“You guys are really good looking,” Steve Albini says, squinting into Shellac’s late-night crowd at at Desert Daze. “I would have sex with each and every one of you. However long it would take. Even if it took a week!”
The audience laughs and cheers—they’re down—as the band lurches into the chauvinist burlesque of 2014’s “You Came in Me,” the pit kids headbanging like a hundred over-caffeinated Beavises. A few songs later, Albini reconsiders his come-on. He could have sex every one of us, he says, but looking down at us from up there, he also can’t help but think how it easy it would be to have bombs dropped on us instead. If he wanted to.
“That’s the problem with flying,” Albini continues. “When you’re high up in the air, you guys aren’t these beautiful people. You’re all just a bunch of dots. Who cares if I bomb a bunch of dots? It’s easy.
“The world changed when we figured out how to fly. And that’s happening again right now. We have to think about what we do next. We can’t mess it up again. Because we really fucked up flight.”
Albini turns away, lifts his guitar to his face, and tears into the opening riff of ’93 escapist screed “Wingwalker” with his teeth.
It’s savage and poetic, a concentrated dose of the meditation on power, culture, and change that suffused Desert Daze 2018. In a year when the country at large has had to reckon with much of the same, the festival served as a reminder that maybe we’re not fated to fuck things up. Counterculture might change, but it can’t be killed.
Desert Daze has existed as an antithesis to the festival industrial complex since its inception six years ago. What began as a musician-founded Coachella side party has since ascended to one of the country’s most championed boutique festivals—a distinctly Southern Californian, surrealist affair celebrated for its artists’ artists curation, unpretentious vibe, and haven of psychedelic art and culture.
That Desert Daze emerged as a response of sorts to the mega-fest phenomenon also means it’s bound to it to survive. Its run has seen it expand, retract, and reshape itself almost year-to-year. The inaugural 2012 edition was essentially an extended Coachella party at a nearby roadhouse, with 120 acts over 11 straight days and nights—primarily local psych mainstays and niche favorites like Spindrift, the type of bands being left in Coachella’s ascendant mainstream wake. Despite just a few dozen attendees, Desert Daze 2012 unintentionally became one of the world’s longest consecutive music festivals, and organizers ran with it. The next few years would see it scaled back to a single-day event at an outdoor venue, with camping and a slow buzz building around its tastemaking, left-of-the-dial bookings (Tinariwen, DIIV, and UMO were among early players). By 2016, Desert Daze was holding its own, a three-day anti-megafest held six months after Coachella at a Joshua Tree psychedelic haven.
This year was to be Desert Daze’s largest crowd yet (organizers expected about 10,000 people), nearly double that of 2017, which threw a gauntlet of a lineup featuring Iggy Pop, Spiritualized, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, John Cale, and more. How do you top that? Throw in some broad appeal bookings in the mix (Tame Impala, Death Grips) and relocate to a sprawling new Southern California lakeshore site (Lake Perris’ Moreno Beach). 2018 marked a clear gambit for Desert Daze to level up, from scrappy DIY gem to formidable competitor in a crowded, cutthroat festival market. But as the decline and financial struggles of once-alternative bastions like FYF and Bonnaroo have shown us, just because a festival can be bigger doesn’t mean it should.
At some point in the past decade, music festivals have gone from countercultural communal gatherings to the corporate co-opting thereof—escapist popularity contests, complete with big-budget spectacle, cannibalized nostalgia, fashion lines at Forever 21, and feedback loops of one upmanship. You either die an ATP, or live long enough to see yourself become Coachella.
A bigger fest, of course, means bigger risks. On Friday at Desert Daze, attendees recounted waiting for up to three hours to park, only to be met with a flash lightning storm that forced the event to shut down in the middle of Tame Impala’s headlining set, and cancel the substantial remainder of the night’s programming. Fans booed and refused to leave as organizers implored that they get away from the main stage to take shelter, even as a downpour and lightning moved precariously closer to the beach’s metallic stages and installations.
Huddled in a van after the 20 minute walk back to camp, my friends and I mull over what the rocky start would mean for the festival. What now? Would the whole weekend be canceled? Did they overreach? Who are these dorks playing Limp Bizkit nextdoor? When the rain lets up an hour later, we wander the campgrounds in search of the night’s next chapter—surely there would be parties. But nary a 24-pack nor a campfire is to be found.
“I feel like the magic isn’t there this year,” my friend says the next morning, after a pal texts us that their group is leaving. I wonder if she has a point. This doesn’t feel like the intimate affair we’d come to love in years past, where you roll up to the parking lot and walk right in, where you might impulsively get crappy matching tattoos with someone you just met the night before, and where the crowd is chill enough to not boo because of the weather.
“Maybe this was inevitable,” I think to myself as a pedicab carrying a grown man in a giraffe onesie cruises by blasting “Just Dance.”
By 5 PM, the sky is still gray but the rain has mostly stopped. My friends amble down to the water as Kevin Morby takes the stage behind us. I protest—didn’t we come here to watch the show? “Watch him here,” my friend says, gesturing away from Morby and towards some lounge chairs facing the mountain-framed lake. It’s the kind of view that makes you understand Thoreau: the sun cracks through the clouds, light bleeding into the haze and refracting a rose glow across the mountains, the beach, our faces.
The fest is emptier today, and feels better for it. Someone in the lake does a handstand, while an affable shirtless dude wades in with a fishing rod. The woman swimming next to him points to a couple of thermoses on the beach and tells us to fix ourselves a mai tai. I lay down, close my eyes, and bury my feet in the sand, the water lapping to the strums of “Harlem River.” This is the ideal way to watch a Kevin Morby set.
The sign of a great Desert Daze set is if you take your shoes off. After Morby, it happened at Kikagaku Moyo (Japanese for “geometric patterns”). The Tokyo quintet’s Wikipedia page deins them “psychedelic folk” and “psychedelic rock,” but their beards—rangy, untamed, and cut at precisely the same length—offer a more fitting glimpse into its sound. We wade into the crowd as the band veers from classic rock-ish jams to jazz to experimental rhythmic deconstruction, smudging where one song or genre ends and the other begins.
But this isn’t a band you go see for specific songs, anyway. You go to watch them work, eyes locked as they negotiate some kind of singularity between two guitars, a sitar, the bass, and the drums. It’s less a performance than an exercise in kinetic energy: Bodies bowing, lower and lower, to the snowballing rhythm of “Dripping Sun,” the groove militant and hushed with organic tension. I look around and realize my friends and I are crouching, then sitting, then bowing forward, too. I press my palms hard into the ground and feel the rhythm swelling alchemically towards a climax.
From the corner of my eye, I see my friend quietly, almost deferentially, remove his shoes. “You have to,” he says. This is music you want to touch, to be close to. It can’t be captured by story feeds or nostalgia. It’s physical, music that quite literally grounds you, the siren call of something primordial you have sit inside of. You’re either there, or you’re not.
I take my shoes off a few more times throughout the festival. It happens in the grass during Earth, who drip and protract single-noted melodies over a comb of rhythms and reverb. During Slowdive, I carry my boots and rock my feet in the sand, floored by the band’s lilting grace—still tender after all these years. Rachel Goswell might be the most elegant frontperson I’ve ever seen, her gestures unhurried, her expressions considered, helming her mic and instruments like the captain of a ship daring us to follow her into the eye of a storm.
The band finishes with its extended cover of Syd Barrett’s James Joyce-lifted “Golden Hair,” an iconic photo of the crazy diamond cast on the screen behind them. The song crescendos, and Barrett’s forever-young glare slowly distorts into the laughing face of a toothless old man. It’s unclear if the photo is supposed to reimagine Barrett as what might have been, had he not been syphoned the drugs and limelight demands of a music industry hungry to exploit, and then discard, the psychedelic frontiersman. Perhaps the visual’s point, and the real tragedy of Barrett’s story, isn’t what might have been, but that we feel entitled to reimagine or deify him for it at all. In a rumbling wash of feedback, Slowdive leaves us with a bittersweet paradox—what they do best—both an homage and a cautionary tale to culture at a crossroads.
Psych rock, the blanket genre often assigned to Desert Daze, is inherently nebulous—less a precise descriptor than an umbrella term for a kind of music that can’t really be confined or defined. Barring a handful of requisite crowd-pleasing bookings, most artists at this year’s festival fall under that umbrella, or any number of hyphenated subgenres therein—psych folk, grunge psych, shoegaze, psych punk, art rock, noise psych, et cetera. None of them really tell you very much about what the music actually sounds or feels like. Their only unifying element is that they exist in a stylistic gray area, unbeholden to trends, taste, or time. The work performed at Desert Daze spans decades, but nearly all of it sounds like it could have been made today, or whenever. Psych music and culture, by definition, doesn’t fit in. It follows no hierarchy. It can never die.
But we can lose sight of it.
“[By the 70s] there wasn’t even a nod to the irony of ‘rebellious’ rock acts being part of the mainstream, corporate, commercial grind,” Devo’s Gerald Casale recently told me, a point he would reiterate during a Noisey visual retrospective of his corporate-lampooning work at Desert Daze. “We knew that rebellion and its various poses (leather, chains, long hair) was obsolete and cornpone.”
Rock music, or the defiant platonic ideal therein, has been scavenged, repackaged, and resold at a markup for as long as music has been an industry. Though the bands at Desert Daze all primarily feature guitar, you’ll find few, if any, mentioned in the great blogosphere debate on the death of guitars and rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe that’s because psych rock and its subgenres aren’t “rock ‘n’ roll” or “guitar music,” the same way Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine aren’t rock stars. And this is precisely why My Bloody Valentine doesn’t need a refreshed catalog or on-stage spectacle to perform emotional exorcisms on its crowd.
I don’t take my shoes off for My Bloody Valentine. You don’t need to. MBV’s medium is volume, and at Desert Daze, thanks to its new state park location, they would be playing sans noise ordinance. I’m told earlier that the band required an extra $50,000 of audio equipment to play. I forgot my earplugs.
The last and only time I saw MBV, at FYF in 2013, I fell asleep. This seems ridiculous, but at a high enough volume, you feel sound more than you hear it. It saturates every sense, every pore, every orifice. I stretched out on a bale of hay as the band took the stage and let it overtake me, vibrating my whole body to sleep. That’s what MBV does.
At Desert Daze, I don’t fall asleep. I do get separated from my friends as we run to catch the start of the set. About two songs later, someone pickpockets my phone. I run around but can’t find either essential, and it’s way too loud to ask someone to borrow a phone. I start to panic. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. I should be reveling in The Band We Came to See with the friends I came to see it with. I should be taking notes for this article. But I can’t do either, I can’t go anywhere, and tomorrow it’s back to reality. I briefly decide I hate festivals. I hate this band, whose sound I can’t escape. I give up and walk down the beach.
A guy with bleached hair and plugs gives me a cigarette, and we smoke together in silence as the band rips through “Nothing Much to Lose.” He’s alone, too. The feedback tingles my thighs, my eyelashes, my teeth. I lay down, close my eyes, and let it overtake me.
When I get up, the plugs guy is gone, and in his absence I spot my friends a few feet down. They’d been looking all over. We embrace, we sway, we yell—it all feels the same as the music only gets louder. By the time the band gets returns for the encore, the notes are sensations rather than sounds. They’re operating on an entirely different sonic palette at this point, a wall of noise and feedback from which the band improbably excavates notes and melodies. As they close with “You Made Me Realise,” we’re all standing apart from each other. We’re all inside of it, music that happens to, not for, you.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast editor. Follow her on Twitter.