The S.S. Coachella cruise is the exact opposite of what the landlocked Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival is for most fans. Imagine what that weekend in Indio would be like without the parking hassles and dehydration, but instead with breakfast in bed and an entire ecosystem devoted to keeping you drunk at all times.
You get some staple bands of recent landlocked Coachellas — Brit pop veterans Pulp, disco kings Hot Chip and Electro-rockers Yeasayer — and then you drink with them, play cards with them and never once worry about driving home.
The Coachella Festival has staged rock, electronica, hip-hop and indie acts every year since 2001, drawing around 80,000 fans in 2012. But this is the first year promoter Goldenvoice has expanded its festival to a cruise setting, launching two cruises in succession.
This week the S.S. Coachella sailed with just under 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members to the Bahamas for four days of sunburned revelry. The inaugural voyage left Fort Lauderdale on Sunday bound for Nassau and returned Wednesday.
The crowd looked to be essentially the same one from Indio's Coachella VIP tent — that means a ship full of KCRW programming honchos, local booking czars and those lithesome, tank-topped party people. If you were starting a local band, there may be no better networking dollar spent than one that gets you on this boat.
I've covered every Coachella since 2006, so it was kind of heartening to see its patterns and social mores appear in a new setting. The boat was, unsurprisingly, Las Vegas at sea. More the Cosmopolitan than the Golden Nugget, all lovely Art Deco curves and panoramic deck fantasias. There's a lot of Sade and Phil Collins on the Muzak, which means someone knows exactly who the audience is here. Everyone is in a fever dream of yacht rock.
"I enjoy this conceptually," said Josh Tillman, the L.A. singer-songwriter-novelist who performs as Father John Misty, at his fiction reading few nights later. "There are so many things to distract us from the fact that we're in the middle of the … ocean, this vast abyss. Even the deck chairs are facing inward."
The music is the point of being here, and it is also entirely beside the point. Concerts are the organizing principle, but the gawking and boozehounding prove popular. The first of many rich ironies came quickly on Sunday night when Pulp played "Common People" onboard a luxury cruise liner.
The Brit pop laceration of slumming art-school dilettantes was performed to a room of music-biz wheeler-dealers en route to the Bahamas. One more moment of accidental poignancy aboard the S.S. Coachella.
"I've been a Pulp fan for a long time, and I knew this would be something to remember," said Fredrik Larsen, who flew out from Stavanger, Norway for the occasion. "I've been extremely impressed. It's so well run, and you get to see Warpaint hanging out at the bar."
But when Cocker sang the hook of "Common People," with its bleak invitation to dance, drink and have sex "because there's nothing else to do," here it felt more like a rallying cry than a line of desperation. A different class, indeed.
By Monday morning, a satanic hangover seemed to weigh down the crowds. Muscle bros lapped at recuperative micheladas while tottering in the hot tubs; women rubbed their temples behind NASA-grade sunglasses. Whoever booked a raging moombahton DJ for the noon shift deserves a custom-embroidered seat in hell.
As in Indio, daytime is reserved for complaining about your headaches and elegantly wasting sunlight. Sure, you could have played bingo with electro-popstress Grimes, sipped bloody marys with ambient rockers Warpaint or got sassed out at the noise-rap duo Sleigh Bells' nail salon, but like the terrestrial Coachella, to try to do it all is to do none of it well.
The most authentic way to spend the afternoon was probably with your shoes off under a white tent on the upper deck lawn (a nice touch that purposefully evoked the Polo Fields turf) with a mimosa in your twitching hand.
By Monday night the S.S. Coachella was on open water, gently gliding to the Bahamian coast with a thick slice of orange moon as the only light.
Disco revivalist and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy's wine-tasting seminar was the evening's hot ticket, but a concurrent Goldenvoice panel was well-attended and surprisingly candid. It featured several upper-brass staffers at Goldenvoice and KCRW's Jason Bentley.
Give Goldenvoice honcho Paul Tollett credit — he knows how fans feel. "You need a full weekend. By Day 3, you're tired, you're hungry, and you're cursing Coachella. But then the sun sets and you're like, 'Oh, that's what this is all about.'"
Even the Goldenvoice brass seemed to be playing this cruise by ear. "We don't know if this will always be a 'Coachella' thing," Tollett said. But it's clear that the DNA of Coachella is about transporting fans, and this cruise takes that goal quite literally. "We want you to be very far away and disconnected from your house," Tollett said. "We want you to surrender. Goldenvoice started in punk, we love no-budget shows. But with Coachella, we asked, 'What if Jay Gatsby threw a festival?'"
By dinner time in the main theater and adjacent nightclub, fuzzy garage punks Black Lips and Sleigh Bells turned in early, rowdy sets to small but enthusiastic crowds of concert-going overachievers. We heard from a colleague at Spin that Dylan Baldi from Cloud Nothings dumped a beer on a guy's head for moshing too hard, which about sums up the vibe of the actual sets.
"This is fantastic, we've done cruises in Scandinavia before but this is so much nicer," said the Black Lips' Cole Alexander, on the opening leg, a "Gilligan's Island"-themed pub crawl. "It's really cool for the bands as well as fans, I really do feel like I'm on vacation. The 3 a.m. set was a little sloppy, but I think that's why they booked us for that slot."
The experience can even feel a little overwhelming for fans. One can never quite shake the sense that whatever you're doing, you're missing out on something more fun down the hall. Sometimes it can all make you want to dump a Heineken on someone. But if Coachella logic holds true, the transcendent parts are always soon at hand, which brings me to Tuesday morning.
We were off to Nassau for snorkeling, and a few dozen yellowtail snappers, angelfish and loggerhead turtles were gliding just a few feet below us in the gently-chilly water. After the last two days, it felt good to be in the company of creatures that came by their soggy, glazed-eyed look via DNA rather than Sex on the Ship cocktails.
Yet there is wildlife onboard the S.S. Coachella. Six hours ago I was watching a guy in full-body lemur costume raving his face off to the Gaslamp Killer by the rooftop pool.
The after-hours lounge turned out to be the 15th floor pool bar, where you could post up with a Campari and soda and watch the L.A. music-biz dauphins mingle.
Spotted were FYF's Sean Carlson, the Eastside's sound-tech czar Jordan Long, and promoter Franki Chan. Sometimes you'd catch Paul Tollett with his black baseball cap pulled low, surveying his domain.
By the wee hours of Wednesday, the Silhouette Theatre stage is a thrashing hive of bodies for mashup party-provost Girl Talk's set.
It's 1 a.m., many are five sheets to the wind. Next to me, a woman is making out with a random shirtless guy, and as if to apologize to his girlfriend standing nearby, she makes out with her next. Confetti is pouring from cannons, someone's pouring champagne down perfect strangers' throats like a mother bird feeding her chicks.
It capped a day of appropriately mashed-up absurdities. Hot Chip was a discophile's delight; Father John Misty's sci-fi tale of landing an apartment in hell had a touch of Ray Bradbury's dark comedy; the Black Lips' pub crawl was exactly what it sounded like (much drinking, with scattered cross-dressing and undressing), and of course we found the good 4 a.m. booze-sop buffet only on our last night at sea.
But this voyage was about throwing a crazy idea — Coachella on a boat — and hoping it could float. Goldenvoice will have to run the numbers to see if it did.
But by the 8 a.m. disembarking call Wednesday morning, the fact that so many looked like they'd been hit by a cement mixer the previous night implied that they might be onboard in the future.