by Ashley Naftule
Ken Layne has the kind of voice that any aspiring storyteller would sell their soul for. Layne’s voice rolls out of speakers with a wry, sagacious warmth. It isn’t hard to imagine him hunched near a campfire, telling ghost stories, or telling a deadpan story about landing a mermaid while shooting the shit with the old timers at a bait & tackle shop.
Layne is the brain behind Desert Oracle, a one-stop shop for stories about the weird and wooly American Southwest. His weekly podcast uses atmospheric music and field recordings to give his stories of Southwestern murders, desert mysteries, small town legends, and cryptid sightings an extra bit of spooky oomph. Layne also publishes a print journal of Desert Oracle for folks who want to carry their Southwestern arcana around in their coat pockets.
Layne is bringing the Desert Oracle experience to the Valley this week: he’ll be hosting a live version of the podcast at Valley Bar tomorrow on Friday the 13th. The Boxhead Ensemble, Jason Patrick Woodbury, and Brendan Maze will be joining Layne onstage.
I got a chance to interview the Desert Oracle jefe a few weeks back. We talked about old nature pamphlets, Boron town legends, and the Mogollon monster. “Let me know if you’re having any trouble hearing me,” Layne says when I get him on the phone. “Earlier today, someone was saying it sounded like I was underwater, which I’m not. I’m out here in the Mojave, very far from water.”
For Ken Layne, the desert is always close by.
Ashley Naftule: So I wanted to start off by talking about the live show you’re doing at Valley Bar. How do you translate the Desert Oracle podcast experience into a live setting?
Ken Layne: Let me know if you’re having any trouble hearing me. Earlier today, someone was saying it sounded like i was underwater, which I’m not. I’m out here in the Mojave, very far from water.
Sounds good to me.
The show is kind of audio theater, in a way. it’s very atmospheric. The whole thing is layered with ambient music that’s done by a ambient composer here in joshua tree called RedBlueBlackSilver. Then we have field recordings and strange animal sounds. It’s meant to be experienced when you’re on the highway in the desert, ideally coming across it by accident. As you used to be able to do in the desert when there was more small town, independent radio stations. You could drive around at night and just pick up weird stuff—you could listen to it for an hour or two and have no more an idea of what’s going then you did if you just found it.
So for the live show…. I do a different live show depending on the venue. I do campfire stories around a campfire at the Ace Hotel here in Palm Springs like it’s a ranger talk at a national park. I’m in a ranger uniform—the whole deal. There’s kids, I talk about murders and discovering bodies and UFOs—and the kind of the stuff you’d hear at an actual desert campground ranger talk about wildlife, the animals, how not to get lost and die on the trail.
For the nightclub shows—we’ve done a couple of these. They’re a little more performance-y. We have callers like on a call-in, late night show like Art Bell. They’re there on stage and we’ve got this weird old payphone on a stand and they’re under a light on the opposite of the stage like they’re standing on the highway at night calling for help or something. And we have music. I do stories and monologues. That kind of thing—it’s atmospheric, deset folkloric.
Since you brought up the late Art Bell, I was wondering what kind of influence he has on your work. Are you a fan of his show?
It was such a part of being out on the desert in the 1990’s, in particular, because often that was the only thing you could get on the radio. Long before MP3 players, iPhones, or satellite radios. Your options were cassettes or CDs on the seat next to you, and you reached for them in the dark hoping it’s the right one. And then there was what was on the radio, and what was on FM was few and far between in the desert. So you had to do AM, and on AM you had country stations, ideally like a truck driver’s country station with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. Or you had Art Bell, who was blasting out of Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. These things would kind of bounce off the atmosphere at night and the range would be extended terrifically.
So it was very much a part of the atmosphere of exploring the desert. Whatever you were doing—driving to a national park, camping—you’d have this voice describing all this weird stuff while you’re out on a two lane looking out at the skies… And the show was live. And occasionally, like during the Phoenix Lights, that was all live on Art Bell. That whole event. Because he was on the air, up in Pahrump, Nevada, and calls started coming in from Henderson, Nevada. Just south of Las Vegas. Calls from all these people seeing these monstrous things in the sky over the highways. And then slowly, over the course of several hours, the sightings spread from southern Nevada to the Grand Canyon region. Then he started getting a ton of reports from Prescott and Glendale and Phoenix. The Phoenix Lights covered way more than Phoenix—the last sightings were in the far south of Sonora, Mexico. So this whole thing is playing out while people are out on the road, scanning the skies.
So yeah, it’s a fantastic southwestern mood and ambiance. That scratchy AM radio—that’s all over the Desert Oracle radio show.
One of the things that I find fascinating about what you do is that you don’t offer any of the articles you run in the Desert Oracle journal online. Everything you put out is print only. What inspired you to take that stance?
I’ve worked full-time on the Internet for many years. And when I burnt out on that—I used to run a politics site called Wonkette out of Washington… One thing as a writer that I just never got used to as the Internet went from more of a limited audience (as it was in the late nineties to early two thousands) to mass media is that you had people reading your stuff in bad faith. You know they weren’t interested in it, they weren’t interested in the writing, they were looking at it exclusively to make a comment. To make a political point about whatever their thing was.
I just found it toxic and contrary to the pursuit of writing as an art—as opposed to dribbling information out, which is more kind of journalism. Breaking news, variety journalism.
So when I left that stuff and decided to start this operation, I did not want anyone in the audience who was not there because they were interested. I didn’t want any drive-by readers.
I didn’t want comments; I didn’t want social media. I wanted it to be something that existed because you paid five bucks and this was your thing. Something you can hold in your hands: a tactile, physical artifact. And it gives it also a feeling that you’re in a secret club because you can’t read it on the Internet.
When’s the next issue coming out?
Number eight is next. That has a very Arizona connection there. It’s a special issue we’re doing with Back of Beyond books in Moab, Utah, for the 50th anniversary of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. So that will be out in late summer and then nine will be out around Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The aesthetic of your journals—that stark yellow and black design—reminds me of when I used to work at a bookstore and customers would sell us these old scouting and nature pamphlets-
Yeah! What bookstore did you use to work at?
I was at Half Price Books for about five years.
Yeah, you get it. That’s exactly it. When I was first exploring the desert on my own, there were these small press field guides that were published all over—in New Mexico, Arizona, a bunch in southern California. And they’d be stuff like ‘Jeep Roads of Death Valley National Monument’ or ‘Old Mines of the Superstitions.’ They’d usually be saddle stitched or folded with staples because they were done locally by these local printers. Who’d set the type and everything. They tended to be one color—one color ink for cover and inside. And the color on the outside would be this colored stock like, you know, desert colors—a sand or a sandy beige or an orange or a yellow.
I’ve got piles of these things. That’s a terrible weakness that I got. I buy all that stuff. I bought them when I was young and they were just $3 or $4 at the rock and mineral shop in some small town somewhere. I have a horrible habit of going into bookstores that I serve with the Oracle in the area, and I’ll go in with $50 worth of Oracles and then see something I have to have and I end up walking out with even more desert field guides from the 50’s-70’s. That golden age of desert regional publishing.
So yeah, that was an intentional design choice. I wanted to have this mid-century look—lots of blocky San Serif fonts and Futura fonts. And this pocket guide kind of thing. I actually size the Oracle: it’s a little smaller than most of those guides you usually see because they were folded eight and a half by 11 or 11.5. But the Oracle is a little smaller than that. If you’re wearing pants with back pockets it’ll fit perfectly in your pocket.
For the subject matter you explore on the show and in the journal, do you get most of that from your own research? Or do people reach out to you with stories and lore they’ve uncovered over the years?
There’s a bit of both. Often I have things that I wrote years ago that I’ll go back to. I did a column about the Mojave for Los Angeles CityBeat for a couple of years. It was years ago—they’re long out of business now, like most alt-weeklies. I’ll go back and pull those things out sometime. I almost always end up rewriting them entirely… It’s more in a kind of deadpan narration. Which is just more fun to write and certainly more fun to read.
People do send in tons of stuff. Desert Oracle has become this kind of cult. It was a Millennial desert visitors thing over the last couple years, which is great because you want readers, you want an audience, but the real treat is about it is that I also have a lot of elderly readers. Elderly desert rats who keep all this stuff. I’ll go to the P.O. Box in Joshua Tree and there’ll be these big manila envelopes filled with all this weird stuff. I find that I can use about a tenth of it because I typically have one major theme for each radio show episode and the magazine—I write about 70% of it. I find it easier just to write about whatever I’m interested in at that particular day. But I have ended up using a lot of the strange things that people dig up.
Those tips you get—do you screen any of them if they don’t seem credible? I know when Art Bell did his call-ins he didn’t screen his callers. Do you ever find your bullshit detector going off when you’re sorting through the stuff in your P.O. Box?
It really depends. If it’s history, it often ends up being these really small town stories. I did this story awhile back for the radio on this guy I had never heard of. He lived around a Borax mining town, Boron, north of Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave. Walking George was his name. He was just this fantastic character. He worked at the Borax mine as a chemical engineer. Anytime he wasn’t working, he walked across the desert. Like he’d get off work at 4pm on a Friday and put on his walking boots and get his hat and he’d go walk Death Valley. 50 hours, back and forth.
He was a real guy, and through learning about this story I found out that there’s a little museum in Boron where they’ve got his boots. So I went out to the Boron local historical society museum and there’s these size 14, leather army boots with the leather blown out the side. And he was a classical musician—he played organ at the church even though he was a staunch atheist.
So you get things like that you just otherwise would never encounter. And as for stories and people’s personal weird experiences: I haven’t had anyone that it seemed like they were trying to pull something over on me. I’ve gotten a lot of oddball tales, like a dog man and a UFO and, uh, what’s the one up on the rim there? By the Navajo reservation?
The Mogollon monster?
Yes! The Mogollon monster. I’ve got stories about that thing smashing into people’s campgrounds when they’re scouting as kids. Personal stories like that are all about the person telling it because obviously you can’t prove anything like that. And I’ve found that the older people who have these stories from long ago are anxious to share these weird old memories with somebody who won’t call them crazy.
Well, Ken, that’s all I got. I hope you have a great show at Valley Bar.
I did a Valley Bar thing for Bar Flies about three years ago. I told some weird story about my uncle in South Phoenix growing pot when I was a kid. In his greenhouse that was hidden from the neighbors and the passing helicopters. I had a great time doing that, and I was amazed at how they packed that place for spoken word. You do spoken word in Los Angeles, you might get twenty people. So it was nice to have this big drunken summer crowd, laughing and hollering. Hopefully it’ll be something like that again. And it’s followed by goth night!
Maybe there’ll be a little overlap there.
I hope so. I hope to bring some goths into the fold. Because there’s really nothing more goth than the American desert at night.
For more on Ken Layne, visit his website and check out Desert Oracle Radio. Desert Oracle Podcast (Live!) is happening on Friday the 13th at Valley Bar in downtown Phoenix. Doors at 7, Show at 7:30. Tickets are $8 and available via Ticketfly.