A Very Mainstream Pedigree
My first real music festival experiences and initial education in this lifestyle came from attending Lollapalooza in Chicago during my college summers with some of my friends from high school. It always presented a bountiful variety of widely popular acts, genre-defining icons, notable up-and-comers and all sorts of alternative groups. This year several of our group finally made Coachella happen, and in essence it’s the Lolla of the West, but bigger and more extreme in both its mainstream offerings and younger crowd of West Coast bros and basic white girls.
On the positive, opposite side of this extreme lies more groundbreaking innovators and niche specialty acts/rare performers, which was the huge draw for me. When the lineup dropped at the beginning of the year, the inclusion of my all-time favorite DJ/producer – Siberian acid techno queen Nina Kraviz – as well as intelligent dance music (IDM) vanguard and mind-shattering electronic trailblazer Aphex Twin, warranted enough reason for me to finally pull the trigger and check Coachella off my festival bucket list.
Plenty of extra costs and annoying behaviors from attendees (the obsessive impulse of taking Instagram glamour shots and frequently recording performers runs rampant here) just come with the territory of Coachella. But it does prove to be an extremely well-operated and extravagantly produced experience, a fact clear from the high-quality livestreams alone – the best I’m aware of for any festival.
Coachella has earned its reputation as the most well-known music festival in the U.S., spawning its own distinct culture, fashion sense and primarily catering to a pretty specific audience. But as I ran into more internationals here than any of my previous music events (especially Australians – sooooo many Australians), I acutely realized its global influence, for better and for worse.
As per usual, I found myself behind schedule the week of and didn’t leave Denver until nearly 11 p.m. Thursday night. Running on about three hours of sleep, I drove 16 hours straight to Palm Springs, CA, propelled by the excitement of all the phenomenal music that awaited me. There was no time to waste, and upon finally making it to the airbnb, I became acquainted with the early arrivals, my high school buddy Bob’s Twitter friends and NYC creatives Goose and Mike (at the fest, Tierra Whack actually stopped her whole set to call out how “This guy [Mike] looks like Flying Lotus!”).
It’s funny how you can plan a festival trip with old friends and wind up spending less time with those people than new members of the group, as so occurred with the three of us. The shuttle to and from the festival was close to an hour each way, where we got a strong taste of California-girl vibes talking to those around us. On the way there a seven-year attendee gave me the impression of a more naïve/less advanced drug culture inherent to the festival (they all loooove MDMA, but “Psychedelics? What? OMG!”). Yet on the return journey late that night, a 30-year raver and local detailed to me the exorbitant amounts of ayahuasca and plant medicine she’d been doing recently in Costa Rica.
Techno Take Me to the Desert
Just as Lollapalooza has the infamous, EDM-focused Perry’s stage, Coachella boasts the air-conditioned, indoor Yuma stage – an extraordinary haven of top-notch house and techno. Yuma was my primary domain throughout the weekend, and I made it inside the grounds just in time to start off there with the baroness of Belgian techno, rising star Amelie Lens. I’d been waiting for the chance to see Amelie for over a year, so I immediately kicked into high-octane mode upon the greeting of her pounding beats raging through the dance hall in rumbling repercussions at a rigorously fast BPM.
With thunderous speakers at both the front and middle of the stage, it sounded excellent everywhere, so flooding the front wasn’t necessary (but getting up there always proved easy, and a walkway between stage and crowd allowed unfettered passage across). Anytime sweat began to drip, I could quickly dip over to the right or left wall to catch my breath with powerful blasts of cold air from the side vents. Instead of visuals up front, luminous color-changing lights extending across the entire ceiling synched with the music and would reflect on multiple disco balls, including an iconic disco shark.
There was no microphone for the DJs to ramble on either (these were all serious house and techno, mainly European selectors anyway, who don’t tend to abuse the mic like many American EDM DJs), so amping up the audience was entirely a matter of effective mixing. All of this to say, Yuma’s phenomenal design made it somewhere you could comfortably dance and roam around in a dim room to killer tunes all day, giving those with more discerning or advanced electronic music taste a special place to escape the desert sun and bothersome crowds. The audience filled up Yuma only a handful of times throughout the weekend, but even then there’s a capacity for this stage so it never got so packed you couldn’t smoothly move around.
Following the fierce intensity of Amelie Lens, the thumping synthesizer symphonics of the cinematically styled Danish mixer Kölsch provided a pristinely satisfying dance party of artful techno and exalted melodies. Next I stepped out of Yuma, gazed up in awe at the colossal visage of the Coachella astronaut aka the “Overview Effect” (my favorite detail was the outer space-themed festival bands on its wrist), and wandered over to the Gobi tent. This being a desert festival, more than half of the stages derived their names from notable deserts.
Thanks to the privilege of solid cell phone service (an extension of the white privilege embedded throughout the festival), I found my OG fest squad members Bob and Vince here as we took in the French electro-pop of Polo & Pan. This endearingly quirky duo’s set buoyantly brought to mind a wacky French circus translating the fun energy of Matt and Kim with a taste of Liquid Stranger’s wobbly weirdness. I almost went with the boys to the structurally deviant dissonance and discord of Sophie but figured after multiple other missed opportunities and only one other live band on my weekend schedule, I ought to finally witness Rüfüs Du Sol.
Walking to the Outdoor Theatre I stopped in the middle of the festival grounds at the most bizarre installation, an art structure with a haphazard-looking rocketship and various rooms where hippo-people wearing lab coats/space suits conducted scientific experiments and danced around. What’s going on here?? Where am I again? Uh, I should get over to Rufus.
Snaking forward through a predominantly teenybopper swath of festivalgoers I’d thus far efficiently avoided, for a band more deeply embedded in the feelsy zone of music than I usually engage with, the cynic in me began rebelling. Yet the sweet earnestness of these wholesome Australian boys (my favorite accents of the weekend), their poignant harmonies, rapturous visual production, a couple resounding drum solos and a brief detour on the dark side managed to win me over.
Warm and smiling wide, I left for the Mojave tent and had no idea what was going on in the sparsely populated final few minutes of Sophie’s set. No one was there early to wait for Nina Kraviz, so I attempted to zip along the side of the immense, totally full Sahara stage and warm up with some of the Madame of underground techno, Nicole Moudaber, at Yuma first. But I couldn’t overcome the overwhelming horde of basics and bros bumping to a lame-o Diplo set, so I refocused my resolve and wisely doubled back, forgoing Moudaber for a guaranteed spot front and center for the one true techno queen.
Queen Kraviz and the Mystical Ritual
I found myself in the company of several other hardcore fans on the rail, including two girls from Moscow and Chris from Beijing. At any European festival and any other American festival with this techno lineup, the front section would be packed waiting for Nina Kraviz, especially for this unprecedented live show – yet the crowd only filled out right before its start. Chris cited his understanding of Coachella as a “fashion runway” festival as we stood perplexed by the disconnect between boundary-pushing artist and an audience chiefly made up of normies.
Nina designed this new performative, transcendent audiovisual experience back in Moscow and its debut at the first weekend of Coachella wasn’t just the most daring, divisive smashing of expectations at the fest – it was also her first live show ever. With this in mind, I knew my favorite musician had a historic, spellbinding headtrip in store, though I was honestly anxious this evolution may not live up to the magic I felt the other times I’ve seen her. Those worries evaporated in the first 10 minutes as Nina transported me to an enthralling plane of mystical power and otherworldly vibrational frequency.
The stage layout resembled a living room with furniture, a tall standing mirror, a mixer, keyboard, microphones and two Xbox One Kinect sensors facing Nina. Backdropping the stage was a screen displaying trippy imagery, moody footage exploring the Russian auteur’s mysterious psyche and a motion-tracked 3D-animated version of the stage space in a roving liveview. This psychedelic visualization artistically used the Kinect feeds for an empyreal creation as Nina flowed between ethereal singing, old-school live mixing, hypnotizing modern/interpretive dancing, ritualistic movements and inexplicable sorcery.
The live rendition of “Mr. Jones” sent chills down my spine, and most of the showcased tracks came to life in fascinating new ways more bewitching than if she’d been on the decks mixing them like usual. Her saucy dance moves while DJing have always been a highlight of her shows, but here she twists and turns, writhing about, conjuring all sorts of electronic and experimental witchcraft in dynamic fashion.
Last year Nina Kraviz played 35 festivals – more than any other DJ on the planet – so debuting such a personal, unapologetically avant-garde project at the massive festival platform of Coachella makes sense, especially considering the much wider reach the livestream gave her. Simultaneously, it’s also a paradoxical choice, as this show is so far out from what the Coachella crowd appreciates. It was clear the vast majority of the crowd didn’t really get it, but for the small minority who did, the magnanimous Kraviz took us on a mesmerizing spiritual experience into the beyond.
Most people were too bewildered to dance much but I threw my body into the energetic whirlwind as Nina shook my soul to the core. Her climactic sequence twirling about to spacey sound waves seemed to open a higher-dimensional portal and viscerally represented the creative process of putting your all into your art. She concluded the set by bringing out a piano player and singing a heartfelt tune in the style of a jazz club serenade – perhaps the boldest flourish in this abstract show, resonating with such sublime emotion it had me welling up with tears.
Afterward, Nina bestowed us with the surprise treat of an actual techno set at the Do LaB stage, spinning at a little more relaxed BPM than her typical deep acid mode and selecting a more accessible variety of groovy bangers alongside signature tracks from her трип (Trip) label. As much as I love when she ferociously pushes the beat to the edge, my body was exhausted, so this pace supplied the ideal wind-down for the intoxicating first day.
Apex of Insanity
Saturday popped off with a rare reunion set of Iranian-American duo Deep Dish (aka Dubfire and Sharam) at Yuma. Heated house lifting the room in euphoric rhythms evolved with zestful techno-grounding until blasting off in an electro hyperdrive of surging phasers and clangorous photon torpedoes. Tale of Us followed suit as they activated Godzilla mode, building up with high-key chords, melodic crests and undulating synths – then swooping down and stomping around with fiery bass and roaring percussive force.
Next I returned to Mojave for a set I’d been waiting years to see – the frenetic delirium and alien wavelengths of masterful electronica madman Aphex Twin. The beginning eased the audience in (relatively speaking) to the aggressive mania to come, kicking into high gear around the 20-minute mark. The beats got heavier, the tempo shot up in speed and constant variation, and the visuals stepped up from trippily distorted crowd shots to weirdly disconcerting images of a CGI cheerleader with the trademark Aphex ugly face. A palpable sense of “Oh shit how do I keep up and dance to this craziness??” rose from the uninitiated, while the bodies of the more experienced started flailing with a rowdy fury.
No one jumps across time signatures and rhythms, nor experiments in such opposition to expected musical structures, as Aphex Twin. This was a gloriously challenging set, akin to facing the ultra-fast and super tough final boss who repeatedly kicks your butt in an 8-bit video game. Deeper and deeper down the Aphex wormhole, the noises annihilate an ever-increasing range of your musical preconceptions, throwing them against the wall with a freaky velocity and gnarly abrasiveness.
The whole second half of the set in particular frantically kept everyone on their toes, because a 90-mph curveball could strike you out of nowhere at any time. The visuals grew stranger, more twisted and vividly out-there as the songs revved into full-throttle insanity. The concluding 15 minutes blew the most minds, orchestrating an ultimate gonzo push toward the event horizon while assaulting the senses and culminating in one false ending after another. Those who survived through the finale walked away rocked into a radically different realm of existence.
As if to verify I was no longer on Earth, the giant astronaut appeared to me again, rolling through the center of the fest while I strolled over to Tame Impala’s headlining act at the Coachella stage. Vibrant, swirling streams of pleasing colors spread across the huge screens behind and to the sides of the psychedelic rock band, and hanging over them a circular stargate tilted about as the lights on it shone in patterns that I suspect sent signals to extraterrestrials.
The crew and I regrouped and chilled out from the Aphex adventure, with Mike and Goose filling me in on seeing Idris Elba hype up Yuma with “Old Town Road”. When “Apocalypse Dreams” started, a sprightly airiness returned in my feet to send me weaving in and out of the audience like a bird soaring on the wind. Guest appearances prominently figure into Coachella, and the unconventional surprise of A$AP Rocky joining the band onstage led to a blissfully enchanting performance of “L$D (Love, $ex, Dreams)“.
I got a dose of all three main acts playing during the last hour of Saturday, first dipping back into Yuma for Stephan Bodzin as I heard the techno calling me from outside, but it began sounding too much like a “Castlevania” soundtrack to keep me there long. I could only make it a little way into the enormous throng at Sahara for KiD CuDi, just as Kanye West showed up, so I stuck around for his several songs, shrugged unimpressed, then beelined it to Bassnectar. Considering Lorin was playing a 55-minute set at the country’s most mainstream festival, the hit-or-miss quality of his track choices isn’t much of a surprise. At least I got some good thrashing in to finish the night.
You and Me, Yuma Baby
I set alarms for Kanye’s Easter Sunday Service on “The Mountain” in the camping area, but taking the shuttle from Palm Springs and getting there by 9 a.m. was an impossible goal. However, I did arrive to Coachella a few hours earlier for this extended Yuma day, catching the end of Yotto and warming up my extra-tired body to Dusky’s house vibes. The struggle with soreness subsided once Maya Jane Coles took over the booth as her alter ego Nocturnal Sunshine, leading the crowd on a darker dive techno ride, which I enjoyed more than her groovy, house-driven main sound. The handful of drum and bass tracks she sprinkled in were all I heard from that genre throughout the weekend, thus making for a refreshing change of pace.
Before Charlotte de Witte took over, the Yuma audience grew significantly and anticipation filled the air. Judging by Yuma reactions the rest of the weekend, this indicates a much wider recognition and rapidly expanding fanbase with more mainstream EDM listeners for the Belgian valkyrie of deep space techno. She opened her set with high-pitched siren transmissions on the edge of the galaxy, then pulled no punches as she released a relentless barrage of throbbing pulsars, nimbly maneuvering through an electrifying asteroid field like a bolt of lightning.
The second half of Charlotte’s set conflicted with French prince of darkness Gesaffelstein, so I hit the bathroom in preparation for that and, lo and behold, ran into my best friend in Denver, Mike. He’d been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for 11 days but was close enough to Coachella he decided to come on a whim, still carrying his big pack and dressed in hiking gear. It’s only fitting we’d randomly find each other at the dope techno, as always.
Gesaffelstein was dishing out deliciously dark synthesizer electronica during a primetime slot at the Outdoor Theatre, sporting a unique stage production concept. A 30-foot-tall monolith covered in the blackest light-absorbing material known to man towered behind him and next to the lights, while he wore a shining reflective black material from the waist up, including over his whole head. It created a distinctly captivating atmosphere, and at this rate, he’s coming into his own as the next Justice.
I took my opportunity after his set to experience The Antarctic Dome, which projected a 360-degree, visually jaw-dropping music video for Rüfüs Du Sol’s “Underwater” onto the gigantic curved ceiling. I went up the color-shifting spiral tower as well, which looks awesome from the outside but disappointing from within. The secret: the panes of glass are different colors, but inside it’s all just white lights.
The sweet embrace of Yuma welcomed me back one final time at the end of Guy Gerber, who got the crowd’s blood pumping for Eric Prydz to close out this beautifully bangin’ stage as his techno alias Cirez D. Prydz sparked an energetic fire of bouncing resilience and thrust the beat forward nonstop for two thrilling hours, taking the booming, deeply felt basslines and unstoppable synth rhythms to radiantly reverberating heights, especially in the second half.
So if the Coachella lineup speaks to you some year, yeah, it’s worth navigating the bro roads and traversing the basic waters, in particular for the intimacy you can get at the prestige performers’ sets and the stellar environment Yuma offers for the house and techno. But if it’s a costly journey and you can catch the artists you care about elsewhere, this is not the California fest you’ve been dreaming of.