25 Years of Sunset Sound System with Solar & Galen
There are very few parties which can be said to carry such a legacy as that of the San Francisco, fun loving, eclectic minded party which is Sunset Sound System.
For twenty five years Solar & Galen have helped to pioneer free thinking dance and electronic music in the city and have been a significant influence on the careers of many. Just last week a conversation with Kim Ann Foxman saw her recite the joy of attending the early Sunset Sound System parties in the fierce outback of America at a time in which an oppressive government offered little in the way of liberal freedom or creative culture.
The parties themselves were special and helped to bring together likeminded souls from a diverse array of backgrounds, identities and cultures. Amidst the open air people danced and celebrated life, intrigued by the possibility of a future which might allow for them to exist as they were. The music was curated with delicate precision and showcased a world few had previously explored and as such the roots were planted for a party which would span twenty five years.
This summer the pair will showcase the distinctive nature of their sound at the sun kissed balearic extravaganza that is Love International, a festival with which the duo share a special relationship.
Here they are to tell us a little about how it all began and where it went…
Galen to Solar: Starting with the basics, can you tell readers the story of how we met and became friends/collaborators?
"It was quite some time ago and memories are always a bit distorted, but my recollection of our first meeting was at our mutual friend Caleb’s house party. We were both in the first year or two of learning to DJ and Caleb asked us both to play some records at his party. When I arrived to Caleb’s house you were already playing and after awhile, Caleb asked me to play.
When I approached you gave me a puzzled look up and down asking, “and what are you going to play?!” Granted at this time I did not look like your typical DJ/raver. I had long, dyed red or blue hair, septum piercing and leather jacket with silver paint. You finally agreed to let me go on and I proceeded to play a bunch of acid tracks that you were looking for or were into and started asking me about them. This sparked conversation later in the evening and we started getting along, and you invited me to play one of the wild parties you would throw at your parents house. I believe you had thrown the first outdoor Sunset party shortly before this time; you already had a crew with our first partners — J-Bird, Lorien and Bradson who was drawing all the original flyers. You asked me if I wanted to play the next one and be one of the resident DJs. I was super excited to join up, but wanted to me more than just a resident DJ, so I offered to use my truck I had at the time to transport the sound system and be a part of the crew rather than just one of the DJs. These were the beginning days of being friends/collaborators and where the true bonds were started."
Galen to Solar: What are the factors behind our strong chemistry as collaborators?
"We come from two totally different backgrounds and upbringings, which gives us somewhat of a contrasting view of how things are or should be. I believe this really helps as a check and balance mentality as collaborators—sort of a yin and yang scenario. Galen is very diplomatic and great at working with agencies and dealing with the bureaucratic side of things. I am the one who is usually out and about meeting new artists or searching around to find something new and interesting, and communicating with the agencies what could be a good fit for future events. But we check with each other on both sides, so we are in agreement with everything as a whole."
Solar to Galen: Let's take things back to the scene when we started in the 90s. How do you think the scene has changed/evolved since then? Do you think it's changed for better or for worse?
"So in the early-to-mid 90s we really felt like we were part of a very special underground movement. My ears would perk up anytime I heard a house beat coming from a car driving by because I knew they knew what was up! Everything was so new and exciting, but also evolving. As the 90s progressed and the energy of newness started to die down I really thought the whole scene was going to end. I thought it would be over as some music phase that we’d look back on and laugh at. But, it didn’t end and instead just kept progressing. The world of underground dance music just kept growing and my focus become less about San Francisco and the West coast and more about paying attention to what was happening around the world. When I felt stagnant, inspiration could be found by looking at cities around the country and beyond that were at different places in their evolution of dance music culture. Now, it became more common to hear house beats wafting from cars driving by or in TV/radio commercials. There were now multiple generations of club kids and ravers. Through the 2000s house music was still finding its way sort of in terms of being partly underground and partly becoming mainstream, but it wasn’t until this decade that the whole industry exploded world wide on many levels. In some ways I miss the days it felt more special, but I’ve also never been so inspired by all the fresh energy and the fusion of styles popping up all over the world. It’s a much broader spectrum now which is really interesting."
1995 Berkely Marina Sunset.
Solar to Galen: Gentrification is running rampant in our home of the Bay Area right now. How have you seen this affect the scene first-hand, and what can we do to help keep the arts culture thriving here?
"Oh man, this is has been a major topic of discussion for at least the last six years. We both are always checking in with each to be like, “are we good for staying in SF?” At one point I thought the extreme pace of it would for sure slow down, plateau, or even pop. But, San Francisco really failed its artists in exchange for giving tax breaks and perks to tech companies to move here. The Bay Area has always been a hub for technology but a corrupt government and mayor bent over backwards to see the industry almost take over. It’s been sad to see so many friends have to leave the city and countless classic establishments that gave this city a wild soul have all shuttered. But, from a Sunset Sound System perspective we have always managed to get the open minded people and artists still making a go of it to come and support us. We still embody the wild psychedelic character that San Francisco has been known for so it’s appreciated We remain one of very few organizations still carrying the torch for freakiness. Despite the heavy gentrification and changing feel of San Francisco there is still a lot of amazing art and music coming out of the Bay. These creators may not live in the city itself but it’s nice to see artists not giving up on their city even if it means they had to move 30-60 minutes outside of it. It’s this dedication that can keep the grass roots arts thriving and at some point things will shift again."
Galen to Solar: What are some of your fondest Sunset Sound System memories?
"There are so many when you have been doing something for so long, but one that always comes to mind is one of the free parties at a spot called Pt. Molate. This was one of our favorite locations at that time. We had been kicked out of our old spot at the Berkeley Marina and found this old run down park right on the water underneath the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge. The place was a mess so after our first party we cleaned up and left it in a much better state than when we arrived. A local police officer would show up sometime and recognize the effort we made into cleaning up and that we had a nice responsible crowd. He eventually gave us his card and said if any other police showed up to shut us down to give him a call and he would look after us. This lasted for quite a few years until they finally closed the park. In 1997 we were doing our three-year anniversary there and after the sunset and transition into night we had Comet Hale-Bopp on one side of the sky and a lunar eclipse on the other. This must have created some wild energy as I always remember how crazy people were going at the party. The energy was insane and all the DJ’s were getting out there as well. We had 3 turntables set up, phasing two copies of drum and bass records, mixed into some psych rock or something.
Another memorable one was close by in this sort of "no-man’s land" you had found on a map that was private property in this small section of public lands. The police came to shut us down and you were showing them on the map that it was out of their jurisdiction. They had a helicopter flying over the party radioing to police on the ground. At one point we heard them say something like “They’re right. Nothing we can do” The police left and the helicopter flew off to loud cheers from the crowd and the party continued into the night!"
Galen to Solar: Can you speak on how building a strong community is more or less as important toward a brand's longevity as its bookings?
"Our community is really the soul of Sunset Sound System in many ways. We have had quite a few partners along the way and a solid crew of people who now help make our events run smoothly and with as little stress as possible. When we started the first parties it was basically our crew of around five people and around ten friends each. Each Sunday, that number would double as friends told friends and by the end of the season we had around 1000 people! You have to realize that this was at the very early stages of internet. There was just one chat group called SF Raves, I believe, and only a very small amount of people on there. I still did not have a computer at this point. We had a voicemail line and would hand out flyers, but mostly people found out by word of mouth. This does not happen without a strong community."
1998 Yerba Buena Gardens SF.
Solar to Galen: What have we done differently than the rest to keep Sunset such a strong brand over the past quarter century?
"I think it really comes from both of our unfettered passions for the music and community. The drive to bringing people together in a conscious and positive light emanates through all that have attend our events. It comes from our drive to make the music and vibe of the party our main focus. It’s not something we try and have to do—it’s natural for us. Money has never been our focus when doing events. It’s been about the party, the people, the music, and the locations. We are both driven to find inspiration in our lives and that comes in the form of discovering new music and sounds and connecting people to it. Right now, we are both inspired by spending a fair amount of time in europe and other cities around the world and we can bring that back to the San Francisco Bay area and share that with everyone here. That is clearly displayed if you look at our lineups the past several years."
Solar to Galen: We've definitely gone over some hurdles. how have these instances contributed toward our overall strength and tenacity of our brand, in your view?
"Oh man have we! At times our biggest hurdle is just navigating what feels like a 25 year marriage at this point. [Laughs] It’s truly been amazing that we’ve come this far and kept evolving as the musical and event landscape has changed. We could have easily become outdated or irrelevant but we haven’t. Many of the hurdles have come when we reach the end of a viable venue that has been iconic to our brand. Whether it’s because we outgrow it or a city ordinance changes, we could have easily thrown in the towel. But, I just never wanted to give up. Every time we’re met with a new regulation or a changing social climate that puts our party in jeopardy, I see it as a challenge to find something new and just throw myself into the fire of city councils, police departments, and permitting processes and take on the new challenges so we can secure a unique venue to have our gatherings. It truly has gotten much harder to produce the types of events that Sunset does but somehow I find the energy to discover new potential venues to keep the Sunset vibe alive."
The first Sunset Soundsystem flyer.
Galen to Solar: What/who are the biggest influences over your artistic/musical direction?
"From a house/techno etc. point of view and in regards to Sunset there is no denying the massive influence the Wicked crew had on us. They had come over from the UK after the Criminal Justice Bill had basically shut down all the raves that were happening over there in the late eighties. They eventually made their way over to San Francisco, which was the perfect breeding ground for their take on the rave scene. They showed up and started bringing sound systems down to the beach and parks and playing wild acid house and psychedelic dance music under the full moons. All spread by word of mouth. This was the first time I had heard anything like that or seen anyone taking the chances to just show up with the risk of getting busted to make something magical happen while it lasted. Total DIY style. We learned a lot to say the least and have had nothing but the most respect for that crew."
Solar to Galen: Why have we gravitated toward day parties as opposed to nighttime parties? What makes the daytime special in your eyes?
"Doing a Sunday, outdoor, daytime, park party and finishing of the weekend while dancing all afternoon and through such a transformative time of day such as the Sunset has been the roots of inspiration. It was an epiphany I had while working on getting my name out there as a DJ. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in the aftermath of psychedelic hippie culture of the wild west or because the outdoors just resonate so highly with me. But we both grew up in Marin county, just north of the Golden Gate bridge which is full of beautiful open spaces and Mount Tamalpais. At the time, most dance events were geared towards dancing all night. Don’t get me wrong ‘cause I love dancing ‘till the sun comes up, but there was something special about finishing off the weekend warehouse and club parties by being outside, during the day, in a park for free. These days you can find many more daytime events and brands but it’s always been our foundation of what we do and what continues to inspire. I love that there is nothing to hide in the day and you can see everyone’s bright happy smiles abound."
Solar to Galen: We're obviously a very homegrown, grassroots brand. But it feels like nothing can stop the rise of social media and its importance in the marketing sphere. How do you think social media has affected the way we do business and promote as a brand, and do you think we should think about playing the game harder in the future?
"So as you were saying earlier, Sunset Sound System began before any social media existed. We’ve had a really strong word of mouth foundation that permeated well into when social media began to take hold of how people receive their information on many things and especially parties. It’s really only been lately that we have stepped up our modern promotion techniques by harnessing platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. We have also had a very dedicated email list as we are constantly communicating that is the best way to get direct contact from us. I feel part of our longevity is our ability to adapt to the times and lately it’s been more the sheer saturation of events marketing similar musical ideas that has had the most impact on us. Peoples attention are being pulled in more directions than ever before. That has really driven us to ramp up and diversify our promotion techniques so we can also appeal to the new generations."
1994 Solar Berkeley Marina.
Solar to Galen: We've drawn a lot of really cool talent to perform at our parties as of late (Dixon, etc). What is it about our vibe/curation that leads to such strong support for Sunset Sound System among the DJ community?
"I think the main thing is we approach our events from a DJ perspective. Sunset was started as an avenue to DJ outside the bedroom during a very entrenched music scene that was hard to break into. I’ve really always thought of myself as much more a DJ and music person as opposed to promoter, as I know you do too, but often we end up taking on the promoter roll much more. That’s because what came out of this drive to DJ records outside also birthed a community that has brought so much connectedness in all our lives it tends to take the forefront. We are always thinking about our events as what will be best for the party and the people coming. Creating the party that I would love to DJ at if I were the guest. It’s been pretty special to have talent from all over the world come and say it’s been one of their favorite parties to play."
Galen to Solar: What are some of your favorite spots we've brought Sunset parties to over the years and why?
"Our first two locations (Berkeley Marina, Pt. Molate) will always be very special as this was where we started and it was still a free, illegal or later semi-legal event. I think the most iconic memory would be of the Berkeley Marina. People would dance at the bottom of the hill where the sound system was set up and as it got close to dusk everyone would make their way to the top of the hill and turn into these silhouettes dancing, hugging or just holding hands. When the sun would finally sink into the San Francisco skyline they would run back down the hill to the dance floor with renewed energy to take the party to another level for the last hour or two. This was a very bonding time as we were all just growing up and getting to know each other. Pt. Molate was right underneath a bridge with these small islands, an old pier and some sort of sunken boat which created quite the landscape to watch the sunset. Belden Town where we now host the annual Campout is another favorite. It’s an old gold mining town in the Sierra mountains. You have to cross this amazing old school bridge with a giant martini class to get into the town which consists of just a saloon, lodge and a few cabins all nestled up against the picturesque Feather River and snow covered mountains in the distance."
1994 Berkeley Marina.
Galen to Solar: We're off to Croatia soon for Love International…what are some of the differences you've seen in the festival circuit abroad vs the US?
"The festival circuit in the States for underground electronic music is quite small compared to ones I have seen abroad. Off the top of my head I can only think of about a half-dozen in the States that are doing non-commercial, cutting-edge, quality events and all of these probably have no more than 1000/1500 attendance. Most other countries I have been to there are festivals like this every weekend from April-September with festival season keeps getting longer and longer each year. Many of these festivals are quite large drawing over 5,000 no problem. In places like Europe there seems to be much bigger audience for these types of festivals. I am guessing this partially due to the strict drinking age and curfew laws that we have in clubs and bars. Obviously this does not support a strong nightlife and music culture as opposed to places like Berlin or Amsterdam where the city actually sees clubs, venues and festivals as an artistic, cultural inclusion to the city."
Solar to Galen: This isn't our first Love International takeover either; what were your first impressions of the event when we debuted there, and what keeps us coming back?
"Well, we had been asked for a few years to come over and do a boat party for Garden Festival, which is what preceded Love International. The original promoters (Eddie & Nick) had once lived in San Francisco doing boat parties so it made sense for us to bring that classic San Francisco vibe over. But, since it took place so close in dates to the Sunset Campout we really couldn’t make it happen as we were still building our festival and required an insane amount of attention and work leading up to it. It wasn’t until we had some budget to build in more help and staff while at the same time getting reports from friends who played there saying it was not to miss that we decided to make the journey. It was an instant match made in rave heaven as so much of the festival curation, location, and feeling fit perfectly with what we have been doing with Sunset all along. The energy of our first boat party was through the roof, literally! It felt amazing to be so embraced this far away from home. Each year we come back I think how can it top the previous year but each year proves to be a symbiotic celebration with a new twist.
At this point we have had hundreds of friends and Sunsetters make the journey with us and I don’t think one will disagree oh how amazing the experience is and how perfectly it fits with our vibe. It’s been an honor to grow with Love International since it’s beginning, sharing our energies to people around the globe, and have embraced the partnership to the fullest."
1994 Galen, Tony Berkeley Marina.
Adnan Water bottle Stafford 2011.