Sunset Sound System Hosts 10th Annual Campout and Celebrates 25th Anniversary

One of the longest-running recurring parties in San Francisco is celebrating 25 years of community music gatherings with the 10th Annual Sunset Campout, taking place one again in the small, mountainous region of Belden Town, located on the banks of the Feather River. The Sunset Campout takes over an old mining town to create an inclusive community of dance music; where live performances are accompanied by activities like swimming, yoga, massages, and even spa treatments.

Some of the musicians performing this year include Gerd Janson, Lena Willikens, Octo Octa, Marie Davidson, Felix Dickinson, Roman Fl├╝gel, Interstellar Funk, Nick The Record, Mozhgan, plus event co-owners Solar Langevin and Galen Abbott.

To preview this weekend’s four-day celebration, we spoke to Marin native and Sunset Sound System founder Galen to learn more about the origins of the recurring parties, the development of boat parties and a full events calendar, along with what attendees can expect from this year’s campout.

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How did Sunset Sound System get started?

[It was the] Spring equinox of 1994. I had an epiphany to start a Sound System party that was during the day and was overlooking the Bay. We started in the Berkeley Marina. I had already been going out in the scene and was already inspired by the Wicked Full Moons and Reggae Sound System Culture. I was also trying to become a DJ at the time and I was finding it harder than I expected to get gigs by passing tapes around and meeting people. So I felt the best way for me to play was to start my own party. Being from Marin and Mill Valley, I love being outdoors. I had this epiphany to start a daytime Sunday party that was free that everyone could come to and decompress from their weekend of raving or being out and watch the sunset over the San Francisco Bay and feel that transition from day to night.

I did the first one… in the Berkeley Marina. I borrowed a sound system and a generator and brought my home DJ setup out to do it. It was a great first day. I tried to do another one and nobody wanted to lend me their equipment anymore so I took a line of credit, I maxed all the credit cards I could get and bought a sound system and started doing these free parties.

They started very modestly. The first one, I got a couple of hundred people out. Then when I started them, I only got like five or 10, maybe just some friends out. I started doing them every week and slowly built up by the end of the summer. Toward the end of the summer, there was over 1,000 people coming.

When did Sunset Sound System transition from a weekly event to a more established calendar?

It started very grassroots. I met Solar in between. I met him at a house party. I asked him if he wanted to be a resident and soon he became my partner. I had two other partners Jay Bird and this other friend Laurean. They all helped. Jay Bird had a generator and Solar had a truck. We all came together and started doing these every week, every Sunday, because it was fun.

It was very seasonal. I think we went until October that first year and then the rainy season starts. So we kicked off the next year. Things had really picked up momentum. We had the idea to do a boat party. What better way to get closer to the sunset than to go on the Bay and watch the sunset. In 1995, we launched the boat parties. Things would slowly add in. At the same time as Sunset, I started a Wednesday night weekly at the Kat Club. That started well but the club owners were wanting more from the bar, so I started to focus just on the free party.

We gained in popularity. We had more people coming out and we started adding more things in. In 1998, we added the Campout. We did all kinds of other renegades too. We started this thing called Sunrise, which was an all-night party until the sunrise. We flipped the script a bit.

It was fairly seasonal. It was generally from the spring equinox until October. I really feel that part of our longevity was that we were primarily seasonal. We got to take a break every winter and recharge our batteries. The events we were doing, they’re not easy club events. They’re very labor-intensive. They all involve bringing out a sound system and finding a location. I found taking a break was very good for our energy and our mental state.

We did do a few New Year’s and warehouse parties as well, but that was really the only thing we would do in the winter. As time went on, we started to really define a calendar. As the years went on, we realized we couldn’t be bringing out our sound system every single Sunday. It started getting exhausting. People started taking us for granted and expecting us to be there even though we were always doing them for free. We started making them every other week and now things have gotten a lot more challenging with permitting and a lot more expensive. It’s hard to do it that way. We have a few outdoors, a few boat parties, a campout, and its always been fairly seasonal. Now we’re going from April to October. We’re still involved in a New Year’s party. We’ve done a lot of different things over the years between teaming up with Honey Sound System, and teaming up with the Monarch and Great Northern crews, to doing it on our own. We’ve done all kinds of things.

When did Sunset start to host paid events?

I would say the beginning of the boat parties was the first real endeavor dealing with a budget. You had to pay for the boat and a lot of things. It’s hard to say exactly when. We were really interested in doing club nights and DJ bar nights and teaming up with other crews. It was about six or seven years ago when we said we’ve been doing this a lot of the time. Maybe we should look at what we’re doing from a more organized business perspective and really look at our budgets. We just wanted to have a good party. The money was never the focus. We definitely didn’t want to lose money and we’ve built it up over the years where we haven’t lost money. We’ve always built everything from the ground up. The party and the vibe and the community is always the focus and then it’s about making sure the bottom line is taken care of as well.

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Do you have any commentary to share on the current environment in San Francisco Bay Area, music culture, and organic parties? What is it like to do to today as opposed to 10-20 years ago?

A few things have changed. One, when we were younger, we didn’t really think of all the things. We were more apt to be a renegade and we would take those risks a lot more. I think dance music wasn’t quite on the radar as it is now. That’s both good and bad. Maybe 10-20 years ago, people would see a setup and there was a stigma of a rave. We never called ourselves a rave. We were like a music picnic. Even though we played electronic and house music. We always tried to get out of that stigma. In the nineties, it had a very bad connotation. People just thought you were whacked out on drugs or things like that. That was not the case with our community. We were a daytime event. We did draw from a nightlife community, but we tried to put it in a very positive light. In some ways there was some ignorance back then that would let us get away with things. But then also we got stigmatized. We didn’t get a chance to show ourselves and we weren’t allowed a permit before we were shut down. Now with the rise of EDM and electronic music become more accepted in American culture. People don’t stigmatize as much, but now you have to run through the channels of the structure of city government. That’s one element that’s changed.

When we were smaller, maybe a couple of hundred people to a few hundred people, the locations you could do an outdoor sound system party were much more available because you didn’t draw the attention. We’re so big now, it’s almost impossible for us to do a renegade unless we barely promote it. We’re just too big. We would catch the attention of the park ranger. Where are your permits, bathrooms, and a parking team to make sure cars aren’t backed up on the road? We have to hire California Highway Patrol to manage traffic on the road. We have to have security at the event just to make sure everyone is getting along. We have had practically zero issues in the 25 years. The worst things we’ve had were some domestic disputes, but we always blow away many cities that we can gather thousands of people and there’s not one issue. It’s how our community works together. We have security, EMTs that are off-site. We have event managers, sound techs. We own two sound systems but we’ve outgrown them. So now we work with our good friend Know Audio who is our sound company. The cost to do something is so much higher because it’s hard to pop up a party in the park without doing all these things.

How do you go about recruiting artists to perform and venues to work with?

We’re very particular about venues. Most of the venues we do are in unique settings. They’re not standard brick and mortar locations. We do a lot of after-parties after our boat parties or events that will be in a club or lounge bar type setting. Primarily Sunset is founded on doing dance music events in unique and beautiful settings. That’s my primary focus.

For artists, it’s changed over the years. For a while there, I was really inspired by just the local artists. When it first began, the local DJs who were regulars in the circuit and San Francisco were known in the early to mid-nineties to have massive raves with just a local lineup… It wasn’t until later in the nineties that started becoming more of a thing, bringing in DJs from another city. As that started happening, it broadened our horizons.

We were really influenced by Chicago and Detroit DJs. We brought the well-known house music pioneers out to Sunset parties. In the last five to maybe eight years, I’ve been really inspired by what’s going on in Europe. For a lot of our boat parties and Sunset campout especially, we’ve been bringing in talent from Europe that really inspires us. To do it for this long and to stay inspired and relevant, it’s not easy. But music is such a passion for me, and when I started to get the opportunity to play in Europe a couple of years ago, it was like rediscovering dance music all over again. That huge energy that was going on over there. I was getting inspired by European acid house, house, techno, and electro artists. We’ve started bringing them over here to join us. This year, I’m involved with two festivals and doing Sunset Sound System stages out there. And I’m bringing some of those artists out here to play.

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What can fans expect from the 10th-anniversary Campout?

We have the 25th anniversary of Sunset this year in Belden Town. What’s makes the campout special is one, the location. It’s in an old mining town that’s privately owned on the Feather River, which is a very intimate location. It’s amazing but also causes a lot of logistical challenges for us from a production standpoint.

It’s very comfortable camping. It’s very woodsy, on the river. We said we do probably do some of the best stage lighting and sound I’ve heard or seen anywhere in the world. I’m fortunate enough to work with Radiant Atmospheres, who literally create lights that are the most unique visual arrays that I’ve ever seen anywhere in my travels. We put together very high-quality sound and lighting displays with everyone we’ve worked with for 20 years. Our sound company, Know Audio, builds a custom four corner rig. We have Intrinsic Designs that does amazing floral displays all over. We have the Fairy Ring and our friends do a lot of workshops and yoga and a place where you can chill out. We have the sunset. A spa where there are mini treatments for 4-5 hours every night. You can get a 15-minute massage. The saloon there, you can pop in and get a drink. We have tons of interactive art spread out over the festival grounds. There are so many bits and pieces spread out for such a small festival. We’re talking about 1,500 people, but you’re getting an experience and production level of something normally much bigger.

Usually, everyone comes away with a feeling of connectedness and awe of what you just witnessed and heard. For camping, everything is quite close. You have to be up for a camping adventure. Simple camping. You really don’t need much because so much is provided. We have showers, food vendors, a restaurant. You could literally come with a tent, sleeping bag, and shade canopy, and you should be set for the weekend.

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Sunset Campout 2019
July 26th-29th in Belden Town, California

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Written by Carlos Olin Montalvo

Follow me @carlosolin