Behind the scenes at Coachella, a desert musical masterpiece
Deceptively loose leadership team runs complex shows 'like an army moving in'
12:14 AM, Apr. 22, 2012
Written by Bruce Fessier The Desert Sun
INDIO — It was an hour before Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and a hologram of the late Tupac Shakur closed the first weekend of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Paul Tollett, whose Goldenvoice company booked the West Coast rappers, stood in a backstage area of mobile offices and tents.
About 50 yards away, the hard rock band At the Drive-In — a band Tollett booked for the first Coachella in 1999 — thrashed away on the main stage.
“I love that song,” said Tollett, 46, seemingly unconcerned with the technical challenges of the now legendary Shakur hologram performance, not to mention the potential combustibility of guest artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent.
“When the festival starts,” said his friend and mentor Gary Tovar, “I know Paul has a great time. This is a time for all the rest of the guys to take care of these things. He's already done his job.”
Tovar started Goldenvoice in 1981 and hired Tollett in 1986 after Tollett had promoted similar punk, metal and alternative acts in the Pomona area.
The relationships they forged in those days have helped create the ambiance one finds in the backstage operations at Coachella.
Tovar basically gave Goldenvoice to Tollett and his late business partner, Rick Van Santen, when he was sent to prison for marijuana trafficking in 1993. The company had no money, Tovar said, but it had a good reputation with artists and vendors because “we always paid our bills.”
It's clear they care about the artists.
The backstage scene at the Empire Polo Club now includes 12-step meetings each day at 5 p.m. for everyone from rock stars to go-fers.
Bob Forrest, a counselor on VH1's “Celebrity Rehab” and lead singer of the Bicycle Thief and Thelonious Monster (which played Coachella in 1999 and 2004, respectively), facilitates the meetings.
Forrest said Goldenvoice used to book L.A. artists who were struggling with addiction, and it now produces the only festival in the nation he knows of that offers 12-step meetings.
“Paul and Rick and Gary Tovar were witnesses to our destruction and it saddened them,” Forrest said. “So, when we all got sober, they were sensitive to us. I would say the Los Angeles underground music scene is more sensitive to (chemical dependency) than any other area.”
But the backstage “village” isn't brimming with celebrities — it's a working community with a dining area, workspaces for artists and trailers for Goldenvoice staff and media interviews.
The band trailers are decorated by artists who spend months researching each act to reflect their tastes in the designs.
A photography tent is manned by Andrew Haagen, son of Empire Polo Club owner Alex Haagen III, who shoots as many performers as possible at each festival for a planned book about Coachella.
He did most of his photography last weekend, but said he plans to be around today, too.
“In my mind, it was going to be fresh the first weekend,” Haagen said. “But I realize now the two weekends couldn't be more different.”
Tollett is called “Paul T” by the staff. He and the top officers, Skip Paige and Bill Fold, eschew titles. Tovar says most festivals this size are “more corporate” than Coachella, even though Goldenvoice is a partner in the event with corporate giant AEG Live.
Tollett functions as the liaison between Goldenvoice and AEG Live President and CEO Randy Phillips, but he says Phillips isn't involved with the day-to-day operations.
“Paul runs a good ship, but he's fair,” said Tovar, who returned to the company in 2004 after raising his son in Las Vegas. “He's friends with the employees.
“I think this is the greatest musical company in the world. It's so vast. It's hard for me to comprehend sometimes.”
The festival's expansion to two weekends this year has gone more smoothly than most people imagined. One of Tollett's challenges was getting all of the bands to agree to build their schedules around Coachella in order to have the same lineup two weekends in a row.
Most of the bands interviewed said it wasn't a hardship because there are so many opportunities to play in the Southwest — many provided by Goldenvoice at its other venues.
The Swedish band The Hives toured through Wednesday and had planned to visit Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday.
Blues singer-guitarist Gary Clark Jr. went to Los Angeles to work on his album, which is expected to drop in September.
Reggae star Jimmy Cliff flew to Hawaii to relax.
There have been years, though, when you could feel the tension backstage, like in 2010 when Sly Stone arrived hours late for his reunion with the Family Stone.
And last year when Cee Lo Green arrived late for his performance at the festival. Goldenvoice staff scrambled to find a later slot for Green, but staffers wound up having to cut his set short.
“They have to think of so many things, sometimes it gets exhausting from the mental stress,” said Tovar. “But that's typical.”
The maintenance and landscaping crews face the pressure on Sundays after the last note has sounded.
Alex Haagen III said he adds 300 workers — for a total staff of 500 landscape and maintenance people — to clean up the property and make the grass look good for the next weekend's event. (The Stagecoach country music festival starts Friday.)
“We work all night on Sunday,” he said. “It's a 24-hour run with crews coming in.”
But by this past Wednesday, Haagen said the polo fields were ready for Round 2.
“Right now, they're doing detail work,” he said that morning. “They're trimming trees that might have had a broken branch. They're picking up little debris we left behind.
“I go out and say, ‘I don't want to see a cigarette butt.' If I see a cigarette butt on the ground, I get crews out there.”
Haagen, whose primary business is building shopping centers, has never seen an operation as big and efficient as this one.
“This is like an army moving in,” he said. “It is amazing.”