Music by VICE

Desert Daze Is a Strange Trip of a Festival, and It Kicks Ass

The weekender is a mental and physical escapade to the sand-y confines of a prehistoric enclave.

by Eve Barlow
Oct 17 2016, 7:43pm

​As the mega-fest dubbed "Oldchella" made its last hurrah in Indio this weekend, the real desert "trip" was taking place in neighboring Joshua Tree at Desert Daze, an alternative Bucket List Festival featuring the mind-expanding likes of The Sonics, Primus, Godspeed You, Black Emperor, The Black Angels (performing Passover in full), Television, and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The bucket list headliners are so bucket list that one of them has been replaced by a tribute to Suicide's Alan Vega, who passed away two months after the electronic-experimental icons were booked at the top of the lineup. Beyond the classics, the festival featured an all-you-can-eat feast of top-notch acts from Connan Mockasin, Pond and Toro Y Moi to Cherry Glazerr, White Fence and LA Witch, running the gamut of what constitutes "psych," "heavy," "vibe-y" and downright "weird." 

Last year's festival took place at Sunset Oasis Ranch in Mecca on the first weekend of May—but having witnessed both, my how this baby's grown. Run by a family of like-minded individuals and spearheaded via Phil Pirrone (also of the garage psych band JJUUJJUU), by everyone's account here it seems like last year's festival was at least two years ago, if not a lifetime away. Had it been two years ago, the level of evolution at the new site—The Institute Of Mentalphysics—remains staggering and says "We mean business." It's small enough to feel totally accessible, but packed enough to feel like you're leaving wanting more. "Dude, Fart Barf slayed yesterday – did you see?" asks one person on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, I did not.

Arriving at The Institute Of Mentalphysics, designed by architect and writer Frank Lloyd Wright (some people tell me it was built in the 1920s, others "No way man, totally the 1940s..."), you can't imagine a more perfect location to free your mind and let your ass follow. "Please do not lick or grab or high five the desert literally, only metaphorically. Give these plants and animals your good energy and do not speak to them unless spoken to…" specify the instructions on the official flyer. 

The philosophy of Desert Daze is: Let's go backwards to move forwards. Like the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine, the weekender is a mental and physical escapade to the sand-y confines of a prehistoric enclave. To enter through the dusty gates is to venture on a journey to undiscovered truths about the human race… or something. Instead of HG Wells' crude monstrous Morlocks controlling our future selves, there are kind-faced hippies, killer rock geniuses and a whole host of visual artists. The layout is enhanced by flat-roofed, Flintstones-esque bungalows, which house the talent and staff, and a spire-d house known as 'Sanctuary Hall' where films are screened, including 'Hit So Hard' about the life of Hole's drummer Patty Schemel. Incredibly, Schemel is here to do a Q&A to boot. The appeal of Desert Daze has always been in that ambition to go the extra mile. 

All photos by Matt Draper

A key organizing member and Pirrone's other half, Julie Edwards (who you may also know as Deap Vally's drummer), mentions on day one that the Institute is home to ten-day-long silent retreats and special yoga festivals. On arrival on Friday, those who work here are commending one another about their building achievements over the past week, having constructed pyramids, installations and stages since the previous Tuesday. "There are pyramids all over this motherfucker," says one man called The Architect. The geometry here is described as 'sacred'. The surrounding Joshua trees give an air of inexplicable mysticism (and also one or two physical scrapes and scratches). The fact that this weekend will take in a full Harvest moon means everything transcends to an even higher dimension. For those who want to go there, an area called Mystic Bazaar contains a whole separate experience – including shamanic drumming at 6.30 AM, sacred healing, tarot, and "psychic self defence". I didn't get there in time for "No Place Like Om" but I'm nicking that name for when I retire to open a tea shop.

As night turns to darkness, you can navigate the moonlit-bathed dirt tracks of what transpires into Desert Maze. Be led by the faint whispers of other humans voices and various things that go bump in the night. Stumbling upon what looks like one of the eggs from 'Alien', I find a group of eight people deep in conversation inside. "I wanna achieve full oscillation," says one punter, unsure of whether that's the correct use of the word. "I have thorns in my ass!" says another. "Well, I have cactus in my feet!" Deep within another hut called The Cave Of Far Gone Dreams is a xylophone, which you're invited to play using (fake?) bones. There are mushroom stools made out of papier-mache and real enough-looking to potentially create a medical situation. Hazarding upon an installation in the shape of a lit-up VW bus, I approach an old bearded man who is standing next to it, and throwing his hands at the night sky. "All I know is this is called Fort Acid and I'm not up for conversing right now." 

That's just the environs. What of the music? Across four stages, every act is substantially alternative from the last. The second tier Block Stage on Friday night is decorated by hanging fringes. The visuals for this stage and the Wright Tent are provided by Mad Alchemist and The Blindspot Project, featuring spinning oil plates, throwing out gloopy rainbow colors, as if a lava lamp is being projected directly behind the bands. British glam fourpiece Temples noodle guitar solos from the 2014 debut 'Sun Structures' as lead singer James Edward Bagshaw channels a young Mark Bolan. "The Sonics are onstage next!" he says. "That's insane." Said legends of rock'n'roll are insane, ripping up 'Louis Louis', 'Have Love, Will Travel' and signing off via 'The Witch'. "Whoa hello!" says lead vocalist and saxophonist Gerry Roslie. "From the force of the North West, our job is to play hard."

Playing groovy over on the Moon Stage, Toro Y Moi bring funkadelic finesse, while Deerhunter turns Friday into Saturday cloaked like a hooded midnight marauder. "I just pissed on my fucking leg!" he says, into his vocoder. Maybe it's the lunar energy, or the purist community here, or likely the quality of this weekend's guests, but Desert Daze brings the best – and the most uninhibited – out of all who attend. On Saturday afternoon during Cali garage trio LA Witch's set, Pirrone's own 10-month old Mira is number one fan, throwing her hands in the air from the excellent vantage point of her nanny's arms. Mira misses Cherry Glazerr's energized afternoon slot, which culminates in lead singer Clem Creevy pulling her Fleetwood Mac t-shirt up, turning around in her white undies, and full-on mooning the crowd. On Sunday afternoon, Jennylee brings her labradoodle "Ludo" onstage and screams cuts from her 2015 solo record 'Right On' at the pup – how many times have you seen a canine backup dancer at a music festival? During the double-drumming madness of a never-ending Thee Oh Sees marathon set, someone in a panda costume invades the stage, then stage dives; the image of a panda bouncing up and down makes for a TOS set like you've never seen before. 

Speaking of, The Black Angels deliver their modern classic album Passover (2006) in full, as a near religious offering to the new moon. They're followed by a once-in-a-lifetime Primus headline set, during which the man next to me looks like he's actually trying to eat the music, his mouth snatching at Les Claypool's six-string equipped heady basslines. "I love that noise! That's my favourite noise," he says, in response to one bassline on 'My Name Is Mud'. To be fair, it does have earthquake-level, elephants-on-a-rampage impact. I imagine he's here to see Primus, such is his peaked state of mind, increased further by two enormous inflated spacemen on either side of the stage. "Wait, what are this band called?" he replies, a benefactor of unadulterated musical discovery. 

"Impregnate me!!!!" shouts one happy camper at frontman Larry LaLonde. "I wanna introduce to an amazing pile of atoms," says bandmate Claypool, also enamoured. Way ensconced in the game, they're one of the only bands to try out some political material. "I am at the point where I'm so famous that I can grab women by the vagina," says Claypool, having a dig at Donald Trump. "And I say 'vagina' because I'm a gentleman."

Over in the Wright Tent lives Connan Mockasin in his beautiful pink beret and shiny suit, taking loved-up couples and swooning individuals into Sunday morning with his slow jams. Friend and collaborator Kirin J Callinan is on hand to help pump the crowd up while they play way over their 1 AM curtain call, wishing bassist Nicholas Harsant a singalong 'Happy Birthday'. One partier on another's shoulders turns her back to the crowd and shouts : "I LOVE EVERYONE IN HERE!" The feeling is resoundingly mutual.

By 10am on Sunday the sound of primal screams followed by happy laughter emanates through the Artist Village, following a Full Moon party, DJ'ed by Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa and other Desert Daze "family".  It would explain why Nelly's "Hot In Herre" and Right Said Fred's "Too Sexy" are making their Joshua Tree debuts in 2016. "Has anyone seen fucking Star Wars?" says one member of staff at breakfast afterwards, pondering the evolution of festival culture and the difference between Desert Trip and Desert Daze. "There are rules! You need both sides to create the balance." 

The person who has most of an insight into said balance is Phil Pirrone, who spares a few moments on his Sunday brunch break to talk about building a monster out of a baby fest. His voice beyond husky, and breaking into tears (happy ones) at every compliment and memory from the weekend, he's a man who looks to have finally realized an enormous dream, and one that has the capacity to continue growing for a long time to come. One of the reasons for his high emotions concerns the lengths the festival have overcome in order to get to this point – beyond the death of a headliner, they contended with lashing out from locals and a controversy with Globelamp surrounding the booking of Foxygen.

"We're all sensitive people," says Phil, graciously. "We're coming from such a place of love, it's an injustice to have that to add to the experience of running a festival. I just wanna live in harmony with the locals here, be neighbours." As Phil highlights, there have been way worse offenders on this particular site in the past. People disobeying the stipulations of their permits, playing EDM until 4am. "The other night when The Sonics were playing we made a joke: 'I bet the locals didn't realise that The Sonics would be playing!'" Phil's way of dealing with it is a positive mental attitude. "If you don't even acknowledge their negativity they come around." 

Last night, several locals came just to see Primus and Julie was more than happy to let them in for free. The plan is to come back here next year, hopefully around the same time of year but that remains to be confirmed. On the subject of future headliners, Phil has already been at work, but is keeping his cards close to his chest. The idea of remaining a same-weekend competitor to Desert Trip still appeals to Julie though. "We represent the future of the past that they've created so why shouldn't we be happening at the same time?" Phil nods: "That's deep."

Phil's special moment this year came five minutes before his own band's JJUUJJUU's Saturday nightset. "I realized I hadn't watched any of Thee Oh Sees. So I got my whole band in a cart. The stage manager was like, 'Where are you going?' Oh Sees! Be right back! Everyone knew I wanted to see them so security cleared the way. I ran out the cart, and started shaking my head, the front of the crowd was rocking with me… That was the moment when I was like, Whoa this is an amazing thing." 

As the festival comes to a close via Julie's own band Deap Vally, a two- and-a-half-hour set from Brian Jonestown Massacre, POND, that special tribute to Alan Vega, an absolutely spellbinding rendition of the music that soundtracks Stranger Things by the modern Kraftwerk known as Survive, and Television who demand that the spinning oil plates be turned off because "we're going to have seizures if you keep those twirling disc things on…" it's extraordinary how unique, expansive and hard as nails Desert Daze 2016 feels. To quote Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe during the last set of the weekend: "Are you really going to throw what we have as human beings away?" This weekend's answer is squarely "no." There is a future in our past if we choose to rebuild it right. 

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