DJ Lee Reynolds is a grandpa who parties harder than you, and he won't apologize for it
When most people imagine the typical DJ or rave-goer, they don't likely picture a 47-year-old grandfather. But Lee Reynolds, a DJ and co-founder of Desert Hearts music festival, has been a fixture of the Southern California dance music scene for decades now -- and he's seemingly just hitting his prime.
Reynolds co-founded Desert Hearts in 2012, when it started as a 200-person party in the lush forest of Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. Attendees still flock there each March, decked out in trippy cosmic patterns and fake furs. But now the attendance numbers 5,000, and thousands more support the Desert Hearts brand by going to their "City Hearts" events across the U.S. and adorning clothes and merchandise with the heart-shaped "DH" logo, which Reynolds designed himself.
The British producer, endearingly referred to as "Papa Lee" by his Desert Hearts compatriots and fans, has quite the backstory. He moved to California when he was 17 to become a professional BMX rider, and once did a magazine shoot with Spike Jonze that ended when he knocked his teeth out. Unfortunately, that dream was ultimately laid to rest by a series of grotesque ankle injuries.
Reynolds then threw himself into the local rave scene, and found his calling as a DJ. He's also worked in graphic design and co-owns a couple of boutiques with his wife, Zoe. More than anything, he says he wants to show people that you can age gracefully and still have fun.
Reynolds dropped his new EP The Seven Principles on July 18 with fellow San Diego local Rex Memo, and the entire Desert Hearts crew (Reynolds, Mikey Lion, Pork Chop, Marbs) is slated to play an extended set at Splash House music festival in Palm Springs from August 11-13. "Papa Lee" took some time out of his busy schedule to reminisce about the genesis of his underground crew and his winding path from BMX cover boy to beloved psychedelic techno icon.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
AOL: You helped start the Desert Hearts festival 5 years ago now. What were your expectations for it, and how have things changed in the years since?
LR: We've always gone with the flow and never had any one-year goals or two-year goals that'd prevent us from doing it naturally. We didn't start it as a business, we just wanted to throw a really fun party for our friends in San Diego because there wasn't much going on at the time.
That first year, the odds were against us -- we almost didn't have a sound system because our initial guy flaked out at the last minute. The conditions were terrible; it was like sub zero at some points. But the energy was just amazing. From the first one, I knew that it was gonna be something magical. Even though it was only 200 people or something that small, it spread through word of mouth and the family has grown really organically. We wanted to create a place where people could express themselves and not have to worry about getting stuff stolen or getting beaten up. That stupid s--- doesn't happen at Desert Hearts. It's all about love and treating people the way you want to be treated. Yeah, we get crazy out there, but it's a respectful sort of crazy.
AOL: At Desert Hearts events, the performers are very much one with the crowd. People are coming up on stage and partying right next to whoever's DJing. Why is that aspect important to you all? Have there ever been logistical issues with that where the venue doesn't want it happening with things getting a little too wild on stage?
LR: For sure there are some venues [that take issue]. But only a couple have really put their foot down and said no. Because people know that's our vibe. Like when we played Exchange [in Los Angeles] a couple weeks ago, that was for sure the most people they'd ever let on stage. It was wild. But that's what we want. We never wanted to have a VIP area or bottle service — anything elitist, I'm not into. I like to party, I like to dance, but I hate the seclusion [of some events]. I hate when they disconnect the DJ from the audience. It's not the same, I want to be right there with everybody.
AOL: There's no real break at Desert Hearts festival. It's constant music the entire weekend, even in the wee hours of the morning. How do you guys pull that off?
LR: We have really good stage managers. We have a great crew at this point. That's made it so much easier for us. At the first few, we were out there days before building s---. At this point we have a pretty good infrastructure and good crew that's done it before. It's hard, especially for me because I'm 47. I definitely can't stay up for 3 days.
AOL: But everyone always tells stories about you leading the charge!
LR: I do, I do. I go as long as I can and end up passing out in random spots. Then, everyone takes pictures of me and posts them like "Lee Reynolds does really sleep!" At the last one, I'd been on a good one all Saturday night. So I went to sit down in the green room for a few minutes in the corner and close my eyes. Two minutes later, Mikey runs in and says, "The paramedics are on their way dude! Are you okay?" And I was like, "I'm just sitting down!" People are used to seeing me moving, so if they see me sitting down and not moving, they just assume I'm dead.
AOL: Well, you were told you'd never walk normally again after your ankle injury that made you stop BMXing, which was your first career. What was that stage of life like, after finding out that news and realizing you'd have to find another way to make a living?
LR: My life had always been on a very upward trajectory until that point. It started with BMX, and I got as far as I could with that in England. Then I made the decision to come here to California, where I got sponsored by a dream company. I did a summer tour of 40 states, which was amazing. I was riding the best I ever had been, I was just a few weeks away from the final contest of the year and having a contract, being on salary and potentially having a signature bike that year.
Then, the girl I was dating at the time, we went out and got really f***** up on vodka. I still am careful with that sh** because of this. I'm really careful with hard liquor, that's the one thing that's f***** me up so many times. Anyway, I woke up with this horrible hangover, but I'd scheduled this shoot in Riverside with a BMX magazine. I ended up doing something really stupid, just really stupid, went up the side of the ramp and [gestures with his foot, winces]. They said just the skin was holding the foot on. The ankle shattered. Everything was broken all the way through. Put 15 screws and 2 plates in there. They said I'd never walk normally again.
But it got better and I started riding again years later. I went to the X Games, where they're supposed to be the best. But I looked at some of those guys and said, "I could still do better than that!" Sure enough, I started riding the halfpipe. Then I broke my leg again -- right where the old [metal] plates ended, right above where it was before. So they just extended the plates. After the second time I broke it is when I really started focusing on DJing and producing.
AOL: How did you get into the scene? Do you remember the first rave you went to?
LR: Well I definitely went to a couple of warehouse raves in England before I came out here. But I didn't know much about the music at the time. I think my friends and I were even making fun of it, like "bloop, bleep bloop!"
So after I f***** up my leg the first time, I went back to England for a little bit, then realized I wanted to be back in California, so I came back in the early '90s, and I wasn't ready to jump out of the BMX industry. So I was actually doing high school assemblies, doing like BMX shows for the D.A.R.E. program. I had a partner for the show; I did the ramp and he did the flat land riding. We lived together and we'd literally be out raving all night, then almost go straight back to the assembly. We were all being slightly hypocritical with our message [laughs].
AOL: That's really quite the crossover event with D.A.R.E. They were really trying to make that program cool for all the kids.
LR: Yeah, yeah. I had to be like, "There's no possible way I could be doing this right now if I did drugs!" And meanwhile, we'd all been...
AOL: ...But, "I am."
LR: Yep [laughs]. So that was in the early '90s. San Diego had a really vibrant rave underground scene. Doc Martin was down there every weekend. And Mark E Quark has always been a San Diego old-school legend. And he was a friend of mine. I remember actually being in the DJ booth and seeing him mix two records together. Prior to that I was just dancing and never really thought about it. But seeing what he was doing I was like, "Oh okay, I get it -- he's actually adjusting the pitch of the records."
After that I got my equipment. Mark E Quark worked at the local record shop, so he turned me onto some records. I was way more into the ambient kind of chill-out stuff back then. A lot of the raves in San Diego had chill out rooms for people to go and relax, so I'd DJ the chill out room. Then I started getting into more dubby sounds and making people dance. I realized it was cool helping people chill out, but I really liked making people dance. From there, one thing led to another.
AOL: Unlike the other guys in Desert Hearts, you have a wife and kids and even grandkids. What do they think of what you do and your lifestyle?
LR: Yes, my stepdaughter, the eldest one is 28. She has three grandkids. Then Zoe and I have a daughter who is turning 21 next weekend. She's super into music, she's got a band. She's at UC Santa Cruz, a year away from graduating.
The eldest daughter, I think she has issues here and there with my lifestyle. But we always get over it. I've always been open with them because I'm totally not embarrassed about anything I do. Not at this point, anyway. I've been doing this for so long. I haven't hurt too many people along the way, I've made way more people happy.
And ironically, I just went to the doctor to get a physical. I was with her and she asks if I smoke. I say, "cigarettes, almost a pack a day." She asks how much I drink. I say almost a 6-pack a day. [I tell her] I smoke weed. Didn't tell her any of the other stuff, though. [laughs]
AOL: It does feel weird, coming clean on everything about your life. Even when it's your doctor.
LR: Yeah! And this doctor, she even seemed pretty cool. She was younger than me. I told her I was a DJ, we were talking about that. So maybe she knows anyway. Anyway, I went back a couple weeks later. And she tells me "Mr. Reynolds, whatever you're doing, keep doing it!" I'm like, "you don't even know what you're saying right now!" [laughs] So, I was like, okay, I will.
I always think about how your state of mind and conscience affects things. I think everything is all about how you perceive it. If you're a guilty eater, you'll get fat. If you're a guilty smoker, you'll probably get cancer. Some people smoke and live to be 100 years old. So I don't worry about that stuff.
AOL: Alright, let's get into some quick hits to wrap things up.
LR: Let's do it.
AOL: Tough one to start out -- favorite set you've ever witnessed. The one that sticks out the most.
LR: [long pause] It's definitely about feeling the moment with sets, more so than the music, for me. One of my favorite moments was at the last Desert Hearts, with Oona Dahl. She was after me, and I was on the perfect wavelength after my set [laughs]. So that was pretty magical. But favorite set ever... [long pause]. Kenny Glasgow played with us in Brooklyn for our last City Hearts show there and he really killed it, I loved that.
But it's really hard for me to pick favorites on stuff. When people ask "What's your favorite color?" ... Me being in graphic design forever, I'm like, "How can you have a favorite color? They're all so beautiful!" So yeah, it is always just about the moment for me and how the set makes you feel.
AOL: Favorite festival munchie?
LR: [long pause] I guess, uh ... weed edibles? [laughs] It's funny 'cause everyone is always trying to get me to eat at festivals. Someone will shove something in my mouth and it'll take me 15 minutes to chew and swallow when you're out in the desert. Actually, smoothies are a godsend at festivals. Easy to get down. I'll go with that.
AOL: Where was your first set? Do you remember where that was?
LR: It was at this ambient party. Essentially this house party that had a dojo in the back. Me and my friends had this little ambient set we'd been practicing. About 30 people were lounging around on acid. [laughs]
AOL: Favorite venue to play?
LR: I would say at the moment my favorite is Public Works in San Francisco. They've always been so good to us. They have a great sound system, too.
AOL: Favorite album?
LR: If I had to choose one, of all time, it'd be Disintegration by The Cure.
AOL: Favorite city?
LR: San Diego. That's why I'm living there.