How Desert Daze Became The DIY Anti-Festival

Every year, nearly a quarter-million people flock to the California desert to attend Coachella. But amid the Instagram moments, celebrity sightings, and flower crown weaving, one California festival isn’t competing for your attention. Just an hour outside of the Coachella campgrounds is where the annual Desert Daze music festival is held. After making a name for themselves over the past decade, the resident psych-rock event has become the go-to anti-festival for those seeking a profound experience rather than a three-day bender.

Desert Daze started as a happy accident. Founded by Jjuujjuu musician Phil Pirrone and his wife Julie Edwards Pirrone, Desert Daze first began as Moon Block Party in 2012; An 11-day event in Pomona, CA hosting 120 bands across several venues. Pirrone doesn’t like to think of himself as a concert promoter, but he has been organizing shows and touring as a musician since his preteen days. “Somewhere around 2008, I started putting on outdoor events more officially. It was a natural extension of what I had already been doing,” Pirrone explained over the phone. Pirrone said the event started “organically,” with him and other musicians calling up their friends in bands and asking them to play — and they continue to maintain their DIY ethos to this day. Pirrone’s best friends still help run sound, assist with promotions, manage installation art, and even act as food and beverage director.

After the first year went off without a hitch, Pirrone was contacted by a roadhouse in the desert who asked him to put on the event the next year; thus Desert Daze was born. “It was a significant moment in our lives,” he said. “It was a turning point for us where the thing that we did as an extension of what we’ve been doing as a touring musician suddenly became our number one focus and it quickly became a career.” Since it began, Desert Daze has fluctuated in size. Some years, it’s been a one-day event. But as it’s grown in popularity, Desert Daze has become a multiple-stage, weekend-long festival complete with overnight campgrounds.

Desert Daze isn’t only focused on music — although, with acts like Tame Impala, Iggy Pop, and My Bloody Valentine over the years, the music is definitely the main draw. But more than that, Desert Daze is focused on creating an experience. Life-size art installations cover the festival grounds that attendees can interact with, some of which have been with the event from the very beginning. Various workshops and retreats have also become a major staple of the festival. A network of practitioners and healers called Mystic Bazaar puts on events that range from yoga and breath work to educational lectures. One year, Desert Daze even invited former death row inmate Damien Echols to speak about spirituality and the power of manifestation.

While Desert Daze remains true to its roots, Pirrone has noticed how the festival landscape has shifted in the past decade. Venture capitalists set out to start festivals to turn a profit rather than build a community — and that’s why Pirrone sees Desert Daze as the anti-festival. “It’s not a job,” he said. “It’s our life and the Desert Daze community is life and we work for that community.” To him, “business venture” is the very last thing that defines Desert Daze. “I feel like a public servant, straight up,” he said. “We’re not putting out fires and saving people’s lives. But we are enriching their lives. We are inspiring them. We are giving them profound moments, profound learning experiences where they can extract something from the experience and inject it into their everyday life.”

This year, Desert Daze will look a little different from previous iterations. Though it will still be located on the sandy shores of Lake Perris, organizers are making sure Desert Daze is returning in a way that prioritizes health and safety. For one, they’ve pushed the dates back to the weekend of November 12-14 2021. While headliners Toro Y Moi, The War On Drugs, Kamasi Washington, and Japanese Breakfast mean indie music-lovers will still get their fix of reverb pedals, this year’s event has been scaled back from three stages to just one. The festival’s capacity has been a bit restricted and all the performances will take place at night, meaning this year’s art installations will involve much more trippy lighting projections. They’re even trying to incorporate some film elements into their artists’ sets, though they’ve opted out of livestreams over the past year.

Even with this year’s changes, rejuvenating workshops will take over the campground during the day to ensure that attendees leave feeling connected to themselves, their community, and the universe. And that connection is what Pirrone is most looking forward to after over a year without live music. “When we’re together, that’s what we live for,” Pirrone said. “We feel like we know the people who come to Desert Daze and some of them feel like they know me. I walk around the festival site and people are calling my name. I’m taking pictures with people. I give them high fives. These are my people, and I’m their people. That’s what I looked forward to most — being back with them.”

Check out the rest of Uproxx’s 2021 Music Festival Preview here.