Can an Underground DJ Crew "Rage Balls" With a Boatload of EDM Fans?

Desert Hearts DJs Marbs, left, RYBO and Lee Reynolds taking over the Paris Lounge Theatre on Groove Cruise 2017EXPAND
Desert Hearts DJs Marbs, left, RYBO and Lee Reynolds taking over the Paris Lounge Theatre on Groove Cruise 2017
Miles Najera

Cruises are designed for relaxation and music festivals are designed for stimulation. Combine the two and the result is a bizarre adult playground in the Pacific Ocean, far  from pesky curfews and noise ordinances, complete with waterslides, mini-golf and an endless flow of soft-serve. This, in all its debaucherous splendor, is Groove Cruise — a three-day floating electronic music festival that took place this past weekend aboard a Carnival cruise ship, where nipple pasties were in abundance and the perpetual rattle of bass paired with the subtle sway of the sea.

While Groove Cruise’s lineups are known for boasting some of the biggest names in mainstream EDM, this year featured several underground artists, including the increasingly popular Desert Hearts crew. In one of the ship’s quieter bars, Desert Hearts residents Lee Reynolds, Ryan “RYBO” Bohnet and Matt “Marbs” Marabella (the rest of the Desert Hearts crew, Mikey Lion and Porkchop, were at Dirtybird Campout) welcomed their L.A. Weekly interview with laughter and a line of tequila shots.

Desert Hearts' Lee Reynolds, left, Ryan “RYBO” Bohnet and Matt “Marbs” Marabella chat with L.A. Weekly aboard the Carnival Inspiration.EXPAND
Desert Hearts' Lee Reynolds, left, Ryan “RYBO” Bohnet and Matt “Marbs” Marabella chat with L.A. Weekly aboard the Carnival Inspiration.
Miles Najera

“I’m excited to be here; it’s something totally different,” says Marabella, who's enjoying his first Groove Cruise experience. “There’s a very eclectic mixture of people here, which I think is really interesting. … Events like this give us an opportunity to show our music to people who are maybe more used to going to mainstream events.”

The Desert Hearts crew, purveyors of house and techno, have garnered a cultlike following in the underground music scene for their annual boutique festival, which takes place in early spring at the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in northeastern San Diego County. With a capacity of 5,000 people and a “one stage, one vibe” ethos, the festival has managed to retain its intimacy, despite the exponential growth of Desert Hearts' brand and fan base. (They're also doing an urban version of their festival on Nov. 12 at L.A. Center Studios.)

“We’re showing people it’s OK to have fun if you do it respectfully and treat people well,” says Reynolds over the sound of ice cubes clinking in his cocktail. “You can rage balls — just be honest and kind.”

Lee Reynolds raging balls with friends, both old and newEXPAND
Lee Reynolds raging balls with friends, both old and new
Miles Najera

Groove Cruise has the attendance of a boutique festival (around 2,000 people) but the lineup of a large-scale, mainstream EDM festival. Australian DJ and producer Thomas Jack took the headlining role along with Dutch trance icon Ferry Corsten, among others. Peppered throughout the lineup, however, were several esteemed underground acts, not just the Desert Hearts crew but also legendary house DJ Doc Martin, who was recently named "Best DJ" in L.A. Weekly’s Best of L.A. issue.

“We really are trying to teeter the line and bring things from the underground and the festival world into the mainstream rave and clubbing culture,” says Marabella. The "festival world" he's referring to isn't more mainstream events like Coachella and EDC Las Vegas but smaller, boutique festivals, such as Lucidity, Lightning in a Bottle and their own Desert Hearts Festival. “There is a divide there, but we wanna break down those separations. There’s no reason that we can’t have the experiences that we have at the festivals in the cities and vice versa.”

To the untrained ear and eye, the entire electronic music scene is homogeneous, but anyone who frequents various types of club nights and music festivals can see the divide of which Marabella speaks. While both EDC and Lightning in a Bottle, for example, have their roots in rave culture, their paths dramatically diverged; from the fashion to the music, these two scenes are, in many ways, almost diametrically opposed.

That's especially true when it comes to music. Where the EDM circuit primarily books artists who are known for their top 40–style club bangers, the "transformational" scene focuses on more experimental electronic genres, as well as often including activities like workshops, guest lectures and yoga classes. Each scene attracts its own distinct crowds, and there can often appear to be little overlap. But that's starting to change, and Desert Hearts playing Groove Cruise is just one more indication that the barriers between underground and mainstream are crumbling.

“I think that there’s always people who are looking to not be a part of the cliques and are looking for more connectedness with everyone,” Marabella reflects. “Whether that’s connecting with five people or a thousand people, it doesn’t matter … it’s just a matter of us facilitating that connection and I think that’s important.”

A Desert Hearts devoteeEXPAND
A Desert Hearts devotee
Miles Najera

The Desert Hearts takeover took place from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. at the ship’s Paris Lounge Theatre on Saturday night, and attracted one of the most diverse crowds of the entire event. While pasties, tutus, furry boots, bedazzled captain’s hats and kandi bracelets reigned supreme on the Groove Cruise, dreadlocks, harem pants and psychedelic clothing also made appearances — and those so attired mixed freely with the ship's more raved-out passengers.

“The first [Groove Cruise] I went on, I didn’t have my crew with me,” says Bohnet, the only one of the three who has attended the event in the past. “It was fun but it was different back then. It was five days instead of three, which was way too long. This time I’m with my Desert Hearts crew and I expect nothing but bright horizons and smooth sailing.”

The Desert Hearts crew with Thomas Jack, third from left, and Doc Martin, fourth from leftEXPAND
The Desert Hearts crew with Thomas Jack, third from left, and Doc Martin, fourth from left
Miles Najera

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Even for dance music fans, three days of nonstop electronic music with nowhere to escape might sound like a nightmare. But only after attending can one understand the logistical marvel that is Groove Cruise. Hungry? Just gorge at the buffet or the 24-hour room service and pizza bar. Tired? Go take a disco nap in your clean, white linens and air-conditioned stateroom. Hungover? Take a shower, jump in a Jacuzzi or hit the spa. These are amenities that are nonexistent at most music festivals, so having them all — plus music and alcohol — a stone’s throw away is kind of amazing.

Where the transformational festival scene once looked down on the EDM scene, there is now a sense of connection, reinvigorating the “PLUR” tenets (peace, love, unity, respect) of ’90s rave culture. People of all different ages, cultures and backgrounds harmoniously “raged balls” together, as Lee Reynolds so eloquently puts it.

“Some people just haven’t been exposed to the kind of parties we do,” says Reynolds. “When they see it, it puts them on a whole new life path. It changes them. We just want to keep doing that.”

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