Desert Stars Festival: The Best Indie Rock Fest Keeps It Intimate in Joshua Tree
Everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to Sebadoh are playing, so we spoke to the fest founder about his vision and there will be no people in headdresses taking selfies.
The Entrance Band
In 2007, musician and producer Tommy Dietrick started the Desert Stars music festival. At the time, his goal was to create an event with an emphasis on community and quality tunes. By intricately curating the lineup, the festival would go on to expose unrecognized indie artists on the same stage as veteran performers. Simply put: at the time Dietrick didn’t see an outlet catering for this vision, so he decided to make one himself. Now in its ninth year, the fest’s mission statement hasn’t strayed from the path. The organizing infrastructure is small, but continues to think bigger. Over the past decade, 300 bands have been booked and the planning process has intensified, but the passion still exceeds the headache that comes with booking a micro-festival in the middle of the desert. On September 23 and 24, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of the Dead and Dinosaur Jr. will venture to Pioneertown, CA to perform under the stars.
Dietrick, a member of the psych-rock outift Sky Parade, has played as a member of countless projects: as of recent, with The Gentleman Thieves (featuring David J. of Bauhaus) and with Mark Gardener from RIDE, to name a few. After relocating to the Joshua Tree region and building a brand new studio, he’s committed to recording music and producing live shows in an environment that’s impossible to replicate. Much of his success can be attributed to his homegrown DIY attitude. While his festival now hosts over 1000 festival goers watching bands perform on three different stages, he insists on maintaining ties to the local community. Working with nonprofits, local businesses, and even the Mojave Desert Land Trust, his goal is to make sure he’s earned the right to party in the place he’s grown so fond of.
We spoke with Dietrick about the ever-awe-inspiring region in which he hosts Desert Stars, why he likes the idea of maintaining a humbly sized festival, and why eating a handful of mushrooms may or may not be a great idea.
Noisey: To establish a little context, what’s the origin of the Desert Stars Festival?
Tommy Dietrick: We did the first festival in 2007. In the early 2000s, some of the bigger festivals like Coachella were born, this new emersion of festivals was happening. But the smaller independent bands really couldn’t be part of that. People always ask me, “Why create a micro-festival?” We were filling a void. Bands that wanted to play these festivals either weren’t big enough, didn’t have a big enough agent or the management connections to get into those lineups—so we just created our own. We knew some big bands, so we were able to get names like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Black Angels, The Dandy Warhols, and have them be our headliners. Then we fill in and give all these smaller bands an opportunity who may not have the same exposure otherwise. Looking at festival culture today, it seems like the same lineup on every bill.
Is there a community around this area or is it like a random saloon in the Desert?
Pioneertown is tucked just above Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree. We tend to all refer to this whole region out here as Joshua Tree. The community itself is probably 10,000 residents in Joshua Tree, 20,000 residents in Yucca Valley. Pioneertown is unique because it has a very small actual number of physical residents, but the locals, this is their spot. This is where they go to see shows, take the family to dinner and have drinks. There’s a real magic feeling to this place. Once you get there you feel this sense of elation. The region puts you at ease and takes you out of the city. When you put on a festival for a few thousand people, it still feels like a small community. The bigger festivals become like an urban scale, you’re building a city. When I’m at a bigger festival, by the time the headliner is on it’s such a sardine-fest that I honestly don’t enjoy it at that point. For me it was personal, I wanted to create an experience that other music fans could enjoy.
The appeal seems like the fact that it’s a destination to get there, so it weeds out people who aren’t really there for the music. It isn’t about selfies and flower headdresses and all that bullshit.
It’s exactly that. You hit the nail on the head. I think that’s why we’ve survived this long. We don’t have any investors; we don’t have people putting money into this. For many years, I was fundraising using platforms like Kickstarter to get it off the ground each year, but because we have a loyal following, we always succeed. This was one of the first years where we didn’t even have to do a fundraiser. But yeah, it’s a destination. It’s an escape from the urban; you don’t see everyone taking selfies the whole time.
What about the environment? What is it like watching these bands play late at night in the desert? Is it a dead quiet outside of the music? I’m assuming being in the desert is a major part of the experience…
The desert is a fragile place, it’s an unforgiving place, and we do our event in September so we have the best weather of the year: the temperature will be more in the upper 80s and 90s, the nighttime is 70s, its t-shirt weather. And because it’s more of a community-sized event, nothing feels overwhelming. And when you see your favorite band play with the backdrop of the open stars in the sky, and experience that quiet, it’s so peaceful.
What’s your process curating the festival?
Every year our mantra is to grab some of the bands that are within the ethos and the genres of psych, indie, and rock. That’s our overarching genre, but we also have some shoegaze, folk, electronic, and goth. I like to create something that is well rounded. For example, Dinosaur Jr. has never played at Pappy and Harriet’s, much less a place of that size in that area. To see that as a fan of a band is such a treat. This year, we have them with bands like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, straight from the 1960s with “Incense and Peppermints.” I try to represent bands that go from the 60s up until 2016. A lot of our support bands are from the Southern California regions. So if you’re not living here, you might not know some of the smaller bands. Guys like Triptides, or Band Aparte, or Magic Wands, or Tennis System, they’re local favorites of the SoCal music scene. But we represent bands from Northern California, this year we’ve got Heron Oblivion, Cellar Doors and Down Dirty Shake.
Do people travel from all around the country? Do people also go on desert excursions?
Some people come, wake up early and go hiking. The smart people don’t party too hard, because then they can go and wander around the desert before the show starts. If you’re up all night drinking, that’s fine and part of the experience, but honestly, when you get here, the place almost makes you feel high. There’s something about the peacefulness that’s very real.
Would you say there’s a sector of fans that use this as an opportunity to have a psychedelic weekend of tripping?
With any festival situation, you’ll have all of those things. We definitely get people who come out and they want to do mushrooms and watch the show. And that’s cool. But our crowd is fairly moderate. We’re not like a rave culture crowd. But even for me, you get so excited when you’re here, the one thing people forget is in the high desert where we are, if you’re used to drinking five or six beers, multiply that times two, because the higher elevation affects you harder. You’ll get really drunk or really hungover. People are used to being at one level when they party. Then they come here and it can actually be dangerous if they’re not careful. We’re 4,200 feet above sea level.
I’ve never done psychedelics, but I feel like if I ever had an excuse to eat a handful of mushrooms, it’d be a concert at a 1940s Wild West saloon in the middle of the desert. It would either be unforgettably amazing or a total nightmare.
You might have the best time of your life; I don’t know man! But we’re really have an eclectic mix of people attending our festival. They are really appreciative of the arts and culture. No one is running around full blast and puking all over the place. That might have been the case 10 years ago when we started, I’ll admit that a little bit [laughs], but a lot has changed. We feel like we have something really sacred now that we want to preserve and keep respectful. It’s a big thing out here to respect the region. I’ve been out here making relationships with the community and local businesses.
I’d imagine that’s important to locals. They don’t want their home exploited for some random Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas type weekend…
Exactly! When they see a hipster takeover coming in, the locals rise up. They don’t like that shit and I don’t blame them. It’s not cool. I’m always conscious of that. In the first couple of years we made some mistakes. But we’ve really made an effort to tie in as many local communities and businesses as we can. It’s about being cool and not a dick.
What’s been the craziest experience you’ve had as part of this festival?
In 2009, I got hired to work on a project with Robby Krieger from The Doors. At that year’s festival, I got to go play on stage in a band that Robby, a few others and I put together. We called it Treehouse and only played one show. We played five Doors songs and four originals. I still pinch myself when I think about it.
We had The Black Angels in 2008, right as they were deciding to do Austin Psych Fest, which later became Levitation. We had Black Rebel Motorcycle Club when they were a much smaller band. In 2011 we had Mark Gardener from RIDE, who reformed last year. We had Mark playing the festival with us years before the reformation of RIDE. There are all of these seemingly random but great little nuggets that came out of putting on this festival. I guess you would call it “organic.” Look, you can say, “I’ve got $500,000, I’m gonna go book 20 bands!” But that doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed. For me, the secret has been letting it grow at its own pace.
Have there been any performances where you’ve stepped back and just been blown away?
When I saw Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play stripped down and acoustic. Last year, we had Swervedriver, a niche shoegaze band from Oxford, England. I really liked them growing up. The fact that I was able to get them to come perform in the desert, that was really special.
Has shit ever hit the fan?
In 2008, the first year we had The Black Angels, that was the year we hit it at the wrong time. The weather dropped to like 30 degrees, it was in October, and you could see the breath coming off of everybody. We had one rainstorm in 2013. We had a panic moment when it flash flooded in the middle of the day. Luckily the sand soaked up the water. We started a half hour late, but we caught up. But it’s scary out in the elements. We were running around putting trash bags on microphones. We weren’t prepared at all. But we run the festival, and we’re the production company. We do everything in house. Our crew has been the same for years. It’s always fun.
I know a big goal of your fest is promote a sense of community and friendship. Have you seen that materialize?
People have met their spouses and bandmates at Desert Stars. I’ve literally had people get married at the festival. It’s about connecting people. The band and I don’t get rich off this shit. We do this because we want to make an experience it’s different than the usual one we have playing in four walls. The best part of it is creating that feeling. Everything is factory produced in this country, but we’re still a grassroots festival.
How long do you see yourself doing the festival?
I’m not going to stop. It’s not going to end anytime soon. We’re about to start another micro-festival in the spring in a completely different location. I’ll just leave it at that.
Derek Scancarelli is a journalist based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.