If you want to check Lo Sound Desert‘s credentials as a labor of love, look no further than the fact that it exists. Directed and produced by Berlin-based filmmaker Jörg Steineck, it is the result of a full decade’s labors and not one, but two crowdfunding campaigns, and through a wide swath of interviews, archival footage, old photos and stories, it undertakes an ambitious exploration of what it is about the area outside of Los Angeles that led to the birth of desert rock.
Steineck, who splits the film into two smaller chapters — titled “Backyard Rebellion” and “The Outskirts of Town” — should be remembered from his work on the 2011 documentary Fuzzomentary: A Film About a Band Called Truckfighters (review here). He speaks with figures and figureheads out of the scene that sprang up from punk teens in the 1980s and paints a general portrait of what we now call desert rock as the result of some of the same impulses that gave birth elsewhere to grunge and alt rock, or for that matter to punk itself: bored kids with energy to spend, looking to spend it.
Appropriately, the first voice we hear is Brant Bjork. The former Kyuss and Fu Manchu drummer and head of his own Low Desert Punk Band sets us underway with a discussion of the landscape, but it’s not long before Lo Sound Desert digs its heels into the music itself, which becomes the clear center of attention throughout. Along the way, we hear extensively from the likes of Throw Rag‘s Sean Wheeler, guitarist/vocalist Mike Moracha and bassist/vocalist Nick Nava of Hornss, who trace their roots back to desert outfit Solarfeast, Zach Huskey and Joe Dillon of Dali’s Llama, Scott Reeder (we even get to see his chihuahua, Scooter, in a couple shots), Nick Oliveri, Mario Lalli — who, it seems to be unanimously agreed, started the whole thing — as well as members of acts like Unsound, Nebula, You Know Who, House of Broken Promises, Slo Burn, Half Astro, and so on.
There are a few conspicuous absences — Yawning Man is discussed but Gary Arce never appears, and neither John Garcia nor Chris Goss are there to participate in the discussion of Kyuss — but an interview with Josh Homme (footage from which also appeared in the Fuzzomentary) produces some choice one-liners, and by no means is Lo Sound Desert light when it comes to story.
Rather, it seems the central challenge of the film, perhaps apart from making it actually happen, is that it’s trying to encompass 30 years of rock and roll history into one 90-minute spread. Many of these players could fill that time just with their own story. Certainly Lalli, whose time as a club owner, show-organizer and restaurateur in addition to playing with Across the River, Fatso Jetson, the Sort of Quartet and Yawning Man, is touched upon, but could fill out a feature-length documentary by himself.
And Homme, Bjork, Huskey, Reeder are also fodder for further exploration. Hell, you could do 120 minutes on Kyuss getting signed to Elektra — something touched on, somewhat humorously — and still have enough left over for bonus footage, though for what it’s worth, Lo Sound Desert offers plenty of that as well; about an hour front-to-back divided into smaller clips.
So one imagines that Steineck‘s principal task as sorting all those stories of playing in garages, working shitty jobs — Moracha and Nava win in that regard; I won’t spoil it — finding spaces out in the desert beyond the reach of law enforcement, opening and closing clubs and the rest into a cohesive, linear story. He gives the film the full title, Lo Sound Desert: Two Chapters on Rock Music by Jörg Steineck. Yes, it could easily be eight chapters, or 10, but Steineck‘s success in bringing form to the amorphous life experiences of these players and characters is undeniable.
After an initial inhale giving background on the setting around Palm Springs, Palm Desert and the small towns surrounding, he moves quickly through the evolution of sound that took place through the ’80s and ’90s and which continues today both in the output of desert-based bands and heavy rockers worldwide taking influence from them. The stories told entertain, the music is brash and rough and formative and suitably romantic for that, and while the audience to which Steineck is speaking is expected to have some knowledge of the genre, he does well to balance broad overview and deep-dive personal narrative in such a way as to provide an engaging experience for newcomers as well as longtime converts.
Some interviews lean more toward performance than others, and sometimes it feels like there’s simply too much tale to tell, but through clever editing and interludes, Steineck provides a steady hand to guide the viewer through this barrage of tales of playing out in the middle of nowhere, underage drinking and partying, skateboarding and trying to define what happened in the desert that made desert rock different from grunge or anything else happening at the time.
Several of the answers to that question are practical. Desert rockers tuned lower, allowing for a meatier sound than the post-punk that emerged in the same era elsewhere, but it’s Lalli who ultimately nails the core difference in a bonus feature discussion of what is stoner rock when he says it’s about the jam. Principally, we find out that the freedom provided to these bands via the landscape, via playing outside — the second chapter here centers largely on generator parties and their effect on emerging acts like Kyuss and Fatso Jetson, Yawning Man, etc. — and via an utter lack of expectation on the part of their audience allowed for a freeform approach to essentially recast punk rock in their own image.
That era may have been short-lived, just a couple years, but its effects are broad reaching, as an included family tree of bands in the DVD liner and as the interviews included show. While Steineck joins Huskey and Wheeler and Reeder in looking around at what the desert was and the creative community that flourished there seemingly unaware of the odds it was working against, he also brings a look at the continued vitality of the scene in footage captured from the 2011 Desert Moon Ranch fest, at which Wheeler, Waxy, Fatso Jetson, You Know Who, Hornss, House of Broken Promises, Dali’s Llama and more played.
Though the conversation inevitably doesn’t go as in-depth as that of the history behind these acts and their influence/influences, it does give an opportunity to glimpse modern desert rock as a mature, varied sound that has continued to thrive across a span of years that has seen competing styles like grunge rise perhaps to greater heights of commercial success, but likewise dissipate wholesale. Like the land itself, desert rock has worked on a longer timeline. So be it.
Later on, nods to Homme‘s work as ambassador for the scene and sound in Queens of the Stone Age is acknowledged, and we get to see footage of Fatso Jetson in Germany at Stoned from the Underground, while backstage, guitarist Dino von Lalli (also of BigPig; son to Mario) discusses the rise of a new generation of rockers out in the vast nowhere, working out the same energy as their forebears, perhaps more extreme in style but recognizable in their restlessness for sure. That conversation leaves room for the summary of what “desert rock,” as an idea, ultimately means.
Opinions, as one might expect, vary — but as Lo Sound Desert has made plain by then, that variety is half the point. As much as heavy rock and roll worldwide has taken on genre characteristics over particularly the last two decades in the wake of Kyuss‘ relatively widespread influence, the roots from which this particular branch of it grew seem only to have benefited from the huge sky and open land surrounding.
I don’t know if it’s fair to expect more chapters in Steineck‘s narrative, since Lo Sound Desert itself was such an undertaking. There’s room certainly to ask about what could’ve been in a post-grunge commercial movement for desert rock, which some might argue was attempted and ultimately floundered outside perhaps of Queens of the Stone Age, but among shorter clips of driving through canyons, band rehearsals, technical issues at the Desert Moon Ranch fest, etc., the bonus features also include a fascinating and much needed reflection on what is “stoner rock” and what the difference between that and desert rock might be.
This question, which plainly irks Nebula even in the asking, is core to the feature and if Steineck were ever to engage the larger issue of how the sound translated from the Californian desert into the worldwide underground phenomenon it has become, would be all the more necessary, but even as it’s presented here, it’s one more insight that allows these players a voice they’ve long since deserved to discuss their work and the context of the history it has made and is still making.
In its pace, balance, editing and the clear passion as its driving force, Lo Sound Desert holds a mirror up to one of rock’s most crucial movements of the last 30 years and allows it to speak for itself at last, unfiltered and as raw as a speaker cone with sand blown in it. It should be considered essential viewing, whatever one thinks they already know of its story.