy. He also gave an ugly election a sense of humor — a spark in the dark.
He made a t-shirt, Make America Grate Again, and a picture of someone grating cheese on a grater.
On the evening of March 12th, 2017, at Costa Mesa’s Memphis Cafe, family and friends gathered at a celebratory memorial to send him off to the next. There was Taylor and Harrison, Breidenstein and Q, Ewing and Payne, Watanabe and Rogers, old post-punks and SoCal-Ravers.
Peter started the night off with a moving speech. He thanked the community that had come together for Dennis. And he told a story that made everyone laugh and cry.
“We were in Paris when we were young. Of course, I was sick,” he said, explaining how he was sickly as a child and how his older brother always looked out for him. “We were on vacation and we’re in a hotel room. Dennis was trying to entertain me and keep me happy so he made this game where we threw paper airplanes out the window and that went on for like two hours. We threw like a fucking hundred airplanes out the window. Littered the street. The hotel hated us. They were fucking furious.”
Everyone started to chuckle through their tears.
“It was the ’70s, so hotel rooms had, in France anyway, you had to pay to use the radio. You had to put in five francs and you could listen to the radio for 30 minutes. And I was sick and that was bullshit. Dennis didn’t like that kind of stuff. So he took the radio apart, completely. And decided to rewire it because he could do anything electric.”
The whole room was laughing now, recognizing the Dennis they knew.
“When I was OK to go out, the hotel cleaning staff came in the room and found the radio completely disassembled on the bed. They threw us out!”
There he is, so early on, leading the exodus.
The code is clear: Resist. Rewire. Live.
Check out more of our stories at GhostDeep.com, a digital magazine focused on electronic music, technology, art and the history of rave.