Mikey Lion mentions love a lot. The 26-year-old describes Desert Hearts, the popular outdoor dance music festival that he and his partners throw twice a year, as "One stage. One vibe. One love." He says that's why performers like Marc Houle, the Canadian techno producer, will play longer than intended and will stick around the weekend-long camp-out instead of retreating to hotels.
"The entire thing is based on love," he says. "When people come, they've never seen anything like this before."
When the Desert Hearts crew realized that Valentine's Day 2015 would fall on a weekend, they decided to spread some love in Los Angeles. City Hearts, a club-friendly sample of their desert festival, hits Glendale's Beyond the Stars Palace this Saturday night. (This is their second City Hearts party held in the area. Their last event here took place in October.)
Raised in Encinitas, on the northern end of San Diego County, Lion has been DJing for half his life. When he was 13, his mom suggested that he learn to play a musical instrument. Lion picked turntables. Since that didn't fit his mom's criteria for an instrument, he saved the money to buy the Technics 1200s, mixer and vinyl himself. Eventually, after his parents realized how serious he was about DJing, they paid him back.
In college, he took out a loan from his parents to buy a sound system, which landed him gigs at the college parties surrounding Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After he graduated and returned to Encinitas, Lion, his brother and a few friends started throwing house music nights at a local dive bar. They also hooked up with Lee Reynolds, a 20-year veteran of the West Coast scene who was DJing in San Diego's North Park neighborhood — and, now partnered with Reynolds, took their parties out to the desert.
What makes Desert Hearts different from other events is its lack of emphasis on big headliners. For City Hearts, the line-up consists of the San Diego area-based crew members — Lion, Reynolds, Marbs, Porkchop, Deep Jesus — along with L.A.-based pal Tara Brooks. Tickets for their next festival, to be held March 27-30 at Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, sold quickly even before the full lineup was announced on Tuesday.
"The headliners are an added bonus," says Lion. The emphasis is on the crew and the ambiance they create by carefully orchestrating the sound of the events (house in the daytime, "bangin' techno" late at night) and incorporating elements like live art, fire dancers and a "pillow pit."
If it sounds like a slice of Burning Man in California, there's a reason for it. For years, Lion thought Coachella was the ultimate music festival experience, until a friend suggested that they go to Lightning in a Bottle, which is very popular in the Burner community.
"That completely opened my eyes to Burners and self-expression," says Lion. While at LiB, someone suggested he check out Burning Man. After heading home, Lion and his cohorts immediately bought their tickets. Lion recalls his reaction to the annual desert gathering: "This is where we belong."
Desert Hearts uses the same principles as Burning Man: Have fun, but don't leave a mess when you leave. Lion is proud of what they have done. He claims that they create an experience that's "better than 99.9% of the festivals out there." The reason: "We put so much love and energy into it."
But it's not just the promoters who invest their hearts into the event. It's the party-goers too. Lion points out that because Desert Hearts is a camping experience as much as it is a dance music festival, everyone has to prepare for it. "When you have to work for it, you enjoy it that much more," says Lion. "That's what really, I think, sets the vibe quite a bit."
Now that Desert Hearts has thrown five desert parties in two years, as well as successful City Hearts events in Los Angeles and San Francisco, they're ready to extend their reach. Last year, Desert Hearts launched a record label and obtained management. That has helped the DJs book gigs at festivals in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Right now, they're planning to take City Hearts events to New York and Washington D.C. Lion says that they want to bring their "vision of a better way to party with the U.S." After that, the goal is to share the Desert Hearts love with the world.
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City Hearts Los Angeles will take place Saturday, Feb. 14 at Beyond the Stars Palace in Glendale. Tickets and more info available via the Desert Hearts website.