Coachella’s longest running unofficial art piece sports a safari hat, sunglasses, green board shorts, and an orange Hawaiian T-shirt. Unlike the rest of the massive, eye-catching installations brought to the festival every year, Lorn Conner—aka the Happy Coachella guy—is a small, anonymous dot on the Empire Polo Field that prefers to be heard instead of seen.
By day, he glides through the manicured, 200-acre lawn, blending into the milieu of booming bass and half-naked bodies as he bobs his head to whatever sounds catch his ear. If you’ve gone to the three-day festival any time in the last 10 years, chances are that you’ve scurried right past him without noticing on the way to see one of your favorite artists. Afterall, most people who go to Coachella go to see rappers, rockstars and DJs—not some guy dressed like a retiree from Palm Beach.
But for Conner, the star of the weekend has always been the fat stack of stickers he carries in his hand with the phrase “Happy Coachella” printed on them with a different design each year. Casually he hovers in a sea of people with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face as he yells the phrase with the cadence of an upbeat carnival barker.
“Happy Coachella, pass it on! Happy Coachella!” The deal is—if you yell it back to him, he rushes toward you and hands you a free sticker and he tells you to pass on the phrase to someone else. “The goal is to create a ripple effect,” Conner says. “When I yell out Happy Coachella, another person would yell it back, then another person, and another person, and it’s like a mushroom cloud.”
By Friday afternoon of Weekend 2, Conner’s second full weekend at the festival, he’s already passed out about 500 free stickers with another 500 to go by Sunday night before the end of the Coachella. After 10 years of doing this, he’s gotten pretty good. During Glass Animals’ set on the festival’s main stage, he bounces around to the echo of their funky hit “Gooey” in the middle of the field when he hears the first person yell “Happy Coachella!” back to him. The refrain comes from a tanned, chipper twentysomething in cutoff shorts walking a group of friends toward the stage to catch Glass Animals. He runs over to her like she just won the grand prize on the Price is Right.
“Oh my God! Do you know what you’ve done?!” Conner yells wildly. “It’s a miracle! You said Happy Coachella, you get a free sticker!”
The girl immediately lights up and thanks him. Now all her friends want one, and they all shout the phrase and walk away with their free prize. Conner also carries silver temporary tattoos for people who want those. The scenario gets repeated over and over as Conner tries to get as many people as he can from all over the festival to say “Happy Coachella.”
“There’s no bigger thing for me than Happy Coachella,” Conner says. “First off when people get a sticker or a tattoo, they freak out, they don’t understand what’s going on, Then their friends hop on board. Then everyone wants one and it just flutters out from there.”
As the Indio festival grows farther away from its roots as a small counter culture gathering to a mainstream behemoth of 125,000 people, Conner is one of the few elements of Coachella that’s stayed consistent, right down to his outfit, the same one he’s worn for a decade during every day of the festival (don’t worry, he washes it). When most people in this day and age could take his simple idea and create a major social media following, he has no real interest in such opportunistic hashtaggery. If you find him, you find him. That’s it.
“I’m kinda like an Easter egg,” Conner says. “If you find me at Coachella, you’ve found an Easter egg.”
Before he started his Happy Coachella movement, Conner’s first trip to Coachella was 2004 (that year Radiohead also headlined the festival). Despite driving up to Indio from LA with his buddies without tickets, it was at a time when you could still hope to buy one if you just showed up to the festival, which was only two days and went on for one weekend. He even managed to get interviewed for the Coachella documentary later released by Goldenvoice in 2006. You can see him as an excited 20 year-old dropping loads of breathless F-Bombs in his comments about the Pixies right before they went on stage in ‘04.
“We didn’t have any place to sleep so we didn’t make it to Day 2,” Conner says, now 33 years old. “We slept in a field and we woke up like ‘We’re screwed.’ I have bad asthma so I told my friends eventually we had to leave.” After taking 2005 Coachella off to work some boring day job instead of going to the festival, he vowed to never miss another Coachella. In 2006, he saw Daft Punk, widely regarded as the most enviable Coachella experience. By 2007, he and his friends had started making “Happy Coachella” their mantra, shouting it during the festival and getting other people to say it back.
“I’m sure I’m not the first person to say ‘Happy Coachella,’ Conner says. “I have no doubt that I’m not. It was around before me. But I’m probably the first person to go I’m gonna make people say this!”
Of course, Coachella is only two weekends out of the year for the energetic LA resident who was born in Canada and grew up in Washington state. The rest of the year, Conner works as an actor and also does crowd warm up for TV shows. In the past he also ran his own blog for concert video concert reviews. You Tell Concerts, which he started in 2008, was a site dedicated to interviewing fans and videotaping their reactions as they walked out of packed concerts all over LA. Later, the operation expanded to a national level with freelance videographers submitting content from all over the country, even a few in Europe.
From 2008 to 2015, Conner says he went to over 570 concerts and interviewed fans at all of them. “The first year I went to 178 shows in one year with videos done right after,” he says. “I worked a 60 hour a week job, I’d go out to a show, go home and edit, go to bed at 3 a.m. wake up at 6 a.m. go do it again and again.” Part of the reason for the format of interviewing people on their way out of the concerts was the fact that no venues or bands would give him media credentials for his blog. Yet he says he and his small crew were still able to get into a lot of shows by literally singing and dancing for tickets (or at least enough money to buy some).
“Sometimes we’d be out there for hours,” Conner says. “But I’m really good at it. I’ve sang and danced my way into over 1,000 concerts.”
It’s not too different than what he does at Coachella (though these days he says he prefers to just buy his wristbands like everyone else). The only difference is he’s handing out stickers, which are like a golden ticket for any true Coachella head who knows to look for Conner on the polo field. Each year, Conner comes up with a different idea for a sticker, which gets designed by his friend Elena McMillin. On his Happy Coachella Facebook page (which he rarely updates) you can see some of the designs from years past. One of the most popular is 2009, which has a puff of smoke saying “Happy Coachella” and a drawing of a joint that says “Pass it On.”
“He embodies the spirit of what it’s all about,” says KROQ DJ Nicole Alvarez. “Just the genuine enthusiasm of it.” For years, Alvarez and people like fellow KROQ alumni Ted Stryker were genuine supporters of Conner’s one man movement, even interviewing him on the air during the festival. “Every year he’s like the checkered flag,” Alvarez says. “Until I hear Happy Coachella from him, then it doesn’t officially begin. He starts the giddiness and excitement. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Of course, Conner didn’t start out as an underground Coachella legend. It took people a while to understand or even appreciate what he was trying to do. Even this year, after a decade of doing it, there are thousands that walk past him like he’s either totally nuts or just invisible.
“The first year, no one would say it back to me,” Conner says. They just stared at me like ‘Ooookayyy?’” During the early years where he couldn’t necessarily afford tickets, Conner says he always made the Happy Coachella stickers to pass out, spreading the vibe in the parking lot until somehow he managed to get a way into the festival, sometimes not until 8 or 9 at night after some sunburned, bleary-eyed soul decided to sell their pass for dirt cheap.
There were also years when he made way so many stickers he couldn’t give them all away and ended carrying huge stacks of them home in his backpack. These days he’s made them a commodity by printing only 1,000 total.
“There’s 125,000 people here and I only print out 500 for each weekend. So your odds of finding me are very very tiny,” he says.
By the time night falls, one ritual Conner does to get everyone to spread the message of Happy Coachella is to write the phrase “YELL HAPPY COACHELLA” in glowsticks on the grass in the heart of the festival between all the different stages. Over the years it’s become a true hallmark of Coachella for anyone walking through the middle of the polo field. Even being surrounded by acres of insane, multimillion dollar light shows and a monolithic stonehenge of abstract Rhinos less than 100 yards away, the YELL HAPPY COACHELLA sign easily gets a much bigger reaction, even from apathetic, desert weary Coachellites who suddenly discover it and then run up to take selfies with it.
On a windy Sunday night, as the grandiose spectacle of Lorde’s performance of her song “Royals” booms in the background, Conner is on his hands and knees looking toward the shimmering Coachella Ferris Wheel in the distance as he tries to judge the perfect spot to set up his masterpiece. Pulling a few tubes of thin glowsticks from his backpack, he cracks them like a fistful of straw, unleashing their neon magic and then goes to work placing them in the grass. He’s not even halfway done before people come running up to it and forming a circle around him.
“I’ve always found this every year on Sunday,” says Samantha Nixon, a diehard Coachellagoer from San Diego who has come for the last several years. “I have photos of it, I’ve never seen anyone build it before, it’s always just there for everyone to enjoy. It’s amazing!”
As Conner finishes building the final word, “YELL” atop his creation, the people surround him let out a cheer.
“Happy Coachella!…..Happy Coachella!” the words ring out, carried by the wind in the neon striped darkness as fans go screaming into the night in all different directions, like dive bombers of unabashed hedonism.
For Morgan Hoffman, a Dana Point resident celebrating her birthday on the last night of the festival with her friends, finding Conner’s glowsticks is the icing on her Coachella cake, even though at this point, her vocal chords are so worn out she can barely even talk, let alone yell.
“I was on my way to meet with my friends,” she says as her sandpaper voice strains to speak. “But I had to stop and see this. It’s so cool to see everyone stop and take pictures, everyone loves it. It really helps the vibe of the festival and brings everyone together. Maybe that sounds stupid or whatever, but seriously it really does.”
It doesn’t sound stupid. Entire movements are started by one human passing on their energy to another. Even in the simplest of ways, the phrase Happy Coachella keeps the spirit of the original Coachella culture going in an atmosphere that at times feels simultaneously far too big and far too exclusive to share that kind of closeness anymore. It’s a movement during the festival that, while small, creates the desired ripple effect Conner always hopes for.
“As time’s gone on I realized that my dream’s never going to come true, there’s just too many people and they’ve expanded it so much.”
But thats okay. Because as he stands next to his glowing art piece surrounded by people who are overjoyed to see it, for a brief moment every year his mission is a complete success.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve left Coachellas just beaten,” Conner admits. “I’ve put so much energy into it and I’m walking off into the parking lot and I hear somebody yell ‘Happy Coachella!’ and I’m like ‘Ya know what? Ok, whoever that person is, somehow for some reason they just yelled it out. And I realize that I started a wave.”