June 18, 2024


Art Shines Through

When We Were Young, Just Like Heaven, and the Nostalgia Festival’s Rise

Following a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will return this weekend for its 21st edition, with headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, the Weeknd, and Swedish House Mafia. In anticipation, we’re looking at the event’s history and the festival-industry landscape on Thursday and Friday. And be sure to check back next week for our coverage of Coachella 2022.

Last fall, the long-running Canadian band Silverstein got an email from a promoter they trusted. It contained an offer to play a show in Las Vegas with My Chemical Romance in October 2022. With little more information beyond that, the group agreed. Then in January, Silverstein’s drummer and manager Paul Koehler received the advertising material for the concert and shared it with his bandmates, just half an hour before the rest of the world would see it. It turned out they were one of 65 names playing something called the When We Were Young festival.

My Chemical Romance were billed as the coheadliners alongside Paramore. The rest of the lineup included Silverstein’s post–hardcore emo brethren (Thursday, Senses Fail), crossover emo artists (Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World), emo-adjacent pop acts (Avril Lavigne, 3OH!3), and even outfits that have explicitly rejected the emo descriptor yet still get labeled that way (Bright Eyes, AFI). The vibe was as mid-2000s as MySpace and arguing about what emo actually is.

“I just kept looking at it,” says Shane Told, Silverstein’s lead vocalist. “I kept discovering [bands] like, ‘Oh shit, they’re playing. Oh shit! Oh shit!’ Then it was like, ‘People are gonna really, really freak out about this.’ And they did.”

Nick Wheeler, cofounder and guitarist of the All-American Rejects, admits his group had a similar experience of signing on for the show knowing only that one or two other bands would be playing and then learning the full extent of the lineup shortly before it was announced. “My phone fucking exploded that day,” he says. “Everybody came out of the woodwork.”

News about When We Were Young quickly spread across social media. Some thought it was a joke or a hoax. Millennials and members of Gen Z who are hyper-attuned to potential cons posited that When We Were Young was a Fyre Festival–level scam, even though the poster indicated that it was organized by Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promotions company.

When tickets for the Saturday event went on sale, it quickly sold out. Live Nation added a second date on Sunday with the same lineup, and that sold out too. When a third date on the following weekend was added, that also sold out.

“Everybody that I’ve worked with or spoken to about music in general has been really stoked on it and wanted to talk about it,” Wheeler says. “If they pull this off, it’s gonna be a really special moment.”

But what does it take to create a special moment at a music festival these days? Besides, maybe, macro-dosing.

It’s been more than two decades since the first Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. After a rough entry, Coachella eventually showed new generations of American concert promoters and audiences that these events were not only financially lucrative and amazing backdrops for selfies, but also the locus of culture-defining moments. Coachella inspired plenty of like-minded, goofily-named imitators around the country. Some have persisted, others have perished. (A quick RIP to All Points West, Sasquatch!, Treasure Island, Intonation …)

Yet as the number of festivals has multiplied, a sameness has developed in their lineups. Individual identities have been lost, even among the ones with the longest histories. Coachella started in 1999 with an eye toward underground sounds and Bonnaroo launched in 2002 with a foundation in the jam band scene, but by 2022, much of their rosters can feel oddly interchangeable. And ever since Lollapalooza transitioned to a non-touring event in 2005, it has struggled to develop an ethos beyond “We heard you like music, here’s a lot of it.”

As the live music industry hopefully enters its first full festival season since the beginning of the pandemic, some of the country’s largest promoters have unveiled or resurrected more niche festivals as alternative options. These offerings focus on a particular era or sound and are usually limited to a single day of programming, rather than the current industry standard of spreading an event out from Friday to Sunday (or longer). Entrants in this category beyond When We Were Young include the 1980s gloom fantasy Cruel World, the soul showcase Smokin Grooves, the outlaw–roots country roundup Palomino Festival, and the throwback hip-hop showcase Rock the Bells.

While there have been plenty of independent music festivals dedicated to genres like reggae, metal, rockabilly, and various iterations of dance music, it’s notable that many from this new wave of events are put together by two ultra-powerful corporations: Goldenvoice (which is owned by live entertainment giant AEG) and Live Nation.

Though ticket sales for major festivals far exceed the specialty ones, there is more of a sense of excitement around these recent entries. When every festival this year seems to be headlined by Metallica, Halsey, Green Day, and/or J. Cole, it makes sense why Cruel World would get forever goths pumped about the idea of moping out to Morrissey, Bauhaus, and the Psychedelic Furs on the same day. “For the most part, the thinking is that there’s not going to be another round of new Coachellas, Lollapaloozas, and Bonnaroos,” says Dave Brooks, Billboard’s senior director of live music and touring. “It’s a pretty mature market. To develop festival fans, [major promoters have] settled into this second stage of the festival experience. They’ve got to find what draws people.”

Recent experiments have focused on destinations or providing a more VIP experience, but now the biggest draw may be to refocus on the actual music. Also, when a festival’s promoters don’t need to keep up with the changing fluctuations of trends or crunch data on streaming numbers to predict fan turnout, the continuous need to top previous lineups is no longer there. “What’s really beneficial about this type of event for festival promoters like Goldenvoice and Live Nation is that they don’t have to happen every year at the same time of year, or at the same place even,” Brooks says. “While the value isn’t as much in terms of a brand as a Coachella, there’s less risk as well, so they can be more flexible.”

In the early phases of Coachella, the festival often attracted crowds with reunions of influential bands that younger fans probably hadn’t been able to see play live in their prime—most notably Pixies, the Stooges, and Rage Against the Machine. It was said that the organizers’ dream booking was the Smiths. With all due respect to Swedish House Mafia, reunion acts no longer appear to be a core part of Coachella’s mission. But many of the other recently announced events feel like reunions for entire bygone tours and festivals. Looking at the When We Were Young lineup, it’s hard not to see it as a retread of New Jersey’s The Bamboozle, or an idealized version of a certain multistage, summer punk showcase that once traveled our country’s fairgrounds and stadium parking lots. As Told says, “The elephant in the room is the Warped Tour.”

This May, Goldenvoice, the company behind Coachella, will bring the Just Like Heaven festival to Pasadena. (The first iteration was held in Long Beach in 2019.) It will feature performances from Interpol, M.I.A., Franz Ferdinand, Santigold, and other acts that got their start in the early 2000s by playing Coachella’s Mojave Tent and Outdoor Theatre. With a location that’s easily accessible from L.A. neighborhoods like Echo Park and Eagle Rock, it’s hard not to see it as a humane appeal to former Southern California festival goers who maybe have settled down, had a few kids, and no longer feel up to sweating it out in the desert with 125,000 other people for three days, but still want tingles of that memory.

For some of the acts that are playing Just Like Heaven, it will be the first time they’ve been packaged under an aura of recapturing yesteryear. The dance punk band !!! played Coachella three times between 2004 and 2011. The group has been consistently putting out music for more than two decades and still tours clubs regularly. “We’ve never played the hits,” says Nic Offer, !!!’s frontperson. “Also we didn’t really have hits that were big enough that people are always going to be screaming for them, so we’ve been lucky in that.”

When Goldenvoice approached !!! last year about Just Like Heaven, they were reluctant, not wanting to get shunted into the old band category. “There’s that transition from dated to classic,” Offer says. “I think every musician is kind of counting on that moment when it’ll happen to them. And, you know, it looks like this is going to be the moment where it starts to happen for bands like us.”

Offer maintains that !!! won’t switch up their set list for Just Like Heaven to focus on their earlier material. He’s excited about the show, but still harbors worries about what it potentially portends for his band’s future. “Do I wanna do a tour like this? No,” he says. “Do I wanna do a festival like this? Absolutely, this seems fun. Do I know what kind of work is going to be available to us? I don’t really know. It may be that the only offers that come are gonna be with these other old bands. Would that honestly disappoint me? Yes.”

The electro provocateur Peaches has a far more sympathetic relationship toward her past. She’s maintained an extensive archive that includes every instrument she’s used to record her music, thousands of hours of video footage, boxes of what fans have thrown on stage, all her stage outfits, and even the stage outfits of her backup dancers. “I could start an American Apparel vintage shop,” she jokes.

At Just Like Heaven, she will perform her debut album The Teaches of Peaches in full. (Wolf Parade will also be playing the entirety of Apologies to the Queen Mary.) The festival is one stop on a tour that Peaches built around the 20th anniversary of her debut album. “It’s very interesting, this trajectory that started with just a pair of pink hot pants and what it’s grown into,” she says.

Being part of a more specialized event presents a different drawback for her. Though she doesn’t love playing festivals in general, she feels like she’s benefited from them over the years because they can get her in front of crowds who wouldn’t usually seek out her shows or who come to her set out of curiosity. “It’s positioning yourself in places where you wouldn’t normally be,” she says. “So maybe, in that sense, it’s not really great for me to be part of the curatorial [festivals]. I love the random stuff.”

Just because someone wants to bring back a certain sound doesn’t always mean it will hit right for audiences. From 2012 to 2021 (with breaks in 2017, 2019, and 2020), Art Alexakis of Everclear put together the Summerland Tour, in which his band was joined on the road with other guitar-based alternative rock bands who got their start in the ’90s. “To be honest with you, even though we’ve had success and really great critical reviews, I think we might have jumped the gun by a few years,” Alexakis says. “People were still hung up on the ’80s thing [when the tours started]. Since 2015, 2016, everything is ’90s. My 14-year-old and her friends are wearing flannel and Nirvana T-shirts.”

Summerland isn’t officially happening this year, but Everclear will be doing a national tour in support of the band’s 30th anniversary. They’re bringing Fastball and the Nixons, two bands that would fit right into a Summerland lineup, with them. Everclear is also set to play the Dog Days of Summer event at L.A.’s Greek Theatre and the new Flannel Nation festival in San Pedro, two concerts that lean heavily into the ’90s vibes.

Alexakis says that when Summerland started, some of the bands he approached turned him down, believing that they weren’t ’90s bands, or at least didn’t want to be identified that way. He’s come to peace with his history and what it can enable him to do now. “We were getting played on the radio really hard from 1995 through 2001,” Alexakis says. “That was about 25 years ago. If I went back 25 years from 1996, the bands that were around from 1971, it was like, ‘Yeah, they’re dinosaurs.’ I’m not saying I don’t like dinosaurs. I’m a guy, dinosaurs are cool. But it’s jarring when you realize you’re not the pretty pony anymore, you’re a fucking dinosaur. But dinosaurs roam the Earth, especially in amphitheaters during the summertime, apparently.”

The last time the All-American Rejects did a full-on tour was 2017. Now it’s mainly fly-in dates, or “weekend warrior stuff” as Wheeler puts it. The group was supposed to appear at Chicago’s Riot Fest in the summer of 2020 and play all of their album Move Along to celebrate its 15th anniversary. It’s a slot that the punk-leaning festival usually reserves for so-called legacy bands. “I don’t know if we’re there quite yet, I just know that we’ve been around long enough that people may look at us that way,” Wheeler says.

The 2020 festival was canceled and the anniversary of that particular album came and went, but the band has another album’s 15th anniversary coming up soon. If the festival wants them to do it, then they’ll play it. “I listen to a lot of new music and I work with a lot of younger artists, but the music that I’m super passionate about is the music I grew up on, and those bands are considered legacy bands,” Wheeler says. “Our fans grew up with us. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. I’m a nostalgic motherfucker.”

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.