Near the epicenter of Desert Hearts is a dusty road, flanked by abstract art and psychedelic apparel. Away from the thrashing lights and rumbling sound of the festival stage, Mixmag stumbles upon a tent called The Forgotten Fort. Entry isn't free, but thankfully, money has no place here.
Instead of bouncers, there are two jesters, who demand their choice form of payment: performance. Do a little dance or sing a little song, and you'll be allowed inside to interact with a fortune teller, a DJ dressed in a doctor mask and a slew of other strange and zany characters running around. Suddenly, attention is called to Seith Origitano, a poet, who arrives on stage. He begins a monologue.
"There are many different ideas on how to people that come from many people. But, what makes our people different from their people? Not much. We aren't like those people they say. But aren't those people also people? Our people, these people, and even those people. In the end, we are all simply people."
It seems unlikely that his speech only coincidentally echoes Desert Hearts' exact mantra: "House, Techno and Love... We Are All Desert Hearts."
Back home at the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation on the outskirts of San Diego, California, the 2019 edition of the escapade known as Desert Hearts Festival remained true to its vision. The West Coast dancefloor family - headed up by Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, Marbs and Porky - is known for its colorful and family-first festival formula, which has established an undying sense of community around the Desert Hearts ethos. The festival runs music for 80 hours straight - no pause - with 5,000 attendees congregating around a single stage. Unlike other techno-centric events, friends, family and fans alike are welcomed to wander freely up to and around the stage. There is no level of hierarchy at Desert Hearts, no VIP or limited access. It's for everyone and anyone, as long as you agree to don your weirdest and wackiest clothing accessories on the dancefloor and have a great time.
Desert Hearts brought a global roster of techno and house artists from across the board, from veterans to rising stars. Those familiar with the Desert Hearts sound know that tech house is aplenty, and the revelers certainly come hungry for it.
It's Friday night, and the crowd is absolutely riled up after a warmly welcomed surprise set from Dirtybird bellwether Justin Martin following label cohort Will Clarke's new and impactful serving of techno.
There's something for everyone here on the Desert Hearts dancefloor. Axel Boman bangs out tracks like HNNY's 'Nothing' and John Tejada's 'Unstable Condition' before making way for Tara Brooks, who settles into a crafty Burning Man vibe. Later, as the sun begins to rise, Rinzen sets the tone for a magic moment, hitting the crowd right where they want it with Jamie xx's 'Gosh'.
Rinzen is an artist who has gone from a fan on the dancefloor to an artist on the stage. "I've always loved the community that has formed around Desert Hearts," he says. "Unequivocally some of the nicest people in the scene."
There's no stopping. Before you know it, it's noon on Saturday and the champions of the weekend, the Desert Hearts crew, are stepping up to the decks. The vibrant color and energy of the festival seemed to be at an all-time high with Lubelski's bold set. It's the perfect soundtrack to the celebrated annual fashion show, which is a scantily-clad affair on the middle of the dancefloor that would make any Virgil Abloh catwalk look like a Jehovah's Witness convention.
Beyond good music, Desert Hearts prides itself on being a multi-layered event that mirrors the Burning Man mentality of getting its people involved, and allowing people to feel fully free in expressing themselves, however they please. One of the festival's core camps is called Wine & Cheese, named after their signature move of bringing charcuterie plates and boxes of wine to the dancefloor for all to enjoy. People are lining up single file for a snack while totems bob and bubbles and water guns spurts spritz in the air. Bodies dressed in unicorn, clown, cat and astronaut outfits mix their moves next to one another as the festival's "leave no trace crew" dance about the stage merrily while picking up scraps of trash left behind.
Around the festival's staging area are a medley of art pieces, luminescent and immersive - perfect for the wide-eyed wanderers looking for a brief escape from the dancefloor. Performers appear on a platform near the stage, tossing flames and doing tricks to the admiring "oohs" and "aahs" of their audience.
"We're trying to bring projects here that look like art on the outside, but are bringing you into other experiences that are a little bit outside of our normal reality," explains Marbs. Perhaps he's alluding to one installation called The Mystic Flyer Experience, which uses zero gravity chairs to create a feeling of weightlessness and use auditory illusions to inducing dream-like visions. One bedazzled attendee emerges, teary-eyed from the experience. A friend embraces her with a smile. "Let's go dancing babe, crying on the dancefloor is totally cool here."
80 hours of nonstop music can feel like a marathon. People emerge from cuddled up piles of rainbow fur throughout the weekend, and as the festival nears its end, West Coast legend Doc Martin snaps the audience back into focus with a riotous daytime performance. "This festival is one of my all-time favorites," he says. "From the time I played my first track here five years ago, I knew I was home."
While it might feel like a specifically West Coast event, Desert Hearts is far from it. Bringing in acts like the French rave superstars Rodriguez Jr. and POPOF, UK FUSE resident Archie Hamilton and the German party starters Andreas Henneberg, DJ. T and Dave Dinger, the Desert Hearts crew's expertise in creating a cultural exchange of tech house is evident, and a key part of pushing the genre forward.
"It is amazing to see these international artists find a community in America that they could use as an outlet to get their music in front of the right people," Mikey Lion tells Mixmag. "Joyce Muniz is another example of that. She's an absolute character... and we LOVE collecting characters! Desert Hearts strives to find people that are going to come back, hang out and be part of the community."
On the final evening's headlining set (2AM on Monday morning), titan DJ Tennis strapped in for a jolting musical expedition. Bringing new energy to the rave weary crowd, the Life and Death label boss showed off his expertise, keeping people engaged and with it despite a cold turn in climate. Though the damp weather was enough to chase much of the early Monday morning crowd to bed, but a handful of warriors remained, riding high from early morning sets from Cut Snake and DJ Dan and continued to party onwards before the Desert Hearts crew closed out the festival.
One thing is certain: Desert Hearts is a peculiar celebration, but in all the right ways. It celebrates community, freedom of self-expression, participation and positivity through a colorful, techno and house music lens. It's a challenge, with its long hours, unpredictable weather and bizarre settings, and one that's only meant for the hardiest of music lovers, but it's impossible to ignore the crusade of the Desert Hearts crew and the beautifully loyal and vibrant community they've created. Indeed, we are all Desert Hearts.
Check out more photos from Desert Hearts Festival 2019 below.
Cameron is Mixmag's Jr. Editor. Follow him on Twitter here
[Photos: Juliana Berstein (Get Tiny) / Jess Bernstein (JB Photo) / Jamie Rosenberg (Jar.Photo) / Jamal Eid / Peter Speyer / Keiki-Lani]
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