Coachella’s longest-running unofficial art piece sports a safari hat, sunglasses, green board shorts and an orange Hawaiian T-shirt. Unlike the rest of the massive, eye-catching installations brought to the festival every year, Lorn Conner (a.k.a. the Happy Coachella guy) is a small, anonymous dot on the Empire Polo Field who prefers to be heard instead of seen.
By day, he glides through the manicured, 200-acre lawn, blending into the milieu of booming bass and half-naked bodies as he bobs his head to whatever sounds catch his ear. If you’ve gone to the three-day festival any time in the past 10 years, chances are you’ve scurried right past him on the way to see one of your favorite artists. After all, most people who go to Coachella are there to see rappers, rock stars and DJs—not some guy dressed as a retiree from Palm Beach.
But for Conner, the star of the weekend has always been the fat stack of stickers he carries in his hand with the phrase “Happy Coachella” printed on them, though there’s a different design each year. He hovers casually in a sea of people, a Cheshire Cat grin on his face as he yells the phrase with the cadence of an upbeat carnival barker.
“Happy Coachella—pass it on! Happy Coachella!” The deal is—if you yell it back to him, he rushes toward you, hands you a free sticker and tells you to pass on the phrase to someone else. “The goal is to create a ripple effect,” Conner says. “When I yell out, ‘Happy Coachella,’ another person would yell it back, then another person and another person, and it’s like a mushroom cloud.”
By Friday afternoon of Weekend 2, Conner has already passed out about 500 free stickers with another 500 to go before the end of last year’s festival. After a decade, he’s gotten pretty good. During Glass Animals’ set on the festival’s main stage, he’s bouncing to the echo of their funky hit “Gooey” in the middle of the field when he hears the first person yell, “Happy Coachella!” at him. The refrain comes from a tanned, chipper twentysomething in cutoff shorts walking with a group of friends toward the stage. He runs to her as if she just won the grand prize on The Price Is Right.
“Oh, my God! Do you know what you’ve done?!” Conner yells wildly. “It’s a miracle! You said, ‘Happy Coachella!’ You get a free sticker!”
The girl immediately lights up and thanks him. Now all her friends want one, so they all shout the phrase and walk away with their free prize. Conner also carries silver temporary tattoos for people who want those. The scenario is repeated over and over. “There’s no bigger thing for me than Happy Coachella,” Conner says. “First off, when people get a sticker or a tattoo, they freak out; they don’t understand what’s going on. Then their friends hop onboard. Then everyone wants one, and it just flutters out from there.”
As the Indio festival grows further from its roots as a small counterculture gathering to a mainstream behemoth of 125,000 people, Conner is one of the few elements of Coachella that has stayed consistent, right down to his outfit, the same one he’s worn every day of the festival each year (don’t worry, he washes it). When most people in this day and age would take his simple idea and create a major social-media following, he has no real interest in such opportunistic hashtaggery. If you find him, you find him. That’s it. “I’m kinda like an Easter egg,” Conner says. “If you find me at Coachella, you’ve found an Easter egg.”
He even managed to get interviewed for the Coachella documentary later released by Goldenvoice in 2006. You can see him as an excited 20-year-old dropping loads of breathless F-bombs in his comments about the Pixies right before they went onstage in ’04.
That was Conner’s first trip to the festival (which was headlined that year by Radiohead), before he started his Happy Coachella movement. It was at a time when you could drive out to Indio from LA with your buddies but without tickets and still hope to buy one if you just showed up; the festival was only two days of one weekend.
“We didn’t have any place to sleep, so we didn’t make it to Day 2,” says Conner, now 34 years old. “We slept in a field, and we woke up like, ‘We’re screwed.’ I have bad asthma, so I told my friends eventually we had to leave.”
After taking 2005 Coachella off to work some boring day job instead of going to the festival, he vowed to never miss another one. In 2006, he saw Daft Punk, widely regarded as the most enviable Coachella experience. By 2007, he and his friends had started making “Happy Coachella” their mantra, shouting it during the festival and getting other people to say it back. “I’m sure I’m not the first person to say, ‘Happy Coachella,’ Conner says. “I have no doubt that I’m not. It was around before me. But I’m probably the first person to go, ‘I’m gonna make people say this!’”
Of course, Coachella is only two weekends out of the year for the energetic LA resident who was born in Canada and grew up in Washington state. The rest of the year, Conner works as an actor and also does crowd warmups for TV shows. In the past, he also ran his own blog, You Tell Concerts. Started in 2008, the site was dedicated to interviewing fans and videotaping their reactions as they walked out of packed concerts all over LA. Later, the operation expanded, with freelance videographers submitting content from all over the country, even a few in Europe.
From 2008 to 2015, Conner says, he went to more than 570 concerts, interviewing fans at all of them. “The first year, I went to 178 shows, with videos done right after,” he says. “I worked a 60-hour-a-week job, I’d go out to a show, go home and edit, go to bed at 3 a.m., wake up at 6 a.m., go do it again and again.” Part of why he was interviewing people on their way out of concerts was the fact that no venues or bands would give him media credentials for his blog. Yet, he says, he and his small crew were still able to get into a lot of shows by literally singing and dancing for tickets (or at least get enough money to buy some).
“Sometimes, we’d be out there for hours,” Conner says. “But I’m really good at it. I’ve sang and danced my way into more than 1,000 concerts.”
It’s not too different than what he does at Coachella (though, these days, he says, he prefers to just buy his wristbands like everyone else). The only difference is he’s handing out stickers, which are akin to a golden ticket for any true Coachella-head who knows to look for Conner on the field.
Each year, Conner comes up with a different idea for a sticker, which gets designed by his friend Elena McMillin. On his Happy Coachella Facebook page (which he rarely updates), you can see some of the designs from years past. One of the most popular is from 2009, with a puff of smoke spelling out “Happy Coachella” and a drawing of a joint that says, “Pass It On.”
The bright-yellow background of this year’s sticker is dotted with confetti and doodles of sunglasses, the festival’s iconic Ferris wheel and 3D candy-coated letters that scream his message loud and clear. Conner says the design was inspired by the overwhelming amount of pop artists on the bill this year, especially in the headliner category, with the Weeknd, Beyoncé and Eminem taking top billing.
“He embodies the spirit of what it’s all about,” says KROQ DJ Nicole Alvarez. “Just the genuine enthusiasm of it.” For years, Alvarez and people such as fellow KROQ alumni Ted Stryker have been supporters of Conner’s one-man movement, even interviewing him on the air during the festival. “Every year, he’s like the checkered flag,” Alvarez says. “Until I hear ‘Happy Coachella’ from him, then it doesn’t officially begin. He starts the giddiness and excitement. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Of course, Conner didn’t start out as an underground Coachella legend. It took people a while to understand or even appreciate what he was trying to do. Even now, after more than a decade of doing it, there will be thousands who walk past him as though he’s either totally nuts or invisible.
“The first year, no one would say it back to me,” Conner says. “They just stared at me like, ‘Ooookayyy?’” During the early years, when he couldn’t necessarily afford tickets, Conner says he always made the Happy Coachella stickers to pass out, spreading the vibe in the parking lot until he managed to get into the festival, sometimes not until 8 or 9 at night after some sunburned, bleary-eyed soul decided to sell a pass for dirt-cheap.
There were also years when he made so many stickers he couldn’t give them all away and carried huge stacks of them home in his backpack. These days, he’s made them a commodity by printing only 1,000. “There’s 125,000 people here, and I only print out 500 for each weekend. So your odds of finding me are very, very tiny,” he says.
On a windy Sunday night last year, as the grandiose spectacle of Lorde’s performance of her song “Royals” boomed in the background, Conner was on his hands and knees looking toward the shimmering Coachella Ferris wheel in the distance as he tried to judge the perfect spot to set up his masterpiece. Pulling a few tubes of thin glowsticks from his backpack, he cracked them like a fistful of straw, unleashing their neon magic. He then went to work placing them in the grass in the heart of the festival between all the different stages. He wasn’t even halfway done before people came running up to it and formed a circle around him.
“I’ve always found this, every year on Sunday,” says Samantha Nixon, a diehard Coachella-goer from San Diego who has been a regular at the festival for the past several years. “I have photos of it; I’ve never seen anyone build it before. It’s always just there for everyone to enjoy. It’s amazing!”
When he has finished, the phrase “YELL HAPPY COACHELLA” glows in the darkness. The people surrounding him let out a cheer. “Happy Coachella! . . . Happy Coachella!” The words ring out, carried by the wind in the darkness as fans go screaming in different directions as though dive bombers of unabashed hedonism.
Even being surrounded by acres of insane, multimillion-dollar light shows and a Stonehenge of abstract rhinos less than 100 yards away, this sign easily gets a much larger reaction, even from apathetic, desert-weary Coachellites who suddenly discover it, then run up to take selfies with it.
For Morgan Hoffman, a Dana Point resident celebrating her birthday on the last night of the festival with her friends, finding Conner’s glowsticks is the icing on her Coachella cake, even though, at this point, her vocal cords are so worn out she can barely even talk, let alone yell. “I was on my way to meet with my friends,” she says, her sandpaper voice straining to speak. “But I had to stop to see this. It’s so cool to see everyone stop and take pictures; everyone loves it. It really helps the vibe of the festival and brings everyone together. Maybe that sounds stupid or whatever, but seriously, it really does.”
It doesn’t sound stupid. Entire movements are started by one human passing energy to another. Even in the simplest of ways, the phrase “Happy Coachella” keeps the spirit of the original festival going in an atmosphere that at times feels simultaneously far too big and far too exclusive to share that kind of closeness anymore. It’s a movement that, while small, creates the desired ripple effect Conner always hopes for.
“As time’s gone on, I realized that my dream’s never going to come true,” he says. “There’s just too many people, and they’ve expanded it so much.”
But that’s okay. As he stands next to his glowing art piece, surrounded by people who are overjoyed to see it, for a brief moment every year, his mission is a complete success.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve left Coachellas just beaten,” Conner admits. “I’ve put so much energy into it, and I’m walking off into the parking lot, and I hear somebody yell, ‘Happy Coachella!’ and I’m like, ‘Ya know what? Okay, whoever that person is, somehow, for some reason, they just yelled it out.’ And I realize that I started a wave.”
*This story, first published online on April 25, 2017, appeared in the print edition dated April 6, 2018.