Coachella documentary producer talks festival’s past… and future

This weekend, thousands of music fans had planned to flock to the California desert for the Coachella festival. Instead, with the entire live music industry at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Coachella 2020 postponed until October — those fans are forced to stay home. But they can still enjoy a “Couchella” of sorts, as YouTube premieres the full-length documentary Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert, starting April 10.

The film was originally supposed to come out March 31, but was pushed after Coachella promoters made the difficult but unavoidable decision to postpone the actual festival in Indio, Calif. “Obviously, it’s a bit of a heavy subject,” Raymond Roker, the head of AEG Studios and the doc’s executive producer, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “I will just say that anything that we may, or I may, feel in terms of disappointment is outweighed by just the reality of the scenario, and the situation we’re all going through right now. …It’s a bittersweet moment that [fans] can’t attend [Coachella], but there’s a hopeful gathering around this project, with them sharing their hopes and memories from the festival. We’re happy that we can be a part of that conversation, and I guess that was sort of the silver lining to having to move [the premiere]. At least we can still sort of celebrate the weekend of Coachella.”

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert starts with the festival’s humble beginnings, when promoters at Goldenvoice had the unfortunate timing of announcing their event the very Monday after the fiery, disastrous Woodstock ’99 weekend, and right around the time that future presidential nominee Joe Biden and other politicians were cracking down on raves and warehouse dance parties. (“It couldn’t have come at a worse time, in terms of what the popular perception and the authorities’ perception of what a ‘festival’ would translate to,” Roker chuckles ruefully.) The film then chronicles the festival through its many pop-culture peaks, including the historic Pixies reunion of 2004, Daft Punk and Madonna’s dancetastic sets in 2006, the Tupac Shakur hologram of 2012, the 2018 spectacle known as “Beychella,” and last year’s K-pop invasion with girl group Blackpink and the hilltop Easter Sunday Service with Kanye West.

Roker, the co-founder of the ‘90s electronic/hip-hop magazine Urb and a man who’s proudly attended every Coachella festival since 1999, has fond memories of those watershed moments. He recalls the Pixies as “just musically earth-shattering. … and seeing it sort of retrospectively, it’s a wonder, or really a marvel, that those types of things happened. … We take it for granted now that bands reunite onstage, but that’s not what happened before that. …Really, to pull a band out of just like ‘We’re done!’ to getting them back together — like, coming in from the four corners of the earth to play together again — that was really profound and really special.” 

After the Pixies set that high bar, reunions and comeback bookings became big business for Coachella. Roker claims to have “no intel” regarding longstanding rumors that the Smiths were offered millions of dollars, more than once, to get back together for the festival, but he does reveal that Goldenvoice CEO Paul Tollett told him David Bowie was “the one that got away,” adding, “There’s a David Bowie story that didn’t quite make it into the film. There’s some history of David Bowie potentially playing Coachella [in the early 2000s], but that never happened.”

One artist that almost got away was Prince, whose 11th-hour addition to the Coachella 2008 lineup makes for one of Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert’s most amusing segments. “There’s a handful of artists that can give Paul Tollett a run for his money, in the sense of keeping him on his toes, and Prince, without question, is one of those people,” says Roker, who reveals that he almost couldn’t secure Prince’s Coachella footage for the documentary. “It’s not something we had in our archive; all we had was a DVD that we had to subsequently clear for the film. But it was like, the master recordings; we never took them home. They all went home with Prince, and we’ve never had our hands on that. So there were a couple of archival hoops to even put some of this stuff on the screen.”

One Coachella reunion — which stands as not just one of the greatest moments of the documentary, but as one of the Coachella moments ever — was the 2005 appearance by gothfathers Bauhaus. As the bowel-rumbling strains of their signature song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” transformed Coachella’s once-sunny polo grounds into a creepy Blair Witch field, frontman Peter Murphy made a grand entrance descending from the rafters swaddled in a black batsuit, dangling midair in an inverted Christ pose. But this film reveals that Bauhaus’s performance could have been even spookier.

“It’s really, really funny — I guess there was a plan, or at least a proposal, to release bats [into the air],” Roker says incredulously. “Actual bats! Which, I have to say, just in light of the era we live in, can you imagine? Essentially how the story goes is that the bats would have violated two rules. One, you can’t have a ‘bird release’ after a certain hour… and apparently bats are ‘birds’ [under this clause] — which they are not, obviously; they are mammals. But the other thing was, there was the risk of rabies. So yeah, that didn’t happen. But the fact that the festival looked into and actually did some research is [an example of] the long lineage of the festival entertaining crazy ideas. And you know, there’s a more recent [crazy idea], which is also in the film, which is of course Kanye West’s [Sunday Service]. And that one happened.”

The documentary also explores the festival’s metamorphosis from an early-aughts “sacred indie temple” to a dance-driven event, with Daft Punk’s above-mentioned set cited as the game-changer. “That performance has a legend that outstrips any number of people that could have been at that tent at the time… they couldn’t have all been there!” Roker jokes. “At the time, I don’t think anybody could have really put a finger on it and said, ‘This is going to be a lightning-bolt moment.’ But I think it turned on the right mix of people; it turned on a bunch of people that weren’t quite dance music fans yet, and turned them into dance music fans. And then it reinforced everybody that was a dance music fan, and went back to the roots of what dance music culture was about. And it had the right people carrying the message. These guys from Daft Punk were not newbies or fly-by-night or riding the bandwagon — they were there since the mid-‘90s, making house music. But they up-leveled the whole presentation, and it kicked off — call it an arms race — but a whole era of creativity. It drove what eventually would become to term ‘EDM,’ and the rest is history.” 

As for the festival’s arguably two biggest mainstream moments — the surprise Tupac hologram stunt during Dr. Dre’s set, which took place during the first Coachella ever streamed online, or Beyoncé’s headlining set, which practically broke the internet — Roker can’t really say which had greater impact. “I think that there’s no doubt that the single sort of biggest pop-culture moment was probably Tupac, because it became iconography… one moment on the stage, an indelible image of the hologram version of Tupac, the Coachella skyline, and this moment live-streamed to the world,” he begins. “But I think culturally, nothing compares with Beyoncé, because not only was that performance one for the ages, but what it did to drive an important conversation around Coachella in terms of representation, and all the cultural markers that were in that performance.”

One of Roker’s favorite personal Coachella memories, however, is one that sadly didn’t make it into the film: in 2008, when Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters became “the first major legacy act” to play Coachella. “If anybody knows the story, it’s pretty wild,” Roker laughs. Roker had hooked up Waters with a graffiti artist named Slick, who then painted a giant inflatable pig with pro-Obama/anti-Bush messaging for Waters’s Sunday headlining set. But when the pig was released into the desert sky, it sailed away, never to return.

“At some point, we were like, ‘Why is it going up?’ I tell you to this date, I still actually do not have an official answer as to what happened, and I haven’t even really asked what the real answer is,” says Roker. “But that pig let loose and flew off. And I think the festival offered a $10,000 reward, like lifetime tickets, to whoever found it, and it finally was found in some ranch or something miles away. But you can’t let a giant inflatable pig go! There are rules, and those rules were all violated that day.” (Thankfully, those proposed Bauhaus bats were never set free — or they might have been retrieved from some Palm Springs resident’s backyard for a $10,000 reward too.) 

While Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert will tide homebound fans over until October, when the concert industry will hopefully get at least little more back to normal, Roker is pensive when asked how Coachella and other postponed or canceled festivals can truly rebound post-pandemic. 

“I don’t know that I have a prognosis. I would say there is no doubt that the industry is going to have to be creative and thoughtful about how it moves forward, and this is going to be a collective human effort. Like, it’s not going to be about some industry figuring things out, because it’s not about just what happens at a festival — it’s what happens at a Bar Mitzvah, it’s what happens at conferences and large restaurants. So it’s really a matter of, ‘How do we protect each other and function in these settings?’ I think at first there was this thought, ‘Oh, what a really tough, tough break for festivals and football games.’ But then it becomes everything. So, we as humans need to figure out how to be smarter with science and protect ourselves and elevate how we interact, and sort of shield from this horrific mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into, frankly. I’m hopeful, because we’re resilient and smart people, but there’s a lot to figure out.” 

The above interview is taken from Raymond Roker’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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