The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival turns 20 next year. That's two decades of putting personal hygiene to one side for a weekend, of diabolical porta-potties, of trying to find the best off-site parties, of forgetting about sleep, of a surprisingly (for a music festival) wonderful selection of eats, of magnificent art to admire and, of course, of countless stunning musical artists and groups to try to negotiate.
Yeah, nothing says “festival” like the personal day-plan. If you only catch 10 minutes of that DJ, you might be able to see the last bit of that awesome local band you saw at the Echoplex that one time. Stay at the back and run, and you might be able to see all of the headline bands on every stage. The whole thing must be plotted with extreme care.
Coachella, of course, has nationwide appeal, but for those of us on the West Coast, it's the festival of choice. A relatively short drive into the desert, and a gloriously chaotic nirvana awaits. Partly as a result, for the L.A. bands and artists who make the grade and are awarded with a spot on the bill, it's a particularly big deal. And this year, there are plenty.
Toward the top of the bills each day, The Weeknd, Vince Staples, Haim, Tyler, the Creator, and A Perfect Circle (to name just a few) are from this region. But deeper dives reveal additional familiar local faces.
Whittier-born Lauren Abedini is better known as the DJ Kittens. Blessed with an engaging wit and sharp intelligence, she started working the decks back in 2011, spinning at local shows while she was in college. When a day job fell through, she decided to give DJing a proper shot with the proviso that, if six months later she was still struggling, she'd get a “real” job again. She never had to do that.
Abedini had a fake ID and was clubbing from the age of 16 — a fairly common story. She was soaking up everything that she saw and heard, but when she started creating her own music, it was the Motor City that provided the greatest inspiration.
“Early days, I used to play really underground stuff off of like Stones Throw — heavy beat stuff like J Dilla vibes, throwback hip-hop and soulful stuff,” Kittens says. “As things have grown, I've incorporated a lot more bits of electronic music, different types of urban sounds. J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus … all that stuff influenced me heavily.”
Kittens' first set was at Bar Lubitsch, and she says now that it was so bad she wanted to die. Like stand-up comedy, electronic music DJing is something that you have to dive into, make the leap, and get the early jitters and fuck-ups out of the way. Unlike rock & roll, it's not particularly forgiving with said fuck-up. But she continued to self-teach, with the occasional helping hand from friends.
“Finally, a friend of mine told me about basic song structure, phrasing and stuff like that,” she says. “All of a sudden, I was like, 'Oh, I get it, there's a formula here.' As soon as I figured that out, everything changed.”
Once she got going, there was no stopping her. Kittens co-founded the Athletixx collective with Hoodboi, Falcons and Promnite, though the group is on hiatus while they focus on their own music. She's also justifiably proud of her work with PWR, a nonprofit series of DJ workshops for women.
“I was teaching DJ classes to make ends meet,” Kittens says. “I realized in these classes where there were guys and girls, there was such a different dynamic. Both people didn't know what they were doing, everyone was there to learn, and there for their first time, but the boys experimented, they overcompensated with ego. The girls would be really insecure and kind of passive. Fall back and be scared to mess up, scared to experiment. That really bummed me out. On top of that, I've experienced my share of struggles and discrimination as a girl in the club world and music world. So I ended up starting to teach classes just for girls, where they had a safe space to learn, to let go and try things. Not worry about people judging them. I could also talk about different tips and tricks for navigating that whole industry as a girl.”
PWR launched last year, with the cover charge going to L.A. Women's Shelter and the L.A. LGBT Center. The second phase of the program will launch this year, and that's going to be focused on providing resources, support and visibility for different oppressed groups and minorities.
Kittens is a special kind of artist, and it's wonderful that she'll be repping Los Angeles at Coachella this year. Besides a set at an off-site Heineken party, she's never performed at the festival before, and she says she's freaking out.
“I love festival crowds because they're so eager and ready to accept whatever you give them, whereas some crowds can be difficult,” Kittens says. “Whether it's a club setting or more of a hard-ticket concert type vibe, especially in big cities like L.A. and New York. People are standing there waiting to be impressed, and can be difficult. But festivals, everybody's there and ready to go, ready to hear what you have. It's just so fun.”
Contemporary R&B duo Chloe X Halle is composed of sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey, who started singing together when they were about 7 and 5. They performed at talent shows in their native Atlanta, but their stock really rose when they started posting covers on YouTube.
The siblings moved to Los Angeles with their parents five years ago, and they're delighted to be here, with both happy to stay for the foreseeable future. Chloe is nearly 20 and Halle is 18 now; both still have that youthful bounce in their step, and they describe their sound as a mixture of their favorite things. The music is, in fact, far more mature that listeners might expect.
“I've always been a jazz head, and I love those magical melodies that are in jazz music, that Billie Holliday sings,” Halle says. “My sister Chloe has always listened to such cool eclectic music, like Imogen Heap and Tune-Yards, and of course we've always listened to Beyoncé and music that has great beats to it. A bit alternative R&B, because it has that rock element that we love but at the same time it's still really soulful.”
Chloe X Halle has never performed at Coachella before, and they've never attended as audience members, either. They're clearly psyched — to see Queen Bey as much as to actually perform themselves.
“We're gonna be performing our album, and we're really excited about that because this album has been three years in the making,” Chloe says. “We've just been performing songs from our EP and mixtape. When you get to go out there and start performing songs that you've never performed before, it's always like this rush of excitement but at the same time nervousness behind it all. It's gonna be a blast.”
With a song, “Warrior,” on the soundtrack to the hit film A Wrinkle in Time, this seems like it's going to be a huge year for this talented duo.
Talking of big years, the last 12 months have been enormous for local indie rockers The Regrettes. The venues and, as a direct result, the crowds have gotten bigger, while the reaction from said crowds has become enthusiastic to the point of screaming.
“It's a weird thing being a musician onstage and having the power we have at the age we have,” says bassist Sage Chavis. “I've never understood what it meant when celebrities were confused why they had the fanbase they had and why people treated them the way that they did. I'm starting to understand it more and more as the months go by and as we get more popular. People really do treat you as if you can do no wrong because you're putting yourself out there. It makes you want to try harder, and be a better person for those people.”
The Regrettes' set at Coachella is going to be fascinating. On one hand, they've never been more popular. On the other, there aren't many other bands like them on the bill. The challenge suits them, though: They're built for the live environment, and frontwoman Lydia Night doesn't like to plan anything at all beforehand, which keeps them on their toes.
“We just want it to feel like a party,” Night says. “We want everyone to have an incredible night, to get out of their comfort zone and dance. Just have fun. People come to a show and just say they had a fucking fun night, that's enough. That's what we want.”
Yeah, they're ready. After all, they've cut their teeth in L.A. dives and DIY rooms before hitting these heights.
“When we first started playing shows, we were playing a lot of small DIY venues like The Smell and this thing called Smash Club that my friend Izzy runs,” Night says. “A bunch of bands and a bunch of arts. It's a little collective she does, and it's so cool because there are so many of those in L.A. right now. These shows filled with kids going fucking nuts. We love that.”
It's not all been rainbows and gumdrops, though. There was a show in Belgium, opening for SWMRS, that turned into a fucking nightmare.
“Our drummer Maxx [Morando] is allergic to all nuts,” Night says. “We made sure a million times that there was nothing in the catering that he couldn't eat. I guess they were really wrong and didn't know what they put in their food. We stopped after three songs and had to rush off the stage. An ambulance came and he got ushered out. It was amazing. The three songs got slower and slower as he had the reaction, and the audience was very confused.”
The band members have all been to Coachella as attendees, but this will be their first time performing. It's a big deal for all of them.
“Growing up in L.A. it's a huge deal for a music festival, because it's the one everyone goes to,” says guitarist Genessa Gariano. “I've heard about it since I was a kid and my older siblings were going without me. Since I started going, it was so exciting.”
This year's Coachella lineup features 15 Latino/a artists, a record after last year's total of 11. One of those is L.A. psychedelic-soul newbies The Marias, a group led by real-life couple Maria (she goes by just the one name) and Josh Conway, which formed a year and a half ago. The two met when Conway was running sound for one of Maria's solo shows, and he started talking to her about possible collaborations. Initially a labor of love only, they soon took the songs that they were writing for themselves and each other into the public realm.
“We asked a few of our friends if they wanted to be in a band, and then we started playing together,” Maria says. “We wanted to play shows, but we didn't anticipate being on tour right now. So it's all very cool.”
For some couples, being in a musical project together as well as sharing a home life could prove a little too much. Maria says that's not the case at all here.
“We realized early on that we work and write really well together,” she says. “We've each written with other people before this project, and that wasn't always the most ideal situation, but it's really cool that we found ideal partners, not just in a relationship but working partners. Because we work really well together. What each of us has complements [the] other really well.”
With a sound that Maria describes as blending soul, funk and dreamy psychedelia, The Marias are another L.A.-based band that have generated a healthy buzz this year. Maria herself didn't expect any of it.
“We just wanted to put some music out,” she says. “Once we released the first song, we did not expect anybody to like it like they did. It was just a demo that was picked up by a DJ on KCRW, and we didn't even know it was ready to air. We were just sharing it with them. People were calling in to the radio station asking about the song. It just started from there.”
This will be the first time that Maria has attended Coachella, while her bandmates have always dreamed of performing at the festival. Maria is delighted to see an increase in the number of Latin acts on the bill, and she can't wait to play.
“You can expect a really tight set, after a little over a month of playing shows and touring,” she says. “You can hear a preview to Two, the next album. Our first single will be released a little before Coachella, and the rest in June.”
Coachella still sells out at lightning-fast speed, despite (or perhaps because of) criticisms from some quarters that it's not the underground, alternative festival it once was. It's still one of the highlights of the calendar for lovers of popular music and, with headliners The Weeknd, Beyoncé and Eminem, fantastic legacy acts David Byrne and Jean-Michel Jarre, and a ton of impressive names from the worlds of hip-hop, EDM, pop and rock, this should be another spectacular year. We have no doubt that the L.A.-area names on the bill will do us proud.