At 6:30 a.m. in a remote expanse of desert, house music bumps from massive speakers attached to an old bus while several hundred people cheer for the sunrise. There’s dancing, mingling, long embraces, a guy offering orange slices from a large bowl. Some people here just woke up. Most haven’t been to bed yet. It’s a party, to be sure. It’s also kind of a funeral.
This morning’s gathering is the latest in a long line of Robot Heart events at Burning Man. Since its 2008 debut, Robot Heart -- a name that encompasses the 1972 Bristol bus from which the music is played, the corresponding camp and the parties this crew throws -- has established itself as one of Burning Man’s most revered sound camps.
Robot Heart has hosted sunrise sets each morning here at Burning Man 2021, an event that was officially cancelled but which roughly 15,000 people just showed up for anyways. Those who made the trek to this so-called “Free Burn” are finding differences between it and a standard Burn: decreased infrastructure, less art, more dogs. For the members of Robot Heart, this year’s changes are particularly acute.
This past March, Robot Heart’s founder George Mueller passed away suddenly of a brain aneurysm suffered during a ski trip. The husband and father of two young children, known in the Burning Man world as “Geo," was just 50 years old.
The global Robot Heart community -- those who are members of the camp itself and the thousands who’ve been to Robot Heart parties on the playa (the name for the dry lakebed of the Black Rock Desert) -- have mourned the loss through small gatherings and online events, as necessitated by the pandemic. But even with Burning Man 2021 officially off the calendar due to this same global health crisis, the Robot Heart community has convened to pay homage to its leader here in the desert.
“There were COVID concerns. There were forest fires. There was the prospect that we’d show up and find the cops waiting for us and we’d get told to go home,” says a longstanding Robot Heart member who goes by the playa name “Johnny Nitelife.” (Many Burners used “playa names” to protect their anonymity.) “There was a distinct possibility none of this would happen. We all knew that going in, but we came for Geo, because that’s what Geo would have done.”
Based in New York, Mueller was a lighting industry pioneer. In 1997, he cofounded the LED lighting systems company Color Kinetics, where he developed new ways of using LED light. He later founded the LED technology company Ecosense. “His smile lit up rooms,” Ecosense CEO Mark Reynoso wrote in a note announcing Mueller’s death to the company. “He had an incessant optimism that made you feel unstoppable, and joy surrounded him."
Mueller was also a Burner, and in 2008 he and a group of friends first trekked to the playa as Robot Heart. Mueller was the captain, and the camp’s 1972 Bristol bus -- "this jenky old London bus that’s straight out of Mad Max and that rattles when the bass booms," says DJ Lee Burridge, who’s played Robot Heart many times including its 2008 debut -- was its spiritual home. Other art cars on the playa were newer, flashier, faster, outfitted with more lasers. That wasn't Mueller's aspiration.
"An element of George’s personality was respecting the Japanese Wabi-sabi aesthetic, that there’s beauty in the imperfections of something weathered and worn,” says a Robot Heart member who goes by "Taxi." "We’ve never sought to make this the shiniest or brightest art car. It was about trying to capture the essence of the artist and creating the best sound experience."
This sound experience has been a key driver of Robot Heart’s success during its 13 years at Burning Man. "I feel for years it was the most sought-after place to play," says Burridge. "Robot Heart came along and changed things out there. It raised the bar for art cars and lineups on the playa.”
Playing the bus is a prestige gig, with artists including Burridge, Above & Beyond, Guy Gerber, Diplo, Major Lazer, Blond:ish, Bob Moses, Francesca Lombardo, Rüfüs Du Sol, Sabo, Goldcap, Lee Foss, Tycho, Lauren Lane, DJ Tennis, Jamie Jones and many other electronic world luminaries ascending the double-decker’s dusty stairs to perform largely deep house, tech house, house and playa tech. (DJs at Burning Man are not paid an artist fee and pay their own way to the event. Many sets are archived via Robot Heart's Soundcloud.) Morning Robot Heart's morning parties typically last until around noon, when it’s then too hot to be outside. Many DJs leave with a sunburn.
Since the beginning, Mueller’s vision for Robot Heart was creating a pristine sonic experience, achieved through an ever-improving soundsystem and the bus’ placement on the fringes of the typically 70,000-person event, where sound had nothing to bounce off of. The intention, says Johnny Nitelife, was “getting away from the Burning Man city and going out to where DJs could play quietly, and you could have moments of silence or quiet, ceremonial music. If you try doing that in the city on a big soundstage there are so many neighboring sound camps going 'boom, boom, boom' and it doesn’t translate. You have to bring it out here.”
These quiet moments have helped give sets at Robot Heart a delicacy, emotional depth and sound purity that’s made believers out of many Burners. "See that guy in the blue shirt?" Johnny Nitelife says, pointing into the crowd from on top of the bus during Friday morning at Free Burn. "There is one spot where the sound is perfect, and that’s usually where you’ll find George. In the sweet spot, listening to his sound system."
Many people here still speak of Mueller in the present tense. They talk about his sense of humor, his ability to not just be creative but to execute on that creativity, his appreciation for communal effort. "We’re not a plug and play. Everyone in our camp works," says Johnny Nitelife. "Geo was always the first person to say that if someone came and didn’t do their work, it didn’t matter how much money they had or how hot they were -- they didn’t get invited back the next year. That’s what’s makes our camp work.”
They talk of his ability to bring eccentric people from many places and lifestyles together under the Robot Heart banner, how the community he's formed doesn't just party together at Burning Man, but shows up for each others' weddings, births of children, group vacations. They talk of his enthusiasm for music, food, travel, his friends, family and life in general. Burridge recalls one Burning Man where Mueller had a full conversation with a cardboard cutout of himself, and the year Burridge was playing Pachanga Boys' "Time," a song Mueller loved so much that he took over the decks and played it on repeat — for an hour.
"I actually felt he was there," Burridge says in the days following Free Burn. "His essence and laugh and silly things he used to say, one being him always calling me 'Leebot,' just seemed to swirl around us all."
While temporary restrictions issued by the Bureau of Land Management (or BLM, the government agency that controls the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man happens) banned art cars from being at Free Burn, for Robot Heart this wasn’t an issue as the bus is street legal. The vehicle is stored in nearby Gerlach when it’s not on the playa. The camp also reduced its footprint this year due to BLM restrictions.
Burridge wasn't initially planning to attend Free Burn, making a same-day decision to travel from Arizona to the playa to be with the Robot Heart family and to honor his friend. While several core Robot Heart members had to miss Free Burn due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, for those who could get to the desert, it was vital to show up, pay tribute and simply be together after the loss, particularly after the forced separation of lockdown, which for so many has been an excruciating time to mourn.
“It was a really emotional morning though,” Burridge says. “I laughed and cried and hugged and heard and told stories.” Burridge and other Robot Heart-related artists are currently working on a project featuring tracks related to Mueller. Tributes during Free Burn included longstanding Robot Heart DJ John Dill sampling Mueller's voice in a track, ("Oh wow," Mueller said over the music. "Oh wow.") and a fleet of drones forming "Geo" in the sky above the bus.
All Robot Heart events are essentially celebrations of life: of having the good health and good fortune to experience the psychic nourishment of dancing to deep house at dawn in a big silly coat with your friends. George Mueller didn’t invent that model, but with Robot Heart he arguably evolved it, providing sublime moments to countless Burners as he simply explored and executed the things that gave him joy. This year these celebrations were fused with mourning. The Robot Heart story is now embedded with loss. At Free Burn, most everyone at Robot Heart danced in spite of that. Or maybe because of it.
On Friday at midday when the music finally winds down, Johnny Nitelife takes the mic: “I just want to say that human beings are on this Earth for a very short while,” he announces to the crowd, "but ideas, thoughts and dreams can live forever, and I’m somewhat positive that these experiences, this ethos, this dream, this community, could potentially last forever, in which case Geo would last forever."
In this case, forever continues tomorrow -- when everyone shows up again to greet the sun.