Dennis Barton, co-founder and sole constant member of the Orange County–based electronic dance music act Skylab2000, died Saturday night, his family has confirmed. The cause of his death has yet to be determined. His exact age could not be confirmed at press time, but according to several sources he was in his early 50s. [Update: He was 54.]
Founded in the early ’90s by Barton, Stuart Breidenstein and Alissa Kueker, Skylab2000 became known as one of the first groups in the American rave scene to perform live with drum machines, samplers and synthesizers, as opposed to playing DJ sets. Their high-energy style mixed elements of techno, breakbeats, trance and hard house.
“Skylab was a pioneer in the American dance scene,” says Simon Rust Lamb, former editor-in-chief of the dance music magazines Fix, Lotus and BPM. “I don't think Dennis got the recognition outside the underground that he deserved.”
Through popular mid-’90s tracks such as “Auburn” and “Roller Girl,” Skylab2000 helped spread a distinctively West Coast style of electronic dance music that combined the Roland 303 synth lines of early acid house with breakbeats, melodic synths and touches of psychedelic trance. Skylab2000 tracks appeared in the DJ sets and on mix compilations from the likes of Sasha and Digweed, Carl Cox, Pete Tong, Keoki, Taylor and John Kelley, through such labels as Moonshine, Brainiak and Phatt Phunk.
Barton was born in New York City in 1962 and spent part of his childhood in London, which had a huge influence on his musical tastes. He and his family moved to the L.A. area in 1977, where he quickly became involved in the city's punk rock and post-punk scenes. In an interview with the now-defunct website Clubz.com, he once described hanging around L.A. bands “bugging them to let me do sound or whatever just so I could get into the clubs that were 18 or 21 clubs.”
He began doing sound for local bands while still in high school, and would go on to become the sound guy at the Concert Factory, a punk-rock club in Costa Mesa formerly called the Cuckoo's Nest. “His record collection alone influenced a key core group of original O.C. punks,” says his brother, Peter Barton. While his brother worked at the Concert Factory, Peter “got to hang and watch The Cramps, Hüsker Dü, X, Minutemen, Lords of the New Church and every ska band in SoCal.”
Skylab2000 first began playing L.A.-area events in 1994, but Breidenstein and Kueker left the group shortly thereafter. By 1996, Barton had recruited multi-instrumentalist David Ewing — whom he had met during his days at the Concert Factory — to help him continue the project. With the success of “Auburn,” which was the beneficiary of remixes by Taylor and Gearwhore, they became one of the most popular live acts on the still very underground U.S. rave circuit, exporting the Southern California rave sound alongside other successful acts of the era such as Uberzone and Electric Skychurch.
Ewing says he and Barton played all over the United States, and occasionally overseas, throughout the late ’90s, frequently serving as the only live act on a bill otherwise made up entirely of DJs. He speculates that part of the reason Skylab2000 never achieved the recognition of U.K. peers like the Chemical Brothers and Underworld was because underground American dance music events at the time seldom put the focus on the bands and DJs. “It was more of an experience,” he says. “It was more about the abstract idea of music than the people playing the music.”
Though he could be a dynamic performer, Barton was low-key and self-effacing once he got off the stage. “You could call him the anti-star,” says one friend, Zak Berrie. “A man who could rock a room onstage, but if you were talking with him one-on-one afterward, he would mostly listen and wouldn't talk about himself unless asked.”
In the 2000s, Barton carried on Skylab2000 as a solo project. In recent years, he'd performed less frequently, preferring to focus on his career as an electrical engineer specializing in commercial LED lighting, microcontrollers and audio products. He was an active member of his community in Costa Mesa, founding and moderating the Costa Mesa Facebook group.
Friends mourned his passing throughout the day today on social media, remembering not only his music but also his kindness and deadpan sense of humor. “Dennis Barton was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known,” wrote one friend, Keith Bacon. “Always cracking these quiet jokes and witty or wacky observations, always with a little knowing smile … Friends of Dennis: We need to dance this one out.”
“He was a remarkable person in many arenas,” says his former partner Ewing, adding of their days together as Skylab2000, “I don't think I'll ever feel anything like that again.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Alissa Kueker's last name. We regret the error.]