Kiran Desai found Sanctuary by chance. “I just happened to stumble upon the party one evening while I was strolling around Southside,” he says. That party, which took place in DJ’s Greenhouse, happened to be the first in a series of raves that took place in the fall of 1990, all hosted under the name “Sanctuary.” Desai, then an undergraduate student at UAB who DJed as a hobby, was inspired.
Ken Webb tells a similar story. “I was just a club patron, somebody who really enjoyed dance music and dance culture, whether it was mainstream or the underground,” he says. “I just happened to find a flyer for the Sanctuary party, and because of [Sanctuary], I started looking into being a DJ. I just loved the music so much. [It] made me happy and made me feel a certain way. I wanted to do the same thing for other people.”
Desai and Webb individually sought out David Allison, who had co-hosted the Sanctuary parties, and the three developed a close friendship. Now, seated around a table at Matthew’s Bar and Grill, the trio displays a rapport — and an excitement about the music — that appears not to have faltered. In fact, it appears to have grown; on Saturday, joined by Nashville-based DJ Rob Horne, the trio will host a 25th anniversary party for the Sanctuary raves. The event, which will take place at Matthew’s, will feature DJ sets from Desai, Webb, Allison and Horne. Proceeds from the event will be split between two charities: Birmingham AIDS Outreach and the Ronald McDonald House.
Rave culture spawned in the mid-1980s with the rise of the electronic dance music (EDM) genre and “warehouse parties,” often-unauthorized gatherings viewed by many as countercultural and illicit due to its common association with the drug MDMA (ecstasy). Though the movement originated in Europe, by 1990 it had made its way to Birmingham via Chuck Steward, a former Dallas club manager and DJ who co-hosted the Sanctuary parties with Allison.
Steward, originally from Birmingham, returned to the city to care for his elderly mother, where he met Allison. “He was bored and needed to spice up the Birmingham night life,” Allison says. “He knew that I had a big record collection and he said, ‘Let’s do some warehouse parties,’ which was the big thing in Dallas right before he moved back [to Birmingham.’ He had been in Dallas for the Second Summer of Love in 1988, when ecstasy was legal and everybody was gooned out, dancing all night. That wasn’t our goal, to have people gooned out on ecstasy, but [we wanted] just to have an alternative to the normal nightlife rut of the clubs and top 40 music that you would hear anywhere.” Allison describes the subsequent parties, marketed as a “roving feast of sight and sound,” as a “runaway success,” culminating in “a two-night Halloween extravaganza.”
Saturday’s anniversary party also takes place on Halloween night, and Allison says he hopes that Halloween parties hosted around town will culminate with a visit to Sanctuary. Parts of the night’s soundtrack should be particularly fit for the holiday; the event’s many musical influences include industrial artists such as Skinny Puppy and Severed Heads, whose grimy music is appropriately creepy. Other stated influences — the poppier techno of 808 State, or seminal electronic acts like Depeche Mode and New Order — reflect the DJs’ hopes that Sanctuary will have something for everyone.
Desai says he’s contemplating a “more upbeat” set, as opposed to his typical approach, which is “a little harder”; Webb’s set will center on House music, which is more contemporary. Allison, meanwhile, says he’s looking to provide a cross-section of his favorite music that’s come out in the 25 years since the last Sanctuary. “I still try to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” he says. “I have new favorite artists that have come out over the last couple of years that I want to play tunes from, as well as artists that have been around for twenty-something years that have put out a new record recently, or new mixes of old songs. We’re hoping to place the majority of people that show up. We’re not trying to be too esoteric.”
“It’s a reunion, but it’s also a chance for the younger generation to listen to stuff that they may have missed, especially if they hadn’t been born by then,” Desai adds.
Sanctuary also serves as a memorial for members of “the original Sanctuary crew who are no longer with us,” Allison says, including Steward and Chris Haynie. That commemorative of the reunion is, in part, the reason behind the event’s goal of raising $2,000 for Birmingham AIDS Outreach and the Ronald McDonald House ($721 has already been raised as of this writing).
“I’ve had a couple of friends that were involved with the original Sanctuary that are no longer with us due to complications from HIV and AIDS,” Allison says. One of Desai’s daughters, meanwhile, had previously done charity work with the Ronald McDonald House, an organization that had also previously helped Sanctuary promoter Joseph Julian’s family when one of Julian’s children needed surgery. “These are things that have touched us and are close to us,” Allison said.
It’s that focus on giving back to the community, both musically and charitably, that makes Sanctuary special, Desai says. “We’re quite passionate about this, we really are,” Desai says. “We expect a good turnout, not only to hear good music, but for the charities. It’s not like a typical rave, where you have people just coming in and dancing and not caring.”
Webb agrees, adding that the focus won’t be on the DJs but on the music and sense of community it fosters. “In our opinion, it’s more of a calling as maybe opposed to today’s EDM artists that are trying to DJ,” he says. “It seems like everybody wants to be a superstar. That wasn’t the case when we were starting. We did it because we loved the music. We just wanted to share the music.”