As soon as I started working on this, it became clear that everyone has had many different experiences, nearly all positive, when they venture out to the grounds of Coachella, the yearly juggernaut that shapes the rest of the music world. To better build this article, I spoke toa few regular attendees of the festival on its impact and the feelings most associated with the fest. During my time talking to Frank, Becca and a reddit user known as COAchillENT, terms like exhaustion, dehydration, sinusitis, and psychedelic bliss are all mentioned. In 1999, the festival scene was little compared to the many enormous festivals typically hosted every year now.
Woodstock had just happened, and well, you know the rest of that story. After the debacle of that festival, Paul Tollett, founder and head booker of Coachella, was rightfully nervous. Regardless though, a festival happened that year, and over the course of the next two decades Tollett and company changed the festival landscape forever, but it all had to start somewhere.
The polo grounds in Indio, California, are a splendid landscape of perfectly maintained grass, mountains in the distance, palm trees lining the grounds, and three weekends a year populated by a crowd of die hard fans and others eager to see what the weekend will bring to them. Once you go(as i did in 2006), it all makes sense. As Jamer Mercer of the Shins said during their Coachella debut, “ the Hype is Real.” Becca Skaparas, a fan from Dallas, Texas puts it like this: “I still remember the experience of showing up nice and early when the fest opened on the first day. I'd take off my shoes and walk on the polo field grass with my bare feet. The best. It's why we were "weekend one or bust" folks once the fest went to two weekends...that grass was just not the same after a weekend of people walking all over it! I wanted virgin grass under my feet on that first day!” But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
Over the course of the festival, many highs, lows, disasters and unexpected surprises dazzle and disappoint, but everyone knows the stakes are high. Yes, there are many other festivals, but only at Coachella is it likely for a career to be made or unmade based on how you perform. That phenomena wasn’t there initially at the beginning, but with the likes of Tool, Rage Against the Machine, and a reunion of Jane's Addiction at the top of their lineup during the early years, the festival was already situated in an enviable spot to compete when the festival battles began years later, with each one trying to outdo each other with a better lineup. Oftentimes, and this is still true somewhat, for alternative fans and people more inclined to underground music, Coachella routinely has the best lineups for people willing to expose themselves to things they wouldn’t normally gravitate to.
In 2001, when Jane's Addiction headlined, the idea of a band reunion was still a very big deal, and Paul Tollett knew it. Having barely scraped by in 1999, and with the festival unable to be put on in 2000, it made sense that Goldevenvoice, the company who produces Coachella, got a big reunion. Perry Farrell agreed to help his friend out and reunite the original lineup, and in a way helped to form the legend of Paul Tollett as a master negotiator. . Early on in the festival, reunions were one of the biggest reasons to attend, with the likes of Janes, Iggy and the Stooges, and many others joining together again for something special in the desert. Since the first year, more than 30 bands have been reunited, with varying degrees of success. Now while Janes was the first, it wasn’t until the Pixies reunion of 2004 that people started to recognize how special the festival could be. Broken up for nearly 20 years, the band joined together and delivered a mesmerizing performance that would in turn propel the band to hit the road again, and to eventually make new music.
But, like I said, some reunions didn’t quite hit in the way they were hoped. For every successful reunion, like the Pixies, there’s a band who had their moment and couldn’t capitalize on their resurgence. Bands like the Verve, Stone Roses and even Sly Stone have been lured back to the stage(whether through a direct coachella reunion or just a tour), but they couldn’t reignite in the way that proved to be so important for other reunions. Sly Stone is especially a source of muck and mire for regular attendees. His 2015 set was widely panned in the media, with the Guardian going so far as to call his set “an abysmal, confused set,” during which he routinely threw shade at former associates, and continuing to ask his band how long he had to be on stage to get paid. I wasn’t there, but there wasn’t a glimmer of excitement or optimism once the set began, based on what I've read and a quick google search.
Now, reunions are big news, but you still have to create a cohesive, interesting lineup. After the 2001 addition, it was yet again another difficult task to get the fest properly put together, but as they mentioned in the recent “Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert,” the more they did it the better they became at it. Although the lineup included Oasis, Foo Fighters and the Chemical Brothers( for their third straight Coachella appearance), none of those could contend with the excitement of welcoming Bjork and her icelandic magic to the Polo Fields. Also it's worth pointing out that while other festivals still aren’t, or are just now hosting female headliners, Coachella did it all the way back in the early aughts. Watching the clips and reading about it, you can easily find evidence of her commanding set. It’s noted that she wasn’t expecting the crowd response she did, but in delivering an early legendary Coachella set, she solidified her unique position as an Avant Garde alternative master, as well as upping the ante.
The year is 2004, and it's going to be my first Coachella. After months of planning, and deciding to go alone, a personal issue came up in my life, thus making me miss something that became a real moment in the festival's history. With the likes of Pixies reuniting, not to mention sets from Radiohead, The Cure, and Kraftwerk, it turned out to not only be the first sell out, but the 2004 lineup cemented their place in the world of festivals. Talking to Frank Mojica regarding the 2004 year, he says “I attended my first Coachella solely to see Radiohead, but it was seeing the Pixies reunite as the sun went down in that open desert sky that made me want to return the following year, which obviously turned into many more years.” It's easy to forget now, but that was also the year the Flaming Lips premiered Wayne Coyne’s trademark bubble. Seeing it the first time on tv days after the fest, it became clear to me, that not only did I miss one of the most amazing lineups I’d ever seen in print, but also that I had to get there to experience what all the fuss was about. 2004 ultimately became the year Coachella threw on their giant big boy pants and made a concrete name for themselves.
The years followed, gradually growing bit by bit, and the lineup year after year deliver the kind of groundbreaking, progressive programming the fest had become known for. 2005 saw Nine Inch Nails reunite for a tour and hit the fest, while reunions from Bauhaus in 2005, Massive Attack in 2006, and the surreal Arcade Fire Coachella debut all bolstered the legitimacy of solid foundations of lineups from year to year. Then, the year 2006 comes, and the festival again tops itself, although it wouldn’t be until the completion of the festivals first day on Saturday where the true impact of a performance could be measured and used to pinpoint a moment in time.
What I’m talking about, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, was the performance of Daft Punk in the Sahara tent. All day had been spent meandering the grounds, soaking in my first Coachella experience, but after performances from Eagles of Death Metal, Depeche Mode, Sigur Ros, and a surprise Kanye set, the moment had come. I remember the tent being packed, and the anticipation still lingers in my head, even as I'm typing this. It’s important to note that before this performance, electronic performances weren’t full of the visual spectacle associated with the genre now, but with their performance in 06, the game had changed, and the genre would never be the same.
The show is the stuff of legend, with people like me continuing to feel fortunate enough to see this moment transcend anything the fest had done before. Even with performances from Tool, Massive Attack, not to mention a unique dance set from icon Madonna, no one could talk about anything but the two french robots who dominated the weekend and blew everything else away. As Frank says, “Coachella itself had transcended to another level, and we could all feel it. I wasn’t even a fan at the time of Daft Punk, I was just there out of curiosity, but being in this most epic of dance parties definitely did it.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the big early selling points of the fest was the inclusion of long sought after bands and artists. The ability of Paul Tollett to lure bands back into the light is unparalleled, and when looking back over the lineups, it becomes obvious quickly how important that was. As of this writing, more than 50 bands have been reunited either for coachella, or have included stops on their reunion tours. Some of those, like the Verve, flop, or you get the Cocteau Twins, just for them to burn into the air before they even get to the festival. Some, like Daft transform the festival, while even others like Mazzy Star, Refused, or My Bloody Valentine, leave old fans and new alike being moved by music they may have only known because of the high profile bookings and billing.
Still, there’s been plenty of acts who once given the chance to capitalize, aren’t able to do so. Outkast, and Cee Lo Green, both booked over the years, weren’t able to make the stage work to their advantage. Green, who was so late to his own set he nearly didn’t perform, hasn’t been the same since. Outkast on the other hand, weren’t good during their weekend one performance, but one could argue they didn’t really need to sound as good as possible, simply because they are OutKast.
One of the major foundations has been the graduation of bands, if you will. It happens over and over again, and it helps the experience in a multitude of ways. First it's cool to see a band like the Killers, who were once the very last name on the poster end up headlining years later, knowing the band had put in the to get the higher booking. Acts like the Killers, Phoenix, Tame Impala and especially the Arcade Fire perfectly exemplify that mentality. All of those bands were made bigger by the genuine nature of their music, sure, but it's the unknown factor that makes the jumps in popularity more apparent. You never quite know how a crowd will welcome a new, less tested band, but in the cases mentioned, those initial performances made it possible for them to get the attention they rightfully deserved.
Festivals change and alter over time just like everything else. In this way, Coachella is the same. Until 2007 the fest had been two days, but when the lineup featuring Bjork, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a newly reunited Rage Against the Machine had been announced, it also featured a new day, the Friday, to make it a full weekend party. Added on top of the extra day was a new art installation by Lucent Dossier, which gradually brought the art aspects to the center of the festival planning. The year was a huge success, with a full sellout happening and everyone walking away feeling as though something special had yet again transpired in the April dessert of indio California.
Over the next years,Tollett and company built gradually bigger events than anything done previously. From the years of 2008 to 2010, Coachella was the undisputed king of festivals, which isn’t hard to see why. Roger Waters playing a Pink Floyd set was a game changer for booking legacy acts, not too mention stunning sets from Portishead, Kraftwerk again returning, Gorillaz, Jay Z and Muse in 2010, and the incomparable Paul McCartney, who was at that point the biggest entertainer to ever be booked. But again, none of those came with the type of excitement brought by Prince. While Macca and Waters are huge, they routinely tour, thus the special feeling is diminished slightly. On the other hand, Prince, who made a career of doing whatever he wanted, was on a whole different level. Announced only 3 weeks before the fest, and knocking down original headliner Portishead, there were plenty of reasons to be pumped. Among regular attendees, the Prince set was a milestone in the growth of Coachella, and cemented them at the fest who could get anyone. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned it in high regards with the other obvious game changing sets.
You might wonder, just how does Tollett do it, year after year? It’s not easy, and it takes more than one conversation to get these big acts to commit. Sometimes, like in 2012, a last minute change throws everything off, and of course the time is ticking away. Back in 2012, it wasn’t ever supposed to be Dre & Snoop. Instead, Black Sabbath had signed on, but as the unveiling date of the lineup inched closer, suddenly they were out. Tony Iommi, legendary Sabbath guitarist, was battling cancer, and thus couldn't commit to playing.
This is where Tollet thrives, with his knowledge of the industry, and the finesse it takes to convince artists to take a chance on what could be a legendary set. It was the same in 06 when Daft Punk was convinced to play, but even the Punk performance didn’t end up matching the star power of the final night of Coachella 2012. Dr. Dre, long sought after and considered a trendsetter for the hip hop he helped create, announced he’d be headlining with none other than Snoop Dogg. What happened during the set stands as a Coachella crowning moment, with not just Dre and Snoop, but also with guests like Eminem, Kendrick, 50 cent and tons more to elevate the twice in a lifetime moment. Even with all of those acts sharing the stage, it ended up being compared to the surprise they had cooked, and for many was overshadowed.
Having a hologram of the late Tupac Shakur was never something anyone expected. Even without the hologram the show was excellent from most of the accounts I’d heard, but that hologram was next level bonkers, and after that, the fest was never the same. From 2012 on, it became how do they top themselves.
In the years following the first double weekend, the bar continued to be raised in a myriad of ways. The grounds became larger, new stages and tents were added, bigger stage presentations became the norm for most acts on the bill, and well, Coachella changed again. For years the fest was rooted in the type of music elitism and heavy rock that old school 90’s kids like myself could thrive in. With reunions and rare appearances by the likes of Portishead, Rage, Prince and many others the festival bridged the gap between the music of our heyday as well as welcoming new, exciting sounds that people normally wouldn’t seek out. Like life and everything else however, things change and motivations change and people go in new directions. This is true even for Tollett and Coachella.
All of that changed in 2018 when the Queen of popular culture arrived, and yet again the fest was never the same. Beyonce as she's known, is the type of act that rarely comes around. She’s able to bring in soul to modern urban music, while still making music vulnerable enough to reach the often unsatisfied masses. Except no one left that set unsatisfied. Bey’s performance isn’t just the most recently lauded performance on a list of staggering performances, it's a watermark for where the fest, and popular culture is at that moment. For nearly two hours she captivated an audience of over one hundred thousand. The reviews were widely glowing, and after a false start the previous year, Beyonce had arrived, and left every other act in the dust. No one in 2018 mattered except for her, and it was obvious.
In recent years, the biggest news surrounding the festival hasn’t been the headliners, or the unique rare sets, or even the beauty of the surroundings. Instead, many people have derided the death of the old Coachella, and in a way it makes sense. When people start going to something, and liking something, a certain kinship and relationship is formed. People like me and others I spoke to for this piece, have one, aged out and began doing more normal things like full time jobs, marriages and family and are less interested in the recent line up. It's understandable, and sad, but naturally the type of fan base who excitedly hurries to a festival to see acts like My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and others aren’t gonna find much to get excited about when those noteworthy acts are replaced by Arianna Grande, Blackpink and others.
It’s not to say those acts aren’t worthwhile or entertaining, but well, you get my point. It didn’t matter though that people like myself, Frank and Becca had outgrown a festival, I had only gone once and while I'm always hopeful that I’ll return, the fest has changed so drastically it continues to be up in the air. Again though, credit where it's due. Tollett and the brains behind Coachella saw a change in the musical landscape happening, and in the same way the rockers made the pilgrimage to Indio, now pop kids were venturing out to see the newest and exciting non rock music around. There was plenty to take in, and the festival for the first time was selling out not just because of the lineup, but because it had become the place to go for people of a certain age, just like it was for myself. You feel like you have to be there, and once you arrive, nothing is the same.
In the end that's the legacy of Coachella. Going to a place with friends, seeing incredible acts, whether its pop royalty, some alt rock reunion, or anything in between. Like tollett has said routinely, the great thing about Coachella, and festivals in general, is that your fest can be different from anyone else’;s fest, just based on what a person likes or doesn't like. So whether the headliner is Beyonce, or Rage, or Tool, or even Bjork, you know you're going to be able to find something that will allow you to live, even briefly in a world where worries are short and the potential for a life changing moment are ever present.
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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