It’s just after 11 a.m. on what will soon be a 104-degree day in the Mohave Desert, the bouldered, sun-baked hills outside Yucca Valley are nearly shimmering. I just finished an hour-long conversation with the founders of a record label that proclaims “we believe in the transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll.” And, despite my flip-flops and shorts, I’m riding a dirt bike for the first time in my life.
Dirt-biking, surfing, coffee roasting, hiking, sculpting and throwing bizarre desert parties aren’t diversions for Seth Olinsky and Ali Beletic. It’s all part of the wild fun-havery of Lightning Records. And when a photo of me – looking downright confident and capable driving that dirt bike up and down the dirt road down the hill from Lightning HQ – shows up the next day on Ali’s Instagram, I’m more than just a visiting journalist. I’m part of the party.
Yucca Valley is stop number three on my six-day reporting excursion/vacation, the July heat stinging as I made my way through the Sonoran Desert to the Mohave. And to tell the truth, I would’ve have made the Lightning Records stop if I weren’t already part of the party, already on board with the mission Seth and Ali have set for themselves, already like-minded and eye-to-eye with the notion that musicians and artists and writers and adventurers of all sorts can create under the same umbrella, share with each other and push a scene that and community that celebrates all of it.
The formal interview takes place inside the house Seth and Ali have recently moved to. They arrived in the area in the winter, for a three-month artists’ residency, during which they recorded music (Seth’s Cy Dune project is among the first Lightning releases, while Ali’s album will be released later this year) and hand printed the Lightning journal, a crucial part of the mission. The hilltop house faces out over Yucca Valley, floor-to-ceiling windows offering the openness, the wide space that kept them in the area. At the table, glass atop two saw-horses, we talk about the first explosions of rock ‘n’ roll and punk, the spark that music brings, the wild, ancient spirit that rock ‘n’ roll evokes and why they’ve plotted their mission the way they have. (The story is slated as my first story for Aux.Out, the long-form features section of Consequence of Sound, the Chicago-based music site that’s been called the Best Music Blog.)
I met Seth and Ali in Tucson, where the ideas for Lightning Records coalesced, intentionally and unintentionally, around the artistic projects they had underway. I joined with them and a couple dozen others to witness (and participate – there’s no real line between the two in the Lightning world) Ali’s Pray For Rain sculpture installation, part of her series of Earth Art Ceremonies. In the Picture Rocks area west of town, they’d installed three wood-and-glass pools, sculptures that held water, a gift to the desert. The ceremony began at dust, with drummers scattered in the desert, their beats slowly building and then suddenly exploding in mimicry of a desert rainburst. As the night grew dark, the primal aspects of the ceremony became clearer, the sharp peaks, moonlit cholla spines and the silhouetted saguaros, framing the scene, this small corner of a vast and powerful world surrounding and embracing our gathering.
In Yucca Valley, I meet up with Seth and Ali just before dusk, getting a brief tour of their new home and the studios of their artists’ residency before we make our way down the road to eat and drink at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. I eat some tacos and have an area IPA before we catch the legendary Monday open mic, with a crack house band joining all manner of performers.
In the morning, it’s time for the work – the purpose of the trip – and it’s an enthralling conversation. Afterwards, though I have hours and hours of driving and work to do in Phoenix, I jump at the chance to take a spin on the dirt bike. I get the hang of things quicker than I expected, but I brought no shoes so I’m ill-equipped to do more than cruise back and forth in first gear. No matter. There’s always next time.