Upon first meeting, Mikey Lion and Christopher Kristoff, both members of SoCal’s Desert Hearts crew, eschew my attempted handshake, instead greeting me with an embrace. The Desert Hearts guys are, I should’ve guessed, huggers.
This tightknit crew of DJs, artists, and all around event producer types hosts its biannual Desert Hearts festivals in SoCal. Their second City Hearts tour—which will cross the country from LA to Vail to Tahoe to Brooklyn to Miami to the jungles of Tulum and more—begins tomorrow in downtown Los Angeles. With these events, and the community of devotees they have fostered, Desert Hearts has become the new darling of SoCal’s so-called transformational festival circuit.
Extending up and down the West Coast from Mexico to British Columbia, this scene’s decades long lineage includes Burning Man, Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, Symbiosis, Shambhala and the largely off the radar Moontribe gatherings. Running on equal parts bass, house, techno, spirituality, art, nature, healing, and psychedelics, the scene and its inhabitants are at once proudly underground and intent on spreading a culture of good vibes and progressive thought.
“It feels like we’re leading the newer generation,” says DH member Deep Jesus. “With events like Burning Man getting bigger all the time, people are going out and searching for something a bit more boutique and intimate.”
Indeed, as events gain popularity, they face the challenge of maintaining the rare, community-focused atmosphere that made them special in the first place, while the underground once again demands something all its own. Desert Hearts has filled this space. But with their darling status now evolving into full-blown popularity, they face the same challenge of keeping their vibes vibey while growing their empire.
On a warm Wednesday afternoon on the roof of an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, one can see a 360 view of LA—the skyline, the San Gabriel mountains and the Hollywood Sign in the distance. Helicopters overhead and traffic on the streets below create a hum of white noise. Altogether, the grit and hustle of downtown serves as a stark contrast to the rootsy ethos that Desert Hearts has cultivated.
The DH guys have known each other for most of their lives, banding together while growing up in Encinitas, CA. They go by names like Deep Jesus, Marbs, Porkchop and Mikey Lion, the latter of whom is the one with the green hair and the iridescent sunglasses to match. He’s DH’s de facto spokesman and the crew’s most widely known personality. Lion got into techno after being baptized by electronic music at Daft Punk’s legendary Coachella 2006 performance. He then sunk deeper into the techno scene while studying abroad in Barcelona, where he had a residency at the club Razzmatazz by the end of the semester.
Taking their sonic cues from house and techno, and their ethos from Burning Man, Moontribe and Lightning in a Bottle, the crew threw their first official party in November of 2012. (Prior to this they had been throwing proper underground ragers in Encinitas.) They figured out production logistics on the fly, facing rain, snow, frigid temperatures, and police raids while gaining a reputation for hosting great music in a loose, love-drenched ambience.
“We always get complimented on our vibe, and our vibe is fucking loving,” Kristoff says. “That’s why people get transformed so much.”
The festivals now feature artists, performers, Burning Man style camps, and one nexus of a stage pumping nonstop house and techno. The guys, all producers themselves, play each show, and past lineups have included Francesca Lombardo, M.A.N.D.Y., Kate Simko, and Christian Martin. Lion says DJs have even cried after their sets because the dancefloor energy was so extraordinary. The venture is now turning enough of a profit that the guys can focus on Desert Hearts exclusively, and the organization also includes a record label the guys use to release their own sonic output. Their third anniversary event, held this past November on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in rural San Diego county, drew a crowd of roughly 3,500. “We’re in the sweet spot right now,” says Lion. “We’re not going to get much bigger.”
Attendees have called Desert Hearts parties nothing short of life-changing, with some individuals even saying that the love and acceptance they found in the DH community helped them get off drugs and stop gangbanging. The guys even get free coffee at the cafe below the apartment because the barista is such a big fan.
Of course, it’s easy to draw a West Coast crowd that is already accustomed to events with a heavy spiritual element. “Festival culture is just different in California than it is anywhere else in the world,” Lion says. “This movement towards enlightenment and spirituality is good for everyone, because the more that people are conscious about creating love and spreading positive energy, the better off people are.”
By taking their show on the road with City Hearts, however, Desert Hearts is proving that audiences around the country are receptive, and in fact even hungry for, their spirit of better living through love and techno. For their first City Hearts tour in 2014, the group traveled down the east coast in a Sprinter van, in a sort of homage to Ken Kesey and the merry pranksters, and found that fans actually followed them from city to city.
Despite this growing following, the intention is to keep the parties small in order to maintain the intimate ambience that people keep coming back for. “When you have that smaller environment like ours,” says Kristoff, “you really start to transform, because you meet your best friends. That’s what Desert Hearts is going to succeed, because we keep it small and like family.”
Back in the lobby, the guys hug me when we part ways, a little harder, in fact, than they did when we first met. For all of the lofty talk about love and vibes and consciousness, this is perhaps the truest testament to their sincerity.
City Hearts begins Saturday, December 5 at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Katie Bain is the Senior Editor of Beatport in Los Angeles. She is on Twitter.
Lead photo image by Wobsarazzi.
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