Desert Daze Stays True to Its Roots

Will this be the last time we see DEVO? Illustration by Dave Evanko

Over the past eight years, Desert Daze has grown into one of the most distinctive, successful independent music festivals in Southern California. Its immersive, surreal atmosphere, coupled with consistent musical lineups, sets it apart from the music festivals that thrive on VIP sections and Instagram photo opportunities. Of course, gaining enough popularity to attract such headliners as Iggy Pop and My Bloody Valentine in recent years (while maintaining said independence) has been far from easy, but the DIY spirit has always been an integral part of the festival. 

“We started with zero expectations,” explains Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone. “It kind of started out of necessity. As the festival landscape started to develop and take shape in Southern California and America, I felt kind of like something was missing for us. So we got a bunch of friends together and threw a block party.” That was in 2011. The following year, Pirrone, his wife and a few of their close friends organized the first Desert Daze, which featured more than 120 acts over the course of 11 days.

Since then, the festival has been shortened to a standard weekend, relocated numerous times and undergone various other changes, but never at the expense of the principles it was founded upon. To preserve the fest’s autonomy, Pirrone and his promotions company, Moon Block, ended a long-standing partnership with Spaceland Presents when that company was acquired by Live Nation earlier this year. “The music-festival industry is tricky,” says Pirrone. “We’re in Southern California, which is really, really competitive, and the festival business—and live music business in general—is consolidating more and more every day. We’re an outlier, and that makes our life harder than it does easier. So we’re swimming upstream, no doubt about it.”

Last year, the festival moved from its previous location in Joshua Tree to Lake Perris, where it could accommodate more guests. “It was a massive jump from a small event to a mid-size event,” Pirrone says. “And I think we kind of took it as far as we could take it on our own.”

Shortly after cutting ties with Spaceland Presents, Moon Block announced a new partnership with Red Light Management, which includes everyone from Tune-Yards to Herbie Hancock on its roster. While the company has brought a certain level of expertise and more than a few resources to the table, it has also been very intentional about letting Moon Block have the freedom to do what it does best. And Pirrone assures that this year’s attendees shouldn’t notice any big changes to the festival’s overall feel. “I think the things that people will notice are that they’ll get into the show faster, that the security process is less of a headache, that the box-office process makes more sense, that there are more food options, and that the feng shui of the festival grounds is a little tighter,” he says.

Musically, this year’s lineup looks to be the most eclectic and ambitious yet, with festival staple Connan Mockasin; experimental hip-hop producer Flying Lotus; and Texas-based, Thai-influenced funk trio Khruangbin, to name a few. Although some acts might come as a surprise to those who mainly associate Desert Daze with psychedelic rock (thanks to such past headliners as Brian Jonestown Massacre and Ty Segall), Pirrone says the roster has always been diverse, having also hosted acts such as BadBadNotGood, Free the Robots and Tinariwen. “Desert Daze is an open-your-mind fest, man. . . . It’s for weirdos of all kinds. If you like experimental, heavy music of any kind, we’ve probably got you covered.” 

It’s this type of variety that has made Desert Daze so different. So it will be the perfect setting for two landmark performances this year: San Diego hardcore/powerviolence pioneers the Locust will play their first set in four years, while iconic post-punk group Devo perform what might be their final live set. The bands are expected to play 90-minute sets full of classics, career-spanning material and, of course, videos on Saturday night.

Devo hold a special place in Pirrone’s heart. “When I was a kid, I used to record music videos on VHS tapes,” he remembers. “That was like my first mixtape. And ‘Whip It’ was the first one [on that tape]. They’re such an important band. They’re more than a band; they’re a statement about humankind and the world. The concept of devolution is more relevant now, and the world really needs Devo, now more than ever.”

Since the 1970s, Devo have been innovators of sound and purveyors of truth, using dark humor, groundbreaking music videos and unforgettable live performances to convey their theory that humankind is declining rather than evolving. “Now there is no question that devolution is real,” says founding member/bassist Gerald Casale. “It’s not some college pose or clever prank; it’s real.”  

Desert Daze at Moreno Beach, 17801 Lake Perris Dr., Lake Perris; desertdaze.org. Oct. 10-13, noon. $99-$289. 

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