Any tenured participant in the Denver nightlife scene can tell you that a single party ties all of the prominent figures in the local industry together: the annual Skylab events. Although Global Dance Festival may reign supreme as the biggest electronic music event in Colorado, Skylab remains the longest-running rave in the state, and anyone worth knowing around here has had a hand in it at some point.
Brad Roulier, for instance, is not only one half of DJ duo Manufactured Superstars, but also one of the founders of Beatport and part owner of Beta Nightclub, which is - and will likely remain for some time - the biggest club in the city. What's more, he's played an active role in promoting the Skylab parties for a longer span of time than any of the brand's past or present owners, which gives him a unique perspective on its role in the local rave community.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a retrospective on the history of the Skylab parties that incorporated accounts from all of the main promoters involved with it over the years. To be perfectly honest, Brad kind of blew me off so I had to lean a bit more heavily on quotes from others - but this time around he actually knows who I am for some reason, so he set more time aside to give me his version of how it all unfolded.
...And thank god, because the anecdote about Richie Hawtin at Skylab Mission 7 is priceless. You ought to read through the interview below for that passage alone - and, well, because if you don't then you'll have no idea what "dropping the 'Come'" actually means.
Afterwards, make sure to buy your tickets to Skylab 2016, which will take place at the National Western Complex on September 17th. You'll find me there, because I'm not about to miss a DJ Dan/Donald Glaude back-to-back set.
Alright Brad, tell me about how Skylab came together in the first place.
Brad Roulier: I mean, Jason [Bills] and Steve [Blakley] started Skylab in 1994. Those guys were Come Together Productions and Lowerworld [respectively], and then when I moved back to Denver in 1997 or '98, that's when Jason and I formed Together Productions and dropped the "Come." (Laughs) That sounds weird.
We became Together Productions instead of Come Together Productions, and that's when my partnership with him officially started. I think Skylab 4 was my first one, and then when Jason moved away in 2002, that's when we stopped doing it and I was mostly just promoting at The Church and [Club] Vinyl. He moved to Charlotte, and then [Triad Dragons] owner Ha [Quang Hau] approached me in 2006, like, "Hey, you need to bring Skylab back," and I agreed to it. That's when it was just Ha and me - not Jason or Steve involved - and Ha and I are 50/50 partners on it now. It's been ten years, I guess - 2006-2016.
How did you make Ha's acquaintance, anyways?
Brad Roulier: Ha used to go to my parties. I met him, I guess, around 2001, and he was just kind of a raver kid. I'd heard about him doing these Triad all-Asian parties, and through the years I was actually the one who hired him to do Friday nights at The Church, I think around 2004-2005. I was doing Thursdays at The Church and Saturdays at Vinyl, and I went to [SoCo Nightlife Owner] Regas [Christou] and said, "Have Ha do Friday," so I just kind of developed a rapport with him slowly over the years. It was his big idea to have me bring Skylab back. He'd say, "You gotta do it, you gotta do it, you gotta do it." Yeah, I just met him from our parties, and we just slowly started working together.
In recent years there hadn’t been as much of a focus on classic artists, but this time around you’re really changing that up with Donald Glaude and DJ Dan’s back-to-back set. What inspired that?
Brad Roulier: I don’t really book that many DJs anymore. At Beta, Lance [Dunlap] does the majority of the talent buying, and for these events Ha does the majority of the talent buying. Last year, we had some conflict on Martin Garrix and Krewella. We had Kygo fall through, so we had a hole that we ended up filling by going in a different direction. Two years ago was the biggest one we’ve ever done, and last year wasn’t terrible, but there were a lot of elements where it felt like it lost its underground Skylab vibe.
The year before we had Tiësto, Seven Lions and Eric Prydz, and Eric Prydz was the only one who felt to me like he legitimized the night. He kept it in the Skylab genre. This year, the artist I wanted the most was Sasha. We couldn’t get him to do it because he wasn’t available, but I felt like I really needed to get some of that old school DJ vibe back, so Donald Glaude and DJ Dan are doing the 2x4 Tour. I had to talk them into it kind of, but for me it was really important to re-establish that old school element and at least have some of it there.
When you look at the flyer for the first party Jason Bills threw as Come Together Productions, it’s a world of difference from how the brand looked after you came along. Other than “dropping the ‘Come,’” as you put it, what do you feel you brought to the table?
Brad Roulier: The biggest aspect that I think I brought was the ability to make the parties bigger, and be less afraid of the underground. Our events were definitely warehouse parties and most of them were illegal, but I wasn’t scared to grow them bigger, faster. We booked acts like Run DMC and De La Soul to broaden the brand and get those 5-10,000 person parties instead of 2-3,000.
The biggest difference between him and me was that when he first started doing parties in ‘94, they weren’t all successful - they lost money, lost venues, and I think they had been shut down - and I went in with more of an attitude like, “We’re gonna make these bigger, better, and safer; we’re not gonna get shut down; and we’re gonna do it by booking bigger artists.”
The biggest thing for us is that Steve from [graphic design company] The Firm was participating as Lowerworld. He’s done every flyer for every single event that I’ve ever done. When he partnered with Jason, he became a full-time graphic designer. If you look at the Skylab art, the Beta art, and even the stuff that I did at The Church and Vinyl, I think we are The Firm’s look. He does flyers for lots of other people, but I think the look that we have is very noticeable.
What are some of your favorite moments from previous Skylab events? Tell me about the high points.
Brad Roulier: For me, Skylab 4 was my first one, and we probably sold, I think, 4,000 tickets - but that party, in my estimation, was closer to 6 or 7,000 people because it was at Ft. Lupton Air Park and so many of them snuck in. I was still so green as a promoter, and the party got so much bigger than we anticipated it to be. I think we were expecting 2-3,-000 people, and when you get 6-7,000 showing up, it’s kind of a “Holy shit, I think we’re really onto something” moment. Like, because it was at the Air Park we had to get permission from the city and go before city council. Skylab 4 to me was a really big, eye-opening experience on all levels.
My favorite one, I think, was probably Skylab Mission 7, the one with Richie Hawtin and DJ Rap. I remember DJ Rap played right before Richie, so we had to go from drum and bass to techno at 4:00 in the morning. I still remember his set vividly. He was playing feedback for the first two minutes - like, that was his intro - and then he just took us to another planet.
Honestly, I thought he was from another planet; that was one of the first times I’d met him, and he was still super nerdy. He kept talking about NORAD - not the club, but the actual underground space facility. It seemed like he was more interested in NORAD than he was the party. I think that was the first time we met him because we hadn’t started Beatport yet, and I just thought he was so weird. At that time I was more into DJ Dan and Charles Feelgood, and because of Steve we always booked drum and bass, so I wasn’t the biggest techno fan, but after that day I’ve liked techno ever since.
So you were more of a jackin’ house kind of guy, huh?
Brad Roulier: Yeah, I think to this day Charles Feelgood is still my favorite DJ.
Aside from the fact that you're trying to bring the underground back up with Skylab 2016, what else do you really want people to know going in this time?
Brad Roulier: I mean, we started doing these back in a time when it was so much fun. It was always kind of the highlight of the year before Global Dance Festival and Rave on the Rocks came around. Everyone has kind of stolen every idea that everyone else has had, but to still have a space-themed event whose message and look hasn’t changed - very much intentionally - commercial dance music may come and go, but Skylab is something that’s important for me to do to make sure these young kids have that. This party is for young people, you know? It’s geared towards 18-24-year-olds. We’ve never intended for it to be upscale, sophisticated or classy. We always wanted to keep it as underground as we possibly can. In the environment today, it’s technically a concert, but we really just want people to put their phone down and listen to an eclectic mix of music for five or six hours in a safe environment.
Between you, Ha, Steve and Jason, Skylab is the common thread between all the big players in Colorado. What do you think it is about this series that brought people together this way?
Brad Roulier: Whether you’re 40, 30 or 20, if you’re a music fan it’s always been there. Obviously, we took a four-year hiatus, but it’s bridged three generations, and that’s the coolest part. The promoters have changed, but the name and time of year that it takes place haven’t. It’s always been right there.