When I arrived, behind schedule, to a meeting with my contact who’s served as head counsel for Robot Heart since it began in 2008, we’d still not decided on a venue for our conversation. Luckily it only took us a block or two of walking through a light, late-august, mid-afternoon drizzle to “figure it out” and soon we found ourselves seated at a bar in Soho drinking Costa Rican import beer, Imperial. For the record: beer helps you not feel like an asshole for being late.

If you dig house music and have heard of Burning Man then Robot Heart is likely not a foreign concept to you. Pictures, videos and sets by the world’s top DJs recorded atop a bus fitted with a beastly all-climate sound system have been amassing thousands of page views and downloads over the last few years. The last 14 months have seen interest hit an all time high following the release of Crosstown Rebels label head Damian Lazarus’ set from 2011’s burn, along with two successful satellite parties in New York as well as activity during this year’s BPM Festival in Mexico. A few weeks before embarking on my virgin Burning Man experience seemed like as good a time as any to find out more about how a handful of entrepreneurial types built a globally relevant clubbing phenomenon out of the dust.


Photo Credit: Susi Mai

Over two and a half hours of beers, mojitos and quasi-Latin food, we chatted about the Robot Heart organization and the tremendous amount of work it has taken to make into a reality. It turns out that pushing the envelope of-off road partying in an environment as challenging the North Nevada desert isn’t really the type of thing you can just phone in. It’s not a cheap or easy endeavor and it quickly became obvious it wasn’t a concept one could completely digest from a city 2000 miles away over the course of a boozy brunch. So we wrapped things up, shook hands (or maybe I went in for the hug) and we decided to “touch base” at Burning Man.


Photo Credit: John Dill

You have to first understand the temporary city (erected, each year entirely from scratch) that gave birth to this concept in order to grasp the gravity of what Robot Heart has achieved over the last five years. On paper, Burning Man is an “experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and reliance” that just completed its 27th year. In my opinion, it’s some of the craziest, most talented, motivated, and fun people on earth working together in groups or “camps” to truck in their own customized good times and share them with complete strangers for an entire week. This manifests in innumerable iterations of pop-up bars, nightclubs, geodesic domes, art installations and customized bikes/scooters/segways. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the whole affair is the phenomenon of “art cars.” Imagine fantastic, bizarre and, at times, impossibly large objects like a full-size wooden yacht, a spaceship that raises 50 feet into the air via a giant scissor lift and a giant fire-breathing octopus that all roam the playa (as the desert is fondly known to attendees) at all hours of the day and you’ll start to get a sense of the unreality that the Robot Heart bus, or “The Bot” as it’s been lovingly nicknamed, calls home. Oh, and all of these contraptions come complete with 10-50 or more passengers partying and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. The evolution of the art car concept that’s occurred as Burning Man has grown into a global gathering is exactly what paved the way for the individuals behind Robot Heart to conceive of The Bot and all of the offshoot elements that make up their unique experience.


Photo Credit: John Dill

It’s an oversimplification, of course, to refer to The Bot as an art car, but in the most fundamental sense that’s really what it is. The actual art involved in this particular “car” can be found in the elegance that accompanies pumping best-in-class sound to hundreds of people day and night with a consistency that betrays exactly what a marvel of engineering it is to actually do so. We’re fortunate to live in a time when festivals around the world are constantly raising the bar with staggering productions and tend to take these offerings for granted. The vital difference to remember when evaluating what an achievement it is for RH to make this a reality in such a caustic environment is that no power is supplied by an electrical grid and when any of the myriad of systems involved in providing their show fails, there’s no civilization nearby that has a replacement part to get things back in action.


Photo Credit: John Dill

At lunch, their lawyer spoke with pride about the caliber of mechanics and techicians they’ve amassed over the last five years and the loads of redundant backup equipment they truck in each year. Yet it’s only after you’ve encountered significant problems with your own 2013 model RV just a couple days into the event that you start to really understand the gravity of the uphill battle they’re constantly fighting. The skeleton and engine of The Bot is a 1979 model Bristol Bus that (nearly) seamlessly runs and powers an entirely customized AV system nearly nonstop for almost eight days. The composition of the playa dust is so alkaline in its pH that it’s tremendously corrosive for both man and machine. When combined with the unpredictable winds and temperature changes it gains the insidious ability to get into, and gum up, nearly anything. If it took me a week and the diligent work of some Asian ladies in the upper east side to successfully work it out from under my fingernails you can only imagine the herculean effort it must be to fight to keep it out of the countless areas of The Bot where it could cause equipment failure.


Photo Credit: John Dill

But as the team behind The Bot wages a continual war against the elements you’d hardly know it and that’s half the fun. Everyone involved in the endeavor, from the entrepreneurs who conceived it and continue to fund it (at a loss) all the way down to the people who ensure you get a bottle of water if you look like you could use one is all there for the same reason you are: to have a good time. So, as you navigate your bike toward the giant LED illuminated heart of steel scaffolding on top of a bus in the middle of the desert, the biggest hardship you’ll face will be the challenge to select where to lock your bike so that at the end of your time there, in whatever mental dimension you happen to be occupying, you can actually find it and ride back to your camp.


Photo Credit: John Dill

It’s almost cliché to talk up the importance of bass since it’s such an inherent aspect of this music’s culture. It transcends what we perceive with our ears and actually ripples through our entire body. Obviously RH provides this in spades, and after you first become aware of the intimidating strength of The Bot’s subwoofers, it quickly becomes a unifying aspect of the experience for everyone there. But as veterans of the best dance floors in the world are aware, the importance of accurately representing all the frequencies of the spectrum is what really translates to longevity in the art of shaking your ass. While sound engineers have built careers on the best way to tune a sound system to a club’s acoustics it’s particularly impressive how RH manage to pull off the job without anything of the sort.

What’s equally impressive is the continuity of the listening experience regardless of where you happen to be oriented. Whereas many clubs sound very different depending on where you happen to be located, there’s no such perceptible fluctuation whether you’re on top of the bus, go-go dancing off of the scaffolding that crowns it or kicking it in front of the massive speaker array.


Photo Credit: Hus Navarro

So while the sound is tight and the DJs are some of the best in the world, Robot Heart owes its rampant success to many other factors. First among them is the way they’ve wholeheartedly embraced the idea of branding. One of the primary ways they’ve grown so effectively is by taking a founding principle of Burning Man itself, its gifting culture, and injecting it with steroids.


Photo Credit: Rei Yoshioka

It started the first year with a few hundred pairs of custom sunglasses and over the last five years Robot Heart’s gifted eyewear line has expanded to include several different styles for men and women and even features Day/Night ski goggles for 24 hour dust-free visibility while partying. The subsequent sharing of all of these items drives a nearly perpetual interaction between friends and strangers and fosters a familial feel for those on either side of the exchange. This ultimately translates into a viral sense of loyalty that lasts long after you’ve left the party. Beyond the sunglasses, you’ll find a Robot with a Heart stamped on the back of the speakers flinging BPMs out into the desert, waving on flags marking the RH camp and on stickers, bracelets etc. All the DJs who play The Bot are greeted with personalized pendants as thanks for their work and nearly all of them can be seen wearing them proudly for the duration of the burn. All of these items have a coveted nature since they can’t be purchased and in order to find yourself in possession of any of these things you need to get out to Burning man, find the party and make some friends.


Photo Credit: John Dill

Obviously, not every company is positioned to roll out what equates to an entire product line but Robot Heart, and the individuals behind it, represent a perfect storm of hard working and hard playing people that care infinitely more about building something truly unique than about what it will cost them to do so.


Photo Credit: John Dill

Once you’ve located The Bot on the playa and made some friends (evidenced by the particular sunglasses you’re wearing) it’s time to drink in what else you’ll likely encounter when raving with these crazy bastards in the middle of the desert. Robot Heart can always be depended on for a good time, but the dynamic nature of Burning Man itself ensures that it’s one that’s constantly being reinvented and refreshed. People arrive and depart, notable costumes appear and are gone in a flash and the arrangement of art cars and heavy-duty construction machinery that form a semi circle around those dancing is fluid and constantly changing. The Bot isn’t unlike Voltron in the way that it draws strength from those that unite with it in the interest of true epic-ness.


Photo Credit: Peter Ruprecht (also responsible for article header image)

For whatever reason, you’ll often see the moon hanging opposite the sun during many of the days. That, along with the costumes, art cars, electronic music, and hard caked dirt underneath your feet, leads to the impression many share that you’re actually on the surface of the moon. If we paused a moment to think about the reference we'd likely arrive at the “another planet” comparison but it’s best not to overthink it. It’s crazy and continues to add to the sensation that you’re a part of something only a small fraction of the world’s population will ever be privileged to witness, let alone participate in.


Photo Credit: John Dill

There is, of course, a raw sexuality that courses through Black Rock City from the start of the event to its finish. Daytimes feature far more skins than shirts, and at nights women consistently rise to the challenge of driving men (and themselves) crazy while keeping warm at the same time. On the whole, burners are well versed in the art of nearly perpetual flirtation but at Robot Heart the wheels of restraint practically fall off. Prolonged hugs, vignettes of repeatedly shared smiles, and a liberal amount of unnecessary (but awesome) physical contact in the shadow of a monstrous sound and light system set against a backdrop of strangely illuminated machines and mountains is a recipe for shenanigans any way you slice it. Interestingly, a driving factor in all of this is the feeling of fragility you sometimes encounter unexpectedly during your burn. You’re partying, dancing and sharing laughs with friends but forget to drink enough water, put on sunscreen or get enough sleep and you realize just how close you are to flying off the rails and having a problem. Throw in a hallucinogenic or two and the game is really afoot. At the end of the day everyone there is just surviving and that’s perhaps the most potent aphrodisiac of them all. Whether you’re already there with someone special or acting as a free agent if Robot Heart loves you, why not love someone else while you’re at it?


Photo Credit: John Dill

It’s only human to want to repeat something that’s amazing. Whether it’s a bottle of wine, a great restaurant or a notably intimate connection, once you stumble upon it, it’s hard to not want to go back for more. That’s likely what’s been driving the momentum behind RH Halloween party that’s been happening for the last five years in New York City. While it’s grown in scale and now includes the newly christened Copy Bus (imagine a city bus built up in a similar yet uniquely impressive manner to the original Bot), the founding principles of mobile sound and world-class production remain the same. Recent years have seen this satellite event continue to redefine outside-the-box thinking in these areas and, as a result of its exponentially expanding popularity can now only be attended through the use of carefully controlled invite codes.

Exclusivity wasn’t always necessary in the beginning, but word travels fast in the realm of good times. With this year’s event featuring Ralph Lawson, Clive Henry, Richy Ahmed, Thugfucker, Fur Coat and Robot Heart’s resident purveyors of groove Swamy and John Dill on the bill, it’s hard not for the rest of the world to notice. While it’s sometimes beleaguered as “clicky” by those with no tangible connection to Burning Man or the culture it aims to foster, the true X factor that elevates these parties is exactly the love and camaraderie that are part and parcel with having survived the elements with thousands of others in the middle of nowhere. RH hasn’t gotten to where it stands now by forgoing unpopular choices in the interest of keeping the experience it offers pure and in five years has clearly learned that too much strange at any gathering can easily tip the party scales from the side of unforgettable to blown out.

As it happens, this weekend’s “Halloween on the Fucking Moon!” is now sold out so if you find yourself without a ticket, stop pouting and channel that energy into plans to get out to Nevada next August. And when you roll up to The Bot for the first time don’t go in search of anything more than the opportunity to revel in childlike wonder as you participate with countless others in something that feels out of this world. I promise it’ll be amazing but I guarantee you’ll get something far different out of the experience than I did…and that’s exactly the point.

Listen to Robot Heart on Pulse Radio.