Michael Tullberg is sitting inside an Echo Park donut shop, scrolling through his new photo book Dancefloor Thunderstorm: Land of the Free, Home of the Rave, his voice rising with excitement as he recalls the details of bygone parties. In one photo, there's a couple making out on the dance floor at '90s haunt Magic Wednesdays, glow-sticks forming neon, heart-shaped light trails above them. “It's completely unintentional,” Tullberg says of the image.
Then he gets into the story of Dune, a desert rave held back in 1998 that was hit by an hours-long sandstorm while Christopher Lawrence was on the decks. The photo Tullberg shot shows the calm that came after the storm, dancers moving under the morning sun.
Further along in the book, there's a girl lit up pink inside the Alexandria Hotel, back when it was a run-down raver haunt, and on another page, a shadowy figure caught in red light at an old Russian restaurant in Hollywood. The latter was at a party called Sugar Beats, one he remembers as being particularly hot; “the condensation was dripping off the ceiling.”
He moves quickly through photos of dance music superstars like Richie Hawtin and Frankie Bones before getting to one where the colors bleed and bend to form some sort of abstract, heavenly vision.
“A lot of people tell me they see religious connotations,” he says. “It wasn't the intention when I shot it.”
Our lady of PLUR? He laughs. “Or Our Lady of Perpetual Good Vibes.”
Dancefloor Thunderstorm is a collection of Tullberg's photos taken in the Southern California rave scene (and sometimes beyond that) between 1996 and 2002, mixed with personal reflections and interviews with some of the era's biggest players, like DJs Sandra Collins and Christopher Lawrence. It's more than a documentary project, though. Tullberg does a good job of capturing the scene — the superstar DJs, the club kids, the chilled-out crews, the pro-rave demonstrations — but more importantly, he pulls the viewer into the parties.
Light refracts, piercing images like those moments when your eyes have been open for far too long. Scenes morph into vortices that blur at the edges, like your memories will the next day. In Tullberg's photos, faces melt and hands multiply. They are photos that make you feel like you are in this moment that you hope will never end.
Tullberg is soft-spoken at first, but once he starts talking about how he got started shooting raves, he grows excited. His voice gets louder. He draws out sentences with a faint trace of his hometown Boston accent peppering the glowing, vowel-heavy adjectives that he uses to describe L.A.'s rave scene in the 1990s. “It was like an explosion,” he says. “It was like a perfect storm of talent and inspiration and enormous creativity.”
Tullberg headed to Los Angeles after studying television and film production at Syracuse University. He spent a few years working various gigs in the entertainment world before he found his calling. He didn't even have his own camera when he first ventured into the club world as a photojournalist, but he had some natural ability to capture the scene.
After spending some time shooting at various hot spots in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Tullberg headed underground into the world of raves. The music sucked him in immediately, as did the vibes. “It was totally the opposite of the Beverly Hills, velvet rope, elitist mentality,” he says. “It was warm and embracing and open.”
He shot using cameras he describes as “auto-nothing,” training himself to work in dark venues filled with lots of action. Eventually, he incorporated pre-digital effects in his work. Tullberg would lengthen exposure times and bust out multiple flashes and colored gels, all to capture the emotion of the scenes. “The whole point was to develop a style that would compliment the actual vibe,” he says. “It wasn't just a case of simply documenting it. It was a thing, a case of interpreting it and recreating it almost.”
At the time, Tullberg's images popped up in rave-friendly magazines like Urb. Once in a while, rock magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin would pick up his photos, too. Back then, though, covering electronic music and the accompanying parties was still a small niche.
Tullberg talks about the venues. He likens Hollywood Athletic Club, once a heavily used, multi-room venue, to the Tardis in Doctor Who, “bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” He recalls the bursting pipes and power outages at the Alexandria Hotel in its ramshackle days. He mentions parties in the desert, the mountains and the beaches, and surmises that variety of locations is what helped the Southern California scene thrive in the 1990s. He refers to this period as the “second wave” of rave, situated between the underground that started forming at the cusp of the '80s and '90s and the later EDM boom of the 21st century.
As Tullberg points out, raves flourished in the region because established nightclubs frequently overlooked electronic music. That changed at the end of the period he covers in the book with the advent of Giant, he says, which paved the way for large club events headlined by touring DJs.
Today, Tullberg is repped by Getty Images and still frequently shoots dance music culture. In fact, the weekend before our interview, he was out documenting an event called L.A. Masters of House with Doc Martin and Marques Wyatt. The underground is still alive in Los Angeles and the photographer is still a part of it, but the memories of that crucial period for L.A. dance music were something he had to share. It goes back to the moments that struck him when he first entered the rave world.
“There are stories here that can't be lost to history,” he says. “This has to be remembered.”
A book launch party for Dancefloor Thunderstorm takes place Thursday, Oct. 8 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Industry DTLA with DJs Mark Lewis, Riley Warren, Freddy Be and Jason Blakemore. For more info, visit dancefloorthunderstorm.com.