Ten years on, Coachella is an institution, the first big event of the American festival season. It’s also a barometer of the concert season. But the youngsters and newcomers may need reminding that Coachella, which was created by L.A.-based Goldenvoice Concerts, rose out of the renegade ride that was the 1990s, when grunge and punk exploded into the mainstream, indie and dance were relegated solely to clubs or raves, and the notion of midlevel indie bands drawing crowds in the thousands alongside their bigger siblings was just that — a notion.
Goldenvoice, a group of post-punks who’d kicked their way out of dives and on-the-fly indie ventures, took it to the next level. In fact, were it not for their and Pearl Jam’s brave stance attempting to defy the monolithic TicketMaster in 1993 in a fight over service charges, Coachella might not exist. Searching in vain for a venue free of contractual obligations and big enough to hold Pearl Jam, Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett found a polo field in Indio, California. Pearl Jam played one of the legendary rock & roll shows of the 1990s there, and a half-decade later, the polo field became home to the first Coachella. That year’s headliners were Beck, Tool, Morrissey and Rage Against the Machine, with a wildly divergent undercard for its time, featuring Pavement, LTJ Bukem, At the Drive-In, A-Trak, Kool Keith, Autechre and Medeski Martin and Wood.
On the eve of one of the most economically challenging summer concert seasons in recent memory, West Coast Sound sat down with Tollett, now Goldenvoice president and Coachella executive producer/curator, along with his Coachella partner Bill Fold. We began the conversation talking about that first Coachella, and the fact that Goldenvoice lost nearly $1 million on it. Tollett assured me that it was all worth it.
PAUL TOLLETT: Years later you have people who believe in that show. Of course the lineup every year is a topic — it’s the main driver for getting people there. And when you first hear the talent lineup, you understand what that means. When you hear a band, you can picture in your head what that’s going to feel like once you’re at the show. And the show’s been consistent in that. You buy a ticket and you know you’re going to get a good experience. So every year when we’re booking the talent, when somebody hears a perfect name in the lineup, we hope that they close their eyes and think, “What’s that going to feel like at 10 o’clock at night on a Friday?” Or you look at the poster and see something and think, I’m going to like to see that in this setting. My Bloody Valentine? Yeah, I’m okay with that.
WEST COAST SOUND: Last year’s Saturday-night lineup had three of my favorite artists back to back: Portishead, Kraftwerk and Prince.
TOLLETT: Every year, you can’t obviously do it for every person, but there are some moments, like you’re saying, that I feel everyone has felt at one point or another going to Coachella: “That was probably the best three hours of music I’ve seen in a long time.” And it’s really hard to describe how great that is. To have Morrissey play right before Paul McCartney? I mean, the Smiths and the Beatles? They’re at the top of some lists. And Leonard Cohen. There are some songwriters on Friday.
I love Leonard Cohen, and I wonder whether he’ll convince the kids, or whether they’ll show him respect.
TOLLETT: With him in that sunset spot? We just kind of feel like that’s a gift from him to play the festival. Instead of trying to get his crowd out to Coachella, it’s more about the Coachella crowd getting to see him. And I have no fear — you talk to some people who say, “You’re going to get older people,” whatnot. Great. I love all ages. I love people who love music. Great music, quality music. And that, to me, has no filter on age. The filter for Coachella shouldn’t be age. The filter for Coachella should be quality.
Do you have a more specific idea of what that filter is?
TOLLETT: We haven’t written it down, but internally, when we’re booking it, we talk. Does this work? Not why does this work, or will people get mad. It’s more of a feeling.
BILL FOLD:There are lots of bands — there’s no reason to name them, they know who they are — that would never want to play Coachella. There’s plenty of other places for them.
TOLLETT: And they make hundreds of millions of dollars. There are plenty of bands that I love that aren’t playing Coachella. I just don’t feel it would fit that show. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Every year — I don’t know what it is, but we’ve raised the bar a few times. When we had Radiohead and Kraftwerk in a three-hour block, and we’ve had a handful of those throughout the years. Rage, Manu Chao and Willie Nelson was one for me. And someone will look at the lineup and say, “That’s not what I wanted.” Well, who did you want? And I ask that often: Who did you want? I’d like to know. And generally it’s someone who’s not touring. Like Bowie — and by the way, we never made Bowie an offer for the Ziggy Stardust rumor.
Was it ever even a conversation?
TOLLETT: Never even a conversation. For the record, we love Bowie, and we have pursued Bowie, and would love to have him — in any form. But that was one of those ridiculous rumors.
What about Pavement?
TOLLETT: I was told, “Not this year. Don’t count on it for this year.” And we love Pavement. We had them the first year. They kind of disintegrated that day. That was their last — they were already disintegrating coming down the Coast, and by the time they got to Coachella it had puttered out. I probably listened to them more than any band. So much stuff. But like, some of the headliner rumors — Led Zeppelin isn’t touring, Bowie’s not touring, Radiohead’s not touring. If I had it my way, every year would be a brand new headliner, bands who have never headlined another festival, bands who’ve never played Coachella before. And this world is not really creating new headliners. Where are the new headliners? That’s why I like the Killers. Because this is a band that started off in the tent on the Radiohead year, at two in the afternoon, and now they’re headlining a show, because I saw them headline Reading, I saw them headline Glastonbury, saw them at Fuji Rock. And I want to find bands who can take a stage and play in front of 50,000 people.
How’s the festival selling?
TOLLETT: It’s selling well. With the economy, we were scared to death, I’ll admit that. We generally don’t like to talk about the realities, in real time. Go back four or five years and it’s fine to talk about. But in real time, when you’re a promoter, your job is to promote. You’re supposed to be exuberant. You’re supposed to say that every band is the greatest. We have the best lineup in the world. That’s your job, to get the word out. It’s like, last year, when people didn’t like the lineup, we knew Prince was coming. And we tried to tell people, “Seriously, this is the year. Don’t sleep on this one. Get your accommodations, get your tickets.” And then with Roger Waters’ set and Prince’s set, it turned out to be pretty incredible. But you don’t want to hype things. So there’s this balance of the hype — and you do want to warn people that, seriously, there are some great things about to happen. Don’t miss it.
Are you saying that now?
TOLLETT: Um, well, I say it every year, that there are going to be great moments. But I don’t want to promise any surprise, because the thing about surprises — one, of course, if you tell someone about the surprise it’s not a surprise anymore, and also, it could always fall apart. And I stand by the poster as is, every year. Even last year, without Prince, that was worth it for Portishead, and Roger Waters — and tons of other stuff. Prince was like, wow, an added bonus. Seeing some dude who’d never played a festival before, and never will again. If Coachella could do that a few times, we’re doing our job. A band that’s never played a festival play, and then never do it again? That’s kind of exciting. But, yes, we have our wish list of things we’ve written down. And we have our fingers crossed that there will be new bands who start up and write 50 songs. And if they need help, we’ll help.