Back in the late '80s and early '90s, there weren’t many places for live rock 'n' roll in California’s Coachella Valley. The dearth of venues in cities like Palm Springs and Palm Desert forced bands to hold shows out in the surrounding sand dunes. Out of these “generator parties”—so called because musicians needed generators to power their amps—emerged a low, massively heavy sound that became known as “stoner rock” or “desert rock.”
Brady Erickson, aka Life Leone
, grew up around the nearby town of Joshua Tree. He considers the desert rock sound “a reaction to the environment, in a way.”
“The low end in music, when you’re playing outdoors around nothing but sand, just goes away,” he explained. “You have to vastly overcompensate on the low end. And so you would end up with these bands with their guitars tuned down and then just trying to pump as much low end as they possibly could into the music.”
Life Leone’s music draws proudly upon the desert rock tradition. His new EP, Comes Crashing In
(Wild Farm Records, July 2013), melds the genre’s buzzing, down-tuned guitars with catchy indie-pop melodies. Boiseans will get to hear this blend on Saturday, Feb. 15, when Leone and his band play The Crux with local openers Virgil, Leaf Raker and Fiddle Junkies.
Born in Laos in 1980—his parents spent a few years there aiding refugees from Cambodia’s bloody Khmer Rouge regime—Leone spent much of his childhood at Rare Earth, an arts commune north of Joshua Tree. His first guitar lessons came at age 11 or 12 from visiting English musician Nicky Hopkins, who played piano on such classic rock albums as The Who’s The Who Sings My Generation
and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street
“This guy Nicky was hanging out with my folks, and he’s like, “Let’s do this; let me show you the guitar.’ … Maybe that was the first time I just sat right in front of somebody who was playing guitar and really kicking ass at it,” Leone said.
More musical epiphanies came during Leone’s high school years, when the Palm Desert music scene was gaining momentum thanks to seminal desert rock bands like Fatso Jetson and Kyuss (which featured future Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme on guitar). He would play drums for two years in Slo Burn, which was fronted by Kyuss lead singer John Garcia. After Slo Burn broke up in 1997, Leone moved to Los Angeles, where he played off and on with the indie-pop group The Ross Sea Party from 2009-2013.
In many ways, Life Leone—who now lives about 50 miles northwest of Joshua Tree in Lucerne Valley—has come full circle with his current project. Comes Crashing In
combines Slo Burn’s heaviness with The Ross Sea Party’s tunefulness. His debut gig under the new name was an opening slot last September for John Garcia’s band Vista Chino (formerly Kyuss Lives!).
The name “Life Leone” itself comes from a childhood nickname. Leone’s great-grandfather Lief Leone Erickson lived at Rare Earth near the end of his life.
“He was a pretty spirited fellow, and around the commune, they called him Life Leone,” Leone remembered. “I tagged along with him until the end, and they used to call me Little Life.”
Leone decided to return to the desert after living in Vietnam for about a year repairing and reselling Soviet-made guitars. “There was just sort of this intangible appeal [to Vietnam] for me,” he said. “It was the combination of the mythical elements of Southeast Asian culture and then also the harsh reality of the war that happened there and some of the American history that’s kind of woven into the place.”
But he noticed that, “there’s maybe a more distinct sense of local culture and local music [in foreign countries], and it starts to make you ponder what that is to you—what’s your local music, and how is that woven into your fabric maybe more than you ever realized?”
Leone won’t be playing any of the guitars he fixed, though. He enjoyed fixing them, he said, but “they all sounded like shit. They look great, and there’s a cool history behind them, but the Soviets, they can’t really make a good rock and roll guitar.”
With his (presumably) American-made guitars and his new band, Leone is playing a string of dates that will stretch from San Antonio, Tex. to Seattle, Wash. Once he returns to California, he hopes to record and release another EP by July, following that with a summer tour.
Since Leone started playing in bands, music in the Palm Desert region has blown up. Coachella Valley Weekly
music writer Robin Linn said that the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—and the thousands of people who attend it—are “definitely, definitely putting a lot of light on the Coachella Valley music scene. … I couldn’t even attempt to see a tenth of the bands that are out there right now.”
But Linn and Leone agree that the original desert rock sound is still going strong.
“It’s funny—Coachella’s probably got to bring in a $500,000 sound system… and I think you’ve got the local guys going, ‘Hey, we already figured out how to make it sound good outside for, like, $200,’” Leone said.