Does Punk Really Have a Place at Coachella?

A single trailer sits behind a row of palm trees lit up purple against the darkening desert skyline while a cacophony of EDM and pop music fights for sonic prominence over the crowd’s chatter. There’s a full moon out at 7:50 p.m., and I’m covered in dirt and dust as I sit with goth punk legend Dave Vanian of The Damned during an interview behind Coachella’s Gobi Tent.

“I mean if I was asked, I’d rather be at some psychedelic 60’s kind of go-go fest you know,” Vanian says dressed, in his classic high neck stark white dress shirt, sitting relaxed on a small couch with his hands folded over his neatly pressed black jacket. “[Coachella] is not somewhere I would personally come to, not to put it down I suppose, but it’s not really my cup of tea.”

Like many punk artists and workers, Vanian is having complex feelings about being at the biggest music festival in the world. “Its nice of them to ask us but I think [Coachella] is not the sort of thing our audience [in Southern California] would come to. Its not like any festival I’ve ever done, it’s kind of odd, but it was quite good last week, so we’ll see.”

Identifying and coming up as punk means more than a taste in music. For many it’s a lifestyle, intellectual trajectory, and for some the roots of a political identity, one diametrically opposed to much of what Coachella culture has come to represent. And unlike punk’s critical-yet-scrappy next of kin hip-hop, punk acts tend to lose authenticity in the eyes of die-hard fans as they gain any mainstream success or opportunity. It’s a catch 22 for punks who remain dedicated to their ethics and aesthetic AND need to pay the bills.

Before Coachella became the behemoth it is today featuring the biggest acts from diverse musical generas, grossing nearly $85 million annually with 99,000 attendees per weekend, it had roots in the punk world by way of the promoters who started Goldenvoice. Named after a popular kind of weed in 1980’s LA, Goldenvoice started selling marijuana and booking punk and hardcore bands like Black Flag and TSOL before becoming serious cultural contenders respected beyond the punk world. Goldenvoice promoter Paul Tolett got his start booking ska and punk shows before founding Coachella in 1999, an endeavor that would lose Goldenvoice nearly a million dollars, and possibly the street cred to ever attempt such a feat again. They tried again in 2001, learning from their mistakes, and the festival has grown every year from there.

Over the years that the festival has grown, some people have grown with it. Like AJ, a punk from Los Angeles who came up playing and going to hardcore and death rock shows in clubs and backyards across the county before becoming a professional sound man 20 years ago. He started with Coachella in 1999, and has done sound at every event since then except 2016 which he is attending for fun for the first time. “I did sound for Madonna [at Coachella] the year Dimebag Darryl died,” AJ remembered leaned against the Mojave tent, his Mohawk just starting to fall after 10 hours in the baking Coachella Valley sun. He feels conflicted as a punk hanging out at the festival, something he has helped build up and that has become deeply meaningful to him, and something totally different to mainstream society. Ultimately AJ believes “punk can bring more culture to Coachella” and he hopes to see more punk bands booked. “Look, pop music is great, but I can’t just listen to Britney Spears all day.”

Another punk working at the festival is Lee, a 25-year-old service worker from Washington currently working in a food tent at Coachella. A queer punk trying to get their hustle on to make money for their own survival and to help their sick mom, Lee can make enough money to get them through the winter in just a few weeks of slinging snacks at Coachella. “It’s terrible on your body,” Lee says looking down at their legs between puffs of a hand rolled cigarette while people in white tunics day drink to CHVRCHS around lion statues and floral arrangements. “You work 20 + hours a day sometimes for not a lot of pay, but the tips are good. There’s a lot of dust, and I work on a concrete floor so everyone’s pretty much crippled by the end of the weekend,” Lee says. “I feel a lot of weird class divide stuff, its strange working in VIP and going to the bathroom splattered with food from working, among rockstars and their babes.”
That class divide is a huge part of why being punk at Coachella feels so weird. Punk is a largely working class subculture, and over half of the people I was able to track down were there actually working the fest, and would never be able to afford a ticket, no matter how bad they wanted to see any of the acts. One young Indio man I met in the pit at Rancid snuck in on Sunday afternoon, a refreshing taste of reality after looking at “Sneaking Into The Show” an art installation dedicated to agricultural workers and their families who live in the Coachella Valley and can only access the festival by sneaking in. He was stoked to have caught the Vandals and Rancid, but sad to have missed The Damned earlier in the weekend.

Despite conflicted feelings towards the festival from many members of the punk community, there are a group of die-hard punk fans who attend Coachella every year. “When I read the band line up I didn’t get excited ’til I saw Rancid and the Vandals on the bottom,” says Alicia, an adult punk fan who I met after watching The Vandals bring their OC punk antics to the desert. Dave, a punk fan in his twenties from San Diego, loves coming to the festival to have a chance to hang with his whole friend group who have diverse musical tastes. “This is the only place that we can come with our friends who like indie rock and stuff and still hang out. They let us go off to the punk shows, and they do their thing.“

Dan, a middle class punk from Canada, has been coming down to Coachella for the last 6 years to watch punk bands and enjoy a brief break from the harsh winters that north Canada is known for. Jello Biafra’s set at Coachella in 2013 is a moment Dan will never forget. “Right before they were about to play ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ this drunk not punk girl stumbled into the pit and passed out, I had to carry her out to the medic. I don’t think people really understood their message, but I’m glad I was there to witness it.”

Punk was present in hip hop and rock acts over the weekend. I met Kelsey Gonzalez, bassist for R&B and hip hop heavy hitter Andrew .Paak and the Free Nationals, after asking him about his Bad Brains shirt while walking through the crowd. A former punk rock surf rat who spent his teen years skating and going to shows in Huntington Beach and Long Beach, Gonzalez said it was surreal to be not just attending, but playing Coachella. Their set on Sunday was high energy and at times jaw dropping, bringing out rap legend Dr. Dre and current superstar Kendrick Lamar, an artist I would consider punk as fuck for his smart and critical content on his 2015 release “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Lamar also made a surprise appearance at Ice Cube’s set and NWA reunion on Saturday, performing “Alright” a song that has become an anthem at many Black Lives Matter rallies.

Aside from punk acts on the bill like The Damned, Rancid, The Vandals, Sheer Mag, and Prayers, punk aesthetics are hard to miss at the festival. Slash also rocked a Bad Brains shirt for the entire duration of Guns n Roses’ set on Saturday, punks’ favorite rap group NWA reunited and screamed “FUCK THE POLICE” with authority, probably louder than anyone in the history of amplified sound. Death Grips had one of the gnarliest pits we’ve ever seen in person. Punk inspires and is sampled by so much of the festival, it’s hard to separate the two.

“I think The Damned have always been a little bit on the outside, and people either love that or hate that about us,” Vanian says. “The term “punk” was coined around us and not by us, it’s there, but I don’t think of it either way. We just do what we do, the whole punk thing has become twisted a little bit. To me, when it first started, there were no rules or barriers, it embraced all different kinds of music, it was more of an attitude towards what you did: music, journalism, everything. So I just think of myself as a musician, not as a punk, or a rock musician.”

Prayers vocalist and cholo goth pioneer Leafar Seyer best summed up the experience of being a punk at Coachella on stage Sunday morning when he said “We’re here to celebrate our duality.”

An active member of San Diego’s Sherman Street Gang and chicano goth punk musician, Seyer embodied punks duality as he stood on the Coachella stage dressed in all black between two giant Catholic funeral floral arrangements with palm trees visibly swaying behind. After an emotional set filled with praising Lucificer, Death Rock drenched synth heavy dance beats, and a lot of gratitude beneath the surface, Seyer slammed Donald Trump for being “a racist sexist piece of shit,” and begged members of the crowd to think for themselves. He ended by looking into a crowd of mostly Chicano punks and hip-hop fans, reminding them of their power.

“We are the strongest people, the pyramid builders,” he said. “How does it feel to be in the presence of a brown God? You recognize the greatness in you, so you can recognize it in me.” Then he proceeded to jump the barrier from the stage to greet every friend, fan, and opportunist in the crowd.

Punk rock has been a way for outcasts to express themselves, represent the people and communities we love, and ruffle some feathers while having fun. At the heart of it all is survival: creative, emotional, and physical, for ourselves, and our narratives. Can punk and Coachella co-exist? I think so.

“I don’t know what [playing Coachella] will do for us,” Vanian says reflecting on The Damned performing at Coachella after pioneering an entire genera. “We’re here, but I don’t know it that’s gonna be a good thing or a bad thing, hopefully good. It’s probably unlikely that we’ll be back, but you never know.”

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