We went out there and had no idea what we were doing!" Mikey "Mikey Lion" Leon is reminiscing about the inaugural Desert Hearts, a Southern California-based house and techno music festival, three years ago. That event began in disastrous fashion — pitfalls included a missing-in-action sound system that delayed the start of the music until 6 a.m. and frigid temperatures that led to the group lighting a fire mid-dance floor in an attempt to stay warm.
But enduring mutual hardship forged a sense of community among the organizers and attendees, and when the festival did get back on track, the feeling around camp was one of transcendent joy. "We made it," Leon says. "We conquered the impossible. The vibe and the love that we felt that morning, it was like nothing else we'd ever felt in our lives."
Leon and his Desert Hearts DJ collective — David "Porkchop" Leon (his brother), Lee Reynolds, Matthew "Marbs" Marabella, and Ryan "Deep Jesus" Orey — have become pioneers of what's been dubbed the "microfestival" movement, festivals that bring large-scale production values to intentionally small-scale gatherings. For Desert Hearts, that means a tight cap on attendance. "We're at that supersweet spot right now with 3,000 people, and that's where we aim to keep it," he says.
"If it became a 10,000-person stage, there's no way that you would find your friends, there's no way that you would make connections with people over and over throughout the weekend. That's really the whole message that we're trying to get across — trying to create this community and family."
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Fueling the communal atmosphere is the decision to offer only one stage, creating a single locus that serves as Desert Hearts' "metaphorical heartbeat," as Leon puts it. "That's where the music is; it's nonstop for 72 hours straight, and you know that there's a really good chance your friends are going to be at the stage."
Following three years of Desert Hearts festivals and a string of successful "decompression" parties after each event, the Desert Hearts collective stepped outward this past summer, launching its first City Hearts Tour across North America.
"We have people come to Desert Hearts from all over the place, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to get together," says Leon. "A City Hearts party is much smaller but still has the same type of vibe as the festival. We bring in live artists, we bring in fire spinners, face painters, body painters — things that are fun at the festival."
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The second iteration of City Hearts rolls into Miami on Saturday. And while Miami has one of the country's best-developed club cultures, Leon and crew are shying away from that scene, hosting the event instead at Lemon City Studios. "With clubs, there's things that you can get away with and there's things that you can't," Lion says. "The more often we can go into a blank-canvas venue, the better, because then we get to turn it out and make it our own."
To make it all work, Leon and his cohorts rely on friends of the Desert Hearts family — for the Miami event, they're partnering with local promoter Sub-Motus. It's all in keeping with the principles of community and radical self-reliance that form the core of the Desert Hearts ethos. "It's all completely bootstrapped ourselves," Leon crows. "We've never had any investors or sponsors, and that's the way we intend to keep it."
It's a DIY spirit that runs hand-in-hand with Leon's mission for Desert and City Hearts. "We have a vision of spreading love and positive energy," he says. "We want to take the vibe and the experience that you would get at a festival, and we want to share it with the rest of the country."
City Hearts: Winter Is Coming Tour With Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, Marbs, Porkchop, Deep Jesus, and special guests. 4 p.m. Saturday, February 20, at Lemon City Studios, 261 NE 73rd St., Miami; 305-915-8822; facebook.com/lemoncitystudios. Tickets cost $20 to $30 plus fees via residentadvisor.net.