Coming Up: Des Rocs at Saturn

Des Rocs and his Flying V guitar. Photoby Javi Perez
Arena-sized rock and roll—now custom-tailored to fit Saturn’s space-age stage.

On Tuesday, April 16, Des Rocs plays at Saturn, his first headlining gig in Birmingham. This engagement at Saturn comes early in his tour, and fresh after the release of his new album, Dream Machine.

The guitar-forward electric edge of Des Rocs’ music harks back to an era when rock bands packed arenas, but that’s not to say that his sound is indistinguishable to what you’ll hear on classic rock radio. Lately, bands like The Who, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam have served as new old inspirations, familiar songs filtered into his imagination to produce something fresh.

“There are acts I’ve always known and listened to, but it’s one thing to listen causally and another to really deep dive and absorb everything,” he says.

On the new album, “Never Ending Moment” begins with a suspenseful, flamenco-inspired acoustic guitar, until the full song explodes with overdriven chords and a shout that would make Roger Daltry proud.

“I Am the Lightning” bashes along with bravado, and its opening riff evokes the monstrous rhythm work of Them Crooked Vultures (incidentally, Dream Machine was co-produced by Alain Johannes, who’s previous credits include TCV).

The track is a bold, roaring example of the aggression that Des injects into his songwriting and composition, but its driving riff was plucked from his spare parts bin.

“That was a riff that I had for an extremely long period of time,” he says. “I kept trying to put it into other songs and jam it into tracks where it didn’t belong.”

As he waited for the right song for the wandering riff, Des had a drum kit shipped to his studio. Drum heads are typically detuned for shipping, and when the kit arrived, Des started playing while the drums were still tuned low.

“I just laid down the first beat that came to my mind,” he says. “A lightbulb moment happened, and I put that riff on top of it—it was just magic.”

Des attributes the perfect fit to his decision to let the song come together as it wanted, instead of trying to Frankenstein a track out of pieces that didn’t go together. “You can’t force it,” he says. “As long as you’re always working on your music, the more likely things are to fall into place.”

The artist has described his performance as “bedroom arena-rock,” as it blends the indie intimacy of cozy club shows with the high energy of a bombastic heyday rock tour. From his earliest efforts to Dream Machine, Des Rocs’ sound is a work in progress.

“You just learn a lot along the way,” he says. “I used to think that to get a big sound, you had to layer as many guitars as possible into a track. Now I do the opposite. I think some of the biggest sounds of all time are just one or two guitars, bass, and drums. Space equates size.”

That’s not to say that every show is a firing squad of electrified instruments. Des Rocs reads the room and adjusts the set and tone to fit the feel he picks up from the crowd. “The gear is always the same,” he says, “but what changes based on the room itself is the setlist and the energy.”

Even in tighter environments, Des tailors his show to make the most of each gig, focused more on engaging with the people who showed up rather than the headcount or size of the room. “You want to create a show that’s just as special as if it were totally packed,” he says. “There’s a nuance to doing that. It’s not just doing the same thing every night on autopilot.”

Des arrives with a plan, but things can change from one song to the next, and the artist goes with the flow to make each gig memorable on both sides of the monitors. “The setlist is like a railroad track,” he says. “It’s always gonna be there, so any time you want, you can get off the track and explore and feel out the different energy based on the venue, based on the people, or based on the night.”

Those memorable nights include a role opening for The Rolling Stones in 2019. It was the chance to share the bill with rock royalty, and a reminder of the glory days when rock stars enjoyed jet-set excess in exchange for their talents. “Making it” looks different for musicians now, and the exact definition varies from person to person. For Des Rocs, it’s still a noble pursuit, and while modern touring comes with challenges, it’s worth it.

“Success for a musician in 2024 is simply being able to do what you want to do,” says Des. “To live your dream—to wake up every day and create music, and to not worry about the financial aspect of things, but to really be doing it. That’s the dream.”

The songs on Dream Machine—and the entirety of Des Rocs’ output—are a testament to the generation-spanning appeal of guitar-centered rock music. They add to a canon that spans decades without feeling stuck anywhere in that long and storied past. It’s rock and roll for the present day, and an explicit rebuttal to the trite but persistent complaint that “rock is dead.”

Des Rocs by Javi Perez

Des Rocs plays at Saturn in Birmingham on April 16, and he’ll be joined by Jigsaw Youth. The doors open at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are available on Saturn’s website.

Photos by Javi Perez.