As COVID-19 rages on, many artists are reinventing the figurative wheel to keep music performances alive—creating new and exciting ways to fill the gap left by the lack of live, in-person concerts.
One of these creatives is Ryan Jones, founder of the California Desert Wizards Association (CDWA), which put on the annual Stoned and Dusted festival.
Since music festivals can’t take place right now, Jones and his colleagues have adapted to the times—in a big way: They’re streaming a five-part series of professionally recorded concert films, called Live in the Mojave Desert.
The goal? To, in Jones’ words, give music fans something “really rad.”
The series kicks off on Saturday, Jan. 23, with Earthless, and is followed by a show every other Saturday, featuring Nebula (Feb. 6), Spirit Mother (Feb. 20), Mountain Tamer (March 6) and Stoner (March 20), a new band featuring Kyuss alumni Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri. Tickets cost $10 to $20 for each show; purchasers get access to the livestream event plus access to replays for the next 48 hours. (At some point, the series will be available for purchase via DVD and video on demand.)
During a recent interview, Jones explained that Live in the Mojave Desert was born out of the disappointment following the cancellation of the annual Stoned and Dusted festival last May.
“What was really a bummer about canceling Stoned and Dusted was refunding all this money,” Jones said. “Not that I minded refunding it—but these people did not want refunds. They wanted to come to the party. We call it ‘no fun-ded’: They got their money back and had no fun, and it was a total buzzkill.”
Jones said he and his fellow festival producers wanted to give their disappointed fellow music-lovers “something cool” in place of the cancelled festival.
“I happened to escape from L.A. at the start of COVID and move down to Joshua Tree. My guy, Sam Grant—who is our editor on this, and one of the CDWA guys—he also just moved to Joshua Tree, and Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson, Yawning Man) also lives out there. We were really trying to figure out what we can do, and we started hearing about this livestream thing. It was Mario’s idea to say, ‘Let’s not do a livestream; let’s make something amazing. Let’s not just set up in a garage, film it and show it live; let’s make something beautiful and then show that. So we made Yawning Man Live at Giant Rock and created a livestream event for it called Couchlock and Rock. We had a live, hosted event with Brant, Mario, Sean Wheeler, Nick Oliveri, myself and Sam, just kind of hanging out on the couches talking. I got to open the conversation, and those guys just had a blast talking together—and then we premiered the concert film.”
Couchlock and Rock was so much fun, Jones said, that he “saw the light”—and the result was Live in the Mojave Desert.
“I thought that this could be a thing that’s going to make winter bearable for everybody, so I started a record label called CDWA Records … and made something amazing,” he said. “We’ll put it out live on the air on the internet for a ticketed event in the winter when everyone’s locked down. It’s a cold winter, and everyone’s shut up in their homes because of the coronavirus—so we’re bringing something rad to their houses.”
Brant Bjork, the local stoner-rock legend who founded Kyuss, is participating in Live in the Mojave Desert via his new band, Stoner. He’s been a part of Stoned and Dusted efforts from the beginning.
“Stoned and Dusted is a result of me meeting a gentleman named Mr. Ryan Jones, whom I refer to as Dr. Jones, because I have too many Ryans in my life,” Bjork said during a recent phone interview. “We really came together with the idea of putting on a rock show out in the desert. We called that (2016 show) Desert Generator, and it was such a success that we didn’t just plan on doing an event annually; we also decided that he would manage me. That evolved into Stoned and Dusted, and because of the pandemic, Stoned and Dusted evolved into this new adventure of starting a record label with the whole purpose of recording a handful of bands out in the desert.”
Bjork said that when Jones told him his thoughts about starting the label, he thought it was “a hell of an idea.”
“I wasn’t super-surprised, because coming up with really interesting and creative adventures is one of his fortes,” Bjork said. “I play a particular role in Stoned and Dusted, and I had really nothing to do with this. There’s a term I’m hearing that’s quite appropriate, and that term is ‘pandemic project.’ I think this is his pandemic project, and I have a feeling that it could potentially evolve even more once the pandemic comes to a close.”
Bjork said Stoner came together solely for this production.
“I was really inspired, but I was simultaneously frustrated, because I love my solo band,” Bjork said. “They’re not just great musicians, but also my dear friends, but we all live in different areas. My bass player moved to Berlin; my guitar player is up in Seattle; and my drummer lives in Shasta. When it came to trying to exercise the band during the pandemic, it was pretty much impossible. … I thought that it would be a shame to miss this opportunity and not have a band where I could turn it up and really rock and unload. All summer, I was creating demos and spending time with my in-laws, and was sleeping on it for a few weeks until I decided: What if I just started a new band? I called up my drummer, and he was willing and able. Nick Oliveri, who is one of my oldest musical buddies from the neighborhood in Palm Desert—we go back to Little League Baseball together—he recently moved to Joshua Tree and was going crazy spinning his wheels just like all of us. Once you kind of come up with that idea, it all just snowballs.”
The Live in the Mojave Desert trailer shows off the professional production of the concert films—including high-definition video and masterfully recorded tracks.
“Dan Joeright, from Gatos Trail Recording Studio in Joshua Tree, came out and recorded the thing on 24-track Pro Tools,” Jones said. “We have great audio, and we had a crack squad of complete bad-asses doing the filming. It was like watching a military maneuver, watching this team work. I’d call ‘action,’ and they would be moving around in these crazy, synchronized movements to capture the show. They were talking on walkie: ‘The drone’s coming in; everyone back out,’ and the drone would come flying in, and all the cameramen disappeared into the bushes. They were amazing.”
Jones said each show includes far more than just the concerts themselves.
“You’re buying a ticket to the Live in the Mojave Desert concert film, but when you get there, you’re actually going to be tuned into something you didn’t know was coming. It’s (also) going to be called Couchlock and Rock,” said Jones. “The first hour is going to be the dudes hanging out on the couch, and we’re coming up with all kinds of totally rad, psychedelic, weirdo visual shit. We have old footage of some of these desert rockers playing back in the day, and it’s going to be a super-wild, fun time. I’m going to compare it to MTV in the late ‘80s if it was run by heshers and stoners. The second hour, we’re going to bring in the band whose film we’re showing that day, and we’re going to hang with them for a little bit, and then we’re going to premiere their concert film in full without a break.”
Jones said the goal of his team was to make something “really rad” for Stoned and Dusted fans.
“We have fans all over the world who fly in for our festival, and people that trust us to make the coolest shit we can possibly make,” Jones said. “That’s what we did—we thought of the coolest thing we could possibly make, and we worked our asses off to do it.
“With this particular thing, I needed to find a location that had a big-enough, flat-enough space that we can put production in. There also has to be a space where we can put the band that was flat and level, and also had to be parked in front of some giant boulders so we can project (the Mad Alchemy) Liquid Light Show. We tried all over Joshua Tree … but we just couldn’t find the right spot. It ended up being in Antelope Valley, which is also part of the Mojave Desert. It has a great place to put the band—and it had a four-story-high double pyramid of boulders that we could project the Liquid Light Show on.”
Bjork, like Jones, considers Live in the Mojave Desert a passion project.
“As a solo artist and as a member of bands, I’ve traveled a lot of ground,” Bjork said. “I’ve been through many hills and valleys, and it’s all about touch and go, progression, let’s see what’s under this rock, let’s try this, experimentation, pushing yourself creatively and artistically to new horizons. During the pandemic, I’ve obviously had a lot of time to reflect, and I really felt like a 13-year-old—I just wanna rock. I’m not looking to invent something new. When you’re starving, you’re so stoked on a bag of Fritos.
“When I called Nick and gave him the idea to do this band, he said, ‘Hell yeah; that sounds great.’ I told him the concept that I was thinking of was just going back to when we played rock for the sake of rock. The reward was just doing it. There weren’t stages, or lights and PAs, or fans and record deals—there was none of that. I wanted to take the challenge of getting back to that place where you just feel. Within five minutes of our first jam as a trio, it felt so good and pure that I didn’t even care what we were playing.
“We had a couple of names we were throwing around, but after our third rehearsal, Nick said, ‘Well, shit, since we’re going all the way back, we should just call this Stoner.’ I thought, ‘Why would I argue with that?’”
Bjork said he hopes that people realize he does what he does because of his love of music.
“Nick and myself are, and have been, professional musicians for many years, and I think that when you get to a level of professionalism, regardless of what your discipline or your craft is, there are things that you have to be accountable for in order to sustain and maintain and evolve on that level,” Bjork said. “There’s also the challenge—at some point, if you’re able to stay in the game long enough—to say, ‘Hey, let’s try to go back and not overwhelm ourselves with the pressures of what it means to sustain a living. Let’s not impose that kind of pressure upon ourselves, and let’s just go back to being the original idea.’”
Bjork said he’s at a point in his life where he wants to put fans first.
“A great deal of my career as a musician has been selfishly just me feeling myself and thriving and being acknowledged as someone who is worthy of contributing to the world of rock music—which helped my self-esteem, as I wasn’t a super-confident person in my formative years,” Bjork said. “Evolving and growing through all that, and being an adult and a family man with kids and stuff—I think I speak for Nick when I say even back when we did Kyuss Lives! (which led former Kyuss members Josh Homme and Scott Reeder to sue Bjork), at that point, it was all about acknowledging we’ve accomplished enough individually and collectively. Now it’s about giving back to the fans who appreciate what we have created. It’s like walking into the kitchen. I’m a badass cook and having a passion for cooking, but instead of imposing a trippy recipe that I have, I’ll just ask what you want.”
As a side note: It appears that Homme may be feeling similarly. In a recent interview, the Queens of the Stone Age frontman expressed interest in a Kyuss reunion. However, fans shouldn’t get their hopes up quite yet.
“Nick texted me one night when that went down and told me to check it out,” Bjork said. “I really enjoyed listening to his words and his reflections, and I reached out to Josh. I have a saying, which is: If you communicate, then you can relate, and if you can relate, then you can create. I thought that we had to start communicating again, and through that, we might be able to relate just like we did years ago. … I reached out, and he said that we’d talk, but he never went further than that.
“I wasn’t reaching out as a member of Kyuss. People have to remember that Josh and I were kids, and we had a bond through music. During those years when we were sharing and exploring, Kyuss wasn’t even a thought. It’s kind of a parallel with the whole concept with Nick and me in Stoner. I had a separate relationship with Nick playing music, and it all kind of combined. That’s how you create a great band—you bring these rad musical minds together, and you just see what happens. It may not be a harmonious relationship as far as personalities, but there might be an explosion of awesome music, which clearly there was. … I reached out, and if (Homme) doesn’t want to grab hold and see what’s up, that’s fine; it’s all good.”
Back to Live in the Mojave Desert: The Stoned and Dusted festival has featured an impressive roster of acts, including Black Mountain, Melvins, Fu Manchu, Corrosion of Conformity. Jones that selecting the bands for Live in the Mojave Desert was not easy.
“We whittled it down to five, basically, and I wanted to do the same thing that I do for Stoned and Dusted, which is present some of your favorites, and present somebody new that you may not know that you’re going to love,” Jones said. “I’m listening to this music all year long and finding new bands, and there are certain ones you just love, and maybe they’re not famous yet, but you love them anyway.
“Earthless is a longtime favorite of mine, and Isaiah (Mitchell, the guitarist) has played almost every event I’ve ever had. Nebula, of course, are longtime favorites, and Brant Bjork and Nick Oliveri have both played our festival, but they never played it as this brand-new band, Stoner. Kyuss fans are going to be pleased. It came down to also finding who was available and who was nearby enough to do this. It actually turned out that all the bands had already been rehearsing—except for Stoner, of course, since they’re a new band—but the bands have already been together and had been rehearsing, so they were all pretty well warmed up and ready to go.
“One of the bands is called Spirit Mother, and I called them at the very last minute, because another band canceled on us at the very last minute. They’ve been wanting to play Stoned and Dusted for the last couple of years. I really liked them, but I could never make them fit. Lance (Gordon), from Mad Alchemy Liquid Light Show, recommended I contact them. They’re an L.A. band; I called them, and they were all about it. As it turns out, though, they weren’t in L.A.; they were in Oregon. The band was scheduled to play a show in San Francisco, so they had all gone up to Oregon, where the singer and the violin player lived, and rehearsed, and then went down to San Francisco. That show actually got cancelled. … When I called them on Thursday night, they had just already warmed up and were ready to play a show, so they got in their van and drove all the way down from Oregon in basically in three days—and showed up just on time to set up and play.”
Of course, the pandemic is still a concern, even in the middle of the Mojave Desert. As a result, what would have always been a massive undertaking—recording five high-quality concert films in the middle of nowhere—became even more challenging.
“In order to get the go-ahead from the county, we had to have a 10-page COVID plan in place,” Jones said. “That included taking temperatures right when people got there. Everyone, of course, was wearing masks; we had real water handwashing stations; we had hand sanitizer, of course.
“The hardest part was getting all that gear 30 miles into the middle of nowhere and up a giant sand hill. We had to hire these two guys with giant 4×4 monster trucks to get us up and down the hill every day. The bands had to come up every day; the food had to come up every day; the ice and the water and the beer had to come up every day; the photographers and videography team had to come up every day; our recordist had to come up every day. We had porta potties up there; we had a giant generator; we had the light show. We had the same system we use at Stoned and Dusted, so we had a full live and loud production. It was a pretty big operation—25 people out there working for six days. We were there from morning ‘til night, because we weren’t trying to show the same thing for every film. So we would do a set in the daytime, a set in the evening, and a set at night under the liquid light show. But we pulled it off.”
For more information or to purchase tickets to Live in the Mojave Desert, visit www.californiadesertwizardsassociation.com.