It is Thursday afternoon on the 18th of April, 2019.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Coachella Music Festival.
For the past 6 weeks I’ve been on a road trip across America, from LA to New Orleans and then winding back through the National Parks to Indio California, to attend the second weekend of this year’s event.
After spending the last few days hanging out on Redondo Beach, I leave LA around lunchtime, heading into the desert. The heat is dry and oppressive, but after a few hours, a dust-blown sign from the cover a very significant Kyuss album appears…
…welcome to Sky Valley.
It’s proper desert out here – tumbleweed, rattlesnakes and some of the best damn barbecue you will ever taste.
After spending the night camped on the San Andreas fault, Friday morning is already sweltering hot by 10 ‘o clock, heading quickly towards a 100 degree summer day. I’m sweating profusely before lunchtime – an ominous sign.
All vehicle parking is off-site on a multitude of satellite locations, with regular shuttle buses running people the 15 minute trip into the event. It’s an incredibly quick and efficient system that mitigates the crushing bottlenecks we experience back home during every major festival around the country.
On approach, the thick haze of dust is the first thing I notice – because it seems I’m the only one on the bus not prepared with a face-mask.
Walking through the main gates, the iconic ferris wheel is to the right and the festival grounds spread out as far as the eye can see. Across six stages over 125, 000 punters are here to see Childish Gambino, Tame Impala and Ariana Grande headline this year’s edition.
My first portrait shoot for the weekend is with SG Lewis, a soon-to-blow-up, 23 year-old, EDM producer / singer-songwriter, out of Liverpool in the UK. His music is lush – both upbeat and ethereal, and this week he’s bringing out Australian golden-boy Ruel for a gorgeous collaboration on his new track, “Flame.”
It’s 3pm when I meet him in the artist area, the sun is directly overhead and brutal so we find a shady corner to snap some images. He’s super easy going, in a great mood and very excited for his set that evening after a great response on weekend one. You can tell he loves this life – and I expect his profile will rise fast over the next 12 months.
The opening day is awash with brilliant live music – featuring Anderson Paak & The Free Nationals, The 1975, Kasey Musgraves and Janelle Monae – but Childish Gambino steals the show with an epic close-out set on main stage. Throughout the energetic set, he earnestly attempts to get the crowd to put down their phones, to connect, to exist here in the present, without the separation of the screen, to varying levels of success. It’s a undeniably fantastic show and I cannot wait to see him own the amphitheater at Splendour in the Grass this year.
Day two of the festival is a busy one backstage – with four portrait shoots on my schedule.
The first is with Lido, a Norwegian record producer now living in LA who’s worked with Alt-J, Disclosure, Bastille and The Weeknd – just to name a few. He’s also re-mixed Kayne West’s “Life of Pablo” to create “Life of Peder.”
This guy is hyper-creative, with a string of projects, compelling music and ideas creating a swirling buzz around his work – anything he touches is quickly in high demand.
Today is not nearly as hot as Friday, so we walk out around the festival ground to capture a few portrait images. He’s a very friendly, softly spoken guy, happy to poke fun at himself and this strange process.
Next up, I’ve got a portrait session with some Australians!
From our very own Byron Bay comes the smooth disco soul sounds of PARCELS – the band currently resides in Berlin and are out here in California for the very first time.
These guys were having a great time – clearly enjoying the ride – chuckling their way through a string of interviews on the couches in the media area. Spending this time with them is fun, the band is every bit as endearing as their music – cheeky, irreverent and unapologetically silly.
My next subject is Puerto Rican-Cuban born in Miami singer-songwriter, Sabrina Claudio, who released her debut album No Rain, No Flowers last year and would be performing on main stage in just a few hours time… a sultry, hypnotic, late afternoon performance that saw the crowd swell with fevered interest.
Sabrina has an unmistakable star power. She is calm, centered and thoughtful both on and off-stage.
The last photo session of the day was with Sofi Tukker, the wicked EDM duo out of New York City.
These guys were the most fun to work with. They engaged immediately with the weird look of the fish eye lens. They played around with the edge distortion while I snapped them being weirdos. I really love the energy of these images.
The 4/20 sunset was a deep orange on Saturday evening. Things are about to get trippy. The heavy waft of vaporized weed filled the night air as Aussie psych heavyweights, Tame Impala take over main stage – only the second Australian band to headline Coachella – after AC/DC in 2015.
It’s a special Easter morning as Kayne West delivers a Sunday Service on the hill, bringing the gospel direct to Chella. It’s less of a Yeezus show and more of a musical church of emotional re-imagination, with members of the congregation openly weeping with joy.
The first portrait session for Sunday was with free-wheeling UK multi-instrumentalists, Easy Life. Self-described as “your favourite old jazz record mixed with the dirty wonders of modern production techniques,” the band is definitely one to watch.
Today however, the British lads were feeling the temperature, over-heating in the unrelenting desert whilst recovering from a big night. Despite the obvious discomfort, they were charming, funny and extremely patient as I walked us over behind main stage for the photo session.
My last portrait session is with Niiko x SWAE, an LA based, DJ / producer duo. These guys are like the human equivalent of red cordial at a birthday party – they’re gonna have fun regardless so you might as well catch up.
Just like the infectious beats they create – it only makes sense to surrender to the vibe they’re putting down…
While some were starting to feel tired on the third and final day – Niiko and Swae were having an awesome time – bouncing back and forth across the media area – soaking up the experience.
Sunday night closes out to with some beautiful, melodic pop music – with Chvrches and Ariana Grande whirling the crowd into oblivion. Justin Bieber makes an appearance during the latter’s set and Coachella loses it’s collective mind , despite his sketchy lip-sync of “Sorry.”
My stand-out performances of the weekend were Lizzo ( my favourite new artist ), Childish Gambino ( this show is a goddamn journey ), Weezer ( banger after banger ), Sofi Tukker ( too much fun!! ) and Chvrches ( an effortlessly epic set that left me floating out into the night ).
The lasting impression of Coachella is the people – bold, outgoing and strange, beautiful and confident, dancing through the stages and colorful art installations in the drifting dust and baking heat.
All words and photos by Josh Groom ( unless courtesy of Coachella ).