Desert Stars Festival Builds Its Own Strange Trip From the Ground Up

He's My Brother, She's My Sister at Desert Stars Festival last year
He's My Brother, She's My Sister at Desert Stars Festival last year
Courtesy of Desert Stars Festival

Tommy Dietrick likes to say the Desert Stars Festival is committed to retaining "fierce independence with a capital F." Even if it means putting in a ton of extra work with a capital "W."

Days before the festival, he's in the backyard of his house setting up stage rigs, testing lights, cutting, drilling and bolting right up until the gates open for the two-day event at Pappy and Harriet's this Friday and Saturday.

"I have a lot of help that comes on for the event, but leading up to it, I'm pretty much a one-man show," he says.

But all the extra work is a symbol of progress for a festival that it striving to be totally autonomous. This is the first year that Dietrick has been able to have all production for the show run in-house--built and operated by his own crew of volunteers and professionals who will manage the festival from September 25-26. Headliners include seminal shoegaze outfit Swervedriver, The Lemonheads and Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr., along with The Entrance Band, Alex Maas of the Black Angels and OC-bred acts like the Cosmonauts, Drinking Flowers and Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel and many more.

We've talked about how this 1,100-person capacity, boutique festival is slanted towards shoegaze, psychedelic and indie rock. Over the years, that distinction makes it more and more unique in the face of the culture of megafests that saturate Southern California. A trip out to Pioneertown to plop yourself in the middle of the old western atmosphere of Pappy and Harriet's is an odd and special treat.

"It's a really cool setting," says Adam Franklin of Swervedriver. The Oxford quartet is riding a wave of praise after, I Wasn't Born to Lose You--their first record in 17 years--came out back in March. "We just played RiotFest in Chicago in the afternoon, so it's great playing outside in the dark and I think the music will complement Pappy and Harriet's."

For Lou Barlow, whose work with Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and many others helped inspire Dietrick's musical tastes growing up, performing his new record Brace the Wave is one of the biggest gets of the festival. Falling into more stripped down, acoustically driven sounds than his previous work, Barlow's appreciation for epic, echo-laden rock remains intact. It's a bond that unites all the artists on the bill in one way or another.

"I was a huge shoe gazer aficionado, I would even call myself an expert at one point," Barlow says of his early days collecting records. "At one point in my 20s and 30s and that was the better music that was coming out in the '90s, I liked it more than American Indie Rock at that time."

At this point in rock's throwback cycle, it's hard to keep track of the growing number of bands using rock from the time period Barlow describes to start their own bands with a renewed interest in the sound.  

"It's crazy I was listening to some play list on Stereogum the other day and half of the bands sounded like Slowdive," Barlow says, laughing. "It was kind of shocking."

Not only is the sound coming back, but so is the support for the scene and events like Desert Festival. More proof of that came this year when Dietrick's Kickstarter fund to offset costs of the festival raised almost $30,000 (he originally set the donation goal for $20,000).

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"That's great instead of having to sell out and look for a bunch of sponsor dollars where we'd rather not look," Dietrick says."

Even with all the work it's taken to put the ninth installment of his festival together, Dietrick says it's all going toward the cause of staying independent. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a lot more work and it's a bit overwhelming but it's actually really exciting too. We've got a great team that we've built over nine years," he says. "And I'd rather have my friends to run things like front of house and work as stage managers to build a family unit. Because really, that's what it is."

Desert Stars Festival is this Friday and Saturday, Sep. 25-26, at Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneertown. Tickets are $55-$110, for full info, please click here. Visit the festival website for full lineup and show times.

See also: The 50 Best Things About the OC Music Scene The 50 Worst Things About the OC Music Scene The 25 Greatest OC Bands of All Time: The Complete List

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