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Desert Hearts and Debauchery: Raving in the Mexican Jungle with San Diego's Liveliest DJ Crew

We Saw This

By Jemayel Khawaja

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All photos by Jacob Avanzato

There’s something of a movement brewing in the dustier recesses of California. Desert Hearts, a San Diego-bred crew of DJs and roustabouts, is bringing themes from Burner culture into the house and techno underground with an infectious flair that blends hippie and hip in a totally novel fashion. Their bi-annual, non-stop renegade ragers on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Southern California have become the stuff of legend, and the Desert Hearts community has become the most visible in the regional dance scene. The ascent of Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, Deep Jesus, Porkchop and Marbs made for one of dance music’s most exciting stories of 2015.

To celebrate the new year, Desert Hearts set about their most intrepid adventure yet: Maya Hearts, a one-night festival at a cenote––a freshwater lake found in the Yucatan peninsula, often used by the ancient Mayans for sacrifices––deep in the jungles adjacent to Tulum, Mexico. Along with genre heavyweights Atish, Nico Stojan, Bedouin, Sabo, and NU, the event marked the Desert Hearts crew’s second international foray.

Mexico has long held an allure in the world of house and techno. The success of BPM Festival, whose 2016 edition runs January 8 to 17, over the past decade has led the Mayan Riviera’s recent progression into a jungly Ibiza of sorts, and Tulum in particular is beginning to gentrify, as did Ibiza, from a low-key hippie outpost to a commercial party haven.

But no amount of forewarning could have prepared the area for the torrential downpour of revelry Desert Hearts brought upon the Mexican jungle over New Year’s Eve weekend. Having covered their ascent closely from an outsider’s perspective, I embedded myself deep into the Desert Hearts madness as they journeyed south of the border for the first time. The following is how it all unfolded.

The flight to Cancun departs San Diego at 9:59 AM. I wander into the terminal where the Desert Hearts crew, over ten deep, is sat at a bar, already rowdy and catching the ire of elderly couples and families setting off for glamorous locales like Phoenix and Boise. Marbs, burly like some enforcer-type from The Sopranos, anchors one end of a long table occupied by colorful sorts, most accented with a touch of purple in their hair and clothing. He’s four bloody marys and one Xanax deep. May I remind you that it’s 9 AM. Porkchop spent the night prior siphoning tequila into lotion bottles and is making his own cocktails. His older brother, and the squad’s de facto leader, Mikey Lion, is already clad in his signature feathered top hat and asks for what seems like the tenth time if he can top up his own drink with the contraband liquor. His younger sibling will not oblige, responding only by yelling, “Ten dollar cocktails!” whenever prodded.

By the time the plane reaches Caribbean skies, what was once dubbed “the motherfuckin’ party plane” has taken on a quieter affect. Half bars spread around the crew have left most in some state of semi-consciousness. Marbs and Porkchop have to be peeled from their seats at the end of the flight, and the latter can’t find his passport at the notoriously stingy Mexican airport customs. “It’s not Desert Hearts unless it’s ridiculous,” chuckles Mikey.

We charge down Highway 317 on the way to Tulum. As police cars fly by, sirens blaring, a bottle of duty free mezcal is toppled and a smuggled-in weed pen emptied. Billboards promoting the Maya Hearts New Year party dot the roadside, but other than the gargantuan facades of resorts on either side, there’s no light on the road, and we’re already too slow on the uptake to catch a glimpse. After multiple stops to pee and buy more booze, we get lost in the back roads of Tulum. Carlos, our driver, is not amused.

By the time we reach our house, the party is well underway and the situation escalates towards chaos at some pace. The significant others of the DJs, a purple-haired gaggle of vibrant and wild sirens, have undertaken a topless photo shoot on the roof and, after disappearing for an hour after leaving to procure tacos, squad member Rybo returns to the house bleeding profusely from the ankle after a tumble over the 12-foot, spiked gate surrounding the property. One of the girls, a trauma nurse, is wrapping his foot in cling film as he downs tequila shots while perched above the sink. And then the drugs arrived.

By the evening of December 31, the uniquely Mexican combination of powders, cervezas, ceviche, tabs, and more than a few cases of Montezuma’s Revenge has the crew appropriately loopy for a New Year’s Eve rager at an ancient, haunted watering hole in the jungle. The party takes place at Cenote Dos Osos, situated behind an anonymous turnoff by a highway flanked by thick vegetation and trees. The only signifier of the party is a glowing, ten-foot neon pyramid with no signage, and the event space is a labyrinth of bridges and enclaves snaking around the cenote, with two stages tucked into clearings on either side.

As is typical for Mexico, the preparations run late, and swarms of staff are still setting up when the Desert Hearts crew arrive and rustle their way through the thicket of vegetation leading to the plot. Upon seeing staff members carrying metal railing towards the stage, Lee Reynolds’ eyes light up in panic. He hounds the workers down and insists vehemently in broken Spanish that they cannot place the railings in front of the stage. The notion of maintaining a connection with the crowd is of absolute importance within the DH crew, and separation from the party is considered a cardinal sin. At first, the workers don’t listen, but he’s adamant and eventually they are shooed away. Any other DJ in the squad would have done the same thing.

The centerpiece of the party’s production is the massive white maw of a jaguar protruding from a thicket of trees, upon which psychedelic projection-mapped visuals are blasted all night. The DJs perform from inside its mouth. Porkchop is entrusted with setting the vibe, and by the time his set is done, the once sparse dance floor is awash with grooving bodies experiencing Desert Hearts for the first time. The travelling party squad is rooted to the front of the crowd in a flurry of ecstatic dance maneuvers. They know their charge is to set the vibe all night long by leading from the front.

Mikey may be the unofficial leader of the whole community, but it’s Porkchop who’s the life of the party. Amidst the boisterous characters around him, Porky might initially come off as unassuming, but the kid is a tornado with an unmatchable party stamina and penchant for risk. It’s he who goads his brother into jumping gainer dives off of 30-foot cliffs and taking one more hit of acid. Over the past year, he’s emerged as a DJ of sterling quality, mixing an accessibility into his selections that has been key to converting outsiders and submerging them in the soul of the Desert Hearts sound––deep and weird house and techno.

At midnight, Porkchop hands the decks over to Mikey, and 2016 is ushered in with the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime.” The song’s lyrics repeat the query, “And you may ask yourself…How did I get here?” It’s a question Mikey, now nearing celebrity status in the scene, asks himself often.

The whole journey began with an epiphany at Californian transformational festival Lightning in a Bottle in 2011, but at its center is a San Diegan social network called The Super Kids.

The Supers began as a group of ten or so people around 2010, but after throwing countless parties (the kind where people fall off roofs) and picking up members en masse at Burning Man, they now number almost 400, many still based in San Diego. They are the leftist element of Pacific Beach.

If you bike around the area, as Mikey Lion does, and yell the name “Super Kids,” you’ll undoubtedly draw some rabble-rousers from the townhouses and craftsman homes in the vicinity. This fraternal bond is what has elevated Desert Hearts from a party and crew into a living, breathing community that adds members with every performance. This all may seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s the progression of something that’s been building for a long time.


Mikey Lion spins for the crowd.

Next on the decks is Lee Reynolds, affectionately dubbed Papa Lee by those around him. Two decades older than the rest of the crew, he is both patriarch and inspiration. He’s also a bonafide fucking madman. Reynolds spends his sets arms outstretched, laughing maniacally as his selections showcase the widest palate of the whole crew. His narrative-style DJing has been a clear influence on the likes of Marbs and Deep Jesus. Hunt and Gather, the San Diego vintage store he runs with his wife Zoe, is a nexus for the DH community and propels the striking aesthetic of the Desert Hearts crowd. It’s one of the main reasons this lot are the swaggiest bunch of hippies you’ve ever seen.

In the wee hours of the morning, bouts of warm, torrential rain fall upon the party in five-minute spells, as if to wash away the sins of 2015. Unfortunately, by this time, we’ve already racked up plenty for 2016, and Marbs’ thoughtful and attuned selections are the soundtrack. He is a true storyteller DJ. You can split the Desert Hearts DJs into the light and dark side. The Leon Brothers and Reynolds are the most decked out in bright colors and lively prints, and their sets lean towards house and brighter sounds. Jesus and Marbs are almost always clad in black and favor darker, tech oriented sonics.

The relationship between the latter two is an anchor of the crew’s social structure. They have been friends since pre-school. Jesus was there when Marbs struggled his way out of addiction in the past and, when Jesus returned from Marine service mentally broken, unable to re-assimilate to civilian life, it was Marbs who instigated the self-reflection that pulled him out of it and down the path that led him to DJing.


Deep Jesus on the decks

Deep Jesus is the sunrise set specialist. He got the name after his early morning sermons whipped crowds into biblical frenzies years ago. A dead ringer for a young, grizzled Val Kilmer, he has the strongest personality of the group, loud and assertive and bold. Behind the decks, though, there’s a spiritual sensitivity to his selections that has made him one of the most sought-after DJs in the whole scene.

Other local parties, including one headlined by Icelandic dance-pop stars Gus Gus, are shut down in the middle of the night by local police. Thanks to the promoters’ “relationship” with authorities, Maya Hearts was the only party left standing by morning. By sunrise, word has spread of this unfellable rager in the jungle, and kids who have gone out the night before, slept, washed, and dressed, are showing up around 9 AM with a whole new energy, just in time for Atish to drop his blend of spiritual and powerful tech-house.

By this point, Lee Reynolds is lost in lysergic bliss, walking in circles in the early morning sun, looking to the sky and reaching towards the heavens with a delirious laughter. The first person to swim in the cenote is Tim Gould, Desert Hearts’ booking agent and talent buyer. Before his unclothed, starchy frame hits the water, he bellows “I don’t know how to swim!” and soon, most of the crew is spending the final hours of the party languishing in the curiously murky water of the cenote during Sabo’s set of wild, tribal house music.

As that Yucatan humidity kicks in, the Desert Hearts crew, now over 20 strong, soggy, bewildered, exhausted, and spent, limps their way out of the jungle and into a new year. I leave the party with my underwear in my hands and only a foggy memory of what had just occurred. By noon, people still aren’t leaving the dance floor, so Flavio Navarro of Project Sound jumps in to ease the party to an end.

The event sold out. Desert Hearts shifted 1500 tickets on one of their first ventures outside of the US. With it, hundreds of new converts left adorned with brand new, iconic “DH” necklaces draped around their necks. More than anything, this is a story about community. The idea of “collectives” has taken hold in dance music, based on the notion that a squad of ten has more power than an individual, but Desert Hearts is a squad of thousands. They have captured the imagination of a generation slightly too cynical and reckless for the Burner scene and far too weird for EDM, and every single person who experiences their parties is touched by what they participate in.

The group’s slogan is “We are all Desert Hearts,” and that’s not just a catchphrase. The crew of DJs is not the focus. The party is the focus. This is one of the main lessons they’ve taken from Burning Man––every single person attending acknowledges their role in bringing something to the dancefloor. That the DH message is spreading so far and fast is vindication for now, but will present new challenges as their star continues to rise.

Those in Brooklyn, DC, Miami, San Francisco, and Seattle can get in on the vibe as the City Hearts 2016 leg kicks off January 22 in Lake Tahoe. It all leads up to Desert Hearts’ Spring Festival in April this year. Check out the full slate of events here.

Jemayel Khawaja is editor-at-large for THUMP and founder of Black Circle Media. Follow him on Twitter