A hundred and sixty miles from Los Angeles, past Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, down a nine-mile stretch of sun-bleached asphalt called Amboy Road, you'll find the Palms. The family-style restaurant and dive bar occupies a dystopic patch of disintegrating ranches, boarded-up one-room shacks and haphazard strips of mailboxes to nowhere called Wonder Valley. It's an outpost even further from civilization than that much better-known desert gem, Pappy and Harriet's.
Serving $3 hamburgers and homemade moonshine, the Palms feels untouched by decades of inflation and hustle. From the decrepit, rusted water tower that greets visitors out front, to the handmade, life-size rag doll that has probably been sitting at that table in the corner since the place opened in the 1950s, the Palms is completely isolated, completely quirky and completely a world of its own.
It's also the place Daiana Feuer and Jessica Espeleta selected to throw their music festival, Deserted at the Palms, for two years running.
"I feel like if you walk into a place like this, you are going to have an experience that is unique and different," Feuer says, explaining their remote choice of venue. "That's what fuels me — for an experience like this — to do a festival. ... Picking an environment that's so specific, but kind of broken and beautiful. The idea of ruins is just so enchanting to me, like things that have been here, things that are dying here, and you're alive in it."
For Feuer, throwing a festival combines her love for music and themed parties (as a child, "I always had the best birthday parties," she says). As a music journalist with credits in L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly and several other publications, Feuer has covered a lot of shows and found one major theme at most festivals: "Everything is just like, tent, porta-potty, smushed people," she says. "I felt like, where was the attention to the experience itself?
"I write reviews, I write interviews. I interview these people and I ask them questions about what they think [about music]. But how do I explain what I think? To me, this is how I explain what I think." She gestures toward the wide-open desert, as the sun sets on the Palms and L.A. DIY heroes No Age prepare to take the outdoor stage. "I feel like we're having a talk about music here."
Organizing a festival is also like writing a story, she explains, something she's done since she was young. "One time I had a book report, but I just made up the book and I wrote a summary about it. My teacher — I wasn't sure if she knew — she was like, 'You should write a book one day.' I totally made this book up. It was pretty good — I got an A."
Born in Argentina, Feuer moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 3. When it came time to go off to college, she headed to New York to attend Columbia University's creative writing program, where she wrote stories that were reality-based but with a tinge of distortion.
"It was like a waitress at the diner, and the gangsters that do their shit there ... but why does the waitress speak in bowling metaphors?" she says, describing her style of writing. "It's a little wackier than normal life. ... It was like an alternate form of this reality."
In 2005, Feuer moved to California to continue pursuing writing, and an MFA, at the California Institute of the Arts. It was there that she met Gerard Olson, and her eyes were opened to a different type of writing: music.
The two met in the creative writing program and connected over their shared love of the 1950s, monsters, and psych-rock pioneer Roky Erickson. After weekly jam sessions, with Olson strumming his ukulele and Feuer making up words on the spot, and a few drunken karaoke nights at the Smog Cutter in East Hollywood, a band emerged: Bloody Death Skull, whose name is far more intimidating than its deconstructed doo-wop sound.
At first, Bloody Death Skull was just the two of them onstage: Olson playing his uke, Feuer playing a keg with a stick, or a monster truck toy she slid around on the ground, making vroom, vroom sounds. Eventually, though, Feuer borrowed Olson's ukulele and learned to play it — upside-down, since he's a lefty. He moved on to play guitar and keyboards, and the duo brought in Beth McSelf, also in the creative writing program at CalArts, to play percussion. Her ensemble includes a toy whale, which she uses as a shaker, a crystal ball, and string shakers, which are actually just piles of yarn. ("They don't make noise, but I really go for it," McSelf says. "I mean, the string does stuff you wouldn't believe.")
"The writing program we met through at CalArts is an experimental program, which means we have weird ideas about art," Feuer says with a laugh.
Today, Bloody Death Skull has expanded to almost 20 rotating members. At any given time onstage, there could be a bass, drum set, ukulele, guitar, two keyboards, a glockenspiel, an Omnichord, a synthesizer, a tap dancer, horns, yarn, and lots and lots of toys played by Donna Bummer, who — along with Feuer, Olson and McSelf — rounds out the core of the ever-changing symphony.
They've become renowned for their off-the-wall performances; one of their first shows was called "Cinco de Mayonnaise" and involved mayonnaise wrestling. Today, their shows often are characterized by coordinated costumes and Feuer interacting with the audience in unexpected ways, from dumping out a woman's purse to kissing everyone in the room to pouring liquor into people's mouths onstage.
"In some ways I organize festivals so that I can play them," she says.
For three years (2010 to 2012), she organized the New Los Angeles Folk Festival, held at the Zorthian Ranch in Altadena, which boasted acts such as Beachwood Sparks and Dustbowl Revival in addition to Bloody Death Skull. "It was so well organized," says bandmate Bummer, who openly promotes Feuer's festivals as her favorite. "There were bands in every nook and cranny. There was a water slide. Everything was homemade, like all the little signs directing you to the bars. Handmade tickets ... all the little details that made it so special."
Details are Feuer's specialty. At the Saint Patrick's Day Dance she organized at Eagle Rock's Center for the Arts one year, she made tiny leprechauns out of clay and spray-painted pistachio shells to make little gold nuggets.
"Those are the kinds of things I think about when I'm putting on an event," she says, laughing. "What kind of sculpty-creature can I make? ... I think in my heart I'm an artist and I express it through whatever tools I can."
Being at Deserted at the Palms on a 100-degree day in late May, out in the middle of nowhere, watching bands such as Feels and Jack Name play in the Palms' ramshackle interior, one feels immersed in one of Feuer's handcrafted, alternate universes. "To me, this is like an art installation, and everything that's happening in it is part of the performance," she explains.
"You know, I'm not that much different than my 10-year-old self," she adds. "I'm still like, 'Let's have a theme party, let's wear costumes, let's break some rules.'"
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