Legendary Dance Music Photographer Michael Tullberg Discusses “Dancefloor Thunderstorm” Kickstarter Campaign
Music & photography have always been a part of Michael Tullberg‘s life. Even as a kid, he appreciated the iconic power of a rock and roll picture. “I was a huge fan of Neal Preston, the tour photographer for my favorite band, Led Zeppelin.” says Tullberg. “His shots of Led Zeppelin and The Who made me appreciate the power that an image could have.” Years later, when Michael would begin shooting the underground rave scene, he would channel Preston while capturing the vibe of this unique dance movement.
Flashback to 1994. Tullberg was living in L.A. (where he is currently based) and working as an associate producer for a TV pilot that never got picked up. He was ready to get out of the industry and so were some of his colleagues. “One of the people I was working with was starting a magazine and asked me to write about the L.A. mainstream club scene,” says Tullberg. “I would bring a notebook to clubs, get quotes from people, and write down as many details as possible.” The articles were such a hit, that the editors began asking for photos to accompany them. It had been several years since his photography classes at Syracuse and at the time, he didn’t even own a camera—he had to borrow one from a friend.
Tullberg continued to develop as a photographer and immersed himself in different scenes. “I realized I had a raw, unpolished talent for capturing the vibe of a party,” he says. “Having this camera gave me access to a lot of places I normally wouldn’t have been allowed to go—it was a gatekeeper of sorts.” Documenting various scenes in southern California (the Beverly Hills club scene, the goth & industrial scene, and the rock scene), Tullberg was quickly becoming disenchanted with it all—particularly with the 90210 culture. “It was all very crass and fake, so I had my antenna up looking for the next big thing,” he declares.
He first became aware of raves from the bad publicity they received in the mainstream media. “They always started the story with ‘Rave Nightmare’ or ‘Drug Orgies’ and then proceeded to report hyperbolic versions of what actually happened,” discloses Tullberg. “With my background in journalism, I knew these reports were just for ratings and that the media probably didn’t’ have the entire story,” he adds. “So I started to investigate.”
Land of the Free, Home of the Rave
The year was 1996 and the rave scene was in full swing in the U.S. “I know this was going on in all major cities in America, but the thing about Southern California that made it so incredible was the huge variety of parties,” he reflects. “We partied in intimate and dungy warehouses, elegant and upscale lounges, and even some stadium-crowd events where 50,000+ attended; we partied on the beach, raved on the desert, and even celebrated in the mountains. We had all this variety and it was in the middle of paradise—Southern California,” Tullberg adds. “I guess you could call us spoiled.”
He remembers his first rave like it was yesterday. “I was immediately struck by so many things right off the bat—first and foremost, the quality of music was way better than the crap you would hear at the L.A. mainstream clubs,” he recalls. “The social atmosphere was much more warm and welcoming at these underground gatherings. It was inclusive rather than exclusive, and not based on social status or competition.” But for Michael, the raves proved to be much more than a sanctuary from the real world; they sparked his intellectual curiosity. “Visually, it was totally fascinating for me.” He continues, “You had some of the first special effects and themed parties happening and it was so cool to see these ideas percolating and to see what new ideas the promoters would incorporate in their parties.”
“I knew this wasn’t going to be a silly trend,” Tullberg says of the underground scene, “I could feel it in my bones.” So he dove headfirst into the scene and began to establish relationships with all of the biggest promoters on the scene: names like Pasquale Rotella, Reza Gerami, and Brett Ballou. “I got in at exactly the right time,” he adds, “If I had waited a couple years for the scene to blow up, I wouldn’t have been able to establish the immediate and solid connections that I did.” So there he was, in the middle of the biggest parties, capturing a crucial part of music history on film. “With the best American and European DJs playing in our backyard, we had the finest talent coming through on a regular basis,” claims Tullberg. The likes of Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox, and Paul Van Dyk were all making American runs. And there he was, in the middle of it all, documenting dance history with film, flash, and a steady hand. “It was a really unique moment in history and we all knew it.”
The Birth of Dancefloor Thunderstorm
Recognized as one of the longest-running electronic music photojournalists in North America, Michael had the idea to create a book for about 8 years before he actually did anything about it. “I was a decent writer but I didn’t know anything about book publishing or the industry—so I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach it,” he says. “The idea really started taking root when I saw that none of my colleagues (i.e. editors and photographers from other music/pop culture publications) were making an effort to tell the stories of what was going on back then,” he remarks. “Throughout the past couple of decades, there have been a lot of movies and books on different types of music—some mainstream and some underground—the point is, there was something tangible to look back on—an archive of sorts—but this wasn’t happening with the 90s rave scene.” The stories weren’t being told, so there was a real threat of it being lost in time. “Maybe this sounds corny,” prefaces Tullberg, “but I felt a real sense of responsibility to do something about it because I was a part of it, and part of shaping the visual image of the scene to the world.” Finally, one day he got serious about the idea when he acquired a real source of motivation, “I was inspired by ‘What Kind of House Party is This?’ a photo book by MixMag’s Jonathan Flemming, who was in the same position as I was during the original acid explosion in the late 80s,” Tullberg explains. “If Jonathan could do it, I could do it,” he asserts. “I might not know how to do it, but I knew it was possible.”
With years of old rave memorabilia stored in boxes and bins, Michael began rifling through it all, including hundreds of thousands of film slides, old articles, and notes he had taken at the parties. “It became an enormous sifting process—one that involved continuous editing and writing,” he says. In just over two years, the book was compiled and has taken form. With the book’s focus intact, Michael began to research book publishers that had released previous works with focus on music, photography, or pop culture. “I made a list of all the publishers I thought we had a shot with, but we were unanimously turned down by all of them,” he explains. “Most of them [publishing execs] didn’t get it and the ones who did just didn’t want to be involved—they saw it as too risky.” After about a year of rejection letters, Michael realized the best route to go was self-publishing.
On December 3rd, 2013, Michael officially launched a Kickstarter campaign for his book, “Dancefloor Thunderstorm: Land of the Free, Home of the Rave.” Michael set his campaign to raise $95,000 in 30 days, and in less than a week, more than $10,000 has already been donated. Michael needs your help reaching his goal, and with a donation of any amount, you can help document this important piece of electronic music culture. This is a high-quality product meant to last a lifetime on the shelf or coffee table of any dance music or pop culture fan, and all of the money raised will go towards printing the book (300+ pages of hi-res images is expensive). Michael has included a variety of cool rewards you will get for donating. For just $10, you will receive a 5×7 photo print of one of Michael’s classic rave images. The list continues up from there, including $40 for your name included in the book, $60 to preorder the book, and $200 for a one-hour Skype photo seminar with Michael Tullberg, to name a few. The donations start as low as $1, so you can donate as it fits your budget. This is a piece of history that will exist in the archives forever, so please help us complete this labor of love. Michael is an artist in a class of his own whose work deserves this permanence. We are proud to support a mission which will educate future generations about the origins of American raves and hope you will be too.