By: Andrea Domanick
It's a Thursday evening in early April, and Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone is holed up at the LA home of his art director, Mason Rothschild. They are mapping out the festival's slate of installations and discussing the sets they'll play with their respective bands. With just a month to go, Pirrone still has a long to-do list to check off before the newly expanded psych-rock-flavored music-and-art festival returns to Sunset Ranch Oasis in Mecca on Saturday.
In addition to more than a dozen interactive art offerings, the festival's fourth edition features its largest single-day lineup, with more than 40 bands, including Warpaint, Deap Vally, the Budos Band and RJD2. The daylong event has also beefed up its production and expanded camping and dining options in anticipation of as many as 5,000 fans descending on the desert oasis. Now, Pirrone and his team are being forced to navigate some of the less-than-sexy minutiae of event planning, such as additional security, dust control and parking-lot expansion–things their careers as musicians and artists offer little preparation for.
"We're in the awkward teenage phase of being a festival, so there are challenges and new hoops to jump through," Pirrone says. "It's a new level of detail. This is a total new kind of chapter for us, and we're just at the beginning of it."
No one expected or intended for Desert Daze to get this big–at least not this quickly. In just four years, the gathering has evolved from what was essentially an extended Coachella party with a few dozen attendees to a full-scale festival. The inaugural 2012 event unintentionally became one of the world's longest consecutive music festivals, with 120 acts playing two stages at Dillon Roadhouse in Desert Hot Springs over the course of 11 straight days and nights. The following year, it was scaled back to a more focused single day and relocated to the idyllic outdoor Sunset Ranch Oasis with just two dozen bands. This year is the first time it won't bookend or overlap with Coachella. But Pirrone insists the goal was never about stepping out from the shadow of that famous Ferris wheel.
In a saturated market in which standing out typically means going bigger–exclusive reunions, hit-making headliners, more stages and corporate branding galore–Desert Daze strives to remain a DIY-minded event for fans and artists alike. "We want it to be like a recharge station for everyone. A day where people can get motivated and inspired and take that energy back into their everyday life," Pirrone explains. "In a lot of ways, it's the antithesis of the mega-fest."
That's part of why it has been largely organized and executed by the artists playing and participating in it. Though Pirrone is enlisting the expertise of festival-production professionals this year, the core of Desert Daze is an evolving collaboration made up of the Moon Block Party. The dozen or so circles of Southern Californian musicians, labels, studios and artists who make up this grassroots collective also put on the beloved Pomona festival of the same name.
Originally an attendee of Desert Daze, Rothschild now heads its art department as well as performs there with his LA-based psych-synth outfit, Fever the Ghost. Pirrone also performs at the fest, with his project JJUUJJUU, and his wife, Julie, plays drums with festival faves Deap Vally while also helping to run the event.
Fans are invited to become part of the experience as volunteers, street-team members, interns, artists and vendors, often in exchange for free attendance. Organizers also try to keep ticket prices comparatively low to ensure the event remains inclusive. For example, a basic ticket and camping pass costs a combined $75.
"For me, there's such a different atmosphere for someone on the ground," Rothschild says. "Everyone is hanging out, and no one is sequestered in a green room. It's the most fun festival to play because it feels like a community event. People are inspired and involved in what's going on and not just there to shotgun beers and do drugs."
Jenn Serpa Bootow, who attended art school with Pirrone and helms the festival's marketing and artist relations, says letting Desert Daze continue to develop organically is essential to its ongoing success. That's the strategy she takes when it comes to curating the lineups, which feature a blend of left-of-the-dial favorites such as Minus the Bear and Failure, but she also tries to keep an eye on younger artist development.
"We book whatever we're really into at the time, and that hasn't lead us astray so far. We'll book someone who hasn't played in a long time, world-music acts, and people you see a spark in but who don't really get the time of day at larger festivals," Serpa Bootow says, naming rising LA acts Deap Vally, Mystic Braves and Corners as among those who got their start with the fest. "Lots of people leave saying they discovered their new favorite bands. That's really something we take pride in."
Pirrone doesn't deny the reality that there's a festival bubble, particularly in Southern California, but he believes keeping Desert Daze, as well as Moon Block Party, community-focused is what will continue their success. "Bigger isn't necessarily better," he says. "For us, that has never really been the end game. We'd rather dial in on what we're doing."
Though its rising profile has attracted growing interest from corporate sponsors, the fest's organizers prefer to stay selective about who they work with, even if it means having to keep their day jobs. "This started as an experiment, really, so it's hard to say what our goals are. I would like to continue making events with friends," Pirrone says.
Accommodating its popularity could mean Desert Daze one day hits the road to other cities, rather than sprawl out in Mecca. "If we could go on the road with this thing, that would bring it full circle, really," Pirrone says. "I want to give anyone who's looking for a different festival experience a place to go."
Desert Daze, featuring Warpaint, Failure, RJD2, Minus the Bear and more, at Sunset Ranch Oasis, 69-520 S. Lincoln St., Mecca; desertdaze.org. Sat., noon. $55-$130. All ages.