Two weekends ago I attend the second weekend of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio California. What started for me as a road trip to see the Rage Against The Machine reunion with three friends/co-workers has turned into an annual pilgrimage to the desert polo field to see one of the premier festivals in North America. 2016 marks the 10th straight Coachella I have attended.
What will this article have to do with Victoria? Absolutely nothing other than as the person who runs this website, I went to the festival and was granted a media pass to cover it.
Through the ten years I’ve gone to the festival I have seen capacity increase from 50/60,000 to more than 100,000. I have seen more stages added and existing stages increase in size. The festival grounds have expanded and flush bathrooms have been added. I’ve seen legends perform and also relative unknowns before they became stars. I’ve captured moments that have gone viral and even one that was “TMZ worthy.”
Here is a look back at my experience at this year’s festival with some perspective on how things have evolved in the last 10 years.
This was the first year I can recall metal detectors being used at the security check point at the entrance. Usually there’s a physical pat down and a bag check. Security check seems to be different every year. One year it’ll be so lax that you can practically get anything into the venue, the next they dig in every nook and cranny of your bag. This year happened to be the former. Walking through the metal detector was pretty much a non-factor if you had no loose change or anything in your pockets. The bag check was surprisingly basic at the entrance I went through. Previous years security has literally rummaged through every pocket feeling for anything out of the ordinary. This year? just a quick glance and on your way. One random hilarious story from 2007… Driving to the festival there’s police stationed at various roads around the festival grounds and there was this one officer on a road leading up to general parking that was waving his arms quickly making people drive faster. It’s the one time I’ve ever seen law enforcement encouraging people to speed.
This is the first time I ever applied for media accreditation for Coachella so I was curious about what the media area would be like. The tent itself is situated within the main grounds tucked between the Gobi and Mojave tents which is a relatively central location for the five main stages. Perks included ice cream, water, free lockers, flushable porta potties, wi-fi and a few couches in addition to standard tables and chairs. It was a pretty chill environment. I didn’t really talk to anyone in the media tent. I mostly used the space to get out of the sun, grab a refreshment and get back out to the next set.
One massive change this year was that no one was allowed apply for a photography pass. This was a major disappointment for me. I’m a photographer. My reason for applying for media accreditation was to be able to bring my dSLR and take photos, but the new policy was that the festival was only allowing their own team of photographers and that media would have access to photos from that photo team. Oddly, I was never told where to access the photos. It also seemed strange looking at the photo pit during the first three songs of each set and seeing maybe half dozen photographers. I made due with my semi-pro point and shoot camera and taking photos from near the front at most sets, but an ultimate dream for me would be to be in the photo pit of a Coachella stage. The one silver lining to not having my dSLR was with all the dust flying around it probably would have been problematic to my gear, especially if I wanted to change lenses.
The artist compound, where all the trailers many of the performers use to prepare/relax has gone from what was once a relatively open layout where you could see most names on the trailers and artists and their crews hanging out to what is a now more privatized clusters with guarded entrances. This is likely due to more attendees with the coveted ‘artist’ or ‘guest’ wristbands that allow access to the compound. It’s now more of an escape from the masses on the main grounds than a place to spot celebs and rockstars. Back in 2011 I got a photo with Arcade Fire’s Wynn Butler on his birthday and in 2012 I spotted Josh Homme and The Hives’ Pelle Almqvist in the compound. I remember asking for a photo only to have the two of them completely ignore me. The free water and ice cream you can get back there is a bonus.
The backstage access has also tightened up heavily over the last decade. Attending in 2007 – 2010, being able to be on the grass directly behind each stage wasn’t hard to manage. As the capacity of the festival grew the immediate backstage areas have become more and more restricted.
The main stage setup this year was in a word, incredible. The LED screens were massive and wrapped around the entire stage. Looking back at my first Coachella in 2007 and its modest screens on the sides to now, it’s crazy how much technology has improved the stages. Even the main three tents have changed vastly from the plain white tents to ones with chandeliers and colour drape interiors. One of the best changes of the last few years has been the Do Lab. It has gone from a small stage in the middle of the field where music from its featured DJs would bleed into the the tents and the outdoor theatre to a much larger space on the terrace that doesn’t interfere with anything else.
Being at Coachella
A few things I’ve learned over the years attending Coachella…
1. It’s always hot. Between noon and 6pm you’re looking at temperatures ranging from the mid 20s to 40+ degrees Celsius. I remember in 2007 being in the Mojave tent for a set and walking out absolutely drenched in sweat. I’ve only experienced it rain at Coachella once and it was a brief light shower. There have been years where there’s been a nice breeze, but that brings its own problems.
2. Coachella gets dusty. For starters, you’re in the desert heat. Then you factor in the grounds are a polo field so there’s dirt and grass everywhere. Finally there’s 100,000 people trampling on it for three days. Dust gets kicked up and it has turned into a full on sand storm when high winds kick in. 2013’s storm was so bad that driving on the freeway back to the condo I was staying in was like driving in blizzard conditions. There were sand drifts covering the lines and you could barely see the car in front of you. Another lesson I figured out this year was how to avoid what many refer to as the “Coachella Cough.” During years when it has been particularly dusty you inhale so much dust that weeks after the festival you get a sore throat and a phlegmy cough. This year I bought some dust masks from a hardware store and wore one on the grounds all weekend not caring if I looked like an idiot. When I’m attending the festival I’m mostly running around by myself and I’m not there to look good. I’m there to see bands.
3. Comfort for your feet is paramount. I don’t get how anyone could attend Coachella in bare feet or sandals. You’re standing and walking multiple football field lengths for up to twelve hours straight every day for three days. You need to wear shoes with good support and comfort. For the last few years I’ve put Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles in my shoes for festivals. My feet haven’t gotten as tired and the insoles add an ever so slight amount of height that might make it easier to see over somebody in the crowd.
4. Conflicts are inevitable. With around 6 major stages and three smaller ones going all about the same time there will always be artists you want to see performing in the same time slot. You pretty much have to prioritize your schedule or time things based on how quickly you can get from stage to stage. Every year there are bands I wish I could see, but can’t because another artist is a bigger priority. This is where weekend 2 attendees have a bit of advantage. They can watch the weekend 1 webcast to sample sets to figure out which shows are better.
Every year there are a ton of food options on the Coachella grounds from your typical burgers and fries to this year having sit down restaurants in the VIP areas. Oh and you can’t forget Coachella’s signature Spicey Pie pizza. Two traditions I have tried to carry on at Coachella involve the food. In 2007 one of the highlights for friends I roadtripped to the festival with were meatball subs and shaved ice (aka snocones). The meatball subs in ’07 were massive and the shaved ice was refreshing in the 30-40 degree heat. Every year since, I have attempted to keep the tradition alive, but with the constant change in vendors the subs have gotten smaller or not been available and the shaved ice has been gone for the last two years.
Some of the best moments at Coachella have been ones with people I know. The 2007 road trip will always be the best memory. 24 hours straight driving down, going to the festival, then 24 hours straight driving home. In 2008 Victoria band Jets Overhead performed an early afternoon timeslot in the Mojave Tent. It was so cool seeing a local band in the lineup of one of the largest festivals. I keep hoping another local artist I’m closer to makes it to that level. In 2012 I had the opportunity to reconnect with a former elementary school classmate that I hadn’t seen since grade 3. Partial thanks goes to Facebook for that happening. One other memorable moment was in 2014 walking to the entrance from parking. I notice someone walking in front of me and heard a voice I recognized. I walked faster and discovered it was a friend that had moved to Edmonton from Victoria a couple years before. It was completely random and awesome. Festivals are fun on your own, but there’s something extra special experiencing one with friends.
One thing that Coachella is known for is it’s signature once in a lifetime moments whether it be the Tupac hologram, Prince covering Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, Daft Punk’s Pyramid and Madonna performing in a tent in 2006, Arcade Fire releasing giant balls with LED lights with radio receivers that would change the light colour depending where the ball was on the field and the song being performed or even members of Gogol Bordello crowd surfing on top of a large bass drum.
Reunions are also a major component to Coachella’s history. Each year there’s at least one band coming back from either a breakup or a long hiatus. Rage Against the Machine reunited in 2007 was the reason I even started attending the festival.
Then there are the surprise guests. They aren’t just an added perk of Coachella, they’re pretty much expected, especially in weekend one. Beyonce performing with Jay-Z, Slash performing with Motorhead, Eminem and 50 Cent during Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, these are some “holy crap” moments for festival attendees that really give the festival buzz online. Weekend 2 typically gets less surprises since most performers blow their load on the first weekend because more top end media are there to cover it. At the same time, Weekend 2 has a more relaxed feel overall because there’s less need to make a statement. But when someone does do something special on Weekend 2, it can have a larger impact.
Kanye West performing during The Weeknd at Weekend Two of Coachella 2015 was completely unexpected. This year it was once again rappers that made the big surprise appearances. Brooklyn’s Run The Jewels performed a guest laden set somewhat similar to their set in 2015 in the Mojave tent, but on a grander scale on the main stage bringing out Big Grams (Big Boi and Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel) and Zach de la Rocha as weekend 2 exclusives.
It was Ice Cube though that pulled out the guests of the weekend. On weekend one Ice Cube performed “reunited” N.W.A., but the one person missing was Dr. Dre. Not weekend 2. On stage Ice Cube would ask the crowd “is there a doctor in the house?” and Dr. Dre would come out to perform ‘Still D.R.E’ and ‘California Love’. Later in the set another big surprise in Kendrick Lamar appeared on the upper level of Ice Cube’s stage set up to the shock of many. This is the first time both Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar have both been on the Coachella stage since Dre’s headlining set in 2012. Back then most of the crowd had no idea who Lamar was.
A relatively unheralded aspect about major music festivals like Coachella is discovering and trying out bands you may never check out on their own. It’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of attending a festival, especially if a small artist you tried and really like ends up breaking out later. Sure, it’s the big names that draw you to the field, but there’s 12 hours and roughly 9 stages to fill your festival experience. Without Coachella, I might not have become a fan of Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis in 2008, Phantogram in 2011, or seen Teddybears and Lily Allen in 2007.
This year Alessia Cara was one artist that really impressed. Her radio single ‘Here’ is song on top 40 radio that I tend to not flip stations when it comes on and the live videos found on YouTube sound really good, but to listen to her in person, wow. This Canadian kid is a potential future superstar in Canada at least. How does a 19-year-old have that voice?
I’m not a country music fan, but from everything I had heard about him including his award show duet with Justin Timberlake he’s nothing short of spectacular. He delivered at Coachella. His music feels more authentic than the party-pop full of cliches garbage country you hear a lot of nowadays. I don’t like country, but Christ Stapleton was awesome.
Edmonton’s Purity Ring had one of the more unique stage setups with rows of hanging light strings filling the stage. with a rig of lanterns in the centre that would react to Corin Roddick using sample pads. I left LCD Soundsystem’s headlining set briefly to see Purity Ring solely based on their live performance on Conan a few months back. The light show matched nicely with Megan James hauntingly innocent vocals.
The don’t call it the Coachella Music and Arts Festival for nothing. Art is a major component to the festival that adds an extra visual flavour to the grounds. Every year huge structures, some stand alone and others moving or interactive catch the eyes of attendees instigating many selfies, photos and videos. There’s been land sharks, a giant moving astronaut, snail, catepillar and butterfly, a huge three legged alien thing, a semi-truck sculpture, A flaming metal serpent with a giant egg, and who can forget the tesla coils?…
There has even been a couple performance art structures where actors dressed as hippos were “working” in a power plant and corporate headquarters.
This year’s art didn’t really have the wow factor of the past. Most were just standing structures with fancy lighting. One somewhat interactive art piece called The Armpit was more notable for being a vantage point for a nice view of the festival grounds.
2016 photo Highlights
When festival attendees enter the festival, posters of every lineup Coachella has had are on display. At the 2008 poster there was a small memorial for Prince. Prince headlined that year.
During Ellie Goulding’s set on the main stage Friday night she performed a piano accompanied version of her hit song ‘Lights‘, but before that she sang a verse of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’.
CHVRCHES were a group I’ve been determined to see since 2014 after seeing the webcast of their set that year. Unfortunately I was not able to see their set live that year due to a conflict with another artist and the fact my sister broke her foot at the condo we were staying at. Seeing them this year was worth the wait. Great performance and Lauren Mayberry’s witty banter between songs was a bonus.
When Guns N’ Roses were announced as a Coachella headliner I did not know what to expect. Would they sound good? Would Axl be late? Could the whole thing go south? To my surprise everything was pretty great. They were on time, they played nearly two hours and they sounded solid. The one downer was Axl not being able to stand or move around due to him breaking his foot weeks prior. It was cool to see Dave Grohl’s rock throne being re-purposed.
Meg Myers music has an edginess that is missing from a lot of modern rock these days. Modern rock stations play so much poppy happy-go-lucky music these days that you kind of miss the raw slightly pissed off style or of rock from the grunge era.
As a photographer the best bands to shoot are ones that don’t just stand there and play. Performers that move around and either interact with the audience or really get into playing each song make for great photos. All those qualities make Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell an amazing front woman. Love being able to capturing a good hair whip.
Matt and Kim are hands down one of the most fun bands to see live. You can’t leave their set without a smile on your face. They just exude pure joy when they’re on stage. From their hilarious banter to just going all out in their performance. It’s stunning how popular they’ve become. Just two years ago they performed in the tent at Royal Athletic Park for Rifflandia to a couple thousand people. At Coachella there were tens of thousands of people at the main stage.
From a pure artistic sense, Sia put on one of the most memorable sets of the festival. The whole stage show as essentially an interpretive dance set to Sia’s songs much like her recent string of music videos. Sia performed off to the corner of the stage wearing her now signature wig that covers her face. It was a complete departure from the last time I saw her at Coachella where she was joking around with the crowd and bouncing around the stage between songs. The video screens showed pre-shot videos featuring well known guests such as Kristen Whig. Judging by the noise of the audience clearly some thought the famous guests were actually on stage when they actually weren’t. It was one Coachella set where it was probalby better to be standing further back than being right up front.
This is a view of the Coachella Main Stage from one of the art installations called ‘The Armpit’ shot during Calvin Harris’ headlining set to close out the festival. The light show was cool, but I just don’t get the appeal of being in that large of a crowd to watch a DJ hit play and jump up and down. The setlist and guests are also pretty lackluster for a festival ending headliner. Even Rihanna’s appearnce during Weekend One seemed rather pointless considering she barely sang her part over the backtracking. Even with all that, you can see the tens of thousands eating it up for whatever reason.
Coachella has grown and changed over the last ten years. Some good and some changes not so great. Over the next few years the festival will slowly increase capacity to 125,000 meaning more people will be able to experience the festival. It also means more people will be competing for prime viewing spots at the stages and more people will need accommodation which probably means the cost of going will only go up. Even so, it is still a festival that should be experienced at least once. It doesn’t really matter what the lineup you’re going to see something you like.