Can Desert Daze Be America's Answer to Glastonbury?
Black metal yoga, the Institute of Mentalphysics, hippies – surely the only thing separating the two is the weather.
All photos by Stephanie Weiss
It's a hot, dusty Sunday afternoon in the Joshua Tree desert. I'm in a tent trying to hold my body in something I've just been told is called a warrior pose while Wolves In The Throne Room's "Prayer of Transformation" gives way to Sleep's "Holy Mountain". This is black metal yoga at Desert Daze festival, and it's surprisingly meditative. "Yoga teachers tend to focus on things that are light and positive," explains Alissa Nelson, our black metal yogi, "That can be great, but when people are in a certain place that doesn't resonate. Black metal can be dark and gory, but it plays on that dark aspect that's in all of us."
Black metal yoga is just one of a whole roster of strange events being held in the festival's Mystic Bazaar. Next up is something promisingly called "plant activation meditation", then a little later it's the ominously titled 'defense against the dark arts'. Elsewhere, an entire venue has been given over to a five-hour 'deep drone cycle'. Make of that what you will, but only 50 miles from the site of Coachella it's impressive to see a wholly different conception of what a music festival is and what it might be for. Along with the chance to see the likes of Iggy Pop, Spiritualized and Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Desert Daze also offers probably the closest thing an American rock festival has to the hippy spiritualism of Glastonbury's healing fields.
"I think festivals kind of lost their way," says Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone when I meet him backstage. "There are a lot of restaurateurs doing festivals now. It's a business model. I won't name any names, but there are so many of the same headliners on all the shows. It's so boring. It's like the new music section of Target, rather than someone's curated playlist. This festival can be a profound experience, if you come with the right approach. There's art here that's totally separate to the more linear narrative of a transformative rock festival. I don't know if that really exists outside of somewhere like Glastonbury."
Sure enough, along with Desert Daze's carefully selected soundtrack of punk, rock'n'roll and psychedelia, there are also plenty of artistic call-backs to California's hippy heyday. During John Cale's set, I notice the light show is being created live by hand using nothing more than old-school overhead projectors and dishes of coloured liquid. It turns out the guys doing it are Mad Alchemy's Lance Gordon and Dennis Keefe, who was once a member of Jefferson Airplane's traveling light show. Of course he was.
As a Brit in California, you can't help but wonder whether, in 2017, anyone is actually buying this transformative spiritual journey stuff? This is Trump's America after all. They're selling hippy wigs in Halloween shops, and, as a wise man once pointed out, Jefferson Airplane's generation failed to paint it black. In some ways the comparisons with Glastonbury seem apt, but on the other hand it's hard to imagine anything like Glasto's Leftfield tent here, or a way to translate how this summer saw the absolute boy Jeremy Corbyn on the festival's Pyramid Stage, thousands singing his name in perfect unison like a swell of football fans who'd got lost on their way to the pub by the pitch.
But I don't hear people breaking into song about Bernie Sanders, their national equivalent grey-haired hero of the left. This is still very much a place where people seem to want to come and forget about the nihilistic backdrop of contemporary politics. The audience is also perhaps more divided than you might expect. I hear more than one local refer to the desert as "Trump country". In San Bernardino County, where Desert Daze takes place, 41.89 percent of voters made their mark for Donald Trump (compared to 32.8 percent in California generally). Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes, who grew up locally and played the festival on Sunday night, is one of modern rock's most outspoken Republican supporters. I decide to put my theory to the test by asking some real-life Americans how they'd feel if Sanders was to suddenly appear for a Corbyn-style impromptu five minute-set on the main stage. The results, predictably, are mixed.
"I would scream with pleasure," says Michele, from New York, while Silas, from LA, dismisses the idea with a simple: "Separation of church and state." Others elaborate more, but are equally unsure. "Maybe if Run The Jewels were on the bill," jokes Lisa, also from LA. "It doesn't feel like it would fit in with the vibe otherwise. It's cool that there hasn't been much of a discussion about recent events at music festivals and shows, or any reference to politics that I noticed." Brandon, from Virginia, adds: "I think it would be well received, what with the vibe and the audience. I'm sure there's probably more Bernie fans than not. Personally, I think it would come off as a bit contrived."
The festival's site is filled with sci-fi sculptures, a miniature version of what Glastonbury's south-east corner does so well, and also like Glasto, there's plenty of talk about the mystic energy of the site itself. The festival is taking place at the Institute of Mentalphysics, the oldest and largest spiritual retreat centre in the western US, which was built by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son Lloyd on land the Institute describes as a "magnetic anomaly" that creates a "unique energetic vortex". Essentially it's the American version of the ley lines that somebody also insists on telling you about at Glastonbury's stone circle while you're more interested in trying to find someone to sell you a balloon.
The punters I spoke to, however, seem equally divided on whether this appeal to a greater spiritual power is an important factor in their weekend. "I actually just commented how I was hoping to attend a rock festival that didn't have the hippy elements still intact," says Brandon. "It seems an antiquated theme that should've died at Woodstock '99, and it still comes off forced and comedic at Desert Daze. Luckily, the music has won me over."
Others were positive. "Music is always what attracts me to festivals first, but it's a treat to have black metal yoga, a sound bath, or meditation available if I'm in the mood for it," says Lisa. "The art installations along the grounds are fun to play with between bands and I love some of the wild outfits people are wearing. It truly feels like the collective energy of the festival attendees is all about the beauty of the landscape, the live music experience, and appreciating it together as music-loving humans."
It's true that the plethora of opportunities for getting weird at Desert Daze sets it apart in an American festival landscape that's largely moving towards city-based festivals with line-ups filled out by rap artists, although it does have a few kindred spirits (see: Levitation, the festival formerly known as Austin Psych Fest). Wandering around the Desert Daze site, you're put in mind more of the dusty desert hedonism of Burning Man than the regulated fun of Coachella. It's still young – 2017 is just its sixth year – so comparing it to Glastonbury's legacy of almost half a century is premature. But while it's a glorious weekend and has at least the ambition to be as artistic and spiritual as the Somerset behemoth, one of the most noticeable differences is that politics just aren't on the agenda. Anyone hoping to hear their potential new leaders give rabble-rousing speeches in the desert will just have to wait until they live in a post-apocalyptic hellscape like the rest of us.
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