With Its New Sonora Stage, Coachella Built a DIY Venue in the Middle of the Festival
The crowd at Coachella's new Sonora Stage
“Everyone take out your phone right now and tweet at Radiohead, ‘Don’t play the state of Israel!’” shouts Joe DeGeorge, the saxophonist in Downtown Boys, an uncompromisingly political punk band from Providence, Rhode Island. Before anyone has the chance, the band launches into a burner called “Break a Few Eggs.”
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, inside an air-conditioned tent just inside the Coachella gates, which has improbably been turned into a full-on facsimile of a DIY punk venue. The room, dubbed Sonora, the only new stage at Coachella this year, is walled off with fake brick walls, graffitied with colorful illustrations — a goofy car with dangling legs, a green witch’s hand reaching its spindly fingers over the wall. The stage itself is backed with hallucinogenic sculptures, like the anthropomorphic cactus wearing sunglasses and leather jacket, or the big, yellow sun with pretty eyelashes and a little puckered smile. lt's as if Pee-wee’s Playhouse was turned into a skate park.
Sonora Stage art
The tent is largely populated by overheated, sleepy Coachella-goers, driven inside because of the AC and sprawled out on the couches and beanbag chairs that fill the middle of the room. A fair number are drawn toward the stage by the band’s intense energy. There are a few punk-rock stalwarts, too, like the tall blond kid in the Municipal Waste shirt who seems to find his way to the front for every band.
After Downtown Boys wrap up, DeGeorge leads a mini March for Science through the Coachella grounds, followed by a ragtag crew of nine. A bearded dude in a ball cap yells out something sarcastic, but the little march goes on.
It’s just one of the stark juxtapositions between the Sonora Stage and the rest of the massive festival. Everyone can agree Sonora doesn’t really fit at Coachella; everyone also seems to love it. It doesn’t hurt that the bizarro punk club happens to boast a lineup of some of the best underground bands from L.A. and beyond, from indie rock legends Guided by Voices to local stars Thee Commons to punk bands with devoted followings, like Show Me the Body and Shannon & the Clams. And the audience includes, among the heat-stroked and the curious, the bands' friends and families, all overjoyed to see their favorite band get their due.
Sonora comes with community cred: The bands were curated by Rene Contreras, the 25-year-old who for five years has been the force behind Viva! Pomona, a festival known for skewing local when it’s not bringing in acts from Mexico and beyond, and as a home for L.A.’s vital and growing alternative Latin movement. Like Goldenvoice president-CEO Paul Tollett before him, Contreras started out promoting punk shows in Pomona, the L.A. suburb that once upon a time was a no-man's-land for shows, overshadowed by bigger, busier venues in L.A. proper or Orange County.
Contreras’ cohesive booking strategy for Viva! Pomona and elsewhere earned him the respect of Tollett, who gave Contreras lots of creative latitude over Sonora — a rare and perhaps unprecedented occurrence, given that Tollett is infamous for minding most of the details of Coachella himself.
To make the stage feel legit — in other words, to make sure it didn’t come off like the corporate punk pastiche that it actually is — Contreras reached out to artist Sean Solomon. Solomon has many impressive credentials, including art directing Lucas Bros. Moving Co., an animated show on Fox, and creating music videos for the likes of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Odd Future. But perhaps most important for Contreras is that Solomon plays in a scrappy, fuzzy rock band of his own (called Moaning) and works in L.A.’s underground music community. For instance, Solomon painted the mural that currently adorns the front of downtown L.A. DIY venue the Smell (the one that says “Not Our President” in black block letters).
Solomon, in turn, brought in artist Peggy Noland, known for using clothing and sculpture as a canvas for loud, uncanny designs.
“When Paul [Tollett] had his first meeting with me, he said, ‘I want this to be the room everyone goes to to make fun of Coachella,’” Solomon says. “I think he could tell that the festival is getting further and further from up-and-coming artists, and I think this was maybe their attempt at giving back to the community that started this sort of thing."
Solomon and Noland took a few weeks to conceptualize the art inside the space, and then five intense days with a small crew, leading right up to the start of the festival, creating and installing it, painting murals literally as walls were being assembled. But, for all the stress, the artists took care to stick to their visions.
“Participating in a giant corporate festival was a new experience for me, and it was something I was thoughtful about going in,” Noland says. "It’s not typically a position I put myself in — in fact, I curate my life so I’m not in that position. So I really needed the project to be sincere. I needed it to be real artists' work that I support, and that Sean supports and that our community supports."
And the community support seemed to be there, too. Smell owner Jim Smith — who Solomon says was enthusiastic about Sonora — DJed there on Friday and Sunday of week one; KXLU’s Mukta Mohan also DJed. And when the time came, the bands took to the stage as naturally as if they were playing the Glass House in Pomona.
"Nothing in the tent is punk,” Solomon says. "It’s for Coachella. But I was hoping that the materials we used would inspire some kids to go home and feel like they could do something like this, instead of watching Radiohead and thinking it’s a totally unattainable goal."
The Sonora Stage lineup was, in essence, not so different from a typical Viva! Pomona lineup, ranging from high-energy cumbia punk to hyper-political hardcore. A few bands at the festival still seemed genuinely shocked they’d been given the chance to play Coachella, which, of course, remains the biggest and most important music festival in America.
“We never thought it would happen,” says Daniel Gomez of Quitapenas, a band from Riverside that draws from a variety of Afro-Latin styles. "It wasn’t necessarily a goal, or something we were striving for. Let alone did we think people had eyes or ears on this — that we would be fitting for this type of festival."
Most of the bands who played had some direct connection to Contreras, usually from playing Viva! Pomona or other shows he has promoted. Some were even bands Contreras had made connections with across the border.
Los Blenders, a four-piece from Mexico City who play tried-and-true melodic punk, opened the Sonora Stage on day three. They seemed, perhaps more than anyone, thrilled that they’d gotten the chance to play here.
And one ironic, beautiful twist: It was a band from L.A. — a band that got its start at the Smell, no less — that partially inspired their journey to Coachella.
“No Age played a [free] DIY show in Mexico City a few years ago,” says the band's Alejandro Archundia. “It was really inspiring to see them play for free in Mexico, where most American bands' shows cost a lot of money — to see that there is a different way to do things." Other bands made similar and even longer treks, including Hinds from Spain and Las Ligas Menores from Argentina.
Even though Sonora was only paces away from the festival’s main entrance, it was a significant distance from the rest of the festival — easily a 15-minute walk, for instance, from the Outdoor Stage. So while the audience was to a large degree composed of curious walk-ins, it also felt a bit isolated. If you wanted to drop in and see Guided by Voices and then take off, for instance, it wasn't convenient. But for the bands, it didn’t seem to be much of a problem — most seemed to enjoy playing a set that felt more like a club date than an afternoon slot at a major festival.
“It was cool,” says Pedrum Siadatian of L.A. band Allah-Las, whose fried surfer rock drew one of the biggest Sonora crowds of the weekend. "It was almost like we weren’t playing Coachella, because it was such an isolated, different vibe than the rest of the festival."
“It felt comfortable,” agrees Gomez of Quitapenas. “Like maybe something people are a little more used to. Or maybe totally different than what [they're] used to, you know?"
For Noland and Solomon, it was gratifying to see it all come together, especially when their friends’ bands — like Shannon & the Clams or The Paranoyds — took the stage. “It was a moment, I have to say,” Noland says. "All of us are old enough and passionate enough that we’ve had a lot of moments in life — that you look back on and say, ’That was really sweet and special.' And it's even better to be able to share it with your friends."
Same goes for Solomon, who acknowledges that taking Goldenvoice’s “blood money” created a bit of a dilemma but that he feels, ultimately, the team were able to make something positive of it.
“When I finally saw the bands onstage,” he says, "and I saw all our friends hanging out there, I did feel like this was a really good thing, that these people who have been working so hard finally got paid, and finally got the recognition they deserve."
Anyone with a soul would have been heartened to see Thee Commons’ closing Saturday-night set, in which they brought their entire tropa mágica — a pink gorilla, a juggling clown, two mimes and more — for a spastic set of cumbia-punk, including a cover of Selena’s “La Carcacha." I stood next to a beaming couple who, very obviously, were either parents or grandparents of someone in the band. “East L.A. invaded Coachella, baby!” shouted vocalist David Pacheco, to a riot of applause.
The next night, I finally grabbed the blond kid who had been wearing the Municipal Waste shirt the day before — now he was wearing a TSOL shirt, and had just been fully rocking out to TSOL’s closing Sunday-night set.
It turns out the kid — Brett Dunkin, 17 — had, despite not knowing much about the Sonora going in, spent pretty much the entire weekend there. He’d been coming to Coachella with his parents since he was 8 years old, and said he’d been yearning for a tent like this, “to keep out all the people who usually would have been talking during rock bands' sets.” He said two bands he’d never heard before, Quitapenas and Thee Commons, blew him away.
“I love this tent,” Dunkin says. "I love the design. It really gives off a fun vibe. A mood that just makes you want to have fun."
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