Before there was Dirtybird Campout or anything like it, there was Sunset Sound System. Founded on the spring equinox in 1994 as a free, outdoor party at Berkeley Marina, it’s become an institution and a staple of Sunday afternoon partying. Established by one DJ Galen — who was quickly joined by a fellow Marin native with a punk background, Solar — Sunset Sound System quickly grew to become a series of outdoor raves and parties as far away as Croatia.
Needless to say, keeping something going for a quarter-century is a lot of work, but the 2019 calendar is full of top-tier events, in particular the four-day Sunset Campout, held July 26-29 in the Sierra foothill hamlet of Belden Town, Calif.. SF Weekly chatted with Galen ahead of last weekend’s Spring Boat Party to talk about the history of Sunset Sound System and what the future holds. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
This is your baby.
I am involved in every aspect. Not only am I DJing and curating lineups with Solar — we came up with the ideas for the different types of events, starting the boat parties which we did in 1995 and we never stopped — but I’ve kind of taken over the business as a whole. I’m driving the events and the promotions, but I do have a team of people that help me with a lot of it. Sunset Campout [July 26-29] has a lot of people who work on that, but I am the hub. Most everything has been my ideas as far as the different types of events, starting the boat parties which we did in 1995 and we never stopped.
We did the boat party in Croatia for the Love International festival and all the other little things. We used to do lots of underground parties, renegade parties. We don’t really do that stuff anymore, as the climate has changed quite a bit to be able to pull that stuff off, and we’re all a bit older now so to put in that much energy and potentially take a big risk for getting busted was really fun all throughout our 20s and into our 30s a bit, and we’ve grown. That’s the other thing: We can’t even do that kind of stuff now without it causing [a scene]. You would notice it.
Are you a bit relieved that it’s too big to do renegade stuff, or are you wistful for what you were able to pull off?
The liability issues were always bad, but now the venues are even more freaked out for liability and the amount of checks-and-balances and insurance have raised the cost of doing an event so much more, so I’m more bummed about that. That it takes so much financial and human resources to put on an event, it really raises the bar of the type of event you can do. It’s hard to do something smaller, more intimate. Not even fully renegade — even something more casual. You need to have this many security guards and ‘No, you can’t do this cause it blocks this.’
I go to Europe a lot now, and it’s so much easier in a way. All the clubs there, there’s no curfew on drinking, the clubs just stay open a lot longer. Structures that are really cool hangout places would never exist in the U.S. because they would have to be handicap-accessible, and building codes that have been developed because of people suing people. That just makes things a lot more challenging, so that has been a big adjustment over the years. I look at where our sunset parties, like the one we did at the lake a few weeks ago, it used to be a free party and we’ve had a few thousand people out to it. We would get permits from Berkeley or Richmond and that would be it. Now, we have to have medical teams, CHP running traffic, security, there has to be a sheriff on site, you have to have the right amount of ADA bathrooms and ADA parking. There’s so much more that goes into producing an event.
What we do, what our core is, is a non-traditional dance party. We do club events, and for a lot of our daytime events, our boat parties, we go to a venue for an afterparty, but our main thing is not doing a club on a Friday or Saturday night and bringing in a couple headliners. What inspires me the most is doing unique gatherings that embrace our community to do something different, which is why we always like to do something outdoors. And we always love to do daytime. Its’ a lot harder, but it’s a more special experience. Also our events have always been on Sunday — or mostly on Sunday. The basis of Sunset was always bringing people together after a full weekend of activities, and back in the ’90s usually people would be out raving and they could come to the park and they could see their friends where everyone would have been at two or three different places over the weekend, and they’re outside.
We’ve constantly experimented. We’ve done Saturday boat parties. I remember one year, we did a winter formal on a Friday night just do to something fun: pretend you were at your prom again. A full-on electronic dance party with everyone dressed up but there’s something special about the Sunday dance party. As we’ve gotten older and people have more responsibility, we get some flak, people are like “Why is it always on Sunday?”
That’s the point: It weeds out the true parties from the people who always have their eye on Monday morning.
It’s really kept our crowed very dedicated, and the energy at our events very high even after two decades. If we weren’t, if that didn’t exist, or our friends stopped coming — those are all barometers for maybe doing something else. The people who want to be there really want to be there. The boat parties, for example, end at 11, but people want to come hang out at Monarch with us until 3 in the morning ending with a bunch of people there.
Obviously people move away or have kids, but is there a hardcore group of friends who have been with you from the very beginning, really devoted attendees known to you personally and who you always see?
Yes, there definitely is a big group that have been with us, lightly, on and off since the beginning. I also see generations, people who come in for big chunks of time and maybe they move away or maybe they have kids and sometimes when I’m talking to people and I’m like, “You know so-and-so right?” And they’re like, “No.” And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, they were in the 2000s and you came in in 2010, and OK, maybe you didn’t cross paths.”
People cycle with us. We’ve been such a mainstay not only in S.F., but we had many years where we did Golden Gate Park and we used to go to Santa Cruz and do beach parties and now we’re in Marin but we’ve tapped into different sects of these communities and it’s amazing how people will drive to be with us. Our park events, we can get more of a family vibe but also our more hardcore clubbers and dance-y people will be there too. Everyone’s coexisting.
To keep the energy fresh and see what’s going on in different parts of the world — as a DJ, that was my primary reason for even starting Sunset. It was very hard for me as a DJ to break into the S.F. scene. I think, at this point, we’re the longest-running underground dance music crew. The only ones that’s still going from the ’90s that hasn’t taken a break. I look back on it and I’m like, “How did I get here? Am I crazy or just …” I don’t know! I have no idea how much longer it will go. At one point, it will be an end to our full season, although I would always love to see a legacy of Sunset. So we’re launching a record label and a podcast series. We’ve been recording sets since the ’90s and we’ve never released any of them, so we’re doing this podcast of sets from all three eras: ’90s, 2000s, and 2010s. We’re going throw release parties and release stuff from our renegade ties in the 90s and it’ll be great way to have the music of Sunset online and always accessible for everybody.
About the music itself, I’ve always kind of thought of Sunset as ‘Dirtybird-plus’ in that it’s not so focused on a narrow idea of house. Has it evolved over time, or was it always a reflection of your and Solar’s personal taste and the people it attracted and went on from there?
So Dirtybird was inspired by Sunset. I am good friends with those guys and they started their BBQ as their version of what we were doing with Sunset — and they were using the same location in a Golden Gate Park meadow when they launched. But they definitely have a very defined sound: bass house. Their music has a lot more — not to say this in a negative way — but more mainstream appeal to it. Solar and I have always been inspired by acid house. I come from a more electronic music background, a lot of ambient and almost New Age stuff. Solar comes from a punk and rock background and it’s been a fusion of us. I’ve always felt that events that go on whether you’re the DJ or not are a reflection of the promoter who puts them on.
Our events have never been about money. It’s always been about what is good to make a good dance party and build community and what kind of music goes with that, so all our events start with reggae, funk, soul. We love to have this build throughout the day, so we’ve always brought in a DJ. We don’t just start right out. We move into punk or disco, acid house, techno, tech house. We always mix it in — like even dance rock, like when DFA got really big, that was a big sound for us, because ti was totally raw and different. I wouldn’t say we have such niche sound like Dirtybird, but it is a feeling or more organic raw dance music that is kind of at the house tempo. Acid house is our foundation, but sometimes we’ve ended parties with Led Zeppelin.
It was funny: In the ’90s, we’ve always felt this way, but people started saying, “Oh, Sunset, it’s Sunday afternoon, it’s a nice house party.” But we were like, “We do not just play house music! We play techno, we get raw!” So we’re like, “Let’s book some techno DJs,” and they would come and say, “Thank you so much for having me out here. I worked all week and I made a house set for you guys, and we’re like, “No! That’s not what we wanted! We want you do to what you do!” It’s funny how in dance music across the board, people like to define you as one style but we really have felt like we kind of try to break down the genres. We don’t play trance, we don’t play hard breaks like Burning Man breaks or anything like that. So there is in a sense a style, but it’s a raw, avant-garde, acid-house, techno-disco kind of sound.
Click here for the full list of Sunset Sound System’s 25th anniversary events.