People who live in the desert are not normal. They have names like Timber, Trippy and Jesika von Rabbit. They drive down roads called Kickapoo and Foxy Flats. They make art, take psychedelics and watch for UFOs in the sky (an entirely apropos activity, since Joshua Tree, while only two hours’ drive from Los Angeles, often feels like it belongs on another planet).
Normally, not-normal is a good thing. But when Gram Rabbit invited us out to their Rabbit Ranch, we surely didn’t expect not-normal to involve cremating a rabbit. The band, made up of Todd Rutherford, Jesika von Rabbit, Eric Jonasson, Austin Beede and Travis Cline, are shrouded in cult and mystery, so in retrospect, we probably should have expected such a thing. We could have interpreted the dead bunny lying in a box by the front porch as a sign. “Jesika likes to collect dead things,” explained Rutherford, co-founder of the band, recounting the time she arrived home with blood all over her arms after finding a dead jackrabbit on the highway. Inside the house, among books on Charles Manson and voodoo totems, Jesika keeps a box containing scorpion, centipede and other miscellaneous exoskeletons. Not so long ago, there was a dead rattlesnake in the freezer.
After we’d had a few glasses of wine around a bonfire, the dead rabbit in the box weighed on us, especially on Jesika, who sings on Gram Rabbit’s latest release, Cultivation, “Bloody bunnies in the road really rips my heart to pieces . . .”
“We should bury it,” someone offered. But the ground was too hard. We all stared at the blazing fire and came to a consensus: We should cremate it. Worried about stench and “gooey bits,” the boys Rutherford and guitarist Jonasson stoked up a blaze worthy of a proper funeral pyre. Jesika appeared ceremoniously and respectfully dressed in a bunny mask and lovingly laid the expired creature on the flames. It felt beautifully not-normal.
Gram Rabbit also gave us a cultural tour of Joshua Tree, starting at the late Noah Purifoy’s Environment of Sculptures, a massive outdoor art installation made of scavenged junk. Imagine a Mad Max–esque landscape where old car parts, long-dead computers and scrap metal have been intricately assembled into large-scale sculptures that make up an entire town, weathering away under the harsh climatic conditions.
Later that night, the band invited us to a party at the home of local artist Bret Philpot. The party was going off, dance hits through the decades pumped throughout the house, and another fire blazed outside to keep the smokers and tokers warm. And Gram Rabbit played a new song they wrote an hour before the party. Sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree,” “O Joshua Tree” featured the names of everyone at Philpot’s. And we met many of them, including Cline, Gram Rabbit’s sample guru, who lives with local musician and folk heroine Victoria Williams. Barnett English and Kris McDowell, who organize the annual Joshua Tree Music Festival, were there with their newborn baby (bad attitudes, along with “unfriendly, non-neighborly behavior,” are banned from their festival). Friendliest of all was Ethan Feltges, “unofficial mayor” of Joshua Tree and owner of the Coyote Corner general store. When Ethan and Trippy, a local climber with Buddy Holly glasses and long dreads, stumbled upon burglars in the store late one night, they didn’t get mad — instead they mellowed everyone out with their good cheer and persuaded the burglars to put everything back.
And as is the case in many small towns, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. The next morning, after some heavy dancing at Philpot’s, we went to the Integratron for a sound bath. When we arrived, co-owner Nancy Karl had already heard about our antics. “I hear you girls were partying till 3 a.m.,” she teased.
We found the people of Joshua Tree to be smiley and welcoming in a most not-normal way. “What’s wrong with them?” we wondered. “Maybe they’re part of some weird, friendly desert cult.” Well, sign us up.
Around Joshua Tree
Find out more about Nowhere Now, the documentary about Joshua Tree’s music scene, at www.nowherenowthemovie.com.
The Joshua Tree Music Festival takes place May 19–21; performers include Kinky, Particle and New Monsoon. Camping is permitted; www.joshuatreemusicfestival.com.
Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, (760) 365-5956.
The Integratron, 2477 Belfield Blvd., Landers, (760) 364-3126.