72 Hours, one stage, and thousands of miscreants getting weird on an Indian reservation.
Already dubbed 'The West Coast's fastest rising party squad', Desert Hearts have upped their profile recently by launching their own label and mobbing the concrete jungle of Los Angeles for City Hearts in October. It's all been in the lead up to their Two-Year Anniversary edition, held last weekend in the arid outskirts of San Diego. As it approached, we knew we were in for something a lil special, but what unfolded was the classiest exhibition of camped-out, bugged-out, waved-out lawlessness we may have ever seen – and we've got the dusty luggage, ringing ears, and quinoa farts to prove it.
After an arduous night's driving that included crashing backwards into a wall, stumbling upon the end of a high speed pursuit on the 210, and a trip to the dogdiest Wal-Mart in existence, we rolled into the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation at 6AM – right as the sun was rising. Like any responsible rave-squad, we skipped setting up our tents and immediately hit the dancefloor as Jonjo Williams dropped what he later referred to as a "kick up the arse" set for sunrise.
Starting the party at daybreak may seem a bit hectic, but we learned early on that time stops existing as soon as you cross the threshold into Desert Hearts. It's 72 hours of continuous music, a vortex of dusty hedonism, and nobody knows nor cares what time it is – People's estimations were off 100% of the time. Phrases along the lines of "It's only 7pm?! I thought it was 3 in the morning!" were common.
The event brought together everyone from The Well-styled, black-clad ketamine hipsters to old-school careerist woods ravers in their fifties, sagging gloriously with experience as they hula hooped in fading neon. The burner vibes were strong. The community behind Desert Hearts was borne out of experiences on the playa, but the vibe they're bringing is younger, fresher, and hipper – Especially in terms of the music.
A highlight of the first day was the re-appearance of Sabo. Although he achieved most of his notoriety as a progenitor of moombahton, his set was populated by a bassy appropriation of deep house and his versatility was impressive. It was a notable follow up to his standout set at Robot Heart during Burning Man. At a certain point, a Lassie-esque pooch wandered its way onto the sage-scented dance floor and nobody thought twice about it – And this is before I downed those hallucinogenic research chemicals, so i'm quite certain that it actually happened.
Desert Hearts' entire perspective stands against trends in festival culture at the moment. Whereas most are constantly searching for bigger, Desert Hearts keep it simple and do it well. A non-stop, one-stage philosophy is a central theme to their ethos and in doing so, the dancefloor becomes the center of a temporary community. The banger-dropping arms race of most festivals becomes totally voided and DJs are able to actually weave a narrative in two-hour sets. The thing that made it all work is that the quality of the performances was astoundingly good. Even the lesser-known acts getting their first big shot rose to the occasion with a seemingly intrinsic understanding of the crowd. I was expecting a grip of cumbaya-inducing patchouli breaks – There was a little of that. Instead, what stood out was a whole lot of dark-as-fuck, weird-ass techno. Yes please.
Ah, there's nothing like waking up in a poly-iso yurt with the smell of vegan sausages in the air. Camps all-round were doling out everything from smoothies to hummus wraps– "Hey, there's a topless woman giving out free french toast" is a phrase I could wake up to every day. Afterwards, I shook off the prior night's tomfoolery while lounging in an elevated, rope-suspended pillow fort in the adult playground that sat in eyeshot of the stage. Amaze.
World, meet Lee Reynolds. You're going to be fast friends. The D.H.O.G has the look of an eccentric old Bulgarian champion violin instructor who has been trapped on a cruise ship for a decade, complete with a luxurious grey beard and maniacal laughs towards the sky whenever he's feeling the groove. He may also be The Most Interesting Man in the World and/or Mikey Lion's father. The 20+ year scene veteran had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he careened through left-of-center tech/house styles and now I'm a fan for life. So much fun.
Mikey Lion is not fucking about. Don't let the feathered hat fool you, Desert Hearts' fearless leader is serious business. He followed up Reynolds and showed a masterful understanding of his crowd and did it all in a very dapper vest. If you can make Francesca Lombardo struggle to follow up the vibe of your set, you know you're doing something right.
What stood out about a lot of the sets at Desert Hearts is that they were woven together by aesthetic coloring more than by genre definition. Despite the House/Techno/Love motto, tangential forays into other styles were ubiquitous. In particular, garage got a nice day out in the desert, as did burner-y breaks of all sorts. A lot of the DJs on show excelled in playing to the environs. Three minute pseudo-ambient buildups of animal noises and warped samples might not get you anywhere at EDC, but in a forest clearing full of fried-out weirdos, they were apropos-fo-sho.
The last set of the weekend I saw was Desert Dwellers, a burner-scene mainstay who refer to their tunes as 'sonic incense for the mind and body.' I quickly realized how these things can descend into psytrance-rave levels of cheese if you're not keeping a keen eye out. Their set drew out the more weathered attendees who howled at the moon and called for the act to "play some real Desert Dwellers music" as the duo worked through the more techno-y segments of their set that I actually found most engaging. Therein lies the key to Desert Hearts: Whereas Burner culture can often appear to outsiders as a patchouli-scented caricature of itself and the last bastion of hippie-dom, Desert Hearts maintain the cornerstone philosophies that define the culture (and make it awesome), but pepper it with a liberal helping of effortless cool.
This carries over to the attendees. What a beautiful collection of weirdos. A lot of massive festivals can have an alienating quality in their huge numbers, but this party just felt like a four-day rager in your friend's awesome backyard (Your friend in this instance being the Cahuilla and Cupeno Indian tribes). If you locked me in a room with pretty much anyone at this festival for an hour, I would be more than stoked to trade war stories and get weird. I can't really say that about many other events.
And there it is. We came with Desert Hearts, we left with desert lungs, filled to the brim with kicked-up dust. I'm tinged with hesitation in writing this as the Desert Hearts experience and community are perfect as they are. It's got a totally renegade ethos paired with professional level organization and the fact that they've grown so much in only two years as a sign that this is the beginning of something important.
And in celebration of the never-ending fountain of awesome that are the attendees of Desert Hearts, here they are in all their sooty glory. You're all rad. Seriously, be my friends:
Jemayel Khawaja is Managing Editor of THUMP - @JemayelK