Ovrld on the Road: Desert Daze

by Zev Powell

Ovrld on the Road

Sometimes Ovrld staff venture beyond the 512 and take Ovrld on the Road. This month, new recruit Zev Powell checked out Desert Daze, a festival out in Joshua Tree that has a similar aesthetic and philosophical approach to Austin’s own Levitation Fest. Find out whether Zev thinks it’s a worthwhile peer to the former Psych Fest.

I was in the painfully long line to see King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard’s Austin Levitation make up show at Barracuda this past May. I was unsure about the status of my refund for the festival tickets and the whole town was certain that scalpers had swept up all the tickets to the venue shows. That’s when a guy came up to me promoting some psych rock festival in Joshua Tree later in the year. The dude was definitely wearing a grimy tie dye shirt, and the sticker he extended towards me with the words Desert Daze on it definitely had a tie dye background. The way he carried himself as a psych rocker didn’t fit in with the Levitation fold. Maybe we are just spoiled with eerily uncanny aesthetic identity in Austin, but I was skeptical to say the least. I had endured lots of guerilla promotional handouts during SXSW; everything from cheap vapes to tasers. More than anything, the whole city was grieving the devastating loss of this year’s Levitation and King Gizzard was the only thing on my radar. Turns out Desert Daze would be the festival experience that filled the gaping emotional and musical void.

There’s a scene in the legendary movie, Apocalypse Now, deep in Martin Sheen’s claustrophobic jungle adventure when his surfer soldier Lance B. Johnson inexplicably drops acid at the Lo Dung Bridge forward operating base. Intoxicated clown music stumbles through the humid trenches and string lights fail to illuminate the blind enemy on the other side of the hanging bridge. It epitomizes the insanity of the Vietnam War. Now turn that jungle into a desert, and you get the chaos and hilarity of Desert Daze. Instead of guns and Charlie you get chords and beats. Military fatigues make way for cacti, and agent orange is substituted for a dust that cakes your respiratory system from the inside out. Why would anyone enlist to be a camping festival goer for three days? There’s no mandatory draft. It’s a complicated self-indulgence in how our generation consumes music. In a poignant dialogue Martin Sheen asks an unfamiliar soldier “who’s the commanding officer here?” The soldier’s retaliatory response: “Ain’t you?” Indeed, you are given a map and key with stages and set times when you enter the festival. But your experience is only defined by the misadventures you have outside of those loosely printed guidelines. This is the social landscape you walk into at Desert Daze. Charlie does surf. This is musical warfare.

Desert Daze 2016

The security guy checking us into the car camping asked if we had any substances, drugs, weed. When we said no, he replied “Man, how are you about to go camping without any weed?” His attitude foreshadowed the entire weekend. If you knew where to go and had an ounce of confidence you could find yourself backstage with some beer, food, and semi-famous company.

Desert Daze offered a lineup that knocked the socks off. It’s the lineup that weeded out the fair weather fans and brought a truly authentic festival crowd. If you weren’t hooked by Primus, The Sonics, Television and The Black Angels, then surely Thee Oh Sees, Pond, Connan Mockasin, Dead Meadow and White Fence would leave you reaching for your pockets. With only 6,000 tickets sold—the festival was deliberately kept small-scale and affordable—it’s a wonder how the production could be financially viable with the acts they brought.

The 5th annual DD was located on the grounds of the Institute of Mentalphysics. If you are passing some cosmic junky judgments then you are already making accurate imaginations of what the scene looked like. Moon Block, an L.A. production company known for being collectively experimental among local artists, took on the task of organizing the trippy feast, and consequently took on the heat for some frustrating managerial circumstances. So let’s say the interpretive artistry of the festival was on point, but quite a few technical shortcomings were less than charming. Maybe it’s not fair to blame the sound technicians themselves. Maybe it was the equipment, maybe it was the devil’s tent that could be heard screeching and whining with feedback all the way from the camping grounds. What I can say with certainty is that Connan Mockasin’s set was a blubbering and pitiful excuse of a concert.

On the other hand there was some impressive, if not trivial, attention to artistic details. Art installations, sanctuary shows, and even select vendors were finely curated. The full moon rose over the festival on Saturday night. It was no coincidence that midway through Thee Oh Sees’ set, the brilliant lunar ball peaked over the trusses of the aptly-named Moon Stage. It was perfectly centered and shown immaculately. Left awestruck, I embarked on an internal pursuit to figure out if they hired an astrophysicist to achieve this amazing scientific feat. At the same time I wondered why they couldn’t figure out how to manage the water scarcity and lack of potty facilities.

Since delving into the psych scene I’ve formed my taste around the heavier proto metal acts that sprung up during the Black Sabbath age. Post 1969. For those who find comfort in generalizing, psych rock might be mistaken for a jam band that plays a million too many notes in a song and the entire crowd wears bandana head bands, flowery crowns and Chacos—I’m looking at you Phish. No, psych rock is defined by its simplicity anchored to surf rock, punk, metal, blues, and the hammering repetitive drone bass of renaissance Paul McCartney. It’s the Paul that George brought into play following his studies of East Indian music. It’s both invigorating and nearly infuriating to hear a bass line repeat for three minutes. But it is the careful use of ragas, space, and studio effects that makes you want to rip off the skin of your teeth when that sweet transition into the verse finally arrives. You might find yourself bobbing your head to some cyclical polyrhythm deviating from the rhythm the drummer pounds out.

A perfect example from Desert Daze was the ludicrous prog-math performance from Yonathan Gat. However esoteric, their songs are rooted by their mechanical Krautrock rudiments. That show was more of a mind scramble than a head bob. There were bands like The Black Angels with so many vocal effects that you won’t recognize a single lyric. In that case, the voice acts as more of a melodic device than as a provocative language tool. It delivers itself as an instrument. Psych rock thrives in the theatre of performance. The genre is built to see the music live. You can see the whining feedback the White Fence guitarist creates when he turns his back to the audience and caresses the amp with his guitar or floors himself to twist some pedal knobs. There are many ways to navigate the psych rock archives that will give you a deep appreciation for the genre.

White Fence Desert Daze

White Fence at Desert Daze 2016, photo by Sheva Kafai

There are bands that fit a mold and intentionally sound similar to one another—think Burger Records, Drag City, L.A. garage rock as a whole. Incestuously consistent. Then there are genre challengers. Both are satisfying when done right. There are melodically satisfying bands. There are fuzz-happy bands. There are fusion-happy bands. There are cymbal-happy bands. The balance of the visceral and ethereal in psych music is integral to keeping the sound anchored to songs and albums. This is the user’s manual I carried with me in the back of my mind when I walked up to each set at DD.

While psych rock performances have the robust sound capable of filling a natural festival environment, they are often remembered for the intimate stages they occupy on tour. The visuals on display at Desert Daze were the supplement that closed the ambient gap between the lodge stage at Barracuda and the open air immensity of Joshua Tree. I think the one-two punch of sublime audio/visual pairing is the future of great big-stage live music; Dead Meadow’s swells and refrains would not have been half as jarring if it weren’t for the warped VHS-esque chaos going on around them. There’s a movement in Austin based around innovation and nostalgics in lighting. Local musician and light artist Bob Mustachio of The Mustachio Lightshow can be found playing with his band, Hollow Trees, or doing touring light shows for The Black Angels around the globe. His own words about the Mustachio show: “I try to create a living video synthesizer by patching together video gear in a creative way. It’s all about signal flow for me, and if I setup my rig in a particular way, the stuff just jumps out of there and onto the screen. It takes minimal prodding to produce results, which allows me to produce very tightly synched visuals in real-time.” Mustachio was challenged by some of the venue-related technical hiccups but was also understanding of the growing pains involved in a budding festival. The average eye notices the first eighty percent, and it’s only the devoted artist who notices the not-quite-there twenty percent. I thoroughly enjoyed the disturbing glitch effect of the living mirrored trapdoors that Mustachio layered behind Thee Oh Sees, making their four-piece look like sixty musical slinkies plastered on a pixel wall.

The moshpit at King Gizzard was the climax of angst and anticipation. There’s the expected 6’5” sweaty monster. But never would I ever have guessed the number of women tossing themselves around in the pit of a Gizz show. There’s nothing like meeting the love of your life by getting bowled over by her in the mosh. The Desert Daze FAQ page suggests you bring a bandana without explaining the reasons for why. Sunburn? Sweat? It turns out the amount of sand kicked up in the mosh is enough to suffocate someone with mild asthma. After the last Nonagon Infinity chords had been struck and the dust had finally settled, it was time for people to reclaim some missing items: “Anyone seen a black bag? I lost my insulin pump.” Another, “Left shoe…?”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard at Desert Daze, photo by Minivan Photography.

California is a magical cliche. It’s an unfailing caricature of its own reputation. And maybe it’s no coincidence that my festival experience itself was bookended by two unforgettable occurrences: Paul McCartney’s surprise show in-between Oldchella weekends brought him to a dive bar in Pioneertown playing to a crowd of one hundred on Thursday night. Late Sunday night on the tail end of the festival the artist village was the location of the groovy dance party of a lifetime with some exclusive scenesters. If it weren’t for the fruity flavored La Croix being handed out I would have mistaken myself for a cast member of a flawless 60’s musical. Austinites provided the thrifty bell bottom look, and the L.A. hill folks contributed the red collectors’ Porsches with lively go-go dancers clad in red fishnet and tall white leather boots. It turns out the speculations of similarities between the L.A. crowd and the Austin scenes are spot on. The unadulterated psych identity feels like one of the only remaining Austin communities that resembles itself from past generations. If Austin is the gateway to the belly of the Western South, for a weekend Joshua Tree was at the heart.

Zev Powell is a creative problem scientist. To find out more about him, check out his website.