Making waves: An interview with Desert Hearts founder Mikey Lion

(All Photos by Galen Oakes)

I am in a tea room, in the middle of the high desert two hours outside of San Diego, and it is freezing cold. It is the last night of Desert Hearts Two-Year-Anniversary party held at Los Coyotes Indian Reservation and I have not fully been able to mentally digest what I have experienced of the last couple of days. Imagine Burning Man on a smaller scale with less rules, one stage, an everybody loves everybody mentality, and 72 hours of non-stop house and techno and you might be able to get a semblance of what was cultivating during the second weekend of November out in the desert.

It is in this community run hut that I am chatting with the founder of Desert Hearts Mikey Lion (real name Mikey Leon). A Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo graduate he was inspired by the larger festival such as Coachella at a young age. However, it was in fact his first trip to Burning Man that was the real inspiration behind the creation of Desert Hearts. It is amazing in the growth of the scene and what the Desert Hearts Crew have been able to put together in such a short amount of time.

During this part meditation session, part interview, part group participation exercise I learned a lot about the crew and was genuinely inspired to go out and create. Possibly one of the more interesting interview I have ever taken part of— as a group of tea-revelers decided to get in on picking Lions brain, interjecting in the kindest of ways possible— we chatted it about the early days of Desert Hearts and what he hopes people get out of this weekend?

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Tell us a bit about the first Desert Hearts and how it came to fruition? What was the original idea behind the crew?
Well our first event was a couple of years ago in the Mojave Desert and it was ridiculously cold. In fact, it almost did not happen as the day of our sound guy decided to go missing. That first night the generator we brought was pretty fucking shot and we did not get music going until 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. It was just like one of those things where everything that could have gone wrong did. However, it ended up being this huge blessing in disguise because it really brought all these people together because with no music and it being so cold the only thing you could do was huddle around this fire. The weather let up around sunrise on Sunday which made for one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life. It is at that moment that I realized we were doing something special that was more than just a party. We had no idea what kind of vibe that we were going to have and it was the best thing that we have ever been to.

What do you hope people get out of this weekend?
I think the best part about the weekend is that it is off the grid and so far out there that you don’t have to worry about anything. No one has internet. No one has cell phone service. Not a single person on the dance floor has their cell phone out. It is really just the full experience and when you come to Desert Hearts I think you are forced into this feeling, this embrace of everyone.

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As a DJ you spin a range of music varying from deep-house to techno. What were you really listening to growing up? And what inspired you to make music?
My first real love of music was for the Wu-Tang clan. The GZA Liquid Sword was such a seminal album, which still holds true today. My high school years were spent listening to all kinds of hip-hop. In 9th grade my parents thought it was important for me to create music and said they would buy me any instrument I wanted. I wanted the Technic 1200’s and they were like ‘absolutely not, that is not an instrument.’ I ended up saving all my money and bought the 1200’s anyways and started scratching non-stop. When my parents saw how dedicated to the whole thing they eventually paid me back. My parents have been the most supportive people in my life.

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[It is at this point that the interview trails off to a girl describing a gang sign that she heard of in Mexico called a Jeffery. She relentlessly draws one on all of us. It is literally a smiley face on your hand. Which ultimately leads to a ton of questions from the audience that has built up around us in the hut. The jist of the time is spent discussing Lion’s want to keep the festival small to keep the community aspect alive. He thinks where they are at right now—which is around 2,000 people strong —is the “sweet spot” for the festival. It is scalable however, but for a multitude of reasons they would like to keep the event this size.]

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Why did you want to get into electronic music? Was there an event or a track that made you switch your interests?
The absolute most inspirational and life changing moment in my life was when my friend dragged me to Coachella when I was 17 and I saw Daft Punk’s pyramid show. I had never heard house music before and it ultimately changed everything I was into. I had never taken ecstasy before and my friend and I popped one and saw Daft Punk live and it was absolutely the pinnacle of everything. After that I was all ‘fuck hip-hop, I want to do what they are doing.’ Still to this day Daft Punk live at Coachella is the best show I have seen ever.

After that how long did it take for you to get into the scene? What was the first show you DJ’ed?
It was in San Luis Obispo during college and this girl that I was dating hooked me up with this promoter running this bar. I was underage and my father drove up 5 hours from San Diego as a surprise. I could not believe it. I ended up getting super wasted and pretty much kicked out. That was my very first gig. I was playing a lot of Boy 8-Bit and Fake Blood shit. That Ed Banger type stuff was going off at the time.

So you studied abroad in Barcelona and ended up getting a residency at RAZZMATAZZ. Tell us a bit about how that came to be?
That time is what really set the stage for the rest of my life. I was studying abroad there and I ended up meeting the right promoter and handing him a mixtape and he ended up hooking me up with a residency at one of the best clubs in all of Barcelona. RAZZMATAZZ is like this super club with about 5 different rooms going all at once.

What, if anything, were you able to bring back from that experience and implement in Desert Hearts today?
It was honestly only my 5th DJ gig ever and I learned so much from playing weekly. There were times where I would have to play 5 hour sets and it truly taught me all that I know today. That is when I became Mikey Lion. I had no DJ name before and decided to just switch up one of the letters in my last name in case I ever wanted to get a job later in life so that they could not track me down. I learned everything about the culture and style during that time period. There is so much fucking good music in Barcelona and hopefully you can still hear some semblance of that in the music I produce today.

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What was the scene like at San Diego at the time?

Everyone just graduated and we thought it would be a great time to throw a party in Encinitas so we started a party called Jungle. Right off the bat it was super popular and we thought it was super important to bring in live artists of all kind to show their work. That is how we eventually met the Love Life guys. Before us there was literally little, if any,  scene in San Diego. It grew into this huge family.

What was your introduction to Burning Man? How did your first trip come to fruition?

Right around that time I went to my first Lightning in a Bottle and it was another one of those moments that changed my perspective again entirely. It was there that someone mentioned to me that I should check out Burning Man and the rest was history. I bought my ticket to Burning Man as soon as I got back from LIB. That Burning Man experience is really when I figured it all out. That is really where I met the core Desert Hearts crew. What is fascinating is that there were all these amazing people that lived 20 minutes from me that I never knew existed.

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What was the most difficult part of putting this weekend together? Was there anything that did not seem difficult during the creation phase that ultimately turned out to be a huge pain in the ass?
I think finding the location was the biggest issue. Building a relationship with the tribe was ultimately rewarding but took a long time. There are a lot of pros and cons with having an event on tribal land. You don’t have to have permits but at the same time you are on an Indian Reservation and there is no fucking real laws to keep you safe. It is like your word verses the tribes. I think the logistics of making friends with the tribe and building this trust relationship was one of the hardest things that we did. That I why it has gone off without a hitch because we have made such good friends with everybody on the Reservation. We have put in tons of work really explaining our intentions and why we are here and what we want to do and how we can be mutually beneficial. As we grow we want to help the Indians grow. This is one of the most poverty stricken reservations in all of California.

What advice would you give to someone who would like to do something like this?
I think to keep a really open mind is the best thing that you can do. Go to Burning Man which is step number 1. It really is life changing. I feel like once you go to Burning Man you really understand what life is about. I have been to tons of raves and tons of events growing up and there is not this huge community at those events. There are camps and camps and camps of different awesome communities and you realize that community really is what drives everything. The most important part of your life is who you surround yourself with. If you have amazing friends that you can rely on and you are happy to see them all the time you are going to have the fucking time of your life.

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As a producer, what do you look for in a track and what goes into making one of your creations?

I have been making music for about 3 years now and, for me, I take my hip-hop past and parlay it into the sampling process, and try to integrate those samples into my tracks. I will lay out a beat and find that one sample that I love and go from there. It is all experimentation really. You have to be really determined in your work. You cannot tour and succeed financially unless you are making great music. There are very, very few people who can make a career of this.

What is in the future for Desert Hearts?
The main thing next year is going to be our record label. We launched are record label in July of this year and we look to expand our releases in the next coming months. We have only had two releases so far and both of them charted on Beatport. If we can create our music and at the same time project this vibe which Desert Hearts is all about at the same time it would be awesome.

What would you say that vibe?
It is just love. And community. And coming together. And just being fucking here and present.

Check out this awesome mix the crew recently dropped at the Mixmag Lab in Los Angeles to get your best rain dance on.