Pioneers of the desert’s indie-rock scene reveal a vibe that runs deeper than this month’s Coachella festival
Robbie Waldman, Unit A Recording, Palm Springs
Trying to understand contemporary music in the High and Low deserts is no easy task. It’s a sound born of the canyons, sand dunes, gated estates, meth labs, utopianism, conservatism, tourism, high design, and hopelessness — a sound deeply informed by the surreal extremes of its environment.
It’s a loose and sprawling tapestry, stitched in an eclectic weave that trips the line between soulfully freewheeling psych rock (War Drum, Golden Animals, Waxy), country-infused Dadaist electronica (Gram Rabbit), and rock as heavy and mysterious as the sonic booms that emanate from the 29 Palms marine base (Vista Chino, Waxy, earthlings?, and Masters of Reality). It’s a sound that exploded into mainstream consciousness after the legendary generator parties of the 1990s that spawned the “Palm Desert sound” or “desert rock,” whose golden children are the multiplatinum Queens of the Stone Age and its offshoot, the Eagles of Death Metal. And in the post-apocalyptic wake of that ’90s desert rock scene, it’s a sound that, like tumbleweed, continues to roll with strange and unpredictable abandon, possessed by a rebel soul that is all its own.
In the last 10 years, the region has emerged as a commuter Mecca for music-obsessed SoCal urbanites. They snake east along Intersate 10 out of Los Angeles, coming for indie-rock shows under the stars at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown; to find out why country star Gram Parsons loved Joshua Tree so much, he died there (at Joshua Tree Inn); to record at Rancho de la Luna studio in Joshua Tree; and to experience the timeless Palm Springs pool resort weekend at the generation-defining Ace Hotel & Swim Club.
And, of course, they come for the musical flash flood that is Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which rages through Indio each spring, populating the desert with countless satellite parties and mini festivals (Desert Daze, for instance). Goldenvoice’s behemoth festival drops in 150 or so bands from all over the world.
Meanwhile, those in-the-know gather at the Hood in Palm Desert, epicenter of the low desert music scene, either enjoying the invasion to the fullest, or counting the days until the desert life returns to normal.
Palm Springs Life met a few of the people who are defining the music scene in the desert.
Ace Hotel & Swim Club, Palm Springs
Ace Hotel & Swim Club is inextricably linked with the music scene, drawing culture junkies from the world over. The venue hosts live music and DJs, be they electronic, house, hip hop, jazz, folk, soul, disco, reggae, or psychedelic, with bands like Golden Animals playing in the Amigo Room, and L.A. DJs like Travis Keller from Buddyhead spinning poolside. Acts like Flying Lotus, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Florence+the Machine, and Blood Orange have been surprise guests at Desert Gold, its annual Coachella week party. This year, the Ace celebrates its fifth Desert Gold with music by Jack White’s Third Man Records, live field recordings by NPR, and parties by the Do-Over, among other things.
I loved this hotel as a guest, even before I started working here. When you walk in, there is a guitar in the lobby, and record players in the rooms — music is everywhere, and as a musician and a music lover, that makes me feel at home. Whenever I go back to L.A., I am constantly promoting the desert music scene, telling people to come check out what’s going on.
I had been coming to the desert from Los Angeles since 2008, when I went to a show at Pappy and Harriet’s. I was blown away by the desert music scene, so I continued to go back and forth. I ended up making a record out here and stayed, eventually taking over managing the Pioneertown Motel behind Pappy and Harriet’s. When the Pioneertown Motel changed hands, I went back to L.A. and worked at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood, booking music, but the whole time I wanted to come back to the desert. So last year, I did, and my job here at the Ace is perfect.
The Ace is very supportive of the desert music scene. We see our musical programming as a way to have a conversation with the city around us. Personally, as culture programmer, I just want to celebrate what it was that brought me out here and show our L.A. friends what is only two hours away.
Unit A Recording, Palm Springs
Musician and producer Robbie Waldman runs Unit A Recordings, the largest recording studio in Palm Springs. (In true Palm Springs style, it has its own pool.) Formerly Monkey Studios, the 2,800-square-foot space is where many original desert rocks bands recorded in the ’90s. Queens of the Stone Age cut their first record there, for instance. Today, the studio continues to work with musicians rooted in the original scene — like Fasto Jetson, Jesse Hughes (Eagles of Death Metal) and Yawning Man, psych-rock pioneers War Drum and Brooklyn imports Golden Animals, and iconic acts such as Captain & Tennille and Brian Setzer (Stray Cats).
Waldman, also the frontman for Waxy and bassist for War Drum, discusses the history of the desert rock scene, and how a new Low Desert sound — which straddles the heavy rock and hipster psych sounds — is emerging.
Palm Springs is a small town with a lot of rich kids, a lot of poor kids, and a lot of talented kids with time on their hands — many of whom started playing guitars.
In the early ’90s, I was only about 14 or 15, but the desert generator parties were happening, and they were unbelievable. Bands would play all night in different spots — out in Sky Valley, Indio Hills, or some secret High Desert spot — and they’d play until the generator ran out of gas. You got the sense that your mom and dad didn’t do this. Maybe they had Woodstock or something, but they didn’t have this. This rebel sense of independence, with lots of wind and sand hitting you in the face. There was Kyuss (featuring a young Josh Homme), Fu Manchu, Unsound, Fatso Jetson, and Yawning Man, who I recorded at my studio [in February].
Kids didn’t have cell phones or computers in those days, so word of the parties would spread around the Low Desert high schools, and then everyone would head out in a gigantic caravan, 60 cars all following each other to the same spot. And that’s how the whole desert rock scene came about — “desert rock” meaning large landscape and jammy, heavy blues. The music very much reflects the nature of the desert itself in that it’s sincere, it’s beautiful, and it’s also deadly. And it has a lot of depth if you’re willing to dig under the surface.
Right now, I really feel like there’s a psych sound that’s permeating. My eyes have been opened to it from playing in the band War Drum the last couple of years; we’re talking a lot of organs, jamming blues, and garage surf rock. It blends well with the hipster scene — you know, thrift store clothes and your mom and dad’s records. The hipster movement is closely connected to fashion, and if you’re wearing a tie-dye shirt and a jacket with tassels, you’re going to want to match that look with the right music — which is where the psych works well. Ultimately, what’s exciting about the scene is that there are some genuinely talented musicians coming together, from Ehren Groban (War Drum) to musicians from outside the area coming into the desert to perform and record, like Dagha Bloom. I am looking forward to what is going to come out of the desert next.
Pappy and Harriet’s, Pioneertown
When it comes to live music in the High Desert, it’s all about Pappy and Harriet’s, the Pioneertown roadhouse that has hosted Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright, Robert Plant, Peaches, Arctic Monkeys, Victoria Williams, Eagles of Death Metal, Wanda Jackson, Lucinda Williams, Gram Rabbit, Spindrift, Leon Russell, Zola Jesus, Cold War Kids, and Peter Murphy from Bauhaus — an eclectic mix of indie-rock royalty and legendary rockers, performing in a warm, family-style restaurant.
Monday’s open mic nights, hosted by Teddy Quinn, has seen everyone from Feist to Ry Cooder to rapper KEI$HA (she played a Bob Dylan song). And the Sunday-night band — comprising local folk and rock luminaries Victoria Williams, Bingo Richey, and JP Houston — has become an institution.
Last year, Pappy and Harriet’s teamed with Goldenvoice to host shows by Coachella festival artists between their weekend performances.
It’s hard for the venue’s fans to believe that 10 years ago, there was no music scene here. The success of Pappy and Harriet’s started in 2003 when two New Yorkers, Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, arrived and turned the 1972 roadhouse into a music destination.
It was 2003 and I had been in New York City forever, having moved there from New Jersey as a teenager. Linda [Krantz] was working in the film industry there and not feeling it, and I had been in a band for years and wasn’t feeling it either. Then Linda did a movie in Joshua Tree and found Pappy and Harriet’s and said, “You have to see this place.” So a bunch of us came out for New Year’s, and did that a few times, until one year, we heard it was for sale. And we were like, “Why don’t we buy Pappy and Harriet’s?” It was a crazy, fluke thing. I remember driving to the airport and looking behind me, leaving New York City and listening to a Ryan Adams song, thinking “I’m leaving a place that everyone wants to go to, to live out in the desert.” Of course, now I can’t imagine ever going back to New York.
There was no real music scene here when we arrived. The same band played every night for four years, the same exact set list. One night, I had a couple of glasses of wine and was looking at High Road Touring’s website and was like, “Oh, so I can just put an offer in for whatever artist I want to play here? Cool!” So I put an offer in for Lucinda Williams, and that was it. Suddenly, we had booked Lucinda Williams for our first show, with Gram Rabbit and Spindrift as support. We sold 600 tickets to the show, and it was the most amazing night, even though we had put the stage outside. I had no idea how cold it got in the winter here, and it was November. Somehow, Lucinda got through the show, and played for three hours. When it was over, I couldn’t believe it had happened, and that this was reality.
The first six months, we were really worried about getting people out here. Because let’s face it, we are in the middle of nowhere, on mountaintop, in a fake Western town. The Los Angeles radio station KCRW really helped us, presenting shows for us, and then the desert weeklies would write about us, and sure enough, more and more people started showing up.
We’ll never forget the night Robert Plant turned up out of the blue, and then came back the next night and performed nine songs on stage with our Sunday band of local musicians, sharing the mic with Jesika Rabbit from Gram Rabbit. He came and sprinkled his fairy dust on this town, and he was gone. From then on, 2006 became the year Robert Plant came to Pappy’s. Daniel Lanois — the man who produced U2’s Joshua Tree album and produced records for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, and Willie Nelson — played here, and it was amazing. Eric Burden from the Animals got on stage with him, as did Skye Edwards, lead singer of Morcheeba, and again, we just couldn’t believe this was really happening. When Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age filmed the Anthony Bourdain special here, we saw another surge in visitors, this time interested in the food. People would come to the restaurant from all over, not even knowing that bands played here.
Musicians definitely seem to enjoy playing here, because the location is so beautiful, but also because it’s a break from the normal touring venues, in that you can actually breathe. I think musicians feel relaxed here. In fact, our greatest achievement is that people from every walk of life, musicians or otherwise, can feel comfortable here. And we’ve always kept it indie. We may have international bands playing here, but in the spirit of Pappy and Harriet, the original owners, this is a mom-and-pop operation. You really can’t get more independent than this place.