A kind of dawn

As the pandemic shroud lifts gently from live music, Desert Dwellers are ready to plug back in and coax the vibe and transport the faithful. If, maybe, a little less obsessively

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Courtesy of Pivotal Agency

Last December, Desert Dwellers (Amani Friend and Treavor Moontribe) released a three-hour video stream set, captured last summer in a verdant clearing in the trees somewhere west of here, garnished with visual effects and tree-bedecked dronescapes framing the two producers under a small shelter. A little Buddha statue grinned knowingly in front of their rig.    

A gifting gesture, quite obviously, for their homebound fans, and hey, even last summer we were all ready to get out of the house and play. Composed largely from the duo’s recently completed three-volume set of remixes of their landmark Breath release, Friend and Moontribe drifted effortlessly through a lengthy and exquisitely tempered set, characteristically lithe and deeply invested in their earthy, gently seductive vibe. 

And they didn’t know at the time — no one did — that they were only halfway through this pandemic thing, so a successful sabbatical-breaking moment for the duo probably landed as a sustaining event for their live-gig-deprived fans. COVID was the only thing on tour in 2020.

A break can be a good thing if well timed, but kind of a drag if uncooperatively long.

“To be truthful,” Moontribe says, “both of us were pretty burnt out on traveling so much when COVID hit — we were already talking amongst ourselves about taking some breaks, ways to be a little more picky about the shows we take. … So, in a way, it helped us achieve that without having to say no to a lot of promoters.”

Turning down work, even if you feel like you need to, isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do. 

“Yeah, it’s hard to do,” Moontribe says. “You don’t want to pass up opportunities. But when you’re traveling as much as we were — and we don’t travel as much as some artists do, I don’t know how they do it — it was really tiring, and our approach to touring in the future is definitely going to be different. Do things in little sections, then maybe take a couple of months off… we’re not going to go as hard as we did.”

And that, by itself, is a signal of having crossed a threshold. Desert Dwellers, birthed from the southwest desert raves of more than 20 years ago, have established themselves as essential producers, easing effortlessly through trance, tribal, bass and psychedelic colorations without sounding forced or stiffly performative. Vibe and color, nuance and tenderness. In some ways, they have defied the skepticism that once shaded the burgeoning EDM scene. And with more than two decades of original music and countless remix projects, they quietly display their own longevity as evidence of the wider scene’s durability, and can maybe afford the indulgence of sitting a few gigs out. 

“I think the real blessing is, it’s not a trend,” Moontribe says of the EDM scene. “Like hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll – neither of those are going away any time soon, and neither is electronic music culture. It’s multi-generational: here’s people like me who are approaching 50, people who are 60 and older, and all these young people in their 20s and teens who are finding it, and that’s really awesome.”

We wondered if the duo, with such a lengthy tenure and abundant catalog, ever felt some sensitivity or caution about repeating themselves — that kind of ghostly specter that haunts developing artists who travel long roads in their respective genres and release a lot of material. There’s a balancing act involved in managing this, of course; a fanbase grows up around an artist’s aesthetic framework, and you’re never sure if chasing your musical instincts can disrupt that paradigm. 

Then again, there’s a trust involved in pursuing your instincts and embracing restlessness, and an honestly pursued exploration across genres means following your inspiration and letting the fanbase take care of itself.  

“With our last album, Breath, we intentionally went into the kind of slow-tempo house music realm, completely different from our Great Mystery album before that,” Moontribe says. “And a lot of that was due to not wanting to repeat ourselves. We could have made another bass music album and maybe appealed to more fans, but I feel like with the Breath album, we gained new fans.”

And then, especially in the EDM world, add the dimension of remixes. Handing off pieces of a song, just pieces, to another producer results in some hybrid creation — part original artist, part interpreter — that gets absorbed as a collaboration. In the end, whose is it? 

In a sense, it almost doesn’t matter. Where the original artist’s work ends and the remix artist’s work begins is the alchemy, and alchemy is one of the scene’s essential bodily fluids.

Is there a set of unwritten rules or a kind of etiquette involved in handling remixes? 

Moontribe has to think about that a bit.

“I think everyone kind of has their own rules and etiquette around that.

“For us, when someone asks us about doing a remix, before anything we have to listen to the original track, and feel like there’s something we can do with it that’s going to be really, really great, but different from the original, and just as good or just as powerful.

“For us, every remix album has benefitted us just as much as it’s benefitted the original artist,” Moontribe adds. “Some of those tracks have gotten us some of our largest amounts of streams, and those artists have been able to grow because of their affiliation with us, and vice versa.”    

ON THE BILL: Desert Dwellers. 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. April 17 and 18, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, bouldertheater.com. Tickets start at $55. (The April 17 shows were sold out at press time.)

Some essential listening, and some nonessential

Someone once observed that electronica was music without a memory. We’re not sure if that’s true, but in any case, we thought we’d get Treavor Moontribe to riff on a few of electronica’s best known (and maybe overlooked) pioneers. (And no, we did not ask about Bassnectar.)  

Juno Reactor: The first vinyl I ever bought as a DJ was the Juno Reactor album from 1994. Hugely influential. They crossed over (into the mainstream), and for an act that was based in psytrance, especially at that time, was really unheard of. It was a very underground genre, and kind of still is in some ways.

Banco de Gaia (Toby Marks): His music was a huge part of the Moontribe scene and the parties that we did in the desert in California in the ’90s. We have a remix of Banco de Gaia out there — “All Sleeping” was the track. “Last Train to Lhasa” is one of the best electronica songs of all time. 

Steve Roach: Steve Roach is more on the Amani [Friend] side of things, as far as inspiration goes. Steve Hillage (System 7):  Not a big part of my listening. I do have pretty much all the System 7 stuff. For me, I think their earlier acid house stuff was my favorite.

Daft Punk: I appreciate what they’ve done. They command nothing but respect — I mean, they practically invented that kind of disco and house music… I get why they were so popular, but it’s a little more on the commercial side, just not something I listened to very much.

The Orb (Alex Paterson and others through the years): When it comes to psychedelic, [The Orb is] one of the most influential for everyone, right? And even their new music is killer. It’s just so weird and so experimental. And totally unique. … It’s almost unplayable. It’s meant for people tripping. It just is. And if you’re not, it’s kind of too weird.