Arizona Desert Hearts EDM festival brings California party upstate | Phoenix New Times

EDM event Desert Hearts Festival exports the California party to Arizona

The California party has traveled west to set up camp at Playa Ponderosa for the first time in its history.
The Desert Hearts Festival will be held July 4 to 8 at Playa Ponderosa.
The Desert Hearts Festival will be held July 4 to 8 at Playa Ponderosa. Eric Allen
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Desert Hearts Festival has been a gathering place for house and techno fans for over a decade in Southern California, but for the first time in the festival’s history, this celebration of EDM, community and nature will be hosted in Arizona.

This upcoming Fourth of July weekend, Thursday to Sunday, July 4 to 8, Desert Hearts Festival will be held at Playa Ponderosa in collaboration with Walter Productions, just 25 miles outside of downtown Flagstaff. The festival, which advertises a weekend of “house, techno  and love,” provides a unique experience of one stage of nonstop music, workshops, art installations, theme camps and more.

Founded in 2012, Desert Hearts Festival initially began as Jungle, a small party of about 200 attendees, thrown by festival founders Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds and Porky, in the Mojave Desert near San Diego.

There, they met Marbs, a DJ and veteran of the festival scene, who taught the group more about the logistics of the festival scene and helped them continuously grow Desert Hearts into what it is today.

“At the time, there wasn’t that much to do or too many venues in San Diego that were playing house and techno,” Lion says. “We were just young kids, who synced up, programmed this weekend with one stage continuously playing music and just learned by doing. And the message and the ethos that we went into the festival with was just to spread as much love and positive energy as possible. And through that message, it just attracted all the right people at the right time.”

Jungle steadily grew in popularity; the next year approximately 400 people attended, then 800, then 1,600. Before the group knew it, the small party had turned into the intimate, midsize festival that is Desert Hearts.
click to enlarge A DJ at a music festival.
Working the decks at a previous Desert Hearts Festival.
Juliana Bernstein

For six years, beginning in 2014, Desert Hearts Festival was based at Native American reservation Lost Coyotes in San Diego County. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the festival was forced to shut down operations — indefinitely, the team thought. When restrictions were lifted, they no longer had access to the venue.

“During the pandemic, the reservation decided they were no longer going to hold any events there,” Lion says. “So we were kind of scrambling for a while to figure out where we were going to go.”

The year following the pandemic, Desert Hearts was held at Lake Perris, a state park in Riverside, California, which involved too many financial and legal restrictions to be a suitable venue for the festival. The following year, the party experience was shifted and hosted in downtown L.A. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, completely shifting from the four-day outdoors camping experience Desert Hearts aimed to provide.

“After that, we really put all of our energy into just trying to find a venue that we're hoping to be in Southern California just because that's where our main roots are,” Lion says.

But when Kirk Strawn, president of Walter Productions, an EDM show and festival promoter based in Phoenix, and personal friend of Lion, told him about the Playa Ponderosa and all it offered, Lion was intrigued and decided to see it for himself. Upon visiting, Lion was immediately drawn to the lush greenery and picturesque landscape, which reminded him of the festival’s original venue.

“(Playa Ponderosa) is so unbelievable,” Lion says. “The first time we went out there, it was like ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what we've been looking for, I can envision exactly where everything's going to go.’ This is for sure the most excited that I've been about Desert Hearts in like five years.”

From there, Lion and the founders partnered up with Strawn and the team at Walter Productions to create the first Desert Hearts Festival to be held in Arizona.

“We teamed up with Walter because Kirk, his family and the Walter community are the most twin flame community to our network of people as possible. I've never met people that give back to and build their community up as much as the Walter people and so we're joining forces with just the most perfect management,” Lion says.

Strawn and Lion spent the next eight months preparing for this year’s festival: securing the venue (a feat made easier by Strawn’s personal relationship with the owners) to curating the artist lineup and incorporating new workshops and installations to make Desert Hearts the biggest yet.

“Festivals are only good if they’re well produced,” Strawn says. “And I've seen the professionalism and the quality of the team that Desert Hearts had and we (Walter Productions) also have a strong team.”

“Our collaborators and Walter and the venue are as good of partners as it gets,” Lion says. “Everyone brings a lot of strengths to the table. It's the first time that we've partnered on a festival andfor the most part, it's been a phenomenal working relationship.”
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This is the first year Desert Hearts Festival will be held in Arizona.
Eric Allen

Desert Hearts features an eclectic mix of household names and local favorites, bringing artists such as house duos Walker and Royce and Coco & Breezy, electronic artist Doc Martin and house artist VNSSA, and many other household names.

"You can expect to get deep into the vibe, and hear a ton of supersonic grooves. Desert Hearts is always a special experience (and) I'm looking forward to seeing everybody come together for this amazing festival," Doc Martin says.

This year's lineup returns Desert Hearts to its roots of amplifying the community, by including a large roster of local and independent talent, including the Desert Hearts crew set.

“In the past years, we started off with more local talent and as Desert Hearts grew, we were growing and the festival scene in general was growing,” Lion says. “We felt a lot of pressure to start building our lineups with bigger headliners and spending more money, so this year we're going back to our roots of what Desert Hearts used to be, focusing on building up our community. So we have a bunch of local Phoenix talent (this year).”

Designed to be an experience just as much about building and finding community as it is music and dance, the four-day festival features a wide variety of activity off the dance floor, including a healing sanctuary with sound healing, crystal healing and recharge areas; a sobriety support meeting, Sober Hearts, both for those looking for a sober weekend and those seeking support for long-term sobriety journeys; theme camps, which are lounge tents on the site featuring either unique activities such as dance floors, spiritual healing, interactive art or a quiet, meditative space away from the loud, energetic festival grounds; meditation and yoga workshops; performers across the grounds; food and clothes vendors; and art cars and installations. And among all of it is the constantly buzzing energy of people traveling through the grounds.

“I think one of the things that really kind of just captures the entire essence of the festival is our motto has always been ‘house, techno and love.’” Lion says. “We are all Desert Hearts. Our festival is all about unity. It's about loving one another. It's about creating space for people to feel safe and comfortable. We love creating these little nooks and crannies for people to find that are away from the dance floor, where people can hang out, I mean, there’s people that have started their relationships at Desert Hearts, there's even a couple getting married at Desert Hearts (this year).”
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"House, techno and love" is the motto of Desert Hearts Festival.
Jake West

Falling on the Fourth of July weekend, the ideas that make up the Desert Hearts Festival such as uplifting and giving back to community as well as the serenity and openness of the Playa Ponderosa make it a unique way to celebrate the holiday that represents freedom. While the parallel timing was merely a coincidence, Strawn found a certain beauty in the timing.

“I'm in my seventh decade, and I've seen more forces trying to split us up as a country now than ever,” Strawn says. “Desert Hearts and Walter throwing this festival up here is about bringing people together — all kinds of people. We're attempting to do something that is more healing and I'm just very proud to be doing something to bring people together on the Fourth of July.”

There are a limited number of tickets still available for Desert Hearts Festival. Get tickets and info on the event website.
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