It was a perfect February morning in the Coachella Valley. C-Money & The Players, a Los Angeles–based funky jazz band, was set to record its new track, “Save Yourself,” with music producer Ronnie King.
What I didn’t know then was that those two words — save yourself — would bring forth beautiful symbolism for the rest of the day.
My singer and songwriter friend, Amee Jana aka Lion Child, had some studio time set up at King’s ranch in Thermal. Christopher “C-Money” Welter, the former Slightly Stoopid trumpeter, keyboardist, and backup vocalist, and Derek Breakfield, former bass player of The Untouchables, The Specials, and English Beat, also caravanned to “Chateau Relaxo.” I tagged along.
I thought I might be the only adult there with a regular name.
As you drive down the dirt roads to King’s ranch, you pass through a mini grape farm and come upon a thicket of palm trees, which borders the entryway to Chateau Relaxo. His two ranch dogs, free of leashes and collars, happily sauntered out to greet us.
King informed us that he was hosting some recovering addicts from Windward Way Recovery, a men’s detox, treatment, and sober-living center in Costa Mesa. After each band member recorded a session with King in studio, we were invited to a barbecue and tribal ceremony with his young houseguests and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians at the nearby Fish Traps Archaeological Site.
Husband and wife Joseph Tiwa Bear Manzo and Martha Manzo wore full Native American dress and sat beside a campfire, holding their drums.
“If you want to sneak around and get high … there’s nowhere to go. It’s like, the desert out here, it’s going to deal with you.”Ronnie King
“Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ” means “all my relations.” And it’s not just referring to one’s family. It’s not even just talking about other human beings. It’s talking about everything. That tree and that water are my friend. That fire is my relative. They spoke to the young men, explaining that we are connected to creation.
I thought about King’s ranch dogs and how they welcomed us when we arrived, how they seemed almost human. Relaxed.
“We had one dog called Slopes, and when he showed up, he had been smashed in the head. But he was the best ranch dog ever, man,” King recalls. “He would protect you. And one day I kinda just looked at him and he just turned and he just walked. And the dude did the walk. Animals kinda want to die alone. And they take the walk.“
And let me tell you what, when the kids from recovery come here, they take the walk. And when they take the walk, they die to a lot of things too, in a ceremonial way.”
Ronnie King started bringing kids to the ranch and the on-site studio so they could explore the medium of music, focusing his attention on kids with a passion for music but who lacked the resources to get involved. “You’d see their lives transform,” he says. “It started like that.”
How did a hollywood multi-platinum recording producer end up with a ranch in the middle of Thermal, hosting a group of recovering addicts?
One of King’s friends from Orange County contacted the producer about hosting some recovering kids on the recommendation of King’s Core 10 bandmate, Sean Lenhoff. King’s friend Scotty Avalos is responsible for the digital media of Windward Way Recovery and records films for nearly every adventure program with the recovery center. Both Avalos and King loved the idea of intertwining nature, the tribe, and music into the recovery weekend for Windward Way.
“That’s why I love working with these guys, because I can kinda share my creative ability and let them be part of this filmmaking experience,” Avalos says. “They learn these amazing things, but they’re also able to create a story that they can keep looking back on and use as a tool to keep them sober and to guide and to remember this foundation with us.”
Avalos was the cinematographer behind the “Crusty Demons” motorbike stunt videos.
“A lot of those guys didn’t have a relationship before they came into Windward,” says Avalos. “But through the therapy, through everything that they learn at Windward, through the educational stuff, through the adventure program, it kind of brings them back to their sober self and to where their true persona comes out again.”
Jeremy Broderick is the founder and CEO of Windward Way Recovery and celebrated 15 years of sobriety this last summer.
“It starts from the music,” says King. “Whatever the music, is where the charity follows.”Ronnie King
When Broderick started the center, it was just his six-bedroom house. Thirteen of his initial 15 clients remain sober. This incredible success rate and empathy solidified the reputation of Windward Way. Over the last nine years, it’s grown to a full-service treatment center with more than 120 clients.
“I just like to create powerful breakthrough experiences,” Broderick says. “I try to look at things that worked and helped me in my personal life, because you never know what’s going to help someone.”
Whether it’s a hiking trip in Yosemite, a sail around Catalina, a snowboarding trip to Big Bear, or a tribal ceremony in Thermal, Broderick is using his “adventure program” as part of a reward system for these young men in recovery.
Ronnie King’s mixing studio at Chateau Relaxo is a huge draw for the kids who come to visit. The producer believes getting young men into these new environments gives them experiences they will remember and learn from for the rest of their lives.
“You know, some kid’s from Cincinnati and he’s never been out of the town,” Broderick explains. “He’s got his homies and everything back there … you take him out to Yosemite and go hike around for a few days without his phone and his Facebook, he may get some clarity into his life. They’ll remember these trips for the rest of their lives.”
Broderick has shared his experiences with CNN and Governor John Kasich of Ohio and spoken in Washington, D.C., at a congressional forum. He’s even talking with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about using the social platform and its analytics to bridge the addicts and treatment providers.
From Maine to Southern California, the opioid epidemic is at an all-time high. In 2016, there were more than 50,000 drug overdose–related deaths in the U.S. And King is using his notoriety, talent, and connections to help addicts and sufferers in Southern California reclaim their sobriety at Chateau Relaxo.
After touring for 15 years with The Offspring, Rancid, and Pennywise and making records with Death Row, the Indio native needed a break. His senses were assailed by the buzz of city life and the constant recording and touring. About seven years ago, a farmer friend called him and asked if he wanted to invest in a local ranch. He soon realized he didn’t need to be chained to a recording studio in Hollywood. King fixed up the dilapidated dwelling and transformed it into a tranquil sanctuary.
“We grew up here, so it was very natural,” the music producer says.
His wife, Lisa, connected King with the local tribe through her brother John Cox. The latter worked in the human resources for the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, developing travel centers and fortifying the tribe. The group got involved with the building of a Christian church on the reservation. Five years ago, Cox introduced King to pastor Gabriel and wife Laura Ward from Body of Christ church. The couple was successful in steering the Hollywood music producer toward some community-minded pursuits.
“I started thinking about my life and what I wanted to do, how did I want to do it,” King says. “Was it going to just be playing in bands and touring? Or was it gonna be able to help people?”
King helped build another wing on the church and got involved in something that wasn’t just the music business. This was the beginning of what King refers to as “the movement.”
As he describes it, “It’s a movement unto the ones that find it.”
King started bringing kids to the ranch and the on-site studio so they could explore the medium of music, focusing his attention on kids with a passion for music but who lacked the resources to get involved. “You’d see their lives transform,” he says. “It started like that.”
And King is elated with the kind of people finding their way to the ranch. Chateau Relaxo is a refuge where hopeful and established musicians, and young adults who are battling drug addiction, can connect with nature and music. It’s a place to nurture, inspire, and discover soul-deep reconnection. Not to mention, the garage-turned-game-room-turned-music-studio has also been a temporary home to new and legendary artists. World-renowned drummer Alvin Taylor loves visiting and recording at the ranch.
Ronnie King: “I don’t say a lot. I don’t do a lot. I just enjoy the air. And at some point, they just get right.”
It could be the fact that the local tribe visits the ranch and walks the 40 acres with incense and oils. It could be the tranquility of the neighboring farms and heightened sounds of local songbirds and owls. Or it could be King’s enhanced outlook on life and willingness to give.
The group of young men would wake before the sun came up and go on nature hikes with their sponsors. They would come back to Chateau Relaxo and get some schoolwork in, have some breakfast, and just hang out around the pool and in King’s studio.
“They just lost themselves in the studio,” recalls King. “And you could see them forget about all their problems.”
King has taken cues on how to help people from his multiple trips to Costa Rica over the past 12 years. You can satisfy just about any vice you want there. But it’s not as attractive because it’s not hidden. It’s not taboo.
“When the kids get here in recovery, it’s like, dude you can do whatever you want,” King says. “If you wanna sneak around and get high and then come back and act like nothing’s going on … there’s nowhere to go. It’s like, the desert out here, it’s gonna deal with you.”
Ronnie treats them like adults, and with respect.
“I don’t say a lot. I don’t do a lot. I just enjoy the air. And at some point, they just get right.”
Respect runs deep in ancient Native American spirituality and it was apparent this was one of the big lessons that Windward Way, the tribe, and King gently taught the young men at Chateau Relaxo.
King is currently in the process of working on what he calls “Chateau Relaxo, part two.”
In Costa Rica, he’s now not only producing records for some of the area’s major artists, he’s also completed two Costa Rican movie scores. King has made impressive connections and is now setting up an infrastructure, much like the charitable one he contributes to here in the desert. It will be a place for people to express their musical ability and do it at a level that is competitive with the rest of the world.
King connected with Costa Rican actor Mauricio Amuy to help with his charity, Turismo Con Sentido, which translates to “tourism with sense.” The charity works with restaurants and hotels to give a portion of proceeds to Puntarenas, a port city near San José. King and Turismo Con Sentido bring food, clothes, and toys to kids in need.
“When the kids see us coming, man, there will be 50 kids just running at us ’cause they know we got stuff,” King says. “But they’re really cool! And a lot of them play music.”
King’s plans for the Costa Rican ranch are similar to what he’s done with his ranch in Thermal. It will be a refuge where those in need and those with an interest in music can relax, record, reconnect, and rejuvenate. Together with developer Alex Urbaniak and business owner Dan Hirt, King plans to help young ticos and ticas in need.
“It starts from the music,” says King. “Whatever the music, is where the charity follows.”
The 360-degree ocean-view Black Stallion Eco Park & Estates in Tamarindo is a full-service ranch with 35 horses, zip lining, and an amazing barbecue space. The dreamy paradise is a perfect place for King’s next “help and healing” project. Urbaniak and Hirt are majority owners. King has land there and is building a recording studio on the ranch.
The producer hasn’t forgotten those who have helped him and it’s one of the many reasons he is now so active in giving back.
“When I went to Hollywood, I was privileged to be around the biggest guys in the industry. I had a need for a resource. I was just a guy from Indio who played the keyboards really good, and that was about it,” says King. “But I met a guy named Jerry Heller, who was the biggest rap manager in the world … he saw something in me.”
As the members of C-Money & The Players and I watched the tribal ceremony from picnic benches, we knew we were witnessing something extraordinary.
The band members celebrated their successful recording of “Save Yourself” alongside the recovering young men who were letting go of their drug abuse. I felt the artistic and spiritual healing rise up with the beats from the drum circle.
It didn’t mean the damage never existed, just that the damage no longer controlled their lives. Something happens in the heart of a person who is with others who share similar stories.
Through King’s open home and heart, and Windward Way’s philosophy, the young men — and possibly countless more — have been given the tools to save themselves. These young men chose life.
Photography by Scott Avalos