The subcultures of Coachella: a personal experience

By Matt Hose

My Friday night view of the main acts of Coachella provided an interesting experience of the subcultures of the music festival. I traveled from Bassnectar to How to Destroy Angels to Earl Sweatshirt to Tegan and Sara to Blur.

As a photographer for the event, I was allowed to go into the photo pit located directly in front of the stage for every set for the first three songs or the first 15minutes of a DJ performance. On Friday night, as the sun set and the glowsticks snapped and as the headliners rolled in, I decided to photograph Bassnectar in lieu of the other headliners that were starting around the same time. This might have proven to be a mistake because at the Sahara tent where Bassnectar played, the stage for DJs was raised so high that it was impossible to view, let alone take a photo of, the person behind the turntables from my angle.

Nevertheless, it gave me a unique view of the front row of the show. As the music began, the crowd rocked their heads so aggressively that they looked like they were in pain. The obvious point of this music was to be as hard-hitting and bass-driven as possible. The crowd responded in kind, as the over 30 rows of people crammed and pushed to the front. Some people, teeth chattering and eyes glossy from hours of drug binges, jumped up and down for the entirety of the 15 minutes that I was allowed to photograph them. Clearly, this was the nighttime crowd. It was the people that sleep through all of the acts during the day, wake up at 5 p.m. and can’t wait until sunset to crack their glowsticks. Until around 4 or 5 a.m. they would likely be at the “silent dance party,” at which all participants must wear headphones and listen to the same DJ silently.

After my 15 minutes of photo taking were up, I decided to take my leave of the amped up tent to see a band called How to Destroy Angels. I had heard previously that the band was the side project of Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, with his wife as the singer. This was enough to peak my interest, but I had no idea what to expect. Walking the short distance from Bassnectar to Reznor’s band was an incredible shift. If dubstep is like “Transformers having sex,” as many fans are wont to say, then How to Destroy Angels was like a higher-class cabaret for androids.

Throughout the performance, an electric curtain shielded the crowd from the band, making only the silhouettes of the band members visible for much of the time. The performance was very mellow electronic music spazzed out with distorted bass. The crowd at this show was a far cry from the culture of the Bassnectar shows. LSD seemed to be their drug of choice over the ecstasy-fueled antics of Bassnectar. The spectators, many with pupils fully dilated, mostly stood completely still or moving very little. Though there were many people at this show, they kept their space. It was easy to move around, though the atmosphere made it undesirable.

With about 10 minutes at this show done, I decided to head over to Earl Sweatshirt. I had followed him casually from the days of his first album, Earl, and then when he fell off the radar in 2010 at age 16 , he fell off my radar as well. Seeing him for the first time, he looked much older than he had in those days. His music also seemed to have matured as he layered cacophonous bass over intricate raps about some of the most messed up topics, such as rape and killing, I have ever heard.

The crowd of this show consisted of the punks of Coachella. It was the young 16-20 year olds wearing Monster hats and skateboard shirts. Marijuana was their drug of choice, as I saw almost every fourth person with a joint. I stayed at this show for about 10 minutes before going to catch the ends of Tegan & Sara and Blur.

Tegan & Sara boasted a much different crowd than the previous three. Drugs were not a main facet of their show. It was the family-friendly crowd at this one, including the parents who bring their kids to experience the festival life. The alternative rock emanating from the two on stage was a toe-tapping rhythm that is accessible to just about everyone. The crowd consisted of people sitting down and enjoying meals, having conversations and just laying down and basking in the music. It was the crowd of people who go to festivals to try to soak up as much culture and sun as possible, and likely going to bed early to be bright and shiny for the daytime.

I drifted over to Blur to catch the end of their show. I had not listened to much of them before the festival, but I had seen that they were ranked in Billboard’s “10 Best Performances from Weekend One,” so I decided that it would be worth seeing. The music sounded more like a 90s rock ballad than the rest. With this being its first performance in America since 2003, this stage definitely had a hint of nostalgia to it. The crowd was older, filled with the ever-present festival hippies who drive in colorful Volkswagen vans and try to sell t-shirts and jewelry in the campgrounds. Most people seemed to know most of the words to the songs, and I felt a little bit out of my league and age group at this band.

In the end, I had a few minutes left over to go back and see one of the bands that I had previously seen. Though I could have easily picked any one of them to return to, How to Destroy Angels won me over. It was certainly one of the most unique experiences I had at any festival, and I could not pass up the opportunity to see more of it.