Spirit in the Sky

Electric Skychurch falls back into techno's good graces

The long arm of the law has never much cared for raves, so it's no surprise that Electric Skychurch founder James Lumb was turned down for recent jury duty. "I didn't have to go much further than say 'I'm a rave musician' before they said, 'You're out of here,'" recounts Lumb, multi-instrumentalist behind the veteran California techno act. "I have an opinion too," he says. "You walk in, and no matter how cool you try to be, it's like you have this big sign on your head that says 'freak.'"

While the legal system may not look too fondly upon electronica, its fans have held Electric Skychurch (Lumb, vocalist Roxanne Morganstern, and VJ Greg Leeper) in high regard since its 1992 self-titled EP and its organic blend of digital and analog trance coupled with dance beats, euphoric synths, loops, and tribal instruments. While many techno artists opt for the comfort of the studio, Skychurch equally embraces the stage, at one point spending three consecutive years on the road. "We're more focused on performance than DJs who are just playing someone else's music," Lumb says. "A record has sonic limitations. There's only so much you can cram onto a CD or vinyl."

Lumb began the Church in Athens, Georgia, in 1989 while working at a local alternative radio station. There, he bought his first drum machine and ventured down the acid-house road. After moving to Los Angeles two years later, he started writing music, releasing the Electric Skychurch EP in 1992. The cassette circulated through the Los Angeles pirate music scene and became a regional, albeit underground, hit.

Techno mass: James Lumb and Roxanne Morganstern are Electric Skychurch
Techno mass: James Lumb and Roxanne Morganstern are Electric Skychurch

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In 1993, David deLaski (who has since left the band) joined Lumb and his drum machine, throwing techno parties in Lumb's home studio. The events grew big enough that the two moved them to the Mojave Desert, within a year drawing thousands of people to what became known as "the Moontribe collective." After that zenith, Lumb wrote "Deus," a song that defined the West Coast trance sound and caught the attention of Moonshine Records. The label signed the band in 1994 and released "Deus" and another single, "Creation," as well as its 1995 album, Knowoneness. The day before recording the album, Lumb quit his movie studio job to focus on music. "It's basically a movie without pictures," is how Lumb describes the album. "Like a really good book, the pictures are all in your head."

Morganstern, who'd recently moved from Santa Barbara, ended up next to Lumb and the two struck up a conversation, then got together to jam, although Lumb was under the impression that she was a drummer. "I told him I was a singer, but he thought I was joking," she remembers. Initially hesitant, Lumb changed his mind upon hearing her powerful, crystalline voice, and she joined him to support the debut release. "I don't consider myself as a singer in the electronic music industry," Morganstern states. "I think of myself as a vocalist. I'd like to think that's part of the reason our music speaks to so many people."

The following year, Skychurch unveiled its follow-up, Together, which climbed to number one on the CMJ chart and remained there for five months. Lumb and Morganstern again hit the road, introducing Leeper, DJ John Kelley, and drummer Alex Spurkel and selling out venues across the country. During the outing, Skychurch was filmed by director John Reese for what would become part of the film Better Living Through Circuitry, a docu-feature about electronic-music culture and its artists.

Unlike Together's title, Skychurch and Moonshine split, and the fallout resulted in a long-running lawsuit that, among other things, prohibited Lumb and Morganstern from performing together for a few years. (Not going into specifics, Lumb says the case has since been settled, and the band is now signed to Universal imprint Water Music.) "If we wanted to do something, we just couldn't," Lumb complains. "We had people basically trying to put us out of business, so we had to wait." Lumb says the squabble prohibited them from selling any of their music, so they either gave it away at their shows or offered free downloads on their website.

While many artists feel threatened by rampant digital downloading, Lumb is quick to defend and even praise it. "The demand on the Internet has sucked us back out on the stage," Lumb says. "We got a call from Napster, saying that we had as many downloads as the Dave Matthews Band! And we were an unsigned techno band. Why is this happening? It's really boosted our success."

In the midst of the legal tangle, Lumb wrote and refocused, while Morganstern started another band and played around Los Angeles, releasing an album before calling it quits. On the side, she sang jingles, including one for a Brita water-filter commercial. "It was me, mountains, deer running, and water flowing," she laughs.

At first, Lumb was hesitant to release 2001's Sonic Diary,a collection of tracks from 1992-2000, saying they were too personal, but he was convinced that the album should see the light of day. Morganstern was originally going to appear on the album but realized it was complete as it stood and bowed out. "I wouldn't have made things any better by trying to force her onto this music that already had this instrumental voice," he says. The fact that the album was put together the week of September 11 also complicated the effort. "People think [Sonic Diary] is really magical and positive," he says of the record's sensual tones. "I kept hearing that babies were conceived to this album. It became a Superfly of sorts, but it really came out of this dark thing." Still, the album earned critical acclaim, although some fans felt stiffed by Morganstern's absence. But the subsequent tour rectified that: "As soon as I stepped on-stage with him again," she says, "it felt like I had never left."

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