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Rock's Not-So Secret Musical Hideaway: Rancho de la Luna

Rancho de la Luna neon sign | Kim Stringfellow

Ted Quinn related to me not long ago how Rancho de la Luna — the acclaimed High Desert recording studio responsible for its mesmerizing output of eclectic sounds produced from Daniel Lanois to Victoria Williams to Queens of the Stone Age — first materialized when Fred Drake spotted a sign listing ‘THREE HOUSES FOR RENT’ off Highway 62 in Joshua Tree. The two were just heading back to Hollywood in a friend’s borrowed Jeep after a much-needed desert sojourn in early 1993.

Fred Drake playing guitar on the front porch of Rancho de la Luna. | Courtesy of Chrissie  JT Wilson.
Fred Drake playing guitar on the front porch of Rancho de la Luna. | Courtesy of Chrissie JT Wilson.

So, on a whim, they pulled off the highway to view three small houses on a 65-acre open desert property. Drake, being rather capricious, was immediately smitten with what he saw. He announced that he was going to establish a live-in studio within the larger, middle abode even though he lacked a car. The compound’s owners, quite happy to rent the place to eccentric artists, settled the deal then and there.

Several days later Quinn agreed to go along with Drake’s impulse even though he was concerned with the idea of relocating to the edge of civilization where progressive medical care was most likely lacking (Drake had already been diagnosed with HIV by that time and was participating in experimental drug treatment at USC and other Los Angeles area hospitals). Plus, the idea of living two and a half hours west of the edgy music and arts cultural scene where they both thrived creatively and socially seemed daunting to say the least. Still, they ended up moving out to the High Desert within a few weeks.

Front door at Rancho de La Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Front door at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow

About a month later, mutual friend and writer Francesca Lia Block of “Weetzie Bat” fame, using her advance from her upcoming book deal, rented the second house. The third was rented by recording collaborator Fred Burke, not as a residence but as a guesthouse for visiting artists and musicians coming out to record with Drake. Here, Drake, Quinn, Block and their ever-expanding circle of friends would cultivate a creative sanctuary and where visiting musicians, artists, performers and waylaid troubadours could converge, hang, party, chill while taking in the alien desert landscape in all of its intensity and color. Over time, it was apparent to all involved that Drake’s intuitive determination to relocate to Joshua Tree and set-up a recording studio deep in the magical heart of the High Desert was the most perfect thing to do at the time. Quinn describes those early years as “a renaissance—an incredible time” for all of them. The Rancho continues to attract a veritable and impressive roster of musicians and singer/songwriters to this day.

Dave Catching’s Oldsmobile ragtop at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Dave Catching’s Oldsmobile ragtop at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow

Quinn first met Drake by sheer coincidence in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. Drake, a cowboy/Beatles fan originally from Houston, had just arrived in Hollywood after driving out from Texas to take drum lessons from Terry Bozzio. It was a fluke that Drake ended up auditioning as a drummer for Quinn’s then band, Telekin. Without hesitation, Quinn and his band mates hired him on the spot — not realizing the guy scheduled to audition had been running late that day. From then on Quinn and Drake became close friends and musical collaborators along with Robert Allen Floyd in their band Ministry of Fools. The two would also make numerous trips out to the High Desert together when they could afford to do so including the fateful trip that brought them to the future Rancho de La Luna in 1993.

By the late 1980s, Fred had stopped drumming altogether after HIV complications requiring surgery made it difficult to do so. Instead, he took up songwriting, singing and sound engineering, all of which he excelled at. In Los Angeles, Drake had gained a reputation for his music engineering skills so when their friend Dean Chamberlain was selling a 24-track Tascam along with some other recording equipment he jumped on the opportunity to purchase the gear and bring it out to his new studio out in Joshua Tree. Still, Drake needed someone to share in the start-up costs.

And by fate Drake found a business partner in musician/producer/artist Dave Catching. Drake had worked alongside him at Dean Chamberlain’s Dominion Sound in Hollywood. Catching, originally from Memphis, had been living and playing guitar with various bands including Tex and the Horseheads in Los Angeles for most of the 1980s but decided to pursue his other passion — cooking — by opening a cafe in New Orleans in 1992. About a week after Catching had relocated out there, the call from Drake came asking him if he’d like to invest in his desert recording studio. Costing only $3000 to do so, Catching jumped at the opportunity imagining that he’d only spend a few months out of the year recording out there. But as bad luck would have it a fire destroyed the restaurant not long after it opened. Because the building owners lacked insurance, Catching’s Louisiana-based culinary endeavor was cut short.

Dave Catching at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Dave Catching at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Drum kit at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Drum kit at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow

After the fire and Drake’s offer, Catching circled back into playing music after sound engineer Patrick “Hutch” Hutchinson suggested to him that he should go on tour with Palm Desert’s stoner rock band Kyuss — whose DIY outdoor “generator parties” are now legendary. With all of these pieces now falling into place, Catching began spending more and more time out at the newly christened Rancho de La Luna eventually forming the psychedelic-leaning band earthlings? with Drake and Peter Stahl in 1994.

Very early on, the Rancho gained a reputation as a roughhewn but serious High Desert hideaway/recording studio after celebrated producer/musician Daniel Lanois moved his entire studio from Baja up to the Rancho in 1994, while the building his acclaimed Teatro studio in Oxnard.

Lanois’ then sound engineer Trina Shoemaker — a renowned music producer in her own right who had earlier apprenticed with Drake in L.A. — raved to Lanois about this scrappy studio out in the High Desert. Drake was ecstatic when got wind of Lanois’ interest to check it out. The timing was perfect — Drake and Catching had just acquired their equipment but hadn’t set anything up yet so they welcomed the opportunity to not only record with Lanois’ world-class setup but to collaborate with him musically. Catching says that these early sessions recorded with Lanois at the Rancho are among his personal favorites.

Dave Catching at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Dave Catching at Rancho de la Luna | Kim Stringfellow
Rancho de la Luna's kitchen | Kim Stringfellow
Rancho de la Luna's kitchen | Kim Stringfellow

Beginning in the 1990s, the Rancho served as the confluence for musicians, artists, film makers — basically any creative person visiting the area. As Quinn explains, “You didn’t come out to Joshua Tree and not visit or pay their respects to either Fred [Drake] or Dave [Catching].” Besides, the only other action in town other than the hardscrabble JT Saloon was the Beatnik Lounge, where Quinn began his eclectic open mic night featuring local musicians such as Mark Olson and Victoria Williams. The two had recently moved to Joshua Tree along with others who were just starting out. Catching relates, “The fact that there still is not a lot to do here or distract you adds to the creative environment. One can hunker down and just create here.” Catching shared some of the songs that have been recorded at Rancho de la Luna, which you can listen to on the playlist to the left.

When the Pappy Allen of Pappy and Harriets’ Pioneertown Palace died in 1994, Williams asked Fred if she could come over to record a song to memorialize Pappy. Williams would later recorded her 1998 “Musings of a Creekdipper” with Trina Shoemaker acting as an engineer at the Rancho.

Drake and Catching would each invite their musical collaborators and friends out to the studio. Catching’s connections included Josh Homme from Kyuss and Chris Goss who came up with the name for Queens of the Stone Age while lounging on the couch at the Rancho. The Desert Sessions, where various musicians including heavy hitters such as P.J. Harvey and Mark Lanegan casually get together to write songs on the fly and captured in one take sometimes aided by “mushrooritas” and/or other illicit substances, began in 1997 and has continued to develop over the years. Catching even described Drake once riding his Arabian stallion, Kashmir, into the studio during a Kyuss session to the amazement of everyone present. Drake would continue to make and record music here including “Twice Shy” (2001) until he died of cancer on June 20, 2002.

Catching affirms, “This is a really special place. This house in particular is very good for creative souls. A lot of children have been conceived here and my child is one of them. So many people have been inspired to create music and art here.” Notable artists and bands that have recorded here include Iggy Pop, Foo Fighters, Fu Manchu, UNKLE, The Duke Spirit, Mojave Lords, Eagles of Death Metal, Masters of Reality, Arctic Monkeys, Bingo Richey and others. Anthony Bourdain shot an episode of “No Reservations” featuring Rancho de La Luna in 2011. The studio was the focus of the fifth episode of Foo Fighter’s HBO series, “Sonic Highways.”

After Drake passed, Catching along with Drake’s collaborators including Ted Quinn, Fred Burke, Anthony Scott Mason, Dean Chamberlain and Billy Bizeau shared in jointly running the studio until 2004 when Catching moved into the Rancho full-time and took over studio operations. He continues to live, play cook, write, produce and record here. Today, the Rancho serves more like a “writing studio” where mostly close friends and associates are invited to jam and continue to make hard driving music out in the otherworldly High Desert.

Rancho de la Luna tape vault | Kim Stringfellow
Rancho de la Luna tape vault | Kim Stringfellow
Rancho de la Luna's outdoor bar | Kim Stringfellow
Rancho de la Luna's outdoor bar | Kim Stringfellow

Rancho de La Luna is hosting a fundraiser at Pappy & Harriets on Saturday, September 16, 2017 for Eagles of Death Metal/Mojave Lords bassist, Brian O’Conner who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. The show will include Rancho recording artists Mark Lanegan, Chris Goss, Mojave Lords, Bone Acre and very special guests. $50. Doors open at 5 pm. All ages. Tickets available online.

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