• Dancing in the Dark

    “A lot of people at the time said it was a very bad idea to do a techno party, but that was the music I liked. I wanted to feel like a kid again.”

    This home of dreams is ghostly tonight, like Downtown Los Angeles seemed for so many years. On a late March evening this past winter, the birthplace of Insomniac’s Nocturnal Wonderland—at 2708 East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue—looks like an empty two-story mansion with boarded-up windows, red brick walls, and Spanish arches that hide deep rooms and long staircases within. The streets around it feel eerie, not a soul walking about.

    It was here, just east of the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights—more than 20 years ago, on Saturday, February 11, 1995—that a line of ravers stretched around the block as bass throbbed from the inside. They were part of a new era, not just for Insomniac’s hometown, but for a movement reaching far outside its dusty, fractured concerns. You can almost see their afterimage.

    Purchase tickets to the Nocturnal Wonderland 20th Anniversary show.

    “A concrete warehouse vibrates with each dropping beat,” a Net.Werk zine profile of Insomniac began, published a few months before the first Nocturnal. “The hard walls covered with visions of psychedelic dreams, an array of colors splashes against the wave of dancers in unison with the rumbling bass. Oversize, red and white hats bob up and down in this sea of sweat-soaked speaker stompers, whistles screech and voices scream in ecstasy of the heavy beat.” 

    The year prior, Pasquale Rotella had thrown a Friday night weekly called “Insomniac.” It was often touch and go. The map point—the first stop you’d have to hit to get the location of the party itself—was run off the front table of a coffee shop unaware of his underground operation. Locations were hard to secure and sometimes in rough neighborhoods.

    From the start, his parties harkened to the good vibes of L.A.’s initial 1990–92 rave boom. For Rotella, the sound of those good vibes was “techno,” which at the time had come to mean a swaggering hybrid of every electronic dance style that came before it. It was synonymous with the West Coast’s biggest raves.

    “A lot of people at the time said it was a very bad idea to do a techno party, but that was the music I liked,” Rotella told Net.Werk editor Lisa Pisa in that same October 1994 article, pointing to the more opiate flavors of dance that were splintering off into the L.A. after-hours scene. “The whole year when I would go out, there was nothing I would enjoy going to. I was sick of going out and not having as good a time as I used to in the scene. I wanted to feel like a kid again.” 

    Both nostalgic and futuristic, Nocturnal Wonderland was designed to open the door to a bright origin myth by looping back to rave’s genesis. For inspiration, he chose Lewis Carroll’s timeless books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

    “It was something I just naturally gravitated toward,” he says now. “I wanted people to go on an adventure when they came to my shows. It was perfectly fitting—going to find venues and warehouses and going into these worlds.”

    Part fairy tale exuberance, part adult contemplation, Nocturnal Wonderland’s mission was to remind the rave scene of its prime directive: to bring people together on one dancefloor.

    DJ Joel “Mojo” Semchuck, who played the first Nocturnal, remembers techno as highly eclectic music filled with a sharp attitude and heavy vibes in the low end. Some of its biggest signatures ranged from R&S’s rolling, elastic classic “Dominator” by Human Resource, to the black R&B soul of “Show Me Love” by Robin S., house rhythms bouncing through the octaves and her voice burning from the inside.