“Do you think Silver Lake is a ghost town right now?” I heard someone ask during my three day camping trip at Desert Daze. The thought made me laugh, I’m sure they meant it mockingly, as this festival is LA’s annual scenester oasis, still though, upon really thinking about it, even though I don’t consider myself a part of Los Angeles’ elite hipster psych and garage rock circle, I am an admirer. Those are the people that make East Los Angeles such a beautiful destination to bar hop and hear live music. And who knows what came first, the people or the music. If you really ask yourself that question, you’ll have to reflect on the importance of Moon Block and how they nurtured, fostered, and straight up created a scene, a sound, a fashion, a mode of thinking, and a state of being that is positively Los Angeles.
Desert Daze celebrates musical diversity but emphasizes psych rock both sonically and visually. Bands that aren’t psych can slide right into the mold with a little bit of liquid light and satisfy the needs of any tripper thirsty for stimulation. Herein lies the rub for me, I’ve never liked psych rock. I mean sure, I love The Doors and The Zombies, but those bands made classic songs. Today, I feel like these bands and the people that follow them might have preferred The Doors as an instrumental outfit. Lots of diddling on your instrument, that’s how I consider a lot of popular psych rock. That can be transportive, which is always a good feeling, but I think it’s better to be somewhat attached, really soak in and understand the beauty of what you’re hearing. And what reassures me of my distaste for most psych is that at a psych rock festival as this, all the headliners are not of that genre. The Flaming Lips, Devo, Ween, Wu Tang Clan, Animal Collective, Stereolab, Devo, Flying Lotus… lot of diversity in the headliners but no psych. It’s that diversity though, that made me overlook the festival’s emphasis and see the bigger picture that this is in fact one of the best festivals there is, if not the best. I’ve been to them all, even though this was my fist Desert Daze, trust me. Believe the hype.
I saw many performances but will only cover the highlights, which were many. I have to begin with camping though. Among the dusty rolling hills that recede from spiritual heart of the festival grounds, Lake Perris’ actual lake, we camped in droves, first a row of RV’s then of tents beside their cars, all rippling out from the Mystic Bazaar in the center. Music and mystic hubbub could be heard from the bazaar at all times of night. There, you could learn about all matters of the spirit between here and the cosmos. As for our campgrounds, hippies scoured like roadrunners trying to sell all sorts of tinctures, inventions, and fashion. Barefoot and going without showers, this was psych rock’s version of the punk rock crusty, no home but here, wherever my feet may stand. After setting up our tents against the wind, we made for the festival and Desert Daze 2019 had officially begun.
I discovered very quickly that often times the sets I fancied the most would be taking place on the smaller, tented up Theatre stage. Jonathan Bree was the perfect nitro fuel to rev up the Desert Daze engine and get my heart and soul moving. Shrouded in mystery and performing something close to the European cinema of Antonioni, Bree’s sound was enchanting and cool, every song stirring the audience but also building a persona for him. Bree’s voice is that of a crooner but layered atop his whimsical sound, I wouldn’t describe his music as sad. This oddball, along with Orville Peck, are bringing mystery back into music in 2019.
I returned back to the main two stages to see DIIV, Jessica Pratt, and Atlas Sound, the latter of which was one of the artists I was most excited to see the first day, as a big fan of Bradford Cox’s band, Deerhunter. DIIV and Jessica Pratt were both great and satiated that thirst for the hipster sound but to be honest, they were so mellowed out I couldn’t help but imagine how much more fun everyone would be having if, oh I dunno, a band like Sacred Reich were playing instead and utilizing that early, sun-powered energy we were all wasting. That wouldn’t be the case though, the booking determined it was best we would all stand and nod stoically for this block of time, the high among us perhaps enjoying themselves more than the sober. That said, Atlas Sound were a bit more nuanced I felt and certainly noisier. The noise wasn’t about disorienting the audience so much as it was making us feel different emotions from sounds we often don’t consider emotive.
New York’s Crumb is all the rage at this moment, performing such lucid and tranquilizing music it pushes this reality closer and closer into dreaming for anyone fortunate enough to be listening. Before playing the fest, they quickly sold out a show at El Rey and here, their set was packed full of people wanting to feast on the sound. It resonated throughout the festival grounds, setting a tone that made every little action a bit cooler, a bit more with the flow. Food tasted better listening to Crumb, ordinary people appeared more extraordinarily beautiful. This swell of heavenly sound climaxed with the sunset, as if even the sun had to huddle closer to the Earth to get a better view of the set.
Avant-garde English/French pop band Stereolab reunited for the festival and were first to play under the moonlight. With minimalist sounds and complex lyrical themes, this is a good band to dance and think to simultaneously. Their sound felt very vintage, hardening an era of the 90’s where England was ruled by a new form of mod and pop was king. Pop like this though, so outside the box, was perhaps the king’s jester. The time signature’s of this band were always a bit offbeat but still had this gripping way of taking you under the music’s wing. I followed every step of the music as if you were a ball being paddled from side to side in a game of ping pong.
Next up was a band that performed my 2nd favorite set of night 1 and that was J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr’s band with King Tuff known as Witch. It’s psychedelic Sabbath worship that brought a much needed metallic element to a festival that was beginning to feel a little too dippyish. With Mad Alchemist’s liquid light blowing up the backdrop behind the band, every riff and drum felt explosive and positively evil. There were mosh pits and headbangs abound that would have won over the most skeptical heshers.
So many of my friends are Animal Collective die-hards but me, I never gave them a thorough listen. Prior to this set, my idea of the band was that their sound was sort of all over the place. After the set, I still feel like yes, their sound IS all over the place, but now all over the place means something wholly new. With dub, dream pop, post punk, and so much more packed into a tiny box, it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly you’re hearing, this was a set that expanding my horizons but still, I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. It was cool for what it was. Lots of hearts were full, lots of people were disenchanted by it because they wanted to hear the older stuff.
W.I.T.C.H. aka zamrock legends We Intend To Cause Havoc were next and their set was an exorcism of everyone’s most powerful spirit energies, coming out of their hands and feet to dance and jam to this jail house rock. Every body in the place didn’t spare one iota of energy, it was just pure rhythm and rock. The jams were cool, sexy, and powerful but still carried with them this feeling that they were born out of pain and oppression.
I could cry a million tears of joy and a million tears of sadness, reminiscing on how tremendous seeing The Flaming Lips for the first time at Desert Daze was. That’s the essence of The Soft Bulletin, their career-defining album and the most suited for this festival. Song after song fills your heart with joy but is ultimately about something sad. Wayne Coyne, who dressed in a white suit and black harness, is the ultimate frontman and showman, from puppeteering the balloons that bounced upon the audience through some kind of happy telekenesis or bringing out a giant inflatable sign that read “Fuck Yeah Desert Daze”. Beginning with “Race for the Prize”, this dazzling set was dedicated to a friend of the band that was in labor during the show and the band hoped their music would urge that baby to come into the world. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” drove home the essence of this album. Basically, as tough and heavy as the weight of this world can be, we must smile through it all, loving our friends and family all the while. Even Wayne felt the sadness of “Waitin’ for a Superman” and urged the audience to keep their spirits high during the sad song. And the lyrics are so true, sometimes we all need to be rescued but more often than not, no one is coming to help and we just have to tough it out. They followed with two encores, the first featured “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” parts 1 and 2 and the second finished off their set with “Do You Realize??” There’s no doubt in my mind that during this set hundreds of smiles floundered upon faces, hundreds of tears were shed both happy and sad, and love was born between two people, somewhere in that audience.
One of the artists I was anticipating to see most was going on early on day 2 and that was English-German singer/political journalist Anika. The animas of her music is something truly special, singing originals and standards with a deranged, soft cadence over droning minimalist beats, Anika breathes new life into old songs while opening beautiful, dark, and strange gateways in the mind.
As I was walking through the festival on my way to see Turkish psych rockers and crowd favorite, Altin Gun, I saw all the heavenly bodies making the most of the lake and for a moment, I could’ve sworn I was at the Cannes film festival in the south of France.
Parquet Courts played a set that will go down in some kind of history book because they made the conscious choice to go as hard as their bodies could take them. That’s not to say they were speeding at 100mph, pedal to the metal the entire set, they knew how to let the set breathe between fast bangers and slow burns. The chemistry between these four men on stage is something very special, in fact of all the younger bands present, these guys are easily the most lasting.
One of the bands that were the biggest draws to Desert Daze 2019 was Devo. That goes for me too seeing as their Burger Boogaloo set from last year was easily the best show I saw that year. This set though was a bit different, they began with a 30 minute mockumentary about the band that had to be a troll. Many people were incensed by this video but I could see the beauty of it for what is was, I enjoys angering squares too, and yes, don’t let their cool clothes deceive you, plenty of Desert Daze hipsters are also squares. The set wasn’t bad but it didn’t have the massive feel of the Boogaloo show. They pulled out all the stops still though, with numerous wardrobe changes and a boogie boy appearance. The De-Evolution of Desert Daze was in full effect but judging by people’s reactions to Devo, bitching about the video long after the show, perhaps the de-evolution began a long time ago.
I briefly caught Pod Blotz‘s set in the sanctuary, knowing her insane solo noise act would make a perfect marriage with the trippy images projected on the tiny dome’s walls and ceiling. It was like there was a miniature nuclear disaster happening indoors via the Dais Records artist.
Dillon was trying to convince me for days that Ween was the best act of the day and after checking out their set which featured them performing their album “Chocolate and Cheese” in full, I thought they were pretty cool. They were able to hit so many different kinds of music within one set, from country to jam, they felt like if the Grateful Dead were conducted by Mike Patton. Their range and charisma were brilliant.
I’ve always been bored by Flying Lotus no matter how many dimensions he’s projecting, so I made my way to the theatre to see two awesome ROCK bands. First was Stokholm, Sweden’s Viagra Boys who at times sound like a more punk rock version of Bloodhound Gang, that and Flipper. It’s party punk, beer bellies and saxophone. There was so much energy and suaveness coming from the stage that it drove the crowd absolutely nuts, getting a circle pit going that rose enough dust on the ground to cover all of Desert Daze in a layer of sutt.
Another band that reunited for Desert Daze was the Theatre stage’s closer, The Locust. A progressive grindcore noise rock outfit so out there that I don’t think even the members bother to describe what to call the chaos they’re conjuring. It’s super heavy, bombastic, technical as all fuck, and truly insane. Another band that features Justin Pearson, this group not only inspired many noise bands performing today but I’m sure those bands, like all of us at Desert Daze, were in awe of this group’s wild show.
Just to talk shit about psych one last time in regard to Day 2, I walked past Connan Mockasin‘s set at one point and thought it was the most boring music I had ever heard, and in L.A. this guy is a favorite for many people. I guess in a city where audiences are notorious for not dancing, this guy provides an outlet that keeps everyone secure.
Before sunset, the majority of Day 3 didn’t feature a single act that caught my imagination. For the most part, I was meandering around the festival, hoping I could see something inspiring, coming up short everywhere. This, and the news that Shintaro Sakamoto wouldn’t be playing because a typhoon stopped all departing flights from Japan, gave the day the feeling that the festival had ran out of gas. All that kept me going was the knowledge I would be seeing Lightning Bolt at the end of the night. Lightning Bolt is a rarity to see in 2019, this insane noise duo put on shows that are so wild, words fail to describe it. They play lightning fast and audiences go to another level of ape-shit.
The first artist I genuinely enjoyed from Day 3 was Jerry Paper, a young man that will be seducing crowds with his old-school singing style and new-school dance moves long into his old age. This guy will be performing at jazz cluibs when he’s a senior because what he’s doing is timeless entertainment.
After him, I became a new lifelong fan of vaporwave originator/singer/multi-instrumentalist George Clanton. I was a little turned off at first because I don’t like it when artists riff off old musician’s names but this guy had the entire theatre stage eating out the palm of his hand with such a powerful performance that reached new heights moment by moment. The electronics hit so hard and his singing and lyrics drive home an almost emo element of unapologetically desiring love. All this complimented with his visuals, a compilation of pixilated corporate logos, made for a show that was modern in tastes but classic in feel.
The pinnacle of psych rock that I simply can’t understand the magnetism of is Khruangbin. They’re fun to see live but to draw a crowd as huge as they did playing minimalist psych and funk inspired by Thai and Persian music, doesn’t add up to me. It just sounds like diddling on guitars, as cool as they make that. The best parts of their set are when they do medleys of other artists’ actual songs. Anyway, Desert Daze went all out for their performance, it felt like the band had hit the big time, with high concept wardrobe and a stage covered in disco balls. This band sells out big venues wherever they go, so what do I know….
After catching a little bit of every other artist in the following time slots, I waited out until Lightning Bolt hit the stage and got right up front for the insanity. When drummer Brian Chippendale donned his signature mask, I knew I was in for something outrageous and special. His drumming is superhumanly fast and Brian Gibson’s bass is absolutely crushing, Godflesh levels of avalanche, maybe more. The stirring flurry of noise that came shooting at the audience at pummeling vibration was met with such insane moshing and slamming that at one point, the audience dragged an entire couch from one of the nearby chilling areas and crowd surfed the couch above everyone’s heads until the one guy lying atop of it came crashing down in a violent and hilarious plummet into the photo pit. After that, the audience took every piece of the couch and used it to either hit other people in the crowd or to crowd surf atop of. It was pure madness, just like the music. All this was possible because security was kept to a minimum with just one old lady observing the crowd in the photo pit with her hands covering her ears the duration of the set. The rest of the staff must’ve been at Wu Tang, leaving us psychopaths to our own devices. This was for sure the highlight of my three days and after that there was nothing to do but bounce and look forward to next year.
That’s right, I want to go again. Even after I talked mad shit about psych! The lineups this festival books are like no other in this town. So if you don’t like psych, you should still consider going to Desert Daze and if you do and you’re from LA, my guess is you’ve considered, gone, or are dying to.
Words by: Rob Shepyer
Photos by: Dillon Vaughn