A reflection on Coachella 2004, 20 years later

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Coachella 2004

The realization hit me somewhere around 5:30 p.m. The sun hovered high over the polo fields in the desert of Indio, California, as I watched Death Cab for Cutie play most of the songs from the previous year’s Transatlanticism. The group’s members were clad in matching white coveralls, fighting their hardest if perhaps futile battle against the kind of heat that would make any pale foursome of Pacific Northwesterners wilt. They played well enough, and they’d play bigger stages for pretty much the rest of their career, but despite knowing these songs front and back and having been on the bandwagon since Something About Airplanes, I just wasn’t enjoying it. It’s not Death Cab’s fault, of course. I simply had to face up to the truth: Maybe giant open-air festivals weren’t really my thing?

I’ll confess that, as early as 2004, I was already pretty spoiled. In my early twenties—and for nearly two decades thereafter—I lived just a short drive from one of the best venues in the U.S., San Diego’s The Casbah, which hosted a number of the best shows I’ve ever seen (and a number of astonished musicians gasping at the low-flying jets overhead, on their way to land at the airport just down the hill). The festivals I had gone to were curated less as free-for-alls, like 2003’s All Tomorrow’s Parties at the Queen Mary, which featured indoor and outdoor stages alike. But at that moment, the heat was too much, the figures onstage too small, my poor brain too fatigued to process anything other than a basic, primal need for hydration and maybe a nap.

The Coachella we know now is not the Coachella that took place in 2004. Instagram didn’t exist yet and neither did smartphones. Weekend passes didn’t sell out before the list of performers was announced. Celebrity sightings were probably minimal, and the lineup overwhelming leaned heavy on “alternative” acts. It was not quite yet what The New Yorker‘s Carrie Battan described as “a ritualized parade of beautiful people embracing their inner bohemians for a few days.” The festival had just made its debut five years earlier, headlined by Beck, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine, and while it diversified considerably a few years down the line, its biggest bands—Radiohead, a reunited Pixies, The Flaming Lips, The Cure—still primarily comprised KROQ fare. And for some reason, I have vivid memories of seeing posters up throughout the festival grounds advertising Morrissey’s then-new album You Are the Quarry. Such simpler, more innocent times.

Over the next half of the decade, festival organizers Goldenvoice would raise the bar with bookings, achieving a new high only to try and one-up it the next year. Prince was one of three artists featured in the largest font size on the poster in 2008; in 2009, it was Paul McCartney. Eventually, simply booking some of the biggest artists in the world wouldn’t be enough, there had to be surprise and spectacle to go along with it. In 2023, nearly two dozen sets featured surprise guests: Ellie Goulding performing with Calvin Harris, Tyler, the Creator joining Kali Uchis, Bad Bunny showing up during Gorillaz’s set. God help any artist that planned to show up with just a setlist of songs and expected that to be enough.

In 2004, that’s pretty much all it was, the level of razzle-dazzle from today’s Coachella still yet to become part of the culture of the festival. The entire weekend comprised artists just performing their music, maybe sometimes with a big-screen display, occasionally with some fancy effects, but for the most part about as straightforward as a music festival gets. I’m neither praising nor lamenting it, that’s really all anyone expected, and truth be told, I was excited! I grew up listening to The Pixies and never expected to see them, but I finally had the opportunity. Ditto Radiohead, and even now, looking over the lineup, I’m actually pretty impressed with the full range of artists that filled the stages all weekend. I’m just not sure if the ones I chose, by and large, were the right ones in the right place.

Not everyone sounds great at a festival. This isn’t news to anyone, but sometimes you don’t realize it until you experience it firsthand. Argentinian singer/songwriter Juana Molina seemed as if she’d be swallowed by the noise of the crowd, whereas Washington, D.C. post-hardcore trio Q and Not U managed to hold their own with a set of call-and-response funk-punk jams inside an overcrowded tent full of people waiting to see Beck (who should have been playing a bigger stage). The anarchic onstage chaos of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead doesn’t quite hit the same in a huge field in broad daylight. And though The Pixies sounded decent enough, they didn’t quite seem like they had shaken off all the cobwebs or long-simmering tensions (Kim Deal would once again leave the group not long thereafter).

Radiohead, however, seemed to do just fine. In a second year of touring behind their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, the group had been comfortably and ably playing stadium shows since the turn of the millennium and knew how to command a massive stage. The songs that worked were sometimes the ones you’d expect (“Paranoid Android,” “Everything In Its Right Place”), and sometimes they were ones you didn’t (Thom Yorke frantically twirling his way across the stage during the rhythmically intricate “Myxomatosis”). They even brought “Creep” out of storage during their encore, as if to suggest a quintet of high-minded art-rockers could still have a little fun, but it wasn’t necessary. I knew I was having fun.

Looking back at the lineup now, I’m actually impressed at the lineup overall, even if I have the luxury of 20 years hindsight to question my choices. I can ask myself why I didn’t stay late enough to watch MF DOOM’s set, but by that point I was already 30 minutes deep into hearing a symphony of car alarms as I desperately searched for my own. Or for that matter, why I didn’t watch Kraftwerk? (There was some overlap with Radiohead, though I have no regrets about sticking around.) And for reasons I don’t quite remember, probably having to do with being 22 and broke, I only went to one day of the then-two-day festival, which meant missing out on The Cure, though I did, eventually, rectify that.

Seeing Radiohead and a handful of friends who also spent that weekend baking and probably getting baked was fun enough, but I felt comfortable enough at the time saying I simply wasn’t a festival guy. I sunburn easily, I’ve never snorted drugs off of a pair of sunglasses, and I definitely don’t buy into the luxury festival experience that blossomed a decade later. I’m considerably older now, and still see as much live music as I ever have (on Mondays even!), but I feel just as firm in my convictions now as I did then. Tom Breihan of Stereogum summed up my thoughts quite well back in 2022: “Look: I’m an old man. I’m not going to Coachella. If I were going to Coachella, I would be one of the 12 people watching Spiritualized in what is certain to be a gigantic and empty tent.” (The following year he also said he was 86 years old—past a certain age, big, populist music festivals have a tendency to age you about 40 years in a single weekend.)

Then again, I have gone to a lot of festivals since then. I went to the last Street Scene in San Diego, in which Los Campesinos! made public that they weren’t getting paid for being there, but played the hell out of their set regardless. I went to something called the Southern Comfort Music experience and saw a great set from Saul Williams and performance from the Black Keys that’s about what you’d expect. I’ve been to SXSW three times, Psycho California, Psycho Las Vegas, three years of FYF Fest, Pasadena Daydream, and any number of local showcases that mostly just featured a bunch of bands in one room. I even once considered going back to Coachella sometime around 2009 when a website I wrote for asked if I wanted to cover—I almost went, but by that stage every campsite, hotel and vacation rental was already booked months in advance, and I probably would have had to sleep in my car. (I did not want to sleep in my car.)

And the thing is: I had fun! At pretty much all of them, even the awkward Street Scene where nobody got paid, or the goofy SoCo-sponsored festival. Which leads me to an uncomfortable question that I have to ask myself now, in my forties: Am I, in fact, a festival guy? With each passing year, the dial leans a little closer to Absolutely Not, but it always wavers a little. When the time comes that I do eventually announce my Festival Farewell Tour, I invite you to treat it a little skepticism.

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