There’s a moment every year at Desert Daze when Phil Pirrone stands on stage with a poncho, a guitar, and curly locks of long hair over his shoulders as he looks out at the loud, love-bred, psychedelic world he created. Before ending every set with his band JJUUJJUU, he makes it a point to thank the friends and fans who helped him build it. Though most promoters are rarely seen at the massive events they throw, Pirrone’s commitment to the integrity of Desert Daze means being a part of it in every way possible. That includes rocking out on stage and thanking the community that allows him to grow the event on his own terms in today’s infinitely cluttered festival landscape.
“It’s our moment to let everyone know that we’re in this together,” Pirrone says. “This isn’t a faceless thing, it isn’t just a business venture–it’s a mission. And we’re all on it.”
Last month, the country’s largest concert promoter Live Nation continued its Southern California expansion by acquiring Spaceland Presents (along with the Echo and the Echoplex), which was partnered with Pirrone’s promotions company, Moon Block. To preserve his autonomy and the independent spirit of Desert Daze, Moon Block ended its partnership with Spaceland Presents, started working with Red Light Management and continued its partnership with the Knitting Factory to produce the eighth annual festival. Recently, Pirrone announced the Desert Daze would not be part of the sale of Spaceland to Live nation in any way.
“People are happy to hear it, absolutely,” Pirrone says. “I think Desert Daze represents something, not only to us but to the community of [the event]. We have this ‘integrity compass’ and that’s our audience, our community. Who knows what the future will be but this feels like the right move right now.”
With the new partnership, Red Light brought in a number of veteran festival producers to the team including legendary music executive Stuart Ross and Brad Sands who helped develop some of the country’s most prominent festivals. Red Light and Knitting Factory will work together with Moon Block who oversaw the festival’s creation and growth from an 11-day, DIY bacchanal at Dillon’s Roadhouse in Desert Hot Springs to becoming a renowned festival at previous locations in Mecca and Joshua Tree, hosting the likes of Iggy Pop, My Bloody Valentine, and Mercury Rev. This year, the festival returns to its current location in Lake Perris, Calif., featuring The Flaming Lips along with an immersive, 3D experience from Flying Lotus, and rare performances by Stereolab, Parquet Courts, The Black Angels, and Fred Armisen. As always, Pirrone will continue on as festival director and the festival’s lead curator.
“I’m not on vacation by any means,” Pirrone explains. “I’m still driving the ship philosophically and creatively and we still have the best of the best of our operations team coming back and we’re adding these new folks from Red Light and via Red Light.”
Pirrone says that Ross, who helped develop more than a few industry-standard innovations, and literally wrote the book on event safety as a founding member of the Event Safety Alliance, is a big part of the team and a great mentor who believes in his vision.
“One of the things that resonated with me and told me we were in the right place was when Stuart said ‘Look, what you’re doing with Desert Daze is difficult because you’re doing something that no one else is doing and it takes digging a little deeper and thinking outside the box,’” Pirrone recalls.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the festival’s ever evolving lineup. From the outset, Desert Daze had an ethos of inclusion, opening its stages up to groundbreaking artists from psych rock to hip-hop. Fittingly, the Flaming Lips’ set will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their album The Soft Bulletin, hailed by fans and critics as one of their most genre-defying, intricately arranged albums to date. Though Desert Daze has always been a cool place to catch stoner rock and psych, this year’s line-up reminds us that the festival favors pushing boundaries over catering to any particular genre.
“I see [this year’s lineup] as an extension of what we’ve already been doing,” Pirrone says. “There’s some purists out there who think we’re a psych fest and we’re so much more than that.”
With the festival’s philosophy, business partnerships, and musical identity evolving nicely, Pirrone’s primary concern now is creating a quality environment for fans. That includes a lot of logistical details from speeding up traffic and ingress at the front gates, improving the VIP experience, and strengthening cell phone service in the fest’s remote location.
“We’re moving into the next era of working with more professionals and more industry-standard vendors, cutting less corners without sacrificing any of the energy or spirit of the event whatsoever,” Pirrone explains.
That spirit was definitely tested last year during their first year in the new location when impossibly slow traffic conditions, doubled by pouring rain and lightning forced the headliner Tame Impala to cancel their set after the third song. Many who’d waited for hours in traffic lines voiced their outrage on social media as Pirrone and his team scrambled to find solutions to keep the festival alive.
“There was a part of me that thought the whole festival was going to be canceled that weekend. When I heard we got the go ahead from the fire marshall to open up on Saturday, I was kind of in disbelief,” Pirrone recalls. Luckily by Day 2, the bad weather subsided and the rest of the festival continued as planned. Though he’s had plenty of obstacles to deal with before, as the festival and its mission continued into this year there were times when he wasn’t sure if Desert Daze could make it through.
For now, Pirrone says, he’s doing the best he can to make the right moves and preserve the mission of the festival he set out to create–and with a lot more help and guidance, he’s a big step closer to making that happen.
“Everything is real now instead of it just playing out in my mind and on my laptop and on conference calls,” Pirrone says. “[Desert Daze] is real and it’s in the world and people are experiencing it and it’s happening. And I just couldn’t be more grateful. So we’re gonna take that gratitude and make sure that this is the best Desert Daze ever.”