Campgrounds and art installations at the Desert Daze festival, which returns to Joshua Tree Oct. 12-15.EXPAND
Campgrounds and art installations at the Desert Daze festival, which returns to Joshua Tree Oct. 12-15.
Angela Holtzen

How Desert Daze Became Southern California's Best Rock Festival

“Frank Lloyd Wright is the shit!” shouts Mason Rothschild from behind the wheel of a van in the middle of the blisteringly hot Joshua Tree desert. Rothschild is the bassist of Fever the Ghost and a member of psych band JJUUJJUU alongside Phil Pirrone, the bearded, multitasking visionary who sits in the passenger seat next to him and is the reason we are all here.

When not being musicians, Pirrone and Rothschild are consumed by Desert Daze, a three-day festival that takes place here at the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Institute of Mentalphysics. If you've ever seen the original film version of The Time Machine, the Institute of Mentalphysics — also called the Joshua Tree Retreat Center — kind of looks like the arid future landscape where the Eloi and the Morlocks do battle. Pirrone conceived of  his festival six years ago and it has grown mightier, weirder and more intense for all involved as every 12 months pass. Rothschild, the art director for Desert Daze, doesn't waste any time suggesting, in a tongue-in-cheek way, why that might be. “We're building a religion,” he says. “A religion that starts here.”

I have attended Desert Daze twice before — in 2015 when it was still a single-day event located at the Sunset Ranch Oasis in Riverside County, and in 2016 during its inaugural year at this site — and I can confirm that it is completely unlike any other festival experience I've had. For a start, the lineups are an expertly curated mix of psych, dirge and acid rock. In 2016, the most special draws included Television, Primus, Brian Jonestown Massacre and an all-star tribute to Suicide's Alan Vega, who was actually booked to play the event before he died. This year, the bill includes Spiritualized, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, plus “Iggy fucking Pop,” as Pirrone puts it.

Beyond the lineups, however, the move to Mentalphysics fits the community that Desert Daze nurtures and attracts like a glove. It's a congregation of people in the truest sense of the word; a remarkably intimate tribe of music fans (Pirrone declines to give attendance figures, but the L.A. Times pegged last year's crowd size at 2,000 and the local Hi-Desert Star reports that this year's event permit sets capacity at 5,000) who want to get back to the essentials of the power of rock & roll. The festival's focus is away from rock's cheap thrills and glamorous associations and toward its potential to heal, to bind and to overload your senses.

Primus performing their headlining set at last year's Desert DazeEXPAND
Primus performing their headlining set at last year's Desert Daze
Angela Holtzen

“That's something that's inherently become the environment of Desert Daze,” Pirrone says. “Last year it really clicked. It felt like more than a party. It felt like I had a profound experience and everyone in this car and everyone I know had a profound experience. So our main focus now is making sure there's enough there for you to do, hear, see and learn so that you can take something back with you, rather than feeling completely drained when you get home.”

When not hosting Desert Daze, the Insitute of Mentalphysics is home to all manner of events, including silent retreats and yoga workshops. It's the place to come when you're searching for something beyond the surface. Today concludes a weeklong stay close to the site for Pirrone, Rothschild and a few other essential members of the team, as they prepare for the 2017 edition. It's early August and it feels like it's 5,000 degrees outside. It will hopefully be slightly cooler come Oct. 12 when the gates open for attendees. The next two months will see many trips like this for Pirrone, who's based in Northeast L.A.

“OK, let's start the 'Desert Daze Indiana Jones' ride,” says Rothschild, revving up the van for a loop around the grounds. “We're driving you the way Primus drove to play their set last year,” adds Pirrone, as we bump over nothing but dust and rocks to look at a shallow amphitheater where Iggy Pop will take the stage on Saturday night. “He's headlining with this Joshua tree here,” Pirrone jokes.

This year, the festival will feature the same two main stages (Block and Moon), a large tent (Wright) and an additional indoor venue (Noble Hall) to add to last year's Sanctuary Hall. Pirrone doesn't want to have too many structural changes. “This is our second year, so we're dialing in what worked last year and tweaking what didn't,” he says. “We learned a lot.” The main concern for the team is to keep things consistent, to help the people who came before feel like they're “coming home.”

Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone
Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone
Danny Liao

We drive toward the Marketplace. Desert Daze has been building its relationships with vendors since inception, but this year it's building out the area to have more activities among the stalls. Rothschild is particularly excited to be working with Pussy Power House, which he describes as a “renegade feminist organization.” In addition to providing an arts and crafts space, PPH is going to be teaching mindful methodology and offering female-focused workshops.

Pussy Power House is one example of how Desert Daze seeks to be an umbrella for new age thinking and positivity. “It's important to amalgamate all of the voices we find to be true within the context of our society,” Rothschild explains. That extends to the visuals, too. Non Plus Ultra, who recently suffered the loss of its DIY space in L.A., is contributing to the installations and design. “It's so beautiful. I can't wait for people to see it,” he says.

“Let's take a look at the campgrounds before there's a million kids in it,” Pirrone says. In addition to those roomy grounds, there are 34 cottages dotted around the stages, already sold out. They sleep anywhere from two to eight people, and some provide mainstage vantage points from the porches. “That's pretty unreal,” Pirrone says. “They go fast. I wish there was more of them.”

By the campgrounds is yet another of the festival's draws: the Mystic Bazaar, which Pirrone and his team have expanded into a new location this year. Inside it, bands will play stripped-down sets exclusively for on-site attendees before the gates open each day. After that, all manner of activities occur within: metaphysical workshops, tea ceremonies, tarot, Reiki and a speakers program that's focused around the theme of the singularity, that moment when human and artificial intelligence will become indistinguishable.

“It's cool if you wanna go and get elevated,” Pirrone says. “Actually, you can go almost anywhere at the festival for that, but the Mystic Bazaar is our classroom.”

The campgrounds at Desert Daze
The campgrounds at Desert Daze
Lance Gerber

The altruistic philosophy behind Desert Daze has remained unspoiled because this is a family unit. As part of the Moon Block group, Pirrone has been putting on events and running his own booking agency for years. It began with a block party in Pomona: 55 bands, five stages, 5,000 people. “I had no expectations,” he says. “None. I just knew we'd throw a party and it'd be a load of fun.”

In 2016, Desert Daze partnered with Spaceland Presents and Knitting Factory Entertainment to grow from a one-day event to a three-day festival. Everyone else on the team who helps manifest Desert Daze are Pirrone's oldest friends. They've all learned how to create a DIY festival together. His wife, Julie Edwards Pirrone (of the band Deap Vally), is his main partner in crime. As musicians, they've been able to curate the type of environment that other bands and artists dream of.

That kindred vibe is infectious among the attendees. Last year, a pair of local musicians proposed marriage to each other at the festival. “It meant a lot to see members of our community take this as the place," Pirrone says. "Proposing a union for your life within the context of this ritual is completely different from being at a concert and using that as an excuse to get fucked up. Desert Daze is where people come to have reformation, transformation and inspiration — things that the rock & roll scene isn't super plugged in on anymore. To have a place where the cynical rock & roll motherfuckers can have a spiritual experience is a super important thing.”

With JJUUJJUU (who play every year, as do Deap Vally), Pirrone doesn't take the responsibility of being a rock musician lightly — which, paradoxically, is why he and his bandmates don't practice before shows. “A lot of people miss the point,” he says. “Sometimes that's OK because some music is entertainment. But for us, for JJUUJJUU, playing live is a ritual. It's a vehicle to leave your body. Everyone else in the room can have a cathartic experience. That element of danger needs to be there [for it] to be trance-inducing.”

Phil Pirrone performing with his band JJUUJJUU at the Troubadour in 2013
Phil Pirrone performing with his band JJUUJJUU at the Troubadour in 2013
Timothy Norris

With all this talk of transcending time and space, it would be remiss not to mention that there's a hell of a lot of fun to be had, too. We drive past an area known as the Caravansary, where all the band dressing rooms are. Each band has an apartment. Desert Daze has such an allure to those playing it that they tend to block out their schedules and stay the whole weekend. That means you'll often spot your heroes in the shadows during the wee hours.

“Brian Jonestown, Television and The Coathangers were all hanging with each other, like, 'Hey neighbor — you got any sugar?'” says Pirrone, pointing at the apartments while recalling last year's post-midnight antics. “[African group] Tinariwen crashed the festival with us one year, and our artists relations group were up drinking tea with them all night.”

With so many friends of the festival accumulated over the years, Desert Daze doesn't struggle for guest DJs to kick off the post-midnight party. Last year, Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa fired up a pop storm on the decks. “Dude, Stella's our buddy. Shout-out to Stella,” Pirrone says. “She's one of our biggest champions. Every year once the lineup comes out, she dumps a bunch of love on me.”

Despite Desert Daze's growing notoriety, Pirrone and his team still have to fight for every win they get. They don't quite yet have the likes of Iggy Pop knocking down their door. “It's always gonna be hard to land a headliner like Iggy Pop for us,” Pirrone says. “He's perfect for our festival. He's the godfather of so many elements that are pervasive in rock & roll.”

Iggy Pop, seen here at FYF Fest earlier this year, will headline Desert Daze's second night, Saturday, Oct. 14.EXPAND
Iggy Pop, seen here at FYF Fest earlier this year, will headline Desert Daze's second night, Saturday, Oct. 14.
Mathew Tucciarone

Pirrone was sick as a dog when he got Iggy's confirmation. “I had a flu cough. I was weak. I found out and yelped like a wounded animal, then called everybody that I loved.” Rothschild chimes in. “My text just said, 'Iggy.'” Pirrone laughs. “I was a little bit frantic,” he says.

There are no stipulations from Desert Daze for Pop's set, of course. “Oh, he's in control,” Pirrone says. “Iggy Pop can do whatever the fuck Iggy Pop wants to do.”

It's hard for Pirrone to narrow down the acts that mean the most to him, but he does light up at the mention of Spiritualized. “They are hugely important to everybody I know. And [frontman Jason Pierce's former band] Spacemen 3 are like Moses. We always ask our staff who they wanna see. That was a recurring one. That's how it works. We try for a few years, it doesn't work out, we keep asking and eventually they break down and say, 'Fine! We'll do it.'”

Desert Daze has had to fight for its success in other ways. Complaints from the neighboring community over loud sound systems, light pollution and heavy traffic — not only from Desert Daze but other music festivals held at the Institute — prompted the county of San Bernardino initially to deny a permit for the festival's return to the Institute. However, Pirrone eventually won a permit by promising a number of changes, including ending the music earlier each evening and repositioning the stages.

“We did develop good relationships with local residents, but it's a process,” Pirrone says. “We understand where they're coming from. There's been a lot of events in the neighborhood that have not been respectful in the past. We're mindful that we're in a beautiful, unique location that happens to be close to where people live. We wanna be a good neighbor. I wanna extend an invitation to anyone who lives here as our guest to come and see what it's about. I think they'd be pleasantly surprised. I hope they come and see Iggy! If you come to this festival long enough, we know your whole family by first name.”

As the site visit comes to a close and Pirrone is ready to head back to L.A., there's one other thing on his mind – something beyond his control. “We're gonna have less moon this year,” he says, looking out at the sky. “We need more light.” Somehow you get the sense that for Desert Daze, it'll all work out.

Desert Daze takes place Oct. 12-15 at the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree. Tickets and more info available at desertdaze.org.

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