Terrastock celebrates music written about in The Ptolemaic Terrascope, an obsessively detailed "illustrated occasional" co-published by Phil McMullen and the Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman in England for the past nine years. (Riffing on the zine's medieval illustrations and appreciation of dated styles of music, Mojo magazine called it the pair's "Branechyld.") While everyone involved recoils at the bald, all-encompassing use of the term, most folks would give a listen and say Terrastock traffics in psychedelia. Understand, however, the bands involved know there is more to psychedelic music than Carlos Santana's guitar spasms or Pink Floyd's trippy Ummagumma.
The best of the Terrastock bands don't simply mimic a tired form. Instead, they adopt some of the stylistic tics and experimentation in order to transcend the mundane, go beyond everyday experience, and get to the spongy parts of the brain -- the original intent of '60s psych. "It's almost weird to call something psychedelic because there are so many different subtitles that go under it," says Bardo Pond guitarist Michael Gibbons. "Terrastock reflects that."
There are roughly five subgenres that span four decades' worth of performers. There's the full-blown retro psych of the Major Stars and some of the Bevis Frond's work, descended from guitar freak-outs from Jimi Hendrix to Gong. Space rock, or neo-space rock, acts like Windy & Carl and the local SubArachnoid Space are more concerned with sound and texture than form or structure. Acousticky experimentalists like Tom Rapp and the Mountain Goats are more folk than psychedelic, but their songs are usually thoughtful and slightly askew. Bands like the Olivia Tremor Control and the Loud Family play with post-Sgt. Pepper's embellished pop conventions. And then there are the wild cards: fans of Terrascopic music such as the Young Fresh Fellows, too smart and mischievous to be called just a rock band, or ... Mudhoney?
"The lineup of this year's Terrastock is pretty much representative of the various different styles, genres, and vintages that we regularly cover. There's bands here that no one would ever think of describing as 'psychedelic,' but they're all 'Terrascopic' to some extent," writes McMullen in an e-mail interview.
Providence, R.I., hosted the first Terrastock a year ago, ostensibly to help raise money for Ptolemaic Terrascope. When bands like the Bevis Frond and Flying Saucer Attack, who had not performed in the States, got on board, the benefit turned into a genuine happening. Nearly everyone who attended the 500-person show at an out-of-the-way brick warehouse is still gushing about the experience. "It was like a family reunion of 500 people who didn't know each other," says Windy Webber, the bassist of Windy & Carl.
San Francisco was a natural site for Part 2. McMullen asked Windy Chien, who owns Aquarius Records in the Mission, and Kathy Harr, who books tours for four or five of the Terrastock bands, to help him organize the festival. What they ended up putting together includes performances by 38 bands at a double-staged nontraditional venue (originally the International Ballroom, changed to Custer Avenue Stages at the last minute), with accouterments like a photo show, a kitchen, and a merchandise section where various labels and bands can sell records and fanzines. The two San Franciscans paid particular attention to keeping the ticket price as low as possible ($50-60 for three full days of music). "It was very easy to sign on when you know that it's not about money. It feels more pure," says Chien. "There is a place for things that make money, but this is not one of them."
By word-of-mouth and the power of the Internet, where many bands and fans of Terrascope exchange messages on mailing lists like DroneOn, Chugchanga, and TerraObscura, 700 tickets sold out in just a few weeks. (San Franciscans bought about half of the passes; the rest were sold to foreigners and people from all over the States.)
Even though the crowd is hardly massive -- one wag dubbed the festival "Woodstick" -- for many of the bands, Terrastock presents a chance to play for some of the largest crowds they'll ever see. Most of the groups that will play Terrastock have seen the harsh light of the commercial world and ducked into the nearest tunnel. They simply are not making commercial, or in a few cases even remotely accessible, music. "[For] most of the people that are playing at this festival," says Windy Webber, "just that they can do music and play for people and share time with their peers, that is enough."
Note: Terrastock II begins Friday, April 17, at 4 p.m. and continues through Sunday, April 19, at Custer Avenue Stages, 1598 Custer (at Rankin), near the intersection of Third Street and Evans. Although the festival is sold out you can tune into live broadcasts and Webcasts on radio station KFJC-FM 89.7 and www.kfjc.org. Also, Scott Sterbenz airs a wrap-up program of music, interviews, and highlights on KUSF-FM 90.3 Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m. At press time the Terrastock schedule was still volatile and subject to change; the most current show times will be provided at the venue.
New Zealander Roy Montgomery began recording with the Pin Group for Flying Nun, the admired independent label, back in the early 1980s. (His first two releases were FN 001 and 003.) In the 1990s, he began playing art rock with other islanders in Dadamah, as well as composing soundtracks for university film projects in the group Dissolve. Movies and Montgomery are a fine match. The guitarist sends cinematic aural postcards, or site-specific pieces of music based on places where he has traveled. Scenes From the South Island, which was recorded in 1994 and '95 in New York and San Francisco and released by S.F. label Drunken Fish, uses heavy effects and four-track recording techniques to make guitars wash, fade, and roll like synthesizers.