For the first time in my years attending Coachella – whether it’s because Sputnik is finally ascending to the big leagues or the organizers were annoyed at my yearly badgering – I was granted a media pass. This is not as cool as it initially sounds – i.e., I can’t go backstage or to the VIP and do coke with Pusha T, nor can I flash my bracelet at security and bypass the huddled masses at the general admission lines. I can, however, acquire free water and fruit bars (shout out to Fruttare! your strawberry rules) at the media area, as well as use bathrooms that aren’t piled high with MDMA shits and don’t stink (quite as bad). I also got to go backstage at the Do LaB and see just how that party of water guns, painted dancers and endless, twitchy bass functions from noon to midnight, as well as check out the VJ booth at the Sahara tent, an island of sanity and artwork amidst a sea of shirtless, sweaty ravers. It’s where the VJ (video jockey) and his team work out the 3D video mapping visuals for the DJs who perform, where light shows are as integral a part of someone’s set as the music is. It’s also where women in high heels lay out on the couch and guys sip Heineken self-importantly – at Coachella, your power and coolness directly correlates with how many wristbands you have on your arm.
Case-in-point: one portly gentleman introduced himself to me shortly after my girlfriend and I made it up on the platform. Perhaps sensing the presence of another journalist because I was not in high heels nor escorted by models, he introduced himself as “from Esquire” and asked “what my outlet was.” I stammered out, “uh, Sputnikmusic….you’ve probably heard of it online,” but the crinkling of his forehead in disgust suggested otherwise. His right arm was considerably more weighted down with wristbands than was mine. “Do you cover EDM?” he asked, nodding toward Benny Benassi pounding out the last of his set across the bouncing heads of thousands of ravers. “Well, yeah, but mostly indie,” I yelled back. “I’m actually going over to Franz Ferdinand in a little bit.” He nodded sagely. “Oh, so you’re interviewing them?” I looked at him blankly. “Umm . . . no . . . I’m going to see the show.” This conversation was going nowhere fast. “That’s cool,” he screamed back over Benassi dropping a particularly filthy dubstep remix of “Satisfaction,” in a tone that did not seem very cool at all. “What after-parties are you going to tonight?” This was my chance to get the ins. “I’m not sure yet,” I replied, “there’s so many! Where are you going?” Smooth, Klapper. He proceeded to rattle off a list of hotel after-parties, where the only thing I could imagine him doing at said parties was trying to look like as much of an imperious douche as possible. “Sounds sweet, man, I’ll look you up there,” I said, and ran away to the relative safety of the Heineken cooler. Note to Willie – get me on those guest lists next year!
The VJ himself, however, was a pleasure to talk to, an amazing opportunity I snagged just before he worked his magic on Moby’s DJ set. Vello Virkhaus is part of V Squared Labs, a visual arts production studio that has worked with Amon Tobin, Infected Mushroom, and Ultra Musical Festival besides handling most of the work for Coachella as well as the psychedelic interior of the festival’s Heineken Dome. Aside from having one of the best jobs on the planet, Vello was gracious and open to showing me just how he creates all the complex light shows that hypnotize thousands of audience members a day. For Moby, Vello noted that, since it was a DJ set, he was sort of going in blinder than usual – Moby had directed that the visuals be basic and essential but still intense, with “a lot of black and white, static, minimal shapes.” Usually artists send him tracks beforehand so he can acquainted with the music and work out a roadmap for the set – chuckling, he noted that “I had to listen to Dillon Francis’ set a few times.”
The setup itself was incredible to look at and nearly impossible to decipher for the untrained eye: a bank of computers and screens mixed with what looked like a soundboard but actually all controlled the various video options, much like a DJ controls the intricacies of his set with his own board. One central time clock keeps everything moving along more or less in line, but Vello still must constantly perform plenty of manual shifting and adjusting. “I was able to use a lot of the same designs and mocks that I prepared for Ultra [the Ultra Music Festival, held in Miami every March], but still had to customize everything for each artist and adjust things throughout each set on the fly.” Some artists do their own visuals – Vello mentioned both Dog Blood and Knife Party as artists with their own visual teams – but he and the rest of the technicians were still responsible for downloading up to around 10 GB of material and get everything running properly. It seemed like a complicated job, but the interplay between Vello expertly working the visuals in time with Moby’s epic set of acid house and driving electro was something beautiful to watch. “The longest set I’ve ever done was 8 hours,” Vello noted, making this night’s work a relative breeze. Asked if he listens to EDM in his spare time, Vello smiled and said, “Ha, yeah, I like EDM . . . I listen to some in my spare time, but after a while you gotta change it up.” No judgment from this end – after days in the Sahara tent, most would agree. Much love to both Vello and the rest of the team at V Squared, who let me back on the VJ booth to watch Vello at work throughout the rest of the weekend.
As for the rest of Saturday, I had to deal with an almost criminal level of conflicts. Things started off fine with the shoegaze of Wild Nothing, whose live show has improved considerably since his first, hesitant performances for Gemini. After that was uncompromising Finnish DJ Huoratron in the Yuma tent, who delivered perhaps the hardest electro set I have ever seen. My friend couldn’t handle it and had to leave – I, on the other hand, loved Huoratron’s relentless energy and his almost satanic vibe (the dark of Scandinavia will do that to you, I suppose). Bat for Lashes provided a nice contrast, performing in a ridiculous bird outfit before shedding into a sexy metallic bikini top and delivering a festival high point with a heartfelt, emotionally draining rendition of “Laura” that projected just fine even with the bass bleeding over from the Sahara tent.
Around the time the Postal Service came on the main stage for a much-anticipated reunion set, the decisions were starting to tear at me. A little bit of “Nothing Better,” with Jenny Lewis and Ben Gibbard bouncing lyrics off each other like it was 2003. Some weird tech house illuminating the Mojave tent courtesy of Simian Mobile Disco. Bits of Manhattan Beach punk legends Descendents and the ‘”YEUGH” stylings of Pusha T. The sunset trifecta of Portugal. the Man, Hot Chip, and Yeasayer, who all seemed perfectly suited for the festival environment, particularly the latter, whose set seemed a lot less tribal and a helluva lot more audience-friendly than their 2010 jam.
No set hit me over the weekend as hard as Franz Ferdinand did, however. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never seen them live, but why did these guys just fade away? They owned the stage like they should have been the biggest rock band in the world. “No You Girls;” “Take Me Out;” “Walk Away;” an absolutely ferocious, homoerotic rendition of “Michael.” Alex Kapranos was in fine form, teasing out the best in the audience as all the good frontmans learn to eventually do. And those guitars! At one point a couple in front of me, the man in a kimono and the woman in some sort of Victorian dress, scrambled on the ground in front of me like they had just lost a particularly valuable piece of (drug) merchandise. When the opening riff of “Take Me Out” rattled out of the speakers, they immediately stopped what they were doing and began an interpretive dance with each other that lasted throughout the whole song and followed the lyrics and rhythm nearly exactly. Then the song ended, and they left without a word. It turned what had already become a superlative experience into one of the most memorable shows of the weekend.
The worst quandary of the weekend, though was the headlining agony of Phoenix and Sigur Ros. Now, many may know me as quite the fan of the French indie rockers, but the Law of the Main Stage was in play here – having seen Phoenix years prior on the Outdoor stage, I knew the main stage’s acoustic problems and the massive crowd less keen on Phoenix and more hoping to get a chance to see Daft Punk finally live up to all the rumors meant they would inevitably disappoint. Of course, I was wrong – the band proved more than up to the headlining slot, with drummer Thomas Hedlund in particular murdering his kit. The new tunes from Bankrupt! seemed particularly well suited for a festival environment, especially new track “The Real Thing,” although the lack of fans who actually knew the hook kind of deflated the moment. Best, however, was when the band got their jam on and nearly blew out the main stage’s considerable speaker array with the spacey “Love Like A Sunset,” all with singer Thomas Mars lying down on the stage and watching the kaleidoscopic light show the band had on hand for the occasion before sauntering up and finishing things off. Too bad the average audience member thought all the buildup was for a nonexistent Daft Punk appearance and not one of the band’s best, more unfamiliar songs.
Sigur Ros, though; I didn’t regret a thing. The Icelandic post-rock group (and I do mean group – the touring band was massive, with strings, horns, a piano and backing singers all arranged along the stage) put together an enthralling video that played in sync with the band’s winding, hypnotic buildup, the stage itself illuminated by a haunting army of candelabras. The combination of Jonsi’s ethereal voice and the band’s sweeping orchestration merged together into a cinematic experience that was best enjoyed lying down or jumping up or simply just standing there, taking it all in. It was the most surreal experience of the weekend and a set of pure intensity and silent audience adoration, the desert wind seeming to pick up and bite along with the bowed guitars and crashing drums – one could hardly tell where one song ended and the next one began, so seamless were the group’s transitions. And that was all right. Sigur Ros makes music that tries to mirror the ebb and flow of life – messy, fluctuating, passionate. At Coachella, they not only succeeded in making that music come alive but managed to produce a set that represented all of the best qualities the festival has to offer.
- Hot Chip making a strong case for “Flutes” as song of the (last) year with an inspired performance on the main stage. Nerdier guys have never made sexier music.
- Janelle Monae crowd-surfing, acting out a battle onstage, getting the crowd to do her bidding, and generally being the epitome of a female Prince.
- 2 Chainz showing up 20 minutes late and then nearly making up for it to an overflow crowd at the Mojave tent with a short but vibrant set.
- New Order repping some old Joy Division classics to a (relatively) intimate crowd as the closing Mojave set
- Phoenix playing an absolutely hilarious practical joke on all the kids who wanted to hear Daft Punk by bringing out a wildly incompatible R. Kelly to perform a remix of “1901” and “Ignition (Remix)” that was so bizarre – especially when Kelly segued into a medley of “I’m A Flirt (Remix)” – that it sort of, almost, maybe worked.