“Doing a live music rock and roll festival for weirdos in Southern California means you’re an outlier.”
Phil Pirrone is talking about Desert Daze, the vagabond music festival he founded eight years ago. At the time, Pirrone’s company, Moon Block, was already throwing parties in the streets of Pomona, but it wasn’t long before he knew a radical change of scenery was needed.
What debuted in 2012 as an 11-day psych-rock marathon in Desert Hot Springs has steadily evolved into one of the best festival experiences on the West Coast. Through a process of constant refinement – from the ever-expanding roster of talent to community-centric amenities like interactive art installations, workshops and film screenings – the now three-day event has been able to retain its unique identity without making too many sacrifices.
Never content to put down roots, Desert Daze spent time in the Coachella Valley’s unincorporated community of Mecca, as well as The Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, before settling on Lake Perris’ idyllic Moreno Beach last year.
But as the fest celebrates its eighth anniversary this weekend with performances from Devo, The Flaming Lips, Stereolab, Ween, Wu-Tang Clan and Animal Collective, it may be time to rethink Pirrone’s claim that Desert Daze is an outlier.
“We’ll always be very particular,” Pirrone recently insisted in a phone interview from the festival site. “Picky doesn’t quite cut it. And maybe that’s to a fault. But the mission isn’t to sell as many tickets as possible. We really just want to keep doing what we’ve been lucky enough to do so far. And that’s to build a community around it. We want to maintain that, honor it, and let that guide us.”
So far, the plan is working. And as attendance has grown each year, Pirrone and his team have been able to continually handcraft lineups that include more and more personal favorites. In the past, Desert Daze has played host to the likes of Tame Impala, Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, My Bloody Valentine, John Cale, Tinariwen, Primus, Blonde Redhead and more.
This year once again ups the ante with each night’s headliner – The Flaming Lips, Ween, and Wu-Tang Clan - playing one of their classic albums in its entirety. The lineup also includes a reunion by The Locust, the near-legendary San Diego hardcore band that performs in bug-inspired stage attire while ripping through hyperactive songs that typically last no more than a minute each. This will be The Locust’s first performance since 2015.
‘Devo is the house band on the Titanic’
One headliner, however, plans to up the ante in a completely different way.
Devo, the veteran new wave pioneers known for its satire and social commentary, will not be playing a specific classic album during its Saturday night set. Instead, the band will make only its second live appearance in three years — after performing at the John Waters-hosted Burger Boogaloo in Oakland last summer and the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 2016 — as a nod to what they say is the end of the world (as we know it).
“Everything that we were afraid of has happened,” said founding bassist Gerald Casale from his L.A. home. “We warned about blind belief in technology, about following the leader, about losing your ability to think critically and use your freedom of choice. We said it all. The situation we currently find ourselves in is, in fact, proof that de-evolution is real. Devo is more necessary than ever.”
The 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees might not be playing one of their old albums in its entirety this weekend, but they are crafting a very specific, politically-charged set list.
A career-spanning selection of the band’s most pointed songs like Freedom of Choice, Beautiful World, Gates of Steel, Jocko Homo and Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man) should all make appearances.
Yet regardless of how well this one-off performance goes, there are no plans currently on the books for Devo performances beyond Desert Daze. Although Casale admits that if the band were to make another run, next year would be the time they’d do it.
“If we do play more shows,” he said, “they would be in 2020. And they would be juxtaposed with the national crisis that we all face in this upcoming presidential election - which could actually be the last thing that you can call an election in this country. We’re watching the end of democracy. Devo is the house band on the Titanic.”
While Casale, fellow co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh — now at work with San Diego skateboard legend Tony Hawk on a La Jolla Playhouse adaptation of British writer Nick Hornby’s Slam — and the rest of the current Devo lineup are definitely worried about the ever-deepening political division in this country, they are also aware of their good fortune in being a band that still resonates more than four decades after they started.
“We did something right,” said Casale. “There was a substance and a presence to Devo that made us unique and somehow that’s withstood the test of time, even though we were never chart-toppers year after year. And there is still so much good will for us out there.”
Uniqueness just so happens to be one of those cornerstones that Desert Daze has worked hard to cultivate, so it seems like the perfect place for Devo, and all of the dozens of other performers in Lake Perris this weekend, to spread their message.
The festival is set to return to Moreno Beach next year, but there is no telling where it might end up in year ten. But wherever the art installations and Desert Daze stages might stand in the future, it’s likely that festival organizers will continue to make sure it grows in all the right ways.
“To some extent,” said Pirrone, “we’re less like promoters and producers, and more like rock and roll public servants. We are so focused and we know what it is that we’re after. But really, it’s all about alchemy. And you can’t plan that.”
Desert Daze with Devo, The Flaming Lips, Ween, Wu-Tang Clan, Stereolab, The Locust, Animal Collective, Parquet Courts, Temples, Fred Armisen, The Claypool Lennon Delirium and more
When: Friday, Oct. 10 through Sunday, Oct. 13
Where: Moreno Beach at the Lake Perris State Recreation Area, 17801 Lake Perris Drive, Perris
Tickets: $120 to $500 at desertdaze.org