Having fun and enjoying beauty should never be this release valve. It should be something that you just do because you fucking love it.
Mikey Lion is tired of hearing joy get vilified. How can our society both openly admit that partying is awesome and treat partiers as if they’re vapid? Why is painting your body to cheer for a football team (or even obsessing over the intricacies of chess) a reasonable way to spend time while painting your body to dance in the desert is seen as silly? Isn’t all recreation equally arbitrary-yet-important, as long as it makes us feel connected to others?
Lion sure thinks so. He’s a DJ, party promoter, and unabashed hedonist. He’s also a big success– a co-founder of Desert Hearts, one of the most buzzed-about transformative festivals on the planet. After a trip to Black Rock City in Nevada, for Burning Man, he and his friends decided to launch their own event. They wanted it to be a microcosm of what they felt on the playa; a chance for people to come together and connect without judgment.
By all accounts, the vibe that Lion and his crew were trying to cultivate has captured the imagination of like-minded souls. In just a few years, Desert Hearts has expanded rapidly — with a party series in LA, called City Hearts, and a stage takeover at the massive Oregon Eclipse Festival. With the main Desert Hearts Fest lighting up the SoCal night sky later this month, we spoke to Mikey about his original vision, how community is crucial to everything he does, and why hedonism gets a bad rap.
Let’s start with talking about party culture and why it perpetually matters to you to create the coolest party on the planet.
For me, I think that partying and hedonism and getting together in a community where everyone is all on the same vibe and on the same level, to me that’s our biggest way of, you know, acting spiritually with other human beings. I think for Desert Hearts that’s kind of where we were coming from. We wanted to create this place that we could create the ultimate vibe, spread as much love and positive energy as possible, and, you know, ultimately just be with our friends and celebrate life and celebrate each other. I mean, when you’re partying in the right way and you’re really connected with people around you and you’re on a dance floor and everyone’s tuned in to the DJ or the live act or whatever it may be, that’s like when we experience the most collective consciousness, in my opinion.
In the same way that our grandparents used to go to church and they would all sing together, when I go to something like that… I went to my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary not too long ago and it was in a Catholic Church and everyone in the church, they sing these hymns together and it all kind of made a lot more sense to me, because I was like, “Oh wow, that’s just how my grandparents celebrate community and feel connected to the people in their life.”
So for me, that’s what I find on the dance floor. That’s what desert hearts is all about, like, it’s creating this ultimate family and this community that’s just based and predicated on love and spreading love and basically just trying to have the most fun possible.
I feel like we live in a culture and in a country where every time people start to talk about hedonism — and granted this is typically a generation that’s older than us, being reactive — but when they start to talk about hedonism, people start to get uncomfortable.
As a society right now we have this inclination to feel somewhat shameful whenever we indulge in a dance party or just a hedonistic experience in general. For some reason we’re supposed to… and our natural instinct is that we want to shame over it when there shouldn’t be any shame attached to having fun whatsoever. What we’re doing is this beautiful thing but, for some reason, we’re just kind of trained to think that what we’re doing isn’t sustainable, it’s not something that’s gonna give you positivity in your life for a long period of time. Which is untrue.
We’ve been blessed with having someone in our troop, Lee Reynolds — he’s one of the four core members of Desert Hearts and he’s 20 years older than the rest of us and he parties harder than all of us combined. He’s this party god, right? This person that essentially is channeling eternal youth all the time. He lives fast all the time, but he’s also someone who just has lived with a positive frame of mind his entire life and he only thinks positively and so only positive things happen to him.
It’s crazy, man. And for us, he’s kind of like our … you know, he’s who we make fun of the most on tour by far. But he’s also the party god legend of our crew, who we all look up to. His entire mindset is just if you put your mind to it and you’re putting out positive vibes, then you’re gonna only receive positivity in return.
So where did this start, these ideas about hedonism and partying?
We all went to Burning Man seven years ago and we came back kind of thinking, “God, how can we get involved in something like this?” You know? We’d found Lighting in a Bottle and Burning Man the same year, after we had been going to Coachella for years, and so for us it was like this huge awakening inside of us. It’s like, “Wow! Okay, there’s this entire culture of freaks and weirdos and people who, like genuine party people that can, you know, when they’re gathering together it’s like it’s so beautiful!”
We just wanted to create this little slice of Burning Man essentially, and what we came up with was like a house and techno marathon. But it’s only on one stage, so it’s kind of like a block of Burning Man.
How would you describe or define that culture you’ve created?
I mean everything is rooted in love, everything that goes on at the festival is coming from this place where… the motto is house, techno, and love, we are all Desert Hearts. So everyone from the crowd to the spiritual shamans that we have on site are all part of this community just as much as we are, you know? And it’s just this, kind of like this feeling of the more that you put in, the more that you get out. So every single person that comes to the festival is trying to bring something that’s gonna make the party awesome for everyone else.
The more that people do it, the more that they’re gonna get out of it. We really encourage people to be the versions of themselves, express themselves — it’s really rooted in bringing in culture together. We actually have more live painters and artists per capita than any other festival in North America. Art is such a huge part of this festival because art’s just an expression of ourselves. We’re basically giving so many people this platform to just completely share who they are and what they do, without judgment.
We want people to just be the absolute perfect version of themselves and it all starts with just being able to express yourself and have that ability to and the venue to do so.
I think one of the interesting things that first-time attendees to these types of festivals that people discover is a level of acceptance that really feels so extreme.
That’s probably the number one thing that our community has to offer. It’s like… we take everybody, you know? And that feeling is so thick at Desert Hearts that we’ve heard countless stories of people coming back and writing letters to us, telling us that they felt so much acceptance at Desert Hearts that they came out to their parents when they got home or they decided that they were gonna quit heroin. You just see how much love and how much positivity and acceptance that they feel at the festival, it completely goes back with them into their regular lives.
After every festival, we’re always really highlighting, “Take all the feeling and all of the love that you felt in the festival and use that and spread that love every day in your life to everyone around you!” Cause, in my opinion, that’s what the world needs more than anything: To wake up, to love, and for it to be okay to love. And it doesn’t have to be about this tribal, one side versus the other thing. It needs to be about, “We’re all human beings, we’re all one.”
I feel like if you tried to engage someone who is deep in those communities, in some of the kind of more micro-bickering that we do in this culture right now, especially some of the leftist bickering between liberals about really small kind of points of minutiae, that they would almost not know what to do with it because their point would be like, “Okay we get it, but you’re fighting over a 2018 problem and we’re operating in, you know, 2025 or whatever.”
So I think that’s the thing that I admire so much, is that in some ways it feels like these communities have risen past some of the problems that our broader community are entrenched in.
That’s really what we’re trying to do. Right now it feels like we’re just at, we’re just barely at the beginning. It certainly feels like we’re going somewhere and we’re gonna take this somewhere that does make it a significant impact on the world. Just trying to spread this message and trying to reach as many people as possible.
Having fun and enjoying beauty should never be this release valve. It should be something that you just do because you fucking love it. And it’s something that, it’s hard because so many people are living that drudgery and they’re like, “Oh, I’m so stressed out, so I just need a break.” When that’s not what it should be about because if that’s where everyone’s coming from, instead of purposefully giving love to a party or to a community, it becomes selfish.
If society as a whole can kind of grasp that hedonism is okay, and that we don’t have to feel shameful about it, we don’t have to give it some poor excuse thing like, “Oh, I need to release.” You know, instead just being like, “I love doing this, I love being with people, I love sex, I love psychedelics.” That’s all good, man, that should be fine. That should be what it’s about.
So, what’s your message when you see 21, 22-year-olds coming onto the scene now or maybe some of them even younger, what’s your message for them?
I would say just go in with a completely open mind, open heart, go there with a purpose and, maybe go there with an intention, bring something to give, bring something to wear as far as, you know, just try to encapsulate everything of what your essence is and bring that to Desert Hearts and share that with everyone.
So… Here’s my advice: Say yes, don’t be closed off, hug everyone.
Essentially Desert Hearts is like this ultra-radical culture and ultra-radical community that’s thriving. It’s just completely different than most people’s regular, everyday lives — every bit as eye-opening as one of these huge travel trips that people take.