Desert Hearts co-founders (L-R): Lee Reynolds, Porky, Marbs and Mickey Lion
Photo: Connor Lee
Desert Hearts TV: How The San Diego DJ Crew Are Tuning In During The COVID-19 Crisis
Saturday, April 25 was supposed to be the day when 4,000 house and techno aficionados caroused on a dusty Indian reservation just south of San Diego at Desert Hearts Festival.
Instead, the California dance music collective’s co-founder Mikey Lion is headlining the first ever "Desert Hearts Digital Festival," and broadcasting a 10-hour, rip-roaring set of underground tunes via Twitch from the comfort of his home. Even in the absence of shared wine bags and warm embraces at the off-the-grid bacchanal, the party rages on digitally thanks to the newly-minted Desert Hearts TV.
Meanwhile in an unaffiliated, fan-founded Zoom room hosted by AllDayIStream.com called ‘QuarantineHearts,’ 500 isolated fans from around the world have congregated to watch the stream together. While Desert Hearts’ Twitch provides an audiovisual portal into Mikey’s set, the online conferencing platform empowers viewers to approximate communal clubbing by streaming their own housebound dance parties.
In the midst of digital toasts and rump-shaking mayhem, respiratory therapist Eric Ogada — otherwise known by his nickname, Easy — appears on-screen donning full protective gear, hospital scrubs, a bouffant cap, a medical face mask and all. He’s tuning in from a New Jersey hospital, where he’s working the night shift and waiting to assess his next patient.
In a few moments, Easy will be taking strangers’ temperatures, checking their lung capacity, and making the decision about what department they’ll be routed to. But for now, during a brief break, he’s with the people of Desert Hearts. It doesn’t take long for his presence to prompt a deluge of supportive messages in the chat room from his fellow Zoom revelers.
“With DHTV, it’s people just relaxing and having fun, and people actually saying thank you for your service,” Ogada says. “That's therapeutic, because these patients can't say thank you, they’re dying so quick. You're just so busy and overwhelmed, it really helps when somebody actually says thank you.”
Ogada has worked at hospitals for 14 years, and has been serving as a respiratory therapist for the last six. His "work hard, play hard" lifestyle has seen him visit 19 countries across the world, including annual pilgrimages to electronic music meccas like Ibiza and Tulum. Like many other music enthusiasts who’ve been left heartbroken by the shutdown of the concert and festival industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ogada has turned to DHTV’s weekly programming to fill the void of human connection and camaraderie.
“This community has been here before COVID-19, and I love seeing everyone vibing together,” he says. “It’s a tight-knit community, and as a transplant [from Boston] I already feel welcomed with open arms.”
The Heart In Desert Hearts
Desert Hearts began as a renegade desert party in the Mojave, but it’s since ballooned into a kaleidoscopic world of international initiatives: the annual sold-out festival, a respected record label, and a globe-trotting showcase series that’s touched down at festivals and clubs from Berlin to Sydney.
Built on the mantra “House, Techno, Love – We Are All Desert Hearts,” the festival was founded in 2012 by four San Diego DJs who wanted to create a judgment-free playground for their friends to let loose while coalescing over a shared love of underground sounds.
As opposed to typical electronic music festivals, which reliably offer up a medley of stages to careen between and sonic styles to hear, Desert Hearts Festival programs more than 100 uninterrupted hours of house and techno on one sole stage. Attendees bask in a singular, shared communal experience, and effortlessly connect with friends and strangers alike, all united under the “One Stage, One Vibe” ethos.
“We've met so many people that have said, ‘When I got introduced to this community, I really didn't even listen to house music,’” Desert Hearts co-founder Marbs says. “People come to our parties not necessarily for the music, but just because of the environment, how comfortable they feel with the people that are at that event, and then associating the music with that feeling of belonging.”
Beyond the jacking basslines and pulsating decibels wafting from the festival speakers, Desert Hearts is regarded as a bastion of creativity and unabashed self-expression where weirdos of all stripes can let their freak flags fly. Attendees are encouraged to rock avant-garde outfits, paint psychedelic art pieces, or host pop-up wine and cheese parties — whatever tickles their fancy.
For many Desert Hearts devotees, the accepting, open-minded environment is what keeps them coming back year after year; it’s the same quality that made its four founders — Mikey Lion, Marbs, Porky, and Lee Reynolds — hustle to migrate its palpable sense of community online.
“Our focus is on the people, and how to keep the people connected,” Marbs explains. “The people are the most important piece of the puzzle through the whole thing. And it's so cool to see that when we think we're about to go through a time that's going to rock us, the community somehow grows.”
Marbs and his fellow ringleaders were forced to cancel the 12th edition of Desert Hearts Festival on March 16. Just a week later, they launched DHTV. The online extension of Desert Hearts serves up varying content each week, ranging from marathon DJ sets mixed by its architects and cohorts, to the recurring "Wellness Wednesday’s" series which features yoga, meditation, and sound baths. The Desert Hearts Digital Festival was a tour de force of underground soundscapes designed to simulate the nonstop nature of the originally-planned festival; more than 25 international artists performed (nearly) around the clock for four days straight.
“The people are the most important piece of the puzzle through the whole thing. And it's so cool to see that when we think we're about to go through a time that's going to rock us, the community somehow grows.” -Marbs
In addition to DJing, the Desert Hearts founders also personally lead interactive specialty programming, like crate-digging with Lee Reynolds and Dutch pour painting with Marbs. Porky, Mikey Lion’s younger brother, kicked off DHTV by hosting a "Tubby Tuesdays" cooking lesson, where he guided viewers through making their own sushi-burritos. Marbs said the personalized offerings aim to give people a glimpse into their everyday lives and passions outside of music.
“The whole idea is to close the gap of distance between us all,” Marbs says. “And the more intimate and interactive we can make it, the more that it feels like we're actually hanging out, even though we're on screens.”
Welcome To The Lions Den
Every Saturday evening, comedy buff Mikey Lion hosts ‘The Lions Den,’ a 10-hour hybrid DJ-stream-meets-variety-show. When the clock strikes midnight, he blasts Olivia Newton-John’s anthem “Let’s Get Physical” as he and his wife Cookie lift free weights with grins plastered across their faces. Cookie has become a staple in the skits on ‘The Lions Den’. One of the more memorable entries saw her take on the role of Maxine, a sassy publicist who sports oversized sunglasses and struts across the camera’s frame with audacious panache. It’s all a part of the master plan to help fans mentally escape the Coronavirus epoch, if only for the weekend.
“Giving people an outlet to release during such a tough time is super important,” Mikey Lion says. “Our community is rooted in spreading as much love and positive energy as possible, and people are willing to roll with the punches, even in such a horrible time in history for all of us - but we're not going to let that stop us from having a good time, creating love, and pushing positivity to one another.”
Fans have turned Desert Hearts’ Twitch channel chat forum into an endless source of cheeky messages, inside jokes, and general musings on isolation insanity. Whether it’s festival veterans bonding over their favorite Desert Hearts memories, or newcomers forging relationships with internet friends miles away, DHTV mirrors the festival’s authentic innervation of belonging and togetherness.
“Just like with any kind of underground music scene, if you're going to shows consistently, you start to recognize the same people,” Garrett James, who handles Desert Hearts marketing, says. “Eventually, you're going to talk to them and become friends with them. And that's how these Twitch chats are; every time, without fail, the same people are there.”
“Giving people an outlet to release during such a tough time is super important.” -Mikey Lion
When COVID-19 struck, James pivoted Desert Hearts’ marketing focus online. Now, he and Brooke Sousa — a longtime friend and resident party conductor among the crew — have been tapped to serve as moderators within DHTV’s chat room. The pair work to foster the good vibes and make all participants feel welcome, while ensuring the chat’s ridiculousness never gets too out of hand. James notes how Desert Hearts Festival’s infectious spirit of friendship permeates the digital realm.
“I feel like that aspect of connecting with people, even in a virtual space, is still happening, just in a very different way,” he says.
On the unofficial Zoom video chat, newfound friends bask in a raucous free-for-all, with nearly 500 fans simultaneously cutting rugs, taking shots, flashing some skin and trying to outweird one another. One couple coordinates dance moves for their ferrets. Another pair, who broadcast under the username ‘Legohearts,’ shows off a full-blown lego replica of the Desert Hearts stage and speakers, with their child play-dancing his Lego characters across the imaginary dance floor.
“Desert Hearts is where I get to be my realest, truest self, and everyone is being weird, and it invites you to not be afraid to be weird too, and I think that's the part that people love the most,” Sousa explains. “You get on screen and get to wave your freak flag just like at the festival, where you get to be whatever crazy version of yourself that you decide you want to be. Not only that, but you have everyone cheering you on and encouraging you; nobody is judging, everyone is just thinking ‘What can I do next that’s even crazier?’”
Desert Hearts’ Digital Future
While DHTV provides fans with a welcomed distraction from the uncertainty of life under quarantine, it’s also a much needed creative outlet for the Desert Hearts impresarios. For artists who are used to breakneck tour schedules with firm performance times, DHTV encourages them to fluidly experiment with extended sets, test out new material, and push themselves technically.
“Streaming has helped me tremendously to get out of my comfort zone,” Porky explains. “I've always personally hated staring directly into the camera — and I cringe when hearing my voice — so it's really rad to use this opportunity to try something new. It's still extremely stressful every single time, especially when you're playing a 12-hour livestream and have to dodge all kinds of obstacles, like internet speed and a place to stream without noise complaints. But, the show must go on and we work as a team to find the solution.”
DHTV has become a restorative wellspring of communal hope, and will remain a permanent facet of the Desert Hearts network long after quarantine ends. Since launching DHTV mid-March, the Twitch channel has already amassed more than 628,000 live views from more than 18,000 subscribers. DHTV continues to innovate, and will host the inaugural ‘City Hearts Digital Festival’ on May 28 - 31, replicating the brand’s one-day mini-festival series that’s sold out previous installments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
“Waking up to messages everyday saying "DHTV saving my life during this quarantine," will never get old, because everyone needs to tune out of the bullshit and get a boogie in,” Porky says. “We hold a special, comfortable space where people can express themselves without any judgement, and that's where all the magic happens.”
“We hold a special, comfortable space where people can express themselves without any judgement, and that's where all the magic happens.” -Porky
Music lovers around the world have been in isolation for more than two months. That’s hundreds of festivals canceled, thousands of deaths per day, and countless, chaotic nights in the hospital for Easy. But even though the respiratory therapist won't get his summer reprieve of dance floor-fueled travel, he’s still grateful to get lost in the music alongside the new friends he’s made within the Desert Hearts community.
“If you need an escape, go on DHTV and the Zoom just vibe,” Ogada says. “You just imagine you’re somewhere else, and you can relax. Because you just need to get past that day, and everything will be alright.”
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