Mikey Lion—anyone in the California house and techno scene knows him well as the figurehead behind the widely successful Desert Hearts festival and label. Now, the time has come for the “capped conductor” to tell his and the brand’s full story via ‘For The Love,’ the artist’s first-ever album and the label’s milestone release. It’s not only a showcase of how far Mikey’s come in the studio, but also a journey through the Desert Hearts saga from its conception, trials & tribulations faced, and ultimate success.
House, Techno, Love is more than just a branding move; in fact, the concept itself was more of a divine message that Mikey received from nature’s spirit guides during a fateful DMT trip nine years ago. Having realized his purpose was to bring people together under the banner of love and community, growth came easily. The brand’s authenticity could be felt through all aspects, drawing in dancers and music aficionados from all over into its fold who appreciated the connective energy at each event.
Even when faced with difficult times, this idea prevailed. Mikey swiftly brought the Desert Hearts crew and community into the digital realm at the start of the pandemic, allowing a new level of intimacy and fan interaction through regular, extended live streams that eventually translated to a Twitch partnership. Through streaming and subsisting off fans paying their love forward, Mikey reaffirmed his purpose—he truly was meant for connecting others, no matter the circumstances. It’s in fact this genuine appreciation for the Desert Hearts community that has allowed the brand to reach new heights, reaching more people than ever with its music and message while becoming one of the most successful dance music channels on Twitch.
Today, ‘For The Love’s’ rollout continues with its second single, “Do Or Die.” Produced alongside Sacha Robotti, the track is built to get the body moving with thick basslines, squelchy synths, and thumping percussion.
We sat Mikey down ahead of the single’s release to dive deeper into ‘For The Love,’ the keys to Desert Hearts’ success, and more.
‘For The Love’ tells the story of Desert Hearts up to the present day. Which tracks represent critical moments in the brand’s history? Please go into detail
While Desert Hearts has always been about spreading love and positive energy, the album is completely from my point of view and my journey as an artist. “Above The Clouds” is really my own interpretation of what House Heaven feels like to me. It’s supposed to represent the pure bliss that’s experienced on the perfect dance floor. “Through The Fog” alludes to my own struggle with mental health on the road and how I’ve learned to find balance so I can stick around for the long haul. “Meditation” has been a huge tool I’ve used over the years. It’s has impacted my health in a tremendous way and I wanted to share those feelings of awareness in music form. “Talking To The Trees” is my ode to the psychedelic experience that taught me that love is the answer and my purpose in life is to spread it.
As very much a self-made artist, raising your brand up from a small renegade to an international touring force with a powerful online community. What are some key lessons you’ve learned when it comes to building and maintaining success?
My fans always come first. They are just as much a part of the music that I make and the parties that I throw. Without them I would be nowhere and I think it’s really important to always keep that in the back of my mind. When you start to make decisions based on money, things start going haywire. I’ve always led with my heart and I believe that if I continue to do so, the universe will provide me with a beautiful life.
On the above note, the community has always been at the center of Desert Hearts – and you’ve got a dedicated one at that. What drives this dedication the most in your eyes, and why are certain people particularly drawn to the Desert Hearts message?
We’ve always considered Desert Hearts to be one giant family with all these little sub-communities spread out across the globe. I think what draws people into our family is that at the core of our values is our mission to spread as much love and positive energy in the world as possible. Whether it’s on a dance floor or a charity drive we’re doing, our mission is to make the world a better place and teach people how to get the most out of life. There’s something so pure about a Desert Hearts dance floor and no matter who you are, you feel accepted and safe to be your truest self.
Some argue that having a smaller, but more dedicated fanbase is a better way to achieve longevity in one’s career vs appealing to a broader set of people over time that may or may not stick around. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree or disagree?
I feel like we built Desert Hearts backward to how most artists breakthrough and because of that we’re set up for longevity. Instead of having a really successful song breakthrough and then trying to chase that, we actually built the community and the festival long before we ever released any music. We provided a place for so many artists, vendors, partiers, staff, and all walks of life to call home, so when I did start Desert Hearts Records in 2014, we already had a built-in community to support it. Our family might not be the biggest in dance music, but they are diehard and would do anything to support the message behind it.
Let’s talk a bit about Desert Hearts in the digital world…you were one of the first brands to pivot to Twitch and create regular programming, and that paid off. What inspired you to adapt to this platform so early?
I listen to a ton of podcasts from my favorite comedians and I always thought their business model was something that could be applied to dance music. Most touring comedians are performing on weekends and recording podcasts during the middle of the week to plug their dates, sell their merch, and keep a strong connection with their fans, and I figured we could do the same thing. I had actually bought all the gear to live stream long before the pandemic but never had the time to learn the tricks of the trade. When all my gigs for the year got cancelled in March 2020, I knew it was now or never to get something going. I talked to my Desert Hearts partners and we all decided that we’d each take a different day of the week and stream all night. What started as a fun way to keep ourselves busy suddenly turned into a beautiful home for all our friends and family to congregate online, 5 days a week. The craziness has calmed down a bit since the beginning of the Pandy, but we’re still playing to thousands and thousands of people every week. Even though we haven’t played a real gig in almost a year, the Desert Hearts brand is stronger than it’s ever been and it’s all thanks to Twitch.
Through streaming, you’ve been able to play out to larger audiences than ever, and have come away with a whole new set of fans. How have you been able to translate Desert Hearts’ efforts in community building into the digital space, and what is it about your streams that makes them so successful in your eyes?
We brought the same ethos of spreading love from our in person parties into the digital world on our Twitch channel. We don’t tolerate negativity and are always interacting with our fans throughout the live streams. We’ve also got the manpower to stream for a ridiculous amount of hours. When everyone else is streaming for 2 hours at a time, we are streaming for 8+ hours 5 days a week. We’re bound to pick up fans when they stumble onto our channel from another artist’s channel.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to transport their physical community online?
Consistency is key. We have programming for 40 hours a week spread across Wednesday through Sunday. We aren’t just playing music but we’re interacting with our fans and talking directly to them. The real-time interaction feels like we’re just hanging out with our friends and family and that’s what keeps people coming back time and time again. Figure out what works for you and your community and stick with it.
We’ve recently seen that rates of using psychedelics have risen during the pandemic as people use them for therapy. What’s another transcendent experience you’ve had on these substances that changed your life for the better? Keen to hear, since Desert Hearts’ origin was driven by a trip (as explained in ‘For The Love’)
This summer I was in one of the worst headspaces of my life. My memory was shot, my attention was horrible, I was lazy, partying, and neglecting my morning routine, good eating habits, and exercise for months. I was falling apart.
A psychedelic mushroom trip in Idyllwild brought to light a lot of harsh realizations. I’d been making excuses. While beating myself up for hours at my friend’s ranch, one of the house cats came into my room and started playing with me. The cat took me out of my head for a moment and made me feel safe, even for a few minutes. Fast forward to 5:30am and the cat had escaped outside. We knew this was a problem due to all the coyotes in the area. Around 6am as I was about to fall asleep, we heard a rustling outside. I looked out the window and the cat was being attacked by a coyote. Without thinking, I bolted outside and ran towards the coyote who grabbed the cat and dragged it about 50 yards with me in pursuit. It realized it couldn’t drag it forever so it let go and took off into the woods. I get to the cat and he’s in shock, having just been released from the jaws of death. He’s mentally shook up but doesn’t have any major injuries. We bring him inside and he makes a full recovery over the next 24 hours.
That experience along with the difficult trip I had was really hard to process, but I believe the universe was sending me a message. The cat was a metaphor for my headspace and after beating myself up all night, I ultimately had to save my mind from its own mental grave I’d been digging the months prior. I can’t control what’s going on in the world, but I can control how I let it affect me and how I respond to it. Had it not been for some deep introspection that night helped by the mushrooms, I don’t think I would have come to such conclusions about how to take back my health during the pandemic.
‘For The Love’ represents a stylistic change for you as well. Has your regular live streaming changed your taste in the studio in any way, and if so, how? What else influenced the deeper sounds on your album?
Live streaming has had a huge impact on the music that I’m playing and listening to. I realize that I’m playing for a bunch of people hanging out in their living rooms and not a packed dance floor looking for peak energy, and so I started picking out tracks to fit the chill-out vibe. I wanted to make an album that stylistically represents all the kinds of dance music that I love from peak time banging tech to melodic deep house & funk.
Tying back to your efforts online, you’ve formatted a lot of your album promotion using live streaming—from road testing tracks, to making an exclusive first announcement to fans. Even though the return of events feels just over the horizon, do you foresee a larger shift in the industry around music promotion via live streaming happening regardless? How will these changes play out, if so?
I truly believe streaming is here to stay even when artists go back to gigging in real life. The connection that has been made with fans is on a whole different level. The people in the chat when I play have become friends and have truly gotten me through this whole experience. Granted, I don’t think I’ll be playing 8+ hours every Wednesday like I was doing before, but I’m definitely going to keep my show, The Lion’s Den, popping every Wednesday for a couple of hours.