The Men Behind The Fest
By Waleed Rashidi | Photos by Kristopher Christensen
Coachella organizers talk Goldenvoice, The Glass House and everything that started the seminal music and arts festival
“We’re proud of the IE; we think about it all the time.” That’s Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett, sitting in the Pomona bar Acerogami, next door to the popular all-ages music venue The Glass House.
He’s seated with Skip Paige, the concert promotion company’s vice president, and festival director/producer (and Sleigh Bells manager) Bill Fold. And mere minutes into the conversation, the trio check off countless connections linking Los Angeles-based Goldenvoice to a region an hour-plus drive away in eastbound freeway traffic.
Which might seem initially surprising, given that Goldenvoice has been owned by major entertainment company AEG—which developed LA Live, The Home Depot Center and owns the Staples Center, LA Kings and LA Galaxy— for over a decade, and has placed its stamp on concerts in several major LA-area venues for over 30 years.
However, Goldenvoice created (and currently produces) the seminal Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio (and its country music counterpart, Stagecoach), plus the constant promotion of shows in the Pomona Arts Colony has made an everlasting impression in the area’s music scene. But, there are even more ties to our area than many might realize.
Tollett originally hails from West Covina—not classified as the IE by most standards, but there’s a close-enough-for-rock-’n‘-roll acceptance, as he spent many of his college-aged days promoting and producing concerts in the Pomona Valley. Paige notes Alta Loma as his native turf, while Fold, whose 98 Posse produced some of Riverside’s most popular punk and ska concerts in the ’90s at UC Riverside’s Barn, claims that city as his own.
“Me and Perry, my brother, we do The Glass House,” says Tollett. “This bar is [Perry’s]. The Fox is [Perry’s] and another partner. My brother has a shop [in Pomona], and it’s basically manufacturing for Coachella. We make a lot of barricades, staging, fencing.”
Perry Tollett, a couple years Paul’s senior, seems to be an inspiration behind Paul’s concert promoter career, as the two worked together in the early ’80s booking many IE-area gigs for Perry’s Claremont-based band, The Targets.
“My first place was Orlando’s on Holt, that was November 1982,” Paul Tollett recalls. “Then we did a couple places up and down Holt, like the Elks Lodge. And then right here, Yesteryears, when it was across the street [on Second Street]. And then the Pomona Valley Auditorium.”
Around that same time, Paul Tollett was attending Cal Poly Pomona as a chemical engineering major (Perry was also the same major), and met up with fellow Broncos Paige—who was the “concerts guy” at the university booking bands like Social Distortion and Oingo Boingo in the area in the mid-’80s—and Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman.
The Flyer Route
Tollett says he made his initial contact with Goldenvoice and its founder Gary Tovar in March of 1986. Tovar started putting holds on the Pomona Valley Auditorium for Goldenvoice, thus occupying the venue’s calendar slots, piquing Tollett’s curiosity.
“So, he started doing ska shows, all within a week’s period, he puts a hold on the Pomona Valley Auditorium and books Bad Manners and Fishbone at [Long Beach-based] Fender’s [Ballroom]. So I drove to Fender’s Ballroom to talk to him and meet him, and he pretty much hired me that night, without saying, ‘You have a job,’ and gave me a box of flyers . . . I asked him what his plan was out [in Pomona]. I told him, ‘I’m from out there; I can help you put your flyers and posters up in the stores; I can give you ideas for your shows for support. I kind of know a lot about that world’ . . . It was almost instant with Gary. He’s fun, super fun. We talked about shows, and I left with a box. I could tell that, wow, this was going to lead to something.”
Tovar became his mentor and Tollett would drive to the Huntington Beach-based office daily after his classes at Cal Poly, helping book Goldenvoice shows and, as the primary medium of concert advertising of the era, distributing flyers and posters.
“The flyer route was so important to our lives. We would say, ‘They don’t have the flyer route.’ It was almost like a badge of honor that we would hit stores everywhere . . . [And] it wasn’t a real show in the Pomona Valley if you didn’t print a poster. You’d take these posters everywhere and they’d be in the back of your car and they’d smell so bad from the ink, you’d get high. You’d have to pull over occasionally and air your mind out. Even when the window’s open, it would be, like, nasty.”
The Rise of a New Goldenvoice
Tollett explained that Tovar left Goldenvoice in 1991 after facing some legal problems, and left Tollett and business partner Rick Van Santen in charge of the operations. The company reorganized and resurfaced a few months later with a new Beverly Hills address to impress booking agents—never mind that the office was some 200 square feet.
Tollett says the company was in debt and people were owed money—Goldenvoice was faced with either going bankrupt, or slowly trying to pay off debts.
“Actually, the truth is, we just went into more debt,” he says. “It just kept going for a long time but we had a lot of shows so we didn’t really feel it. We never got a handle on it really, that number just went up and up.”
However, 1991 was an important year musically, with Nirvana striking mainstream success, bolstering interest in rock’s underground. That was good fortune for Goldenvoice, whose specialty was the music of such genres. The shows began to happen with higher frequency and visibility, including a popular 1993 Pearl Jam event in the Coachella Valley which Goldenvoice promoted—and would become the site of the company’s massive music festival six years later.
“From ’91 all the way to the first Coachella, those are the most crucial years for Goldenvoice,” says Paige, who joined in 1998. “All those new bands were playing for Goldenvoice.”
“Alternative music was breaking,” adds Tollett. “We had just worked hard and been at the right place at the right time.”
A Venue in Pomona
Enter The Glass House, which opened in 1996 and was instrumental in the revitalization of the Pomona Arts Colony.
“We always wanted [a venue in] Pomona because Perry and I are from out here,” says Tollett. “Pomona always had something . . . This was a Thrifty drug store, and we’re so glad that we came over here, because this street has such a great vibe.”
And how receptive was the city to the venue’s opening?
“They weren’t into it,” he says. “It’s weird, 16 years later, it seems easy. But back then people didn’t want concert facilities in their town, it seems like a bad word. But now it’s like you can almost do a concert anywhere. We were a punk rock promoter. But this street changed; it almost changed in those first couple days.”
The 909, Windmills and Surrendering
Another major Inland Empire-based Goldenvoice endeavor came via Coachella, the pinnacle gathering of the alternative music scene, which Tollett says almost didn’t happen there, due to the distance from L.A.
“We were trying to find something in L.A,” he says. “But looking back, that is one of the best things about Coachella, is how far it is. If it was in LA it wouldn’t be as special. It needs to be far away, you need to leave town, leave your worries behind, leave for the weekend. If you just dropped by and heard a few bands, you wouldn’t experience the whole show. You need to see the 909, hit the windmills [and] surrender yourself.”
But for the year following the first Coachella installment, it looked—at least on the inside—like Goldenvoice was about to surrender.
“We did Coachella thinking that it would solve everything if we did a big show, in 1999, and it just got us into more trouble,” Tollett says. “We lost a lot of money, a lot of money we didn’t have . . . It was painful, the ’90s were actually painful and the year after Coachella was extremely painful—it was pathetic. Everyone got paid and that’s about all that happened. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t check the bank in the morning.”
A Good Deal
Fortunately, the company’s financial woes ended when AEG started a concert division, took an interest in Goldenvoice and acquired it in 2001.
“It’s been great ever since,” says Tollett. “They didn’t [initially] buy Coachella—they co-promoted it with us for a few years, and then bought it in 2004. The thing is that it’s been a good deal ever since. Our deals have popped up a few times and we always sign back up.”
Subsequent Coachella festivals have been immense successes—and Goldenvoice was able to prosper, despite a major setback for the company when Van Santen died in December 2003. “It was hard for all of us,” Tollett recalls. “[He was] best friends for all of us.”
The Country Coachella
The annual desert institution eventually led to the application of the Coachella model for country music fans known as Stagecoach, which launched in 2007 and features an array of popular, alt-country and classic country artists.
“For a lot of people who live in the 909 and 760, Stagecoach is their Coachella,” says Tollett. “What happened is that we had a lot of different people who said, ‘We respect Coachella but just don’t like the music.’ People floated the idea of doing a country version. It was almost called ‘Country Coachella’ . . . That is as important to them as Coachella is [for the Coachella audience]. It’s great for them because it’s so close. It’s an hour away for most of them.” (A noteworthy IE tie to this year’s Stagecoach: ’80s outfit The Unforgiven will perform a reunion set at the event.)
A Stake in the Region
Other IE connections to Coachella for Goldenvoice include a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Colton where the company houses necessary items for festival. And last month, Goldenvoice announced an acquisition of 280 acres near the Empire Polo Club (but not the concert fields themselves), used for parking and camping, further establishing their stake in the region.
Plus many of Fold’s 98 Posse staff now work for Coachella and Goldenvoice.
“Because Coachella grew so fast, Goldenvoice wasn’t ready for it, we didn’t have the staff for it,” says Tollett. “So we were like, ‘Bill, can you tap into your friends that are in the 909?’”
Besides its Coachella/IE connections, Goldenvoice has also promoted shows at the LA County Fairgrounds in Pomona for the past eight years, including the Pomona-based Vans Warped Tour date. And, as earlier mentioned, there are ties to the Fox in Pomona of which Goldenvoice became the exclusive music promoter three years ago.
So, with such local in-roads made, are there plans for any other show spots in the Inland Empire? Tollett says that Goldenvoice is busy with what’s currently on their plate. But, he adds, “We have our blinker on at all times. We’re ready for the lane change.”
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio; www.coachella.com. April 13-14 and April 20-22. 11am, each day.