Everyone Loves Lee Reynolds, the 40-Something Desert Party DJ Who Never Sleeps
Lee Reynolds in his element, DJing at Desert Hearts
Sitting on a furry couch in downtown L.A. surrounded by ornate porcelain sculptures and mannequins draped in sequins, electronic DJ and Desert Hearts co-conspirator Lee Reynolds drinks a beer while sharing some of his wildest stories. Like the time a battalion of police SUVs and helicopters tried to shut down a snowy mountaintop party he once threw, or how his career began in the late ‘80s not as a DJ, but as a sponsored BMX rider. To this day, the eccentric music producer, who is now in his mid-40s, continues to live passionately.
Reynolds, a U.K. native, initially moved to Southern California in 1988 to pursue a career in BMX riding. He was not here long before he stumbled upon the rich, dark world of underground techno music, which was just beginning to blossom in the early ‘90s. Instantly falling in love with the pulse-accelerating music and its colorful cohorts, his 25-year DJ career began.
“I knew that Southern California was the place to be so I moved out, got a bike sponsor, and did that for a while until I broke too many bones,” he says, chuckling. “I started DJing in the early ‘90s but right when I got into it, I had kids. I don’t like to do things half-assed; I like to do a few things really well. So I just decided to put it on hold for a while and then started back up a couple years ago. I’m obsessed with it now.”
Since his two daughters, who are both in their 20s, left the nest, Reynolds and his wife Zoe are focused on reigniting their creative fires. Their first foray into the apparel market together was in 2009 when they opened Hunt & Gather in their hometown of San Diego. The shop features a mixture of carefully picked vintage items and handmade festival fashion, offering a home for festival vendors to keep their wares during the off-season.
Lee and Zoe Reynolds outside Black Rainbow in the DTLA Arts District
Because of the success of their San Diego store and Reynolds’ growing Los Angeles fan base, the couple opened Black Rainbow less than a year ago in the ever-expanding fringes of downtown’s Arts District. Reynolds, who somewhere along the way added graphic designer to his list of vocations, created the company’s logo as well as the iconic insignia for Desert Hearts, the underground house and techno crew he helped form in 2011.
As customers come in and out of the shop and the clacking of shifting hangers punctuates the conversation, Reynolds seems perfectly at home in his budding new business. While Black Rainbow is a fun way to put Zoe’s penchant for fashion and Reynolds’ eye for design to good use, his true love and obsession is with Desert Hearts — for now at least.
Before they hooked up with Reynolds, the other Desert Hearts DJs — young, San Diego-bred techno and house enthusiasts Mikey Lion, Marbs, Porkchop and Deep Jesus — were attempting to change San Diego nightlife. “My friend told me that some kids were throwing a house and techno night in North County so I went over there and DJed and was just blown away,” Reynolds says, recounting his first encounter with his future posse. “My crowd was older, gay, mixed, all over the place, and theirs was a perfect infusion of energy — plus, they were all amazing DJs.”
Lion and Reynolds quickly became close friends, and together they created a mini-festival empire. What began as a 200-person renegade party ("totally illegal, just out in the desert") expanded to the 3,000-person sold-out event which will be taking place this weekend at the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in San Diego County.
“It’s really good for them because they’re such a poor reservation. No one uses their campsite; they don’t have a casino 'cause they’re just a little bit further out than all the other reservations, so we’re pretty much their only income,” says Reynolds. “We actually left it cleaner than we found it.”
Desert Hearts' unique brand of strictly house and techno music, along with their “one stage, one vibe, one love” ethos, has built a new scene that has generated a cult-like following. Patrons donning one of the esoteric pendants designed by Reynolds are part of a secret club; in the outside world, the pendants will instantly spark conversation with fellow Desert Hearts devotees.
The core Desert Hearts crew are also known for taking over stages at larger events, such as Northern California’s Symbiosis Gathering, where they played for their biggest audience yet. While that experience was exhilarating for them, they have no intention of expanding their own festivals, because the small, intimate vibe they curated has become a hallmark of their events.
“We’re kind of lucky that we are limited in capacity where we are, because we can’t really get any bigger right now,” Reynolds explains. “We only do one stage, so more than 4,000 people would be ridiculous. If it were up to me I would just be partying at my house with my friends every weekend, but it just doesn’t pay well.”
Lee and Zoe Reynolds at Desert Hearts
Keeping Desert Hearts small also preserves the event's family atmosphere, at which the gray-haired Reynolds is is fondly referred to as "Papa Lee." Famous for his partying stamina, Reynolds sleeping is a sight so rare that it generates nearly as much excitement as his DJ sets. On one occasion, “I sat down on the side of the dance floor and I must have just fallen over," he remembers, laughing. "Then when I woke up, there was like an E-Z Up [canopy] over me, I had a blanket and a pillow, and then someone had put like a robot on me which was humping me and all these people took pictures of it. People think it's hilarious when I sleep. They always have to get photographic evidence."
Black Rainbow specifically caters to the outrageous and unique Desert Hearts fashion: leather, fur, chiffon and sequins. Flimsy fashion will not survive semi-annual bouts of outdoor debauchery, and the Reynolds hand-pick pieces that are strong enough to withstand a wild weekend. Stimulating textures and Technicolor patterns imported from all over the world line the racks; elsewhere around the shop, outrageous sunglasses and decorative crystals glimmer.
“I guess I’m a weird role model or something,” Reynolds says, donning a dizzyingly colorful shirt. “I just want people to know that you don’t have to grow up and get old and boring.”
Desert Hearts takes place March 31-April 3 at the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. For more information, visit desertheartsfestival.com. Black Rainbow is located at 120 S. Vignes St. in the downtown L.A. Arts District. Hours and more information available on Facebook.
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