Some of the best DIY festivals tend to have one thing in common: the adventure of getting there. The thrill of the trek was definitely on Tommy Dietrick's mind when he settled his Desert Stars Festival in the cactus and boulder-infested oasis of Pioneertown, at storied venue Pappy and Harriet's. Over 115 miles from OC, the freedom of a quick weekend road trip to the annual psych rock/shoegaze festival on Oct. 3-4 is second only to the aural head trip induced by cranked up amplifiers, thwacking drums and rippling delay echoing through the glinting sky of no man's land.
"Once you start driving through those mountains, you can really feel yourself getting into the region," Dietrick says about passing through the forest of giant wind turbines in Palm Springs off the 10-E Fwy. on the way to Indio. "The event begins then, the experience begins then."
With the resurgence of '90s shoegaze and psych rock, it's a good time to also discover the Desert Stars Festival's grassroots community if you haven't already. Now in its 8th year, it continues to draw fans and bands from all over SoCal along with various exports from around the country. This year, bands range from Santa Ana-bred opening act Drinking Flowers to headliners The Dandy Warhols and He's My Brother, She's My Sister.
But in a climate where festivals are prone to exponential growth fed by corporate dollars, Desert Stars stays true to its goal by staying small and specialized. Dietrick says he's turned down money from big sponsors like soda and corporate owned lifestyle companies on more than one occasion. The point, he says, is to maintain a mid-sized counter culture community who love the music as much as he does. For a guy who's been in the scene long enough to have toured alongside the Brian Jonestown Massacre, that's actually saying a lot. But as long as people want it to exist, he believes Desert Stars will continue to shine.
"But it's gotta grow at the pace it defines for itself," Dietrick says.
Dietrick had little idea of what he was getting himself into when he started it back in the mid 2000s. His first inclination to start Desert Stars came after experiencing an all-night DIY freak out party in Jawbone Canyon. Pitted near the Mojave desert, bands dropped acid, lit bonfires and played generator-powered sets from sunset to sunrise without so much as a port-o-potty.
"It was almost like Psych Rock Burning Man," he says. "You'd literally wake up to the desert sun beating down on you, all hung over."
Dietrick, who started touring as a musician around age 15, was always prone to enjoying shows in strange locations. He got early examples of the DIY ethos from hanging out with guys like Newport Beach native Anton Newcombe, mastermind of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. "Persistence is one thing that Anton always had. There was no Plan B. I feel that way about the festival. You're always taking a risk when you put something on like this. You will it to happen and hope that people will get on board."
He went on to be an indie music producer, working largely out of his hand built home studio in Encino. In 2006, Dietrick tapped his list of music industry contacts to build a festival that reflected his own mentality toward the shoegaze scene.
"I'd always try to make my events inclusive and I never saw any bands as competition," Dietrick says. "I always came from the perspective that we're stronger in numbers because we represent this sort of style."
The festival founder lined up 30-40 bands and charged $15 to get in. Any meager proceeds the fest made were given away to charity. These days, Dietrick says he regularly has to turn bands away because there's not enough space on the bill. Tickets this year go for $65, still a fraction of an FYF ticket or a (God help you) Coachella wristband. And now, all the profit goes into paying staff and continuing keeping the fest going year after year. Portland legends The Dandy Warhols have support Desert Stars since the beginning. Aside from being friends with Dietrick and the vested interest of keeping shoegaze alive, keyboardist Zia McCabe says Desert Stars truly feels like a true escape.
"It's always nice to get into [Pioneertown] and play cowboy for the weekend," she says. "You see everyone with their ponchos, the city kids and the bikers all mixing together. It's a really cool scene." McCabe will also be there playing with her country band Brush Prairie. The set at Pappy's is the last date on the Dandy's current U.S. tour.
Over the years, the talent roster alone at Desert Stars was enough to insight heavy buzz in LA and OC. Robby Krieger of the Doors, David J. of Bauhaus, Mark Gardener of Ride, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Texas psych gods The Black Angels (whose annual Austin Psych Fest was inspired by Desert Stars) are just a few of the names who've made the fest what it is today. Burger Records also helped co-present the fest last year to reach out to OC fans. But even at its peak attendance in 2009 and 2011 (they took a year off in 2012), Desert Stars has kept itself small enough to fit on three stages at Pappy and Harriet's. Attendance for those years was a little over 1100 people.
Alex Galindo of Drinking Flowers is more than happy to join that community. Since we wrote about them in our Locals Only column last year, the quartet has migrated to LA, still keeping ties to their OC fanbase. What better way to galvanize both sets of fans by bringing them together for a party in the desert?
"A lot of bands like us get established though stuff like this. It's cool to see people really wanting to pay money to see original bands like The Dandys," Galindo says. "It raises awareness of the other bands coming along now as well."
As the fest continues to grow at it's own pace, Dietrick is continually blown away by how much the music scene he's loved for so long is now loving him back. Over the summer, the festival garnered over $22,000 in crowd sourced funds from a Kickstarter campaign, well over the $20,000 he'd originally asked for. It's a good sign that his plan to one day purchase some acreage near Pappy and Harriet's so the fest can have it's own designated space in the desert could be more than a pipe dream. If it's meant to be, he says, the few and the faithful who escape to Desert Stars every year will be the ones who make it happen.
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"We're not trying to be the biggest festival on the planet. We have no desire to be that," Dietrick says. "But we do wanna be an amazing community event that brings people together and solidifies and supports our genre of music."
The Desert Stars Festival, featuring The Dandy Warhols, He's My Brother, She's My Sister, The Shivas, Little Barrie and more happens at Pappy and Harriet's, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown. (760)365-5956, buy tickets here. $45-$65. Oct. 3-4, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. on Friday, 2 p.m.-1 a.m. on Saturday.Camping passes $12.50-$25. All ages.