West Coast Rave Pioneer Dennis Barton Brought a Punk Spirit to Live Electronic Music
On the night of Oct. 13, 2000, a 23-year-old college student named Stefan Weise attended a rave called Superstitious at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, Texas. Seventeen years later, he remembers entering the 1950s theater’s main room and stepping into a different world. A live electronic band called Skylab2000 was performing, twisting lines of electricity and bass, surfing on ones and zeroes. Their music had the fearless attitude of old-school techno, its acid sounds stripping away everything that had come before.
“It was raw and edgy but driving,” says Weise, who was just making his own forays into producing techno. “They were not messing around.”
Formed in 1993, Skylab2000 — named after NASA’s first space station — were among the first live electronic dance bands to break out of Los Angeles, alongside Electric Skychurch, Uberzone and Las Vegas transplants The Crystal Method. For Weise, seeing them changed everything. “What intrigued me about them was the few records I had heard that they had put out were absolutely nothing like their live performance,” he says. “Their live performance had a raw power to it that you couldn’t get off a vinyl record.”
From afar, Skylab leader Dennis Barton was just a shadow behind racks of equipment: drum machines, synthesizers, computers, effects units and sequencers, cables coming out everywhere. The audience looked on, confused. Most had never seen a live electronic band.
“Back to the beat! Back to the beat!” a voice chanted to sirens and crashing drums, surprising them. It was Barton, shaking them up. “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,” Weise says. “I was so used to seeing nerdy dudes up onstage. 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!’”
Though few outside the rave scene would recognize his name, Barton, who died Feb. 4 at the age of 54, was a pioneer of the electronic sounds that flooded the world in the ’90s. Over a 20-year career, he relentlessly pushed an improvisational style of live machine music, playing more than 380 shows, from small towns in Kansas and Nebraska to cities far across the globe, in front of hundreds or tens of thousands.
In a landscape that’s still being excavated, Barton stands out because his humanity was his technology. He looked up from his machines at people dancing — then he looked for constellations in the things he touched.
Before Barton’s family settled in Huntington Beach in 1977, they lived in England for two years. It was there that Dennis and his younger brother, Peter, caught music fever. Dennis was 13 when they moved to London. Queen was huge. Bowie was a god. Punk was arriving.
“Each year, I would go back to England for a month,” Barton told me in 2014, at the 20-year anniversary of Dr. Freecloud’s Record Shoppe in Orange County. He was drawn to Manchester’s late-’80s “Madchester” scene, typified by rave rockers The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses and centered around New Order’s famous nightclub, the Hacienda.
“There was all this music happening that we didn’t have here,” he said. “I would come back and go, ‘All right, why don’t we have raves? Why don’t we have acid house?’”
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 John Peel on BBC, digging through bootlegs and acid house mixtapes in the packed stalls of Camden Market.
As a result, he had a stellar music collection. “Oh Dennis, play this, play this!” he would hear as his suburban bedroom became the neighborhood temple for bored kids and music nerds.
One day, Peter brought over his friend Brad Logan, who would go onto become a legendary figure in the Orange County and national punk scenes.
“Dennis played me my first punk record,” Logan says, mentioning The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” The Misfits, F-Word!, 999 and Sex Pistols as some of the things Barton introduced him to. “Those songs were not accessible back then where we lived. He was the only guy we knew that was connected to that world at all. He was ahead of the curve.”
When Barton was 17, he got a gig doing sound for local post-punk rockers Mnemonic Devices, which eventually led him to a job as a sound man at Costa Mesa’s Concert Factory. “We felt he was more passionate about it than we were,” says Kevin King, Mnemonic Devices' 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.”
Barton’s attraction to electronic music was inexorable and natural. He was fascinated by machines. As a little boy, he would take appliances apart and put them back together with a soldering kit.
“He could buy a piece-of-shit car and he could make it run,” Peter says. “He had such an agile, inquiring mind. He built crystal radios and potato batteries. Everything was a puzzle that could be solved.”
By the late ’80s, Barton was going to “break-ins” — underground dance parties in warehouses and other off-the-grid locations, raves in primordial form. At first, the DJs played songs by groups like New Order and Depeche Mode, but by 1989, when Barton was 26, he noticed things starting to change.
“Little bits of acid house started creeping in,” he recalled, remembering parties like legendary DJ Sean Perry’s Happy House weekly, which took place at South Coast Plaza. “They got bigger and bigger, and eventually we had a rave scene.”
Most Americans knew nothing about raves. One of the events that changed that was Les Borsai’s O3 show at the Long Beach Convention Center on Sept. 14, 1991, headlined by Manchester’s 808 State, who had broken through internationally with the song “Pacific State.” Björk made a famous surprise guest appearance to do her vocal on 808’s “Ooops.”
“There was a scary, dark maze,” Barton recalled. “You would go in and there were no lights and you would crawl around … so a bunch of people in complete darkness, back when everybody was doing [ecstasy]. 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.”
Barton brought along several friends who had never been to a rave, including Stuart Breidenstein, a co-worker from his job at a high-end stereo repair shop. Barton was a technician and Breidenstein did sales. Together, they would form Skylab2000.
Barton at a ’90s rave
Breidenstein had just moved down from Sacramento, where he had played in wedding bands. He knew nothing about L.A.’s byzantine music scene. By contrast, Dennis Barton was a scene veteran who, at Concert Factory, had done sound for The Cramps and The Vandals and seemed to know everybody. He was also a self-taught gearhead who had written the store’s sales software but never went to college.
“We were coming from two different points,” Breidenstein says. “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. Barton favored the tiny Roland TB-303, a throwaway Japanese synthesizer famous today for its squelchy sound that would come to define acid house.
There was no plan, only an overriding instinct to play. So they hacked their machines into a real-time system of triggers and synchrony. “We were using equipment that was just on the cusp of pulling it all together,” Breidenstein says. It was painstaking, but in a way, Barton loved that. He used an MS-DOS floppy-disk sequencer to arrange their compositions. Despite its minimalism, it gave them an edge when performing live because he could rearrange anything on the fly with exacting detail.
In the studio, Barton also began to map out a sound that was grounded in the early fervor of the global rave scene. He loved acid house originators Phuture and U.K. bands like Acen and The Prodigy, who favored an aggressive attitude, throwing in spastic breakbeats and blaring riffs. He also admired bands like Orbital and Underworld, who rode grooves high into the sublime. His favorite songs were A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” and Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash,” which together represented rave’s full spectrum, swinging between the romantic and the apocalyptic.
In late April 1992, before kicking off Skylab2000, Barton was inspired to put together his first real song. The Rodney King verdict had set off a firestorm across the city. Recording the L.A. County Sheriff’s curfew on the radio and King saying, "Let's try to work it out," from the TV, he weaved them into a virtual riot of electronic beats and distorted synths.
Seeking feedback, he made a cassette and brought it to Dave James, the owner of Costa Mesa record store Noise Noise Noise. “He said, ‘This is really good. I could sell this,’” Barton recalled. “I had never considered the idea of writing music to sell.”
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.
Weeks before, to their surprise, their chutzpah had landed them a gig on June 4, 1994, at Circa, a rave at the Shrine Auditorium. Tef Foo, a promoter behind an influential club at the Park Plaza called Truth, had formed the production group CPU101 with Texas journeyman Wade Randolph Hampton and Foo’s mentor, Richard Duardo — the “Andy Warhol of the West” — to throw the first Circa in 1992, just days before the Rodney King riots. The 1994 party was the highly anticipated sequel.
“We sent Tef a tape,” Barton recalled with a smile. “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, Foo came over to Breidenstein’s house to hear them play with the recent addition of a singer, Alissa Kueker. “He sat there and listened to us play, and said, ‘All right, come play at Circa.’ That was really the first proper show we ever played,” Barton recalled. “We had never even played a club before.”
“I don’t know how many people were there, but it was a lot,” Breidenstein says. “We got up onstage 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” setup.
Despite having done an earlier sound check, their set’s opening barrage of kick drums was deafening. “I know Shredder was probably going to kill us,” Breidenstein says. “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 theater 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 says, laughing at the memory. “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 all right.”
“It was super scary,” Barton said. “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."
Even as they got more experience playing live, “It was always complete mayhem,” Barton said of Skylab2000’s shows. “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 onstage and the whole bit. Everything can and will go wrong.”
But as much as it felt at times like Skylab2000 could break apart, that same edge opened up new creative possibilities. It’s what Weise, who has pondered techno most of his 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.”
Brian Natonski, who would make a name for himself as Gearwhore, had arrived in Los Angeles in 1993 from Chicago, where he grew up steeped in the Chicago acid house and Wax Trax! industrial scenes. 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, which would go on to release some of Skylab2000’s most influential work.
“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.”
One of the emerging scene's hubs was Metropolis, a club in conservative Irvine with a great sound system, where influential local DJ Taylor and his manager, Jenn Harrison, did Thursday nights. Barton and Breidenstein met singer Kueker there while waiting in line to get in. A host of great acts came through Metropolis from 1993 to 1998, including Chemical Brothers, Goldie, Sven Vath and Sasha. Skylab2000 would play there multiple times.
A 1995 Skylab2000 release on Fatal Data would become their most important record: “Auburn.” As an underground document, it had many authors. Its core started with Barton 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.”
When the track’s bass line drops into a hypnotic groove, Kueker’s soulful sermon begins: a battle cry 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,” Kueker 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, exploding into a fever as the Juno-106 slows and howls to her words about being true to one another. “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. It ends with the feedback of microphones and electric signals thrashing. 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-acid lines and vocal buildups.
“It had a little bit more of an edge that I dug,” says Taylor, who gave the song an epic remix for its B-side, stretching the original’s five minutes out to 14. “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 [crowd] 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.”
“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 onstage 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, a circle bar with a tree in the middle and an adjoining sushi bar called Octopussy.
That irreverent mix was part of the Metropolis magic. The space itself was previously a hip clothing store called Soho that looked like a club, where hardcore hero Ron D. Core had DJed 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, which is still running more than 20 years later.
Vance, who was KUCI’s program director in 1991, conceived the show. Jenn Harrison, who was a friend, helped come up with the name. It featured techno DJs spinning records and live electronic music performances. It was also one of the first places that Skylab2000 played.
Skylab2000 doing a set at KUCI
“His setups would take two hours,” Vance says of Barton. “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.”
Vance and Watanabe expanded the scene in other ways. By starting the SoCal-Raves email list in 1992, they helped connect the region’s disparate ravers into a formidable network where they could exchange ideas, find parties and form friendships.
Perhaps nothing captured those heady days better than the California rave scene’s fascination with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, echoing the ’60s Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties. It was connected to a new psychedelic wave unleashed by the powerful combination of computer technology and free-form dance music — the first counterculture of the digital age.
Psychedelic prophets Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary joined the mix, attending parties and mentoring some of its leaders. Spacetime Continuum’s spoken-word ambient groove album, Alien Dreamtime, recorded with Terence McKenna in 1993, is a standout from this period. Skylab2000 would take it in their own direction with an ambient side project called Mushroom Nation, which lives on only through a 1995 appearance on a compilation from San Francisco’s Silent label.
“All these other bands, when they’re playing, get offered way more drugs than we do,” Watanabe remembers Dennis joking about the inspiration behind the name. “We’re never offered anything. Scott and Ken, when they play, Crystal Method gets offered a lot of crystal meth. If they ever need crystal meth, they’re covered.”
In 1996, Breidenstein and Kueker bowed out of Skylab2000 to pursue a project called Bassland Prophecy. Adapting, Barton enlisted his old friend David Ewing, a keyboardist and architect. In many ways, Ewing, with his gentle nature, was the perfect partner for Skylab2000’s next phase. Barton’s 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 to finalize songs for release. Except for a pair of 1998 singles, “Rollergirl” and “Shak (Rok Yer Sol),” and a 1999 EP, Daybreaks, Barton’s music from this era exists only on bootleg live recordings, or not at all.
“So much of what we did was for live,” Barton told me in 2014. “There’s lots of stuff we played live that we never released. I had always come from seeing bands. To me, playing live just made sense.”
“He could change the arrangement on the spot, which is actually more than a live four-piece band can do, unless it’s kind of planned out,” says Ewing, explaining that their antiquated sequencer, preserved on a refurbished Toshiba laptop, allowed Dennis to improvise more quickly than probably anyone else in the scene.
By 1999, they were performing halfway around the world. 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,” Ewing says. “It was all about space. It was all about secrecy.”
Barton at work
“We played in Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Russia,” Barton said. “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 an industrial town called Samara with a production crew and a fashion entourage that booked a whole airliner. They arrived at an airport that was closed and dark. They stayed in a grand, Soviet-era hotel in disrepair, with no power until they checked in. Then, at the city’s Manhattan Nightclub, they performed in a rave fashion show.
But it was two years before Russia that they reached a kind of peak, just as the free world reached a kind of peak. In June 2000, they went to Istanbul with Natonski’s Gearwhore to perform at an outdoor music festival called H2000 — the first of its kind in Turkey — on the same bill as GusGus, Lamb, Bush and others.
“We were lucky to be there at a more open time,” Ewing says, noting it was a year before 9/11. “It felt dramatic to be there from L.A. in this ancient city.”
After the festival, Payne recalls standing with Barton on a rooftop and hearing the muezzins’ morning call to prayer. “There are minarets all around the city,” she says. “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. We started holding hands. We were both really moved.”
Barton with his girlfriend and sometime Skylab2000 bandmate, Christina Payne
“We thought we would do it for two years,” Barton said of Skylab2000’s long run. “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.”
Instead, Barton performed as Skylab2000 for nearly 20 years before mostly retiring the name in 2011. After that, he eased into a new career as an electrical engineer. “He was saddened, obviously, and knew when it was coming to the end,” Payne says. “But he always knew what to do. He could always make something happen.”
He continued to make music with a group he met at a synthesizer jam event called Synthonic Moon Days, held at Tonebutcher, an effects pedal shop in Costa Mesa. With Barton on board, the jam evolved into a loose band called SynthCult.
SynthCult played mostly free-form, ethereal space music until Barton started bringing rhythm into the mix. “That’s when it would just gel,” says Todd Rogers, Tonebutcher’s owner and Barton’s friend and SynthCult bandmate. “He would bring up a drum beat or a bass line and everybody would come together.”
There was another side to Barton that amazed Rogers. 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 workshop,” Rogers says. “He’s setting it up. He just shows up with a cardboard box, pulls out a power strip with all these wall warts taped on it. It was a mad-scientist vibe.”
Barton had printed a circuit board, soldering wires and components and coding software for it. The gizmo, which looked like a little inside-out droid with knobs and switches, could sync analog instruments to a tempo and chop their sounds into repeated patterns live. He called it the Energy Flash, named after Joey Beltram’s famous techno song. He had printed the name on the board and signed it with his lowercase initials: “db.”
“I was a crude electronics engineer,” says Rogers, who collaborated some with Barton on his machines. “And he was way more refined, and I know he had done it all by himself. He taught himself. He was just ridiculous.”
Barton also made a pocket synthesizer called the TimeFly, a tunable oscillator with clicks that accelerate closer together into a square wave, like an insect beating its wings faster and faster. They showed it to kids along with their other inventions at maker fairs. The mission was simple: Demystify electronics and show the power of being hands-on.
“He’s been on a strong kick of making all sorts of gadgets,” Watanabe says. “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.”
Another Barton device was called the Floornado, an effects pedal on which he dropped the voltage for a deeper range and added neon flashing lights that modulated to its intensity. From the beginning, Barton brought a sense of humor and whimsy to his machines. For him, they were more than just bits and bots. He understood them as part of humanity, not its replacement.
“It was less about the gear and what he did with the gear,” says Q of Uberzone. “He could have done something with anything. If my 303 broke, ‘Oh yeah, here,’ and he would be backstage helping me reprogram it.”
“I’m just surprised anyone has any ego about this,” Barton told me that afternoon at Dr. Freecloud’s. “We’re just playing music. It’s no big deal.”
Not long ago, Barton took Rogers to a small factory where he used to work, to help the Tonebutcher owner get a part. “He was always trying to help me out,” Rogers says.
“As soon as he walked into that place, everybody, you could tell, they just lit up.” Rogers’ voice grows more emotional. “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 black hole,” he adds in disbelief. “I lost an older brother when I was younger. Dennis instantly felt like that kind of brother. Dennis was kind of a weird dude. But I loved [him]. He was such a cool guy. He was so unique.”
On Feb. 4, 2017, at 54, Dennis Barton 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 a growing list of American rave pioneers gone too soon: Scott Hardkiss. Mike Kandel. Dennis Barton.
“For him it was a spiritual sort of feeling,” Payne says of Barton’s dogged search for new sounds. “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.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this article described an early Dennis Barton demo as including a sample of Rodney King saying, "Can't we all just get along?" The King sample actually used the phrase, "Let's try to work it out."]
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