they call it a small valley.
What they mean is connected. “It’s like a spider web,” Ocho Ojos drummer Rafael Rodriguez says of the local music scene. “You flip one string, and it’s gonna vibrate.” (Those bonding threads tether to me, as well — when I conducted interviews, rapper Provoked suggested we meet up at Left Coast tattoo studio, coincidentally owned by my cousin’s husband.) Every one of the artists featured here has shared a stage, if not credits on a track, with another of the bands (industrious multi-instrumentalist Cesar Flores serves double duty, appearing on two groups’ rosters). They play shows and generate buzz in L.A. and beyond, all while writing their own songs, booking their own gigs, and bolstering each other in the process.
The desert web traps bigger flies, too. Consider internationally recognized events like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and concerts at Pappy & Harriet’s, the beloved High Desert venue that has hosted industry giants including Paul McCartney and Lorde. Queen’s musical director staked a claim with the recording house Pink Satellite Studios in Joshua Tree. Palm Desert–born alt-rock band Queens of the Stone Age (who helped cultivate the area’s generator party/desert rock scene) nabbed its seventh Grammy nomination last year.
And as our six bands weave serious threads of their own, they’re plugging into a global network of musical success. “We realized that [the scene] is interconnected throughout the world,” Yip Yops drummer Ross Murakami notes. The artists’ ongoing work to establish themselves has garnered brand sponsorships, spots on major festival lineups, and gigs supporting bigger names at local venues. Their songs are thoughtful, multidimensional, and unsullied by meddling producers — and they’re drawing fans way beyond the desert.
As Provoked puts it, “We’re giving ’em no choice but to recognize what we’re doing out here.”
Driven by festival culture, a growing number of performance venues, and a deep-seated desire to play in front of bigger audiences, local musicians envision a path to success and even stardom. Along the way, their bands — including Reborn by the Sunshine (above), The Flusters, Giselle Woo & The Night Owls, Yip Yops, Provoked, and Ocho Ojos — continue writing the songs and creating the sounds that give the desert’s resurgent music scene its soulful vibe.
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Members Ison Van Winkle and Ross Murakami
For your playlist “She”
See them live May 2, The Rose, Pasadena
At only 19 and 22, respectively, Ison Van Winkle and Ross Murakami sport a range of influences and experiences that allows them to channel the fun electricity of 1980s dance jams as effortlessly as they flaunt ’70s quirk. But it’s their commitment to innovation that has made them stand out on the local music landscape.
Photographed at Bombay Beach, Feb. 13, 2019.
“It’s like, how can we filter [our influences] … through our lens? How can we add something to the equation or the conversation?” Van Winkle muses. “We’re never really interested in rehashing.”
The duo (with former members Jacob Gutierrez and Mari Brossfield) have toured with rising rock goddess Lauren Ruth Ward and opened for Jenner-sister favorite Magic Bronson. In 2017, they were among four local bands to take the stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “I would say for the majority of my life playing Coachella was a dream,” Murakami shares. “I used to think, ‘Once I get to that point, I’m happy.’ [But then] you’re hungry for more. There’s no way you stop there.”
So if Yip Yops are in this for the long haul, what’s next? Van Winkle says, “For the last three years we’ve had Madison Square Garden on the calendar for a date in 2020.”
“Gotta get on that,” Murakami says.
How did you start playing music?
Ross Murakami: I convinced my mom to get me Rock Band.
The video game?
RM: The video game. I’m playing that for [about] a year, and I’m 12 or 13, probably, and I ended up getting gold stars on every song on … I beat it.
Ison Van Winkle: On expert level.
IVW: Who’s counting?
RM: At that point, I was just like, “Okay. Well, I’m done with Rock Band. Let’s actually touch real drums for the first time.” The rest is history.
How about you, Ison?
IVW: At school, I would always wanna play in class, but none of the teachers wanted me to do it. The first song I learned on guitar was “La Bamba.” I had to learn that, so that my Spanish teacher would let me perform. She did. That’s how I started singing.
What’s your writing process like?
IVW: It’s not really something like, “Oh, music comes before the lyrics. The lyrics come before the music.” To me, that is very interchangeable, but what I think is pretty constant is that the spark need come from not just an idea or a theme but from in you, [something] that you care about that’s authentic to you.
The Yip Yops Instagram account not only features you guys but also your friends and other young creatives like you. It feels very human.
IVW: We really draw toward a community. That’s what we search for. It’s a community of like-minded people, so we’re much more interested in having people we like hanging out with as [the people] taking pictures or video or just helping us set up the stuff. Instead of hiring somebody here and then working with somebody there — there’s no connection there.
RM: It’s more personal.
Tell me about the process of filming the music video for “She.”
RM: We worked with … Kenny Carkeet from Awolnation. We went into the studio and recorded the song, basically as it was already. It’s the same thing with the video. We already had the video idea in place; it’s just doing it with these people. I think that’s been a huge bonus for us, that we’ve already programmed ourselves to work everything out before involving everybody.
IVW: At the end of the day, we know what the band is more than anybody else.
RM: You’ve gotta be really picky about who you’re letting in to run your baby.
What message are you aiming to send to listeners and fans?
IVW: The foundation of what we do, and why we do it, is that we want the same person that people hear in the music and [see] onstage … to be the same person that you would talk to like we’re talking now. We say what we mean, and we are what we say. That’s our personal motto.
Members Dougie VanSant Jr., Danny White, Mario Estrada, and Daniel Perry
For your playlist “When Will Then Be Now”
See them live April 27, Los Angeles State Historic Park
Photographed at Mr. Lyons in Palm Springs, Feb. 10, 2019.
There’s a reason they aren’t called The Pops, The Pows, or The Booms. “I knew I wanted this Lichtenstein-y, comic book-y name,” says frontman Dougie VanSant Jr. His tactic was to look up a list of onomatopoeias and try them out as band monikers — only to find that other groups had already taken all 100-plus ideas. An observer, noting VanSant’s frustration, advised, “ ‘Don’t get all flustered,’ ” VanSant recalls. “And I went, ‘The Flusters!’ ”
Nowadays, the name best describes the effect they have on audiences. The Flusters exude old-fashioned charisma, whether they’re in full rock-star mode atop an L.A. rooftop or slowed down and warmed up at a local unplugged show.
But they’re more than four pretty faces. The concept captured in their 2019 debut album, Dreamsurf, reaches Bowie-esque proportions. “The whole album has a narrative about someone being abducted … and then brought back at a different time and trying to find their lover through space and time,” VanSant says.
Listening to the album in full invites a deep-dive into the band’s cinematic storyline — and live audiences experience a similar, movielike quality. Dressed in their signature suiting and serenading crowds with their retro indie rock, The Flusters almost seem like time travelers themselves.
How did you come together as a band?
Dougie VanSant Jr.: I moved here in October 2013, and I had recorded and loosely written some of [The] Flusters’ songs, and even came up with the name, but had no band and nothing other than a few clothes in my suitcase and a laptop. Then I met Danny at an event. Since then, we’ve brought on Mario and Perry. It was kind of a serendipitous thing where two of us [Danny and I] came together as complete transplants, and then the valley music scene provided for us the two other permanent members. Our final member [Perry] staked out his corner, and then three weeks later, we got booked to play Coachella.
Daniel Perry: Zero to a hundred real quick for myself.
Why matching suits?
DVS: Well, at first the suits came from the fact that we just wanted to have a unified style. We have a style that tips its hat to vintage Palm Springs, [but] it wasn’t something that was planned. [It] came in this jumbled-up order, like Tarantino, like Pulp Fiction. It all came together one pair of pants, one blazer, one tie, one two-tone shoe at a time.
Who inspires you?
DVS: The band was actually started from one song, “After Dark” by Tito & Tarantula. [They] are featured in the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Till Dawn — the song’s playing during the famous Salma Hayek snake dance. It’s a really cool, sultry vampire band in this vampire bar in the middle of the desert. I remember watching that, and being like, “Man, I really want to start a band like that one day.”
Where did the concept for Dreamsurf come from?
DVS: We have no clue.
Danny White: It was literally one of those things that just came to fruition.
DVS: We were in Joshua Tree or something, and I found this old zine from the ’50s called The Amalgamated Flying Saucer Club of America. It was all about these different accounts of abduction. That’s kind of what started it. Like, “Wow, this would be a really cool concept for an album.” Some of the songs were already written. It was kind of like we were getting this narrative in pieces.
What’s next for The Flusters, musically?
DVS: Our newer stuff is going to be a departure from the traditional Flusters that all our fans know and love, but you know, that’s the kind of band we are. [Dreamsurf] was one concept, and we will move to another concept. The music will reflect that.
Real name Daniel Sullivan
For your playlist “One Life” (ft. James Dorris)
See him live May 18–19 (with Desert Rhythm Project), Joshua Tree Music Festival
Photographed at Flat Black Art Supplies in Palm Desert, Feb. 10, 2019.
“You can tell right away that everyone’s having a good time,” Provoked says of the atmosphere at shows in the Coachella Valley. “Everyone has a smile on their face. The camaraderie, it’s too official.”
The rapper’s appreciation for the scene surpasses mere lip service. He films music videos at local businesses wearing shirts made by local artists. He frequently collaborates with other musicians, including Ocho Ojos and Reborn by the Sunshine’s James Dorris, who called him, “a hard worker, always trying to help [others].”
An apt description, considering Provoked’s close-to-two-decade span spent honing his craft and his efforts to build up Greater Palm Springs’ expression of arts and culture. He hosted local guests weekly during his four-year run as a 92.7 DJ and spent a year highlighting desert natives on a KESQ show dubbed Coachella Valley Television. He also worked with the nonprofit Culturas Music & Arts to bring murals to the city of Coachella’s Shady Lane.
And with songs like “Homies Makin’ Music” and the shout-out-laden “Every Step,” his 2018 album, One Life, expresses the same commitment to community. “Love is really the only thing that matters,” Provoked concludes. “I feel like we [musicians] have a serious mission … to really be a light out here.”
Tell me about your first forays into hip-hop.
I have a brother who’s almost 10 years older than me. He brought me to one of the most famous punk venues when I was a young kid, and all these different shows. He had friends from all walks of life. This was in the ’90s. I always had really cool influences because of him, but I gravitated toward the hip-hop because I was so captivated by the graffiti and the beat boys in my neighborhood. I started rapping when I was around 12.
My best friend and producer, Source1st, gave me that name in 2006. When I started, I was like, “I got to come up with a name,” and he was like, “You should call yourself Provoked.” I was like, “Yeah, done.” There’s no better word, because it’s a term that’s usually associated with anger, but there’s a few different definitions. I see [it] as kind of pulled forth into action. I’m provoked to write everything that I do.
How did your collaboration with James Dorris of Reborn by the Sunshine come to be? He mentioned that he brought up the idea of making you a hip-hop beat, which he’d never done before.
I was listening to Pandora — I always listen to a lot of tripped-out instrumental music on my Pandora — and he said he sent me the beat. I was trying to play the beat, and for like two minutes I’m going, “Why won’t my Pandora turn off?” Then I realized it was him! That was definitely one of the coolest collaborations I’ve had yet. He’s amazing.
What story are you telling with your new music?
Honestly, my main thing is that I’m so proud of everyone out here, genuinely from the bottom of my heart. [In] my newest music, I’m trying to say uplifting things. Of course, I might have some raw hip-hop stuff from time to time, but I’m not going to be saying anything empty or negative. One of the main messages I’m going to convey is gratitude.
Let’s talk about your latest projects.
[My 2018 album, One Life,] is all locally produced. There are 12 artists involved besides myself, all from the Coachella Valley, [including] Savier1 and Thoughts Contained. [I’m] about to release an EP … with one of my closest friends, WillDaBeast. I’ve been rapping with him since 2005.
What do you envision for the future of local music?
We’ve had Aubrey O’Day, Queens of the Stone Age. They’ve really made it international. Everyone’s waiting for that next one, someone [who’s] going to really be out there on the forefront, really doing it for us. I’m excited for whoever it is, and guess what? It’s not going to just be one. I’m hoping it’s going to be many.
What’s next for you?
I’ve always made the Coachella Valley my focus first and foremost because I know it’s local before global. If your community’s not feeling you, then what are you doing? Palm Springs Life solidifies all that I’ve done right here. After this, I’m like, “I got to really take these global steps next.”
REBORN BY THE SUNSHINE
Members James Dorris, Chelsea Dorris, Brian Gelesko, Scott McLaughlin, and Brett McLaughlin
For your playlist “Makin’ Good”
See them live April 26, Big Rock Pub, Indio
Photographed at Hi-Dez Recording in Joshua Tree, Feb. 18, 2019.
“Growing up, my mom had one album in our home,” says Reborn by the Sunshine lead singer and guitarist James Dorris. “It was ABBA’s greatest hits.” While later heroes like John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival have a more audible influence on the RBTS sound, it was Dorris’ mom who gifted him the bass that would kick-start a lifelong love affair with music.
About three years ago, Dorris and his other great love — his wife and banjo-wielding bandmate, Chelsea — joined friends on a summer tour (their kids in tow) in a restored 1967 Phantom Rolls Royal travel trailer. When they returned, Dorris began writing songs in earnest, with Chelsea adding blues-y charm on strings and tambourine. Brett McLaughlin reached out after hearing Dorris play locally. The trio later added Brian Gelesko and McLaughlin’s identical twin brother, Scott, and Reborn by the Sunshine was, well, born.
The chemistry was instant, Brett says, partly because, “James writes songs like what I used to listen to as a kid.” The nostalgic appeal of RBTS’ roots rock spans generations. During a recent set at Big Rock Pub in Indio, a gray-haired couple took to the dance floor alongside the Dorrises’ own children, who bounced along to each song.
That’s exactly how the band likes it: “Making good music for everyone to listen to,” Dorris says. “At the end of the day, it’s just rock ’n’ roll.”
How did your band get its name?
James Dorris: We went through the South [on tour] in the middle of summer, and it was so hot and humid, and all the horror stories you hear about the mosquitos and New Orleans [are] true. I’d step out of the trailer and they would just attack me. It was almost like this rebirth, when we were just in hell but also in the most beautiful times of our lives. It also plays into being in a band out here in the desert.
What or who inspires your music?
Brett McLaughlin: It’s just honest songwriting, I guess.
JD: I try to write lyrics about things that matter to me. Sometimes lyrics are just fun, but we take a lot of inspiration from older music and people who are really the greats of rock ’n’ roll. When you listen to that music, sometimes there is that country-inspired Southern rock and roots rock. I think that’s what comes into our music.
James, how do you balance being a parent and being a musician?
JD: I hang out with my kids and do everything I have to do as a dad the majority of the day. When they go to sleep, that’s my time to write. So sometimes I’m up until 3 in the morning writing or messing around on guitar. That’s what I have to do.
BM: It’s the truth, because I get audio messages in the morning like, “New song.”
What’s life like in a band?
JD: [A band] is like a marriage. Sometimes you might fight. Sometimes it’s just bliss. [In] this band, no one has an ego. We’re always trying to find the better guitar part or the better bass part for the song to be at its highest potential.
JD: We are releasing some new music. We recorded up in Joshua Tree at Hi-Dez Recording with Nathan Sabatino. We have five songs and a music video that we’re going to be shooting pretty soon.
What’s your dream venue?
JD: My dream would be to be on the road, even with our families, and just really be doing it. The Grand Ole Opry would be awesome to play.
Any embarrassing moments?
BM: Well, last night during our sound check [before our show at Big Rock Pub] … when everyone stopped, I kept singing. That was fun. That was like American Idol.
GISELLE WOO & THE NIGHT OWLS
Members Giselle Woo, Christian Colín, José Ceja, Marco Murrieta, Cesar Flores
For your playlist “Coachella Gold”
See them live April 17, Chella Celebrando la Communidad, Indio
Photographed at the band’s practice space in Coachella, Feb. 13, 2019.
Had the eclectic sound of Giselle Woo & The Night Owls never graced desert listeners’ ears, we would have had Selena Quintanilla to blame. “[I’d] listen to Selena, and I’d try to imitate her,” Woo says of her childhood forays into music. “I wasn’t good at it.”
While worlds away from Selena’s Tejano pop, Woo’s mournful music enchants listeners with its singular beauty — and she’s a formidable frontwoman in her own right. “I do hope that I inspire little girls when they look at me and they see me with this electric guitar, wearing big boots,” Woo says. Her stage aesthetic often involves traditional Mexican dresses, and her lyrics weave in her native Spanish tongue, meaning that Woo’s performances rep Mexico in the same manner that Selena’s once did.
As student station manager at College of the Desert’s KCOD radio station, Woo gives valuable airtime to other local bands. “We slowly started to integrate local music into our program,” she explains. “Once we did that, all the other local radio stations started to … do a local spotlight.”
Woo’s emphasis on her Mexican-American heritage also extends to the message she seeks to impart to fans. “I hope I inspire Latinas and Latinos to be proud of who they are,” she shares. “We shouldn’t feel like we’re [on] borrowed land.”
How did your band come together?
After Tachevah [a local music competition in 2018], my drummer and bass player [and I] parted ways respectfully. So, I was like, ‘Shoot, I don’t have a band.’ José moved back from Berklee [Music School]. Christian, José, and Marco [played in] a band a few years before Christian and I started playing — they already had chemistry, and so Christian’s like, “Dude, I have the guys.”
Things are just happening — good things. Things have been falling into place. We had a little contest in August. I was nervous because we hadn’t really been playing for so long, but I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to give them a chance.”
We played with the new band and we won. Everything that the judges were saying was crazy. They were like, “You guys sound super tight; are you related?” You only ask that when you feel some … chemistry, maybe, between people.
Why “The Night Owls”?
It was kind of playing off my last name [and] the fact that I’ve written most of my music at night. I didn’t want to just be Giselle Woo, and “you’re in my band.” Because they’re not that; they’re my brothers. Our connections are just getting stronger and stronger. I’ve never experienced this type of brotherhood in a band, and I’m so grateful.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s a sad sound. It’s a soft sound. It’s an icy sound, sometimes, when I’m feeling daring. Someone told me, “Why do you sound like all my favorite bands in one?” Because I don’t limit myself to a genre or a type. I love cumbia; I love rock ’n’ roll; I love folk; I love blues; I love jazz; I love everything. When I write something … what comes out is whatever I’m feeling at that moment.
Which musical artists defined your childhood?
Honestly, my parents. Just the way they play and sing. They play a lot of love songs, a lot of Spanish boleros and stuff like that. [Boleros are] poems accompanied by the best chord progressions you can think of. They take you on this little dream ride.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as a musician?
Joshua Tree Music Festival. I’ve been going to that festival for years and I’ve always dreamed of being onstage, and then I finally got the opportunity to do that. You envision it, and you don’t know how or when you’re going to get there, but when you finally [do], you’re like, “Thank God I didn’t give up.”
I have a five-song EP that’s waiting to be mixed and mastered. We recorded it at Desert Rhythm Project. I want to play Coachella; I want to play Outside Lands; I want to go to all these festivals. All of us want that.
Members Cesar Flores, Danny Torres, James Gastelum, Rafael Rodriguez
For your playlist “Cumbia De Este Valle”
See them live April 14 and 21, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Photographed at Bombay Beach, Feb. 3, 2019.
It began with two men and two pairs of glasses. Danny Torres and Cesar Flores met while volunteering at the Raíces Cultura community center in Coachella. Inspired by a shared interest in music, they began hosting open mics at the nonprofit. They first performed together in 2016 at a lucha-libre-themed Halloween party, calling themselves Ocho Ojos in a lighthearted reference to the fact that both are bespectacled.
“We never really decided or said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna start a band,’ or ‘We’re gonna play cumbias,’ ” Torres emphasizes. “It was genuine from the beginning.”
Musically and culturally, that authenticity seeps through everything Ocho Ojos touch. Their music videos reveal a desert thrumming with unglossed energy and rich with Latino history. Since adding James Gastelum on bass and Rafael Rodriguez on drums, the band’s catchy “psychedelic cumbia” has nabbed them a coveted spot in this month’s Coachella festival lineup.
Why cumbia? “That’s the one sound or rhythm that goes through all of Latin America,” Gastelum explains.
“It’s a joyful genre, and it’s very rhythmic,” Flores adds. “It makes you feel good.”
Why do you think the local music scene is so interconnected?
Rafael Rodriguez: Everybody knows everybody from high school, but then, it’s like the floodgates open and you start interacting with people from different towns, and that’s where you’re really mixing with people who are of like mind. Everybody has bands, you know? So it’s like, “You wanna jam out?” [You’re] hanging out, jamming out. And then you know somebody can play a certain instrument, and you need them because they play really well, or they can fill a certain spot. So you hit ’em up, and from there you just build that relationship, and your name gets out there.
How did you end up working with local MCs Provoked, Verzo Loco, and Savier1 on your song “Xibalba”?
Danny Torres: We performed that song one time at Club Five in Indio, and Cesar told [Verzo Loco], “Hey, you wanna jump on and start freestyling over it?” ’Cause it grooves kinda like a hip-hop beat. And he just started freestyling for almost 10 minutes straight. After that, I told Cesar, “Yo man, that sounded really cool. Whenever it comes time that we record this song, let’s hit up some local MCs … and collaborate on that song.”
Where does your sound come from?
James Gastelum: [It’s] what we grew up listening to. When I used to go to shows, a lot of bands would jokingly start to play a corrido, or they’ll do a little cumbia rhythm. It’s a mixture of Latin culture and also the underground DIY scene. Rock ’n’ roll music … [and] the whole psychedelic sound.
DT: We’re trying to release more content on social media, release more music, and some videos, too. We have a new EP that we recorded that we’re gonna be releasing online, on our Bandcamp, Spotify, and all that.
What drives you as musicians?
RR: First and foremost, as a musician, I want to be the best that I can possibly be, psychically and mentally, so I can translate what’s going on in my brain and my spirit, so I can share it. And also my concern is the culture, the state of the culture. The definition of the word itself is something that’s usually understood as, “Oh, that’s what my race is” or “what my family is,” but I don’t think … for example, drinking too much, becoming an alcoholic — that’s not culture. Culture is a search for truth.
And what’s the truth Ocho Ojos is trying to capture?
JG: I don’t think we’re trying to capture it. I just think we’re letting ourselves be free to be ourselves. We’re showing people that you can play cumbias and fucking play Coachella fest, you know?