If there’s one person who understands what Coachella’s really about, it’s a guy who’s been coming to the festival every year since day one.
Sitting in his loft apartment in Downtown LA a stone’s throw from the Goldenvoice headquarters, Michael Rocchio’s artistic abode is consumed by his love of California’s supreme, sunburned festival. Psychedelic pop art spreads tie-dyed tentacles across the walls in the form of limited edition Coachella posters by LA artist Emek, one for every year of the festival, save for 2018 when the artist got in a car accident and was unable to make one. The volume of concert experiences amassed by the 48-year-old graphic designer and partner in a custom printing company is infinitely thicker than the grey hair on his head where a towering brown mohawk once stood in his hardcore days driving between Riverside, Orange County and LA to go to raves and punk shows.
He doesn’t get out quite as much these days, except for when the April festival rolls around. His ignorance of today’s music allows him to capture the magic of the unknown when he sets foot onto the green grass of the Empire Polo Field.
“I think if there’s anything directly connected to the first festival, it’s that it’s curated to the point where there’s a lot of discovery,” he says.
“There was a lot to discover in 99,” he continued. Coachella’s debut was the first time he’d seen A Perfect Circle play before it had even had much of a chance to be known as Maynard James Keenan’s side project.
Though obviously dedicated, Rocchio is also not you’re average GA proletariat. He’s got a bit of an inside track as a partner in charge of the festival’s printing company, AmericasPrinter. You probably don’t know Rocchio by name but you know his work; he’s the one responsible for making the boxes delivered to you with your precious Coachella wristbands inside. Since the festival began in 1999, his company has handled all the paper printed signage, including the “Day of Guide” and posters. His lead graphic designer, Dennis Gomez, produce the packaging and the wristbands for the fest right here in OC!. He even designed this year’s 20th anniversary Coachella poster featuring the sunset mosaic design imbued with the names of every act to play the fest since its inception. So you can imagine it’s a bit easier for him to score a Coachella pass with Paul Tollett’s number on speed dial.
Today’s Coachella experience is a lot different for him now than it was in ‘99, but the driving force of exploration–to experience new bands and a new generation discovering the festival every year–is never lost on him. He could easily join the other members of the golf cart VIP club cruising to the mainstage after sundown to merely check out the headliners, but you’re more likely to find him inside the Gobi tent at 1 p.m. jamming to a Korean metal band called Jambinai that opened to less than 100 people on Saturday during the festival’s first weekend.
“Their set was just full, pure art,” he says of their performance. “There was nothing pop about what they were doing.”
It’s a rare moment where a metal band that sounds like a far east version of Tool might bridge the gap between the late ‘90s counter-culture crowd and today’s sonically scatterbrained Instagram influencers.
Is Rocchio a fan of everything Coachella has done over the years to expand its audience? No. But as much as people want to hate on the fest (which has all but become an Olympic sport these days) he has some advice for naysayers.
“The thing that I think mid-age groups are miffed about is that maybe when you get above 30 you’re seeking an emotional musical experience so you have to have that emotional connection to the songs,” he says. “I think with Coachella you have to accept the reality of it being a bit more of a cerebral experience than an emotional experience in a musical sense.”
Sure, the “cerebral experience” of *NSYNC on stage with Ariana Grande at a festival founded on Rage Against the Machine, Perry Farrel and Beck would probably make the crowd from ‘99’s heads collectively explode. But there was also the experience of seeing OG Coachella acts like Aphex Twin or any of the early afternoon acts where the ethics of Coachella’s undercard has the power to bridge the gap between the two worlds of ‘99 and ‘19.
From an artistic perspective, of those important bridges between the festival’s past and present is the Coachella balloon chains that stretch across the field every year in various colors of wind-resistant rainbow bliss. Although this year the wind was a little too strong, which caused the balloons to be grounded last Friday on opening day. Going into this year’s fest, it felt like the winds of change blew a little too hard at Coachella as this year.
Festival organizers and staff were still mourning the loss of rigger Chris Griffin who died after falling 60 feet while setting up a stage the week before. As an original Coachella staff member, he’d literally helped the fest get off the ground since the beginning. For lots of early Coachella goers, there’s a tendency to feel the fest they were once heavily influenced by has also passed on; veterans like Rocchio know that there are moments in time every year where the spirit of ‘99 will always live on.
It’s amusing to imagine the crowds from the polar ends of Coachella’s history staring at each other as if they’d each come from another planet–and only one of those planets encouraged wearing clothes.
Though the culture of Coachella is now a highly sexualized place where parades of thongs, headdresses and glitter pasties are common Instagram fodder, Coachella is slowly trying to add some social consciousness into the festival with the Goldenvoice safe space initiative Every One.
People probably noticed the anti-sexual abuse, anti-bullying, queer-positive messages that are being slapped everywhere from the “Day of Guides” to the electronic signs that beam slogans like “See Something, Say Something” when guests walk into the fest. The fact that those electronic signs that greet us on the way into the polo grounds are earshot from the crush of grinding bodies at the gigantic Sahara Tent shows the dichotomy and imperfections of a festival that is still growing, changing and trying to adapt to what today’s music fans want both sonically and socially.
Melanie Renee Miller remembers what it was like to be at Coachella during its comeback year in ‘01 when the fest was only a single day. As a high school senior from Pasadena making the trek with friends for the first time, she describes Coachella having a farmer’s market-like vibe with a mixture of grunge rockers, hippies and ravers. There was no camping on site and hardly any cellphones let alone reception.
“It was one of the most unique experiences I’d ever had,” Miller says. “At that point, I’d been going to raves so it wasn’t like anything I’d ever been to before so that’s what really drew me to it was just how original the whole thing was.”
Though the array of boutique shopping and international high-end food choices has improved somewhat there are still moments when Coachella’s middle of nowhere location remains savagely unchanged. In the throws of the blood red light show and twitching dancers during Billie Eilish, 20-year-old Coachella newbie Rachel Carerra from LA is trying desperately to post to her social media accounts but cell phone gods have denied her any bars on her iPhone. WIthin minutes she gives up, puts her phone down and her hands up as strobes rain down on the vape smoke and glitter specked cheekbones of her and her friends.
“Honestly I’m a little bummed I can’t post right now, not gonna lie but I’m literally watching someone who could be a huge voice in my generation so I’m okay as long as I can see over all these heads.”
One continuously surviving trait of Coachella is the strength of its undercard and its buffet of unknown or about-to-break acts playing early in the day when the gates open. It’s also just as hard to get people to see them now as it was back in the day. As a result, sometimes different tactics have to be implemented.
This year Coachella did a slightly better job of promoting the DJs, solo artists and bands through their “Coachella Curated” posts on social media and at the festival by having bigger acts like Lizzo and Maggie Rogers play stages that are probably a little too small for them to be on at this point in their careers. Despite debuting in the third line font this year (a major coup for most Coachella freshman acts) Rogers was put in the Gobi tent instead of the Outdoor Theater or Coachella Stage. But moves like that help some of their shine rub off on other artists playing there throughout the day.
In Lizzo’s case, there was plenty of star power to go around as the queen diva exuded the confidence of Aretha Franklin and Missy Elliot– channeling two big personas while wearing one very small G-string.
Her shimmering voice didn’t falter, nor did her sass once even when technical difficulties reared their head during her triumphant set.
“I need y’all to get your technical shit to work because when I’m headlining next time bitch I need my [in-ear monitors] to work!” If the currency of an artist is the ability to have people pay to see them believe in themselves, Lizzo is stacking up a Bezos-sized balance.
Though older fan complaints about not knowing anyone on the lineup seemed extra loud this year, the reason for thinking that way is often only a result of not wanting to go into the fest early to see the more adventurous, less mainstream artists.
“People know there’s gonna be stages and bands, but Goldenvoice really does get it right when it comes to all the other stuff there is to do around the festival, the art is always the best as well as the acts,” says Erik Massie, a 14-year veteran and a former moderator of the dearly departed Coachella message boards. “Even if there’s an early act that you’re not familiar with, you know it’s Goldenvoice and there’s a reason why they chose those artists to be on the bill.”
The groaners bringing up the lack of legacy acts– pioneers of the past like Nile Rodgers, Gil Scot Heron, etc. –obviously missed Calypso Rose’s set, which alone should’ve been enough to show the error in that argument. Armed with a thunderously rhythmic backing band, the 78-year-old “Lioness in the Jungle” donned a yellow dress and a spirit that illuminated the Gobi as she swiveled her hips during her song “Young Boy” to rapturous cheers from plenty of actual young boys the crowd.
When it came to funk, soul and R&B heritage, artists like headliner Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, and Janelle Monae showed us different sides of soul music’s survival and innovation. Gambino’s mix of witty wisdom, reckless abandon and wide-eyed dramatic flair, Anderson’s electric smile and happy vibes, and Monae’s electric choreography showed what can be done with the will and stamina to keep moving forward for the entire performance. Even if you weren’t familiar with the songs, there’s a good chance you could relate to some part of the feelings they conjured as Rocchio did, listening to his deep cuts that cut deep and unleashed a double helix of Newbirth and Parliament Funkadelic.
“I didn’t know shit about Childish Gambino,” Rocchio says. “I didn’t know anything but ‘This is America’ but I take it more a cerebral experience than an emotional experience.”
There were also artists that used their platform to pay homage to the artists that inspired them and paved the way for them to play Coachella.
Reggaeton megastar J Balvin magnetized wandering hip-hop and rock fans into the Latino explosion happening in front of the main stage with hypnotic clave and bright, almost K-Pop style visuals. His presence helped stir the cauldron of culture that enriches the flavor of Coachella. Balvin’s set was almost entirely in Spanish, putting bullet point next to the fact that he and other Latino and Latinx acts like Rosalia, Cola Boy and Los Tucanes de Tijuana were there to represent a different side of SoCal, minorities and POC that have been given a lion’s share of attention and representation at Coachella in recent years.
“Last year, I was with Beyoncé, today it’s about Latinos and dreamers,” Balvin said on Instagram earlier that day. “It’s about people like me, who are not afraid to follow their dreams and it’s about all those people that are called different. We still need people to continue to call us crazy for being dreamers. Welcome to another chapter of my adventures.”
Amid showing off his own Latin Grammy-winning catalog, Balvin also took a moment to pay tribute to the reggaetoneros before him. “Esta noche, estamos represantando Latinos por reggaeton,” he said. “We’re going to pay homage to the old G’s.” Balvin immediately immersed the crowd in his culture by playing a medley of reggaeton classics, including N.O.R.E. and Daddy Yankee’s 2006 “Oye Mi Canto” and Yankee’s 2004 monster hit “Gasolina,” which lit the crowd’s collective hips on fire before bringing out Sean Paul, an artist who peaked during the infancy of Coachella but who would’ve never been anywhere near the festival grounds 2 decades ago.
Growing up next to the festival her whole life in Indio, 22-year-old Tina Rivera says this was the first year she felt like she was being represented as a Latina at Coachella.
“Literally my entire playlist when I get in my car is here,” she says in the middle of dancing in a circle with some people she just met. “I never really cared about this festival to be honest but now I feel like it sees me, and it sees my friends.”
Save for Tame Impala, the heavy reliance on non-rock acts this year is a change that’s been years in the making and one that leaves plenty of rock critics upset about the lack of six-string representation at Coachella. However, that may have more to do with their willingness to look than their ability to find it.
Tell bands like Jambinai–South Korea’s answer to Tool–or fellow Seoul-based indie band HYUKOH that rock is dead. Both bands opened early to a small, yet devout audience that grew exponentially as they shredded and implemented Korean instruments, lyrics, and culture into their songs to a group of largely Asian fans.
“That was super interesting and a first time for me to witness so many Asian metal fans at Coachella,” Rocchio says.“It’s so funny how people complain about guitars going away at Coachella…dude at least 50 percent of the acts I saw were all playing guitars and shredding. Even Kid Cudi had a live drummer!”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s airy mix of yacht rock and funk even got some distorted raucousness during “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” at the Outdoor Theater when frontman and guitarist Ruban Neilson erupted with glass-breaking levels of distortion to close out their set. It felt like a precursor to Weezer’s hit-heavy and cover-song-laden set that somehow bucked the trend of proclaiming rock’s death by bringing old songs back to life.
One other thing most veterans remarked on over the last few years is how the chill zones to catch a late afternoon nap have changed.
“It used to be easier to go in the tents like Sahara in the middle of the day and rest, not anymore,” says Lorn Conner, also known as the Happy Coachella Guy who first started comping to the fest in 2005.
After a few hours of the annual task of handing out his prized “Happy Coachella” stickers to unsuspecting passers-by, he’s taken a second to join flocks of people chilling at the Outdoor Theater during the breezy jazz-rock of Mac Demarco. Once a bastion for rollicking guitar bands and circle pits, this year the lineup of back to back mellow acts like Mac Demarco and Blood Orange turns this area into a whole different vibe. “I used to lay on the ground hungover for three or four hours a day, I’d go super hard and be like ‘it’s okay I’ll just go take a nap in the Sahara tent during DJ Heather, now I know to just come here,” Conner says.
One of the places where the difference in Coachella cultures past and present seems to rear its head is on the campgrounds where at first glance, things have gone from all night bacchanals to mostly quiet kickbacks.
Though the grounds are crowded and the line for the pulsating beats of the not-so-silent-disco area was pretty long, a lot of people roaming around or kicking back in the Turn Down Tent seemed to be saving their energy, exchanging joints rolled with sour diesel and Jack Herer with vape pens with flavors like “Lava Flow” and “Wedding Cake.” These days people are more comfortable so maybe that’s led to less raging.
“The rookie always goes too hard on Thursday night,” says Jesse Seilhan, a local journalist and 13-year veteran of Coachella. “If you start pounding beers the minute you get there, you’re done, people have to realize this festival is like an endurance test, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Part of what never changes is the human connection of running into people, meeting new friends through random circumstances that become longtime acquaintances or even spouses.
“You run into people, you talk to people, you meet people and that’s neat because usually in your everyday life, you sure don’t do that,” Conner says. “And if you do it, you’re weird. But that’s what everyone out here wants.”
Even when it seems like things have gone off the rails from Paul Tollet’s original mission in Indio, remember that he has a reason for booking every act he does, and it’s because most of them understand what the festival is about even though they probably have every right to be totally clueless.
In a little less than an hour on Friday night of Weekend 1, K-Pop stars BLACKPINK blazed through 13 songs full of choreography, and massive light show displays on the disk-like LED fixture hovering over Sahara tent that’s grown almost exponentially with Coachella in recent years. The catchy chorus lines being sung by members Lisa, Rosé, Jisoo, and Jennie triggered a round of massive sing-a-longs that crested and crashed over the surrounding areas of the Sahara like a refreshing wave.
“I have a few words to say,” said the group’s Rosé, introducing the final numbers. “Us coming all the way from South Korea, we didn’t know what to expect, and obviously we — you guys and us — we’re from totally different worlds. But tonight I think we’ve learned so deeply that music brings us as one. So I want to thank you guys tonight for sticking by to the end of the show,” aware that a large contingent of the audience consisted of the merely curious. “You guys are awesome. And those of you who will be joining us at the concert next week, we’ll see you soon.”
One of the main things that never changes about the fest is the fact that it’s still largely assembled by Tollett.
“I think that’s one thing that’s been a constant, the fact that the festival is still curated by Paul T.,” Rocchio says as he once again mentally and physically readies himself to do the whole thing over again on Weekend 2. “And Paul is the type of guy who would do this even if he didn’t make a lot of money. It’s just his passion in life, it’s always been his passion.”
At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about casting aside the old days of Coachella in favor of youth as 17-year-old Eilish, the youngest headliner (and probably one of the youngest people in general) at Coachella, pointed out from the stage as smoke wafted across the endless crowd at the Outdoor Theater. After playing songs like “My Strange Addiction” and “idontwannabeyouanymore” the crowd roared during Eilish’s every word. On the precipice of the next big wave, all she seemed to want was to make sure no one in the crowd was left behind.
“I don’t deserve this at all,” she said near the end of her set. “I just want us all to be in the moment.”