Dean Wareham is not a big rock-festival guy. The 55-year-old dreampop pioneer doesn’t care for the over-the-top theatrics that cater to a distinctively younger set of music lovers or for the stilted atmosphere that accompanies corporate gigs.
But something about the Huichica Music Festival — the two-day gathering at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma this weekend — captivates him. He appreciates the laid-back vibe, the collection of GB wines, the tasty offerings from local food trucks, and the opportunities to run into old friends.
“When I played here last time [in 2017], I brought my parents and I got to hang out with Robyn Hitchcock for the first time in about 30 years,” Wareham says. “I mean, you can’t do that at other festivals.”
And there you have the tagline for this truly unique, only-in-Northern-California offering. Huichica: Where else can you bring your parents and hang with British jangle-pop legends?
“It’s really just fun to walk around and talk to people,” Wareham says. “There isn’t this big security presence or a VIP area where the musicians are all huddled together.”
If Wareham does wander into the crowd, there is a good chance he’ll be granted a special type of reverence from fans gathered at Huichica (pronounced “Wah-CHEE-Ka”). As the lead singer and guitarist for Galaxie 500, he helped cultivate a generation of indie rock bands, setting the template for melodic, minimalist slowcore tunes practiced by everyone from Low to Brian Jonestown Massacre to Real Estate (who will also be there).
Formed in 1987 while Wareham, bassist Naomi Yang, and drummer Damon Krukowski were attending Harvard, Galaxie 500 produced three brilliant albums during a brief period of creative genius before disbanding in 1991.
Their songs are immediately recognizable — nearly every track starts with Wareham’s reverb-drenched guitar and the same simple strumming patterns, before elevating into a din of trippy atmospheric rock catapulted by Wareham’s Neil Young-inflected vocals. Galaxie 500 never had to fuck with that formula, because they never wrote a bad song.
And while each Galaxie 500 album is unimpeachable, the band’s true gem is 1989’s On Fire, which Wareham is set to reproduce faithfully and in full at Huichica. Each song has a special cadence — a tempo that impels the listener forward at a gentle yet insistent pace. These are songs you listen to while on desolate, dust-strewn highways, not realizing that you’ve crossed three state lines in the process.
Wareham’s vocals are eerie, atypical instruments, and while they lack the histrionic range of your classic lead singer, they guide each track down to its inevitable, ethereal end. On the recordings, Krukowski’s drums and Yang’s bass do just enough to anchor the sound, keeping Wareham within their hemisphere, if not the same plane. (During the course of each Galaxie 500 song, Wareham’s guitar work moves from deceptively simple to mind-meltingly expansive.) Mark Kramer, who produced all three Galaxie 500 albums, does his most masterful work on On Fire, capturing the unique brilliance of a band in its prime — and remember, this was a time when hair metal and the first traces of grunge music were the taste du jour.
There is a reason that On Fire is routinely listed as one of the best albums of the 1980s, and why Pitchfork awarded it a perfect 10.0 rating when it was reissued in 2010. In this writer’s humble opinion, Galaxie 500’s cover of Joy Division’s “Ceremony,” originally only available as a “B” Side and later included in On Fire, is the greatest song ever recorded. These songs seep into your skin and stay with you for decades.
For years, Wareham was reluctant to play Galaxie 500 songs live, particularly when his other band, Luna, was more active. (To wit, that nearly-as-esteemed group did just play at SFMOMA’s Art Bash in May.) In recent years, however, Wareham has opened the vault to the Galaxie 500 catalog, playing those old songs with increasing frequency. In his 2017 appearance at Huichica, he played Galaxie 500 songs, and this year’s appearance will coincide with the 30th anniversary of On Fire’s release.
“It has been a really fun experience to play these songs,” says Wareham. “It seemed like people were just really excited to hear these tunes, particularly since they thought they might never hear them again. It’s weird — we certainly never would have expected people to still be listening to us, 30 years later, but I think our music has held up well.”
In keeping with the communal spirit of Huichica, Wareham says he is looking forward to checking out several of the other acts listed on the bill, including the aforementioned Real Estate and fellow Kiwi Connan Mockasin. (Wareham was born in New Zealand before moving to New York as a teenager.) Also playing will be Wareham’s wife and longtime creative partner, Britta Phillips, with whom he has released three albums as Dean & Britta.
Wareham is set to play on Friday night, in the venerable barn on the Gundlach Bundschu property — a fitting locale for the whimsical, starry-filled sounds of Galaxie 500. Wine and good eats will be close by, and who knows, maybe Lee Fields or Johnny Echols or Kelley Stoltz will be in the crowd. At Huichica, the barrier between audience and artist is always blurry, an intimacy and immediacy that you cannot find at any other music fest. Just ask Dean Wareham’s parents. Or Robyn Hitchcock.
Huichica Music Festival, Friday, June 7, 2-11 p.m., and Saturday, June 8, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery, 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma. $55-$155; sonoma.huichica.com