'Papa' Lee Reynolds Talks Desert Hearts Expansion, Spirituality & the Trap of Normality

Lee Reynolds
Galen Oakes

Lee Reynolds

Desert Hearts co-founder Lee Reynolds on the festival's international expansion and being a father figure

It's just past 9 a.m. on a Sunday as the sun slowly ascends over the verdant landscape of Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, a sacred terrain that every spring serves as the go-to host of Desert Hearts Festival, Southern California's annual "house, techno, love" affair. Event regular David Scuba is halfway through his early morning set complemented by the sound of champagne corks popping.

It's day three of four on this 96-hour nonstop voyage of tech house rhythms. Festival co-founder Lee Reynolds is still awake and riding high after his midnight set, shouting and chanting at the picturesque cerulean sky with his hair disheveled, voice rasped, and squinting eyes and arms raised high. A few dozen others are left on the dance floor but festival-goers approach "Papa Lee," as he is often fondly referred to, offering items such as water, beer, cigarettes and, if they dare, conversation. In the midst of an enlightened mental state, Lee obliges because, well, shit, cigarettes are an in-demand commodity at a remote camping festival. He embraces each patron with a sweaty hug and a piece of everlasting advice, followed by his signature wide smile outlined by a great white beard. The Gandalf of dance music could make you forget World War III is likely imminent.  

Porkchop, fellow DH co-founder and DJ/producer, was later heard backstage telling Lee, “Last time I saw you on the dance floor you were having a six-hour orgy with the sun gods.” Lee’s response: “Yeah, it was pretty epic."

Lee will be the first to admit he hasn’t quite "grown up" by society’s standards, but that’s a paramount reason why his family, friends and newfound legion of admirers resonate with him. Plus, he can DJ with the best and out-party any vape-smoking, champagne-chugging twenty-something.

Told by doctors he would never walk normally again after an ankle injury nearly 20 years ago, the 47-year-old former BMX pro, and proud longtime raver, has lived multiple lives, endured highs and lows and raised a family to top it off. However, his thirst to continue experiencing the oddities of his existence is setting a new standard of livelihood among the Desert Hearts congregation. The forested dance floor is a place of worship for Lee - an opportunity to spread his decades-worth of knowledge, both in life and music, while learning more from younger generations, many of them half his age. Simply put, Lee doesn’t comprehend impossibilities; he’s living proof anything and everything is possible.

Billboard Dance spent some quality time with ‘Papa’ himself for some better insight into the otherworldly anomaly known as Lee Reynolds.

The Desert Hearts Festival and its community have grown dramatically in a short amount of time. What do you think is resonating? 

Well, I think primarily it’s because we didn’t start DH as a business venture, we just wanted to create an amazing environment where our friends and family could really express themselves. We’ve always approached everything with an open mind and with good intentions and I believe that it makes a huge difference, and our family know that about us. We’re not hiding behind the scenes counting money, we’re on the dance floor having fun. From the beginning, we decided that DH was going to be a love movement and all the hard work is coming to fruition. We couldn’t be happier! We added 1,000 more tickets this year, and the fact that there were no major medical or security issues is a true testament to the kind of people that come and celebrate life with us. So, a huge thank you to everyone that made it possible this time, we have such an amazing crew and attendees!

How do you feel spirituality is adopted into the Desert Hearts community? Do you consider the festival a Burning Man-inspired event?

I’ve only been to Burning Man a few times but I’ve been going to desert parties in Southern California since 1992, so while the Burn is hugely inspiring it’s never been something that we are trying to replicate. My belief is that when you focus enough pure energy and love in one spot you can really create magic, so we’ve always been about the one stage bringing everybody together. No separation, no VIP (although we do have an artist/staff area now as people travelling in for the event need a place to relax before and after their sets). No elitism. We all party together as equals at DH. People have either been really receptive to the message or disregard me as some crazy old kook that’s done too many psychedelics, I’m OK with either, but the truth is that I want to make people think and not blindly accept everything that’s been drummed into them their whole lives. I want people to know how easy and magnificent life can be if your intentions are good, you treat everyone the way you want to be treated (even better), and then all you need to do is add a little elbow grease and your dreams will literally unfold before your eyes. Trust me, just don’t try to manifest personal wealth. You’re wasting your time.


When was the moment you became more spiritual?

I’ve questioned reality as long as I can remember and have always been obsessed with the true history of mankind and the true nature of human existence. When I first destroyed my ankle riding BMX in 1989, they [doctors] told me that I would limp my whole life so I built an exact scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza that fit over my foot to channel the healing energy and I’ve never limped! I’ve always known that there’s way more to life than we are conditioned to believe. So I’ve always been on a spiritual path. Luckily I was raised with zero religion imposed on me so I’ve been able to form my own conclusions based on what I observe. I’ve lately discovered some things that I believe can really change the world for the better, so now I’m focusing everything I’ve learned about manifestation to that goal.

You are obviously close with all of the co-founders but there seems to be a father-son dynamic between you and Mikey Lion. What's one key thing he's taught you?

I think that Mikey, Marbs, Porkchop, Kristoff and I have all learned so much from each other. We all add something unique, and we’ve all remained the best of friends - brothers - since the start. However, I can’t deny that Mikey and I have a special relationship, like we’ve experienced life together before in some way. He’s helped me find balance, given me a renewed vigour for DJing and producing and made me realize it’s OK to be successful, which in turn is helping us spread this message of love that I’ve always yearned to do. Connecting with Mikey and the rest of the boys will go down as one of the key moments for me in this lifetime. I would most likely still be throwing 100-person nights at local dive bars had the universe not brought us together. I’m beyond thankful and try to express that in some way every day.

Adorned in his trademark peacock-feathered steampunk hat, Mikey chimes in on the interview, nicknaming Lee “Old Sweaty Bastard.” He adds: “I literally get to travel with my best friend aka Grandpa Joe around the world and document him acting crazy. I sent him a video the other day telling him to watch it when he gets bored and he responded ‘what’s ‘bored’ mean?’ That sums him up perfectly.”

You have become a party legend and father figure to many within this dance sub-culture. Do you feel pressure to uphold certain values since many young members in its community look up to you?

Haha, yeah, I guess. I’ve become some kind of weird role model, or someone that people in their 20s and 30s can look at and realize they’ve got a lot of life left in them if they choose. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of normality, to forget about your dreams and succumb to the pressures of this fucked up society that we live in. That’s exactly what they want. As soon as you give up on your dreams and start feeding the mouths of the rich and greedy you’re already dead. Live your life to the fullest, experience everything you can with an open heart. Even what might seem like a bad experience is there for you to learn and grow from. The better job you do of appreciating everything that comes your way the more amazing things will come your way. If we’re not here to have fun and enjoy this miracle that we’re living then why are we here? I always say that being a human being right now on Earth (we’ll leave my Earth theories for a future talk when people are ready) is like winning the cosmic lottery. Being alive right now is such an incredible blessing, and so many people can’t even get close to their full potential because of all the repression in the world. It’s time for change and if I have to be the one to put myself on the line to make people wake up then so be it.

You recently posted about going to a doctor's appointment after a long while and the doc gave you a perfect bill of health. What's your secret ingredient?

Honestly, I wasn’t too shocked. Even though I lead a fairly hedonistic lifestyle, I do it respectfully. I’ve had this theory since I was a kid that everything in our known reality is made up of the same basic parts, so they can only be as good or bad for you as you believe. If you feel guilty about smoking you’ll probably get cancer, if you feel guilty about eating you will most likely gain weight. I don’t feel guilty about anything. In fact, I’ve never felt better in my life! The doctor’s exact words were ‘Mr. Reynolds, whatever it is you’re doing.. keep doing it.’ I’m literally under doctor’s orders to party my ass off every weekend. So, the secret ingredients: love, empathy, compassion, and the knowledge that you control your reality, your mind and your body. Think good thoughts and good things will happen, it’s that easy. If I drop dead tomorrow disregard all that. Unless it’s the powers that be silencing me like they do so many free-thinkers, then I need you to stand up for love.


How do you define happiness? Moreover, how do you live it out?

Happiness is what every single person I’ve ever met strives for yet so many never really find it. They’re conditioned from an early age to believe that the way to achieve it is through financial success. I’ve done the career thing and the year I made the most money working my ass off for a large corporation was the year I was the least happy, and ironically got in the most debt. Love makes me happy. When I look at the network of loving, caring, open-minded people that I know now from my years of traveling and entertaining people (first with BMX and now DJing) I feel like the richest person in the world. Everyone I meet has the same core values that I do, so where is all the hate in the world coming from? In my opinion, it’s just fabricated by the government-controlled media that want to keep us in a constant state of unrest. The most simple thing that I already mentioned is just to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Smile at everyone, hold the door for everyone, if you’re familiar with the butterfly effect you’ll understand that even the smallest gesture of kindness can go a really long way. People are taught these days to be smart and use their brains, which brings me back to my obsession with ancient Egypt and the advanced knowledge that they seemed to possess. Did you know that the Pharaohs mummified their hearts for the afterlife but threw the brain in the trash? It’s because they knew that it was just a tool to process this reality. Real ideas and intuition come from the heart. So my best advice is to listen to your hearts and ignore your brain sometimes. Give it a try, it’s been working out fantastically for me!

Any chance of a DH festival overseas? Also, rumor has it there may be a City Hearts festival in Los Angeles...

Our goal has always been to spread love. We could easily cash in on DH but it’s never been our intent, which is why we’ve decided to make the festival at Los Coyotes and annual event so we can focus on spreading our wings. We feel like the message that we have is so important for mankind right now that we literally have no choice. So we’ve been testing the water in other areas with our City Hearts parties to see where it would be best received. It turns out that’s everywhere, so now we’re talking about where we could potentially do smaller versions of the festival to start out. I’m sure something amazing will manifest itself this year. In the meantime, we are going to do a two-day City Hearts Festival in Los Angeles this Fall that won’t be as limited capacity-wise as the festival. We really want everyone to have the opportunity to experience this. Magic is real and we are going to prove it to you.

The Desert Hearts crew will embark on their 2017 International Summer Tour with stops in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Colombia, Ecuador as well as Oregon Eclipse Gathering and What The Festival. For tickets and more information, visit their website.


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