A photo by Tony Tornay.

The beauty of our desert landscape has been captured innumerable times, by a number of different artists, in a wide variety of formats—with many of the best works by locals who share the most honest and appreciative views of the area.

South of Ten is a photography/essay book with words and photos by Tony Tornay, a Coachella Valley native and co-founder of the legendary desert rock band Fatso Jetson. He’s honored the desert time and again with his drumming work—with Fatso Jetson, on The Desert Sessions’ Volumes 3 & 4, with stoner-rock outfit All Souls and, more recently, with Dry Heat, led by Sean Wheeler. Now he’s using his life-long love of photography to share both an appreciation for the local landscape and some desert rock history. The book is $40, shipping around June 17, available here.

“When I was younger, going to parties out in the desert and stuff, I was just having a really good time, and I figured somebody should document it in some way or another,” Tornay said during a recent phone interview. “I started carrying a camera around with me and never really thought all that much about it. As I got a little older, I realized that you could actually do more than own a point-and-shoot camera and take photos of your buddies and whatever. It just kind of went from there.”

Tornay attended ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena as a photography major, and he kept taking photos while also drumming for a number of different projects. Even though, in his words, photography was “always something I was doing,” he didn’t get the idea for South of Ten until fellow Fatso Jetson co-founder Mario Lalli suggested it.

“We were gearing up for this month-and-a-half-long European tour with Fatso Jetson, and just sort of as an aside, (Lalli) was like, ‘You have all this cool stuff of the desert; you should make a book and bring that along, and we could sell it at the merchandise table,’” Tornay said. “The lightbulb went off in my head, and I just kind of ran with it. I made a book just for myself about 20 years ago—a hardcover book of a lot of the same images that I put out in this—but to actually make a book that I was selling and stuff, that came from Mario.”

Tornay said he believes a photograph is the best way to capture and share a moment.

“You’re capturing, literally, a split second in time,” Tornay said. “How that is perceived is really up to how somebody views the image. It’s one thing for somebody to write about something, or tell a story, or even visit (something) themselves and see the total environment around it—but when you just take a photograph of something, it leaves so much up to the imagination. That was part of what really drew me to photography as a kid, just seeing these moments in time, whether it was music that I was into, or skateboarding, or whatever. You just had this one split-second image that was on the page, and you could make up so much in your mind about what was going on at that exact moment. Some of that could have been total bullshit; some of it could have been better than you even imagined. But I always liked how a photograph left it up to you to sort of tell the story of what was going on there.”

The desert wasn’t always a source of inspiration for Tornay. Much of his young life was spent in a state of discontent regarding where he grew up, especially involving music—or the lack thereof.

“I resented the desert, because it was always a ‘the grass is greener’ kind of a situation where, back in the ’80s, even into the ’90s, bands didn’t come to the Coachella Valley,” Tornay said. “If I wanted to go see a band play, we had to drive to San Diego or Orange County or L.A. or Tijuana. I remember sitting around with my friends, out at some party in the middle of the desert, and just lamenting, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we didn’t have to drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to a cobbled-together PA?’

“When I started actually being able to go to shows, I saw how regimented everything is, where you pay your $10, and there are probably five bands that all kind of sound the same—and if it’s a punk-rock show, they probably all had the word ‘Youth’ in their name. It kind of started dawning on me how special the desert was. You had this melting pot of genuine weirdos who weren’t necessarily all always on the same page, but everybody could co-exist. You pushed each other to be your own thing and not just be this cookie-cutter thing. … You had to work for it. You had to find a place to put on a party; you had to ask Mario to borrow his generator; you had to make sure you made fliers, because nobody else was going to do that for you. I realized how cool all of that was … that everybody and anybody was welcome to the party, and the only price of admission was that you had to participate.”

Every photo in South of Ten is accompanied by an essay—not necessarily about the photo it accompanies.

“I always liked how a photograph left it up to you to sort of tell the story of what was going on there.” tony tornay

“Each essay is more about just what the desert represents to me, in a way,” said Tornay. “At one point, in the second or third image, I mention that every photograph was kind of a love letter to the desert. … Everybody else in the world, wherever they grew up, had their own experience, and this was uniquely mine, at this uniquely odd place at a particularly strange time in the world. It represents a bit of what everybody was doing, but also just the beauty of what’s sitting out there.”

While some may see Tornay’s collection of older photos as a chronicle of dated beauty and desert-rock memories, he said he hopes that South of Ten reminds locals that we are all able to get lost in a beautiful landscape right outside our door.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in the day-to-day bullshit of your life—but it’s really easy to remove yourself from that by just driving a couple of minutes and a few miles outside of town,” Tornay said. “There’s so much sitting out there in the desert that’s just waiting to be found, and really, all you need to do is go looking for it. It can be whatever you want it to be, and it can represent whatever you want it to represent. … In today’s day and age, it’s so easy to just get caught up in the 24-hour news cycle and social media and stuff like that, but if you just drive a little bit outside of town, everything can slow way down.”

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *