The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has grown into so much more than a typical festival throughout its 20-year lifespan. The celebrity sightings became more anticipated, the activations are out of this world — seriously, there’s a moon man floating on the Empire Polo Club grounds — and the afterparties have gotten more over-the-top.
The honors for the most popular party goes to Neon Carnival — an exclusive event that brings your dreams of renting out your favorite childhood amusement park to life. Only this time, there’s alcohol, and the industry’s top DJs spinning the tunes.
This year, Neon Carnival is celebrating its 10th anniversary by expanding itself across both Coachella weekends as well as Stagecoach Festival, which runs from April 26-28. Billboard attended the party at HITS Desert Park on April 13 following Tame Impala’s headlining set, and was met with a kaleidoscopic experience filled with various carnival rides, treats like pizza and ice cream, and endless hits provided by DJs Kayper, Ruckus and A-Trak. There were guest appearances by frequent carnival attendee Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Odell Beckham Jr., 2 Chainz, Quavo, Wiz Khalifa, Meek Mill, Paris Hilton and dozens of others. Everyone got to act like a kid again, winning prizes from sponsers like Levi’s, LG, Australian beauty brand Bondi Sands and POKÉMON Detective Pikachu.
If this sounds like a sensory overload, founder and Los Angeles nightlife Brent Bolthouse — the man behind popular clubs like The Bungalow — agrees. “I get a massage because I’m wrecked!” he says of his post-Neon Carnival ritual. “I don’t drink, so I have this social hangover and I’m just delirious. So on Sunday all I want to do is watch Game of Thrones and have a massage.”
But few days before Coachella officially kicked off on April 12, Billboard spoke to Bolthouse about the event’s memorable moments, and if he ever plans to take it on the road.
Congratulations on 10 years! How does even saying that sentence make you feel?
It makes me feel old. [Laughs.] I think of myself as an elder statesman now. It’s weird, because it’s only once a year and we worked so hard on it. Like, the six months leading up to it is just a ton of work and then it happens — and then it’s over. So it’s never a thought of, “What’s the 10th anniversary gonna be like?” But it’s literally gone by pretty fast, you know, It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 10 years. And when we started, nobody did parties. [Fashion designer] Jeremy Scott was the only person doing a party, and that was like, having friends at his house, that grew into a party that he does now. But all this is pretty exciting.
Take me back to a decade ago: how did the idea for Neon Carnival get manifested?
So maybe it was 15 years ago, I did a party for the launch of a ride at Magic Mountain called “Tatsu.” Six Flags hired us to bring a bunch of Hollywood kids and some celebrities out to Magic Mountain. And so we closed down the park. It was a private party — guest-list only — and we took like 5,000 kids from Hollywood to the park. On a normal Saturday night, they have about 40,000 people, so it was completely open.
And what I saw at that party was the happiest people had ever been. I think it was every kid’s dream in Southern California to rent out Disneyland for their birthday. People were literally running around with funnel cake and churros going, “This is the greatest night of our lives!” Everyone was going on rides, so their endorphins are going. People like Gwen Stefani were saying, “I never go to Magic Mountain, but I’m here with all my friends and people I know from Hollywood. It’s the greatest night of my life.” So I just was like, “Oh my God, I need to do a party like this somewhere else.” ‘Cause obviously you can’t do Magic Mountain all the time.
So the closest thing is a carnival. I wanted to have a carnival party at Coachella and we pitched it to a client — Armani Exchange — and they said they believe it. That year, Armani Exchange was promoting neon sunglasses. So I was like, “Great, we’ll call it Neon Carnival.”
Out of all the festival locations you could’ve chosen, why was being Coachella-adjacent the right move?
I mean, I live in Southern California. I’m from Joshua Tree, so I grew up spending a lot of my life in the desert and knowing it really well. And I was always such a big fan of what the guys at Goldenvoice had built. But we have no affiliation with Coachella whatsoever. We’re a standalone entity. So I wanted to be clear about that.
But what happened was I was at Coachella and I was backstage with some friends. They kind of looked around after it was over and they all like, “What are we going to do now?” And they all looked at me like, “Dude, that’s your job. You do parties.” I don’t know. That’s when the light went off in my head. I’ve seen friends all day long and there’s nothing to do. I just knew so many people that were there. So we did that first party with DJ AM — he was like the biggest DJ at the time– as well as Steve Aoki and [actor] Danny Masterson in an airplane hangar.
Have you experienced any setbacks while growing this event?
When Armani Exchange decided to not sponsor it, that was kind of a set back. So we decided to take on Neon Carnival by ourselves. At that time it was sorta like this unproven concept. Like, were people coming to the party because it was an Armani party, or were they coming because it wasn Neon Carnival? That was a scary moment where we had to go find new sponsors, and really no fashion brands wanted to touch it because it was an Armani party. So for a couple of years we were doing things with different sponsors, but we [decided to] trademark this name.
That was a little bit nerve wracking. And that’s still a part of the nerve wracking process. Every year we have work with sponsors and raise the money to do it because it does cost a lot of money to put on this party. You’re building a party in the middle of a field, so it’s crazy!
Can you name your top three favorite moments from the party’s history?
One of my top moments is when Clint Eastwood showed up at a party with his kids [in 2013]. He somehow made his way over to the water squirt game, and was literally squirting people! [Laughs.] That was pretty incredible. He’s one of my idols, and such a great actor. I think there was like one year there was like a breakdance circle around Rihanna, when she showed up with all of her dancers. She was cheering on her crew and everyone was having fun. It was pretty magical to see that.
And this year, we had to move from the hanger because there were some complications with the FAA and an active runway. So we we found a new location with HITS Desert Park, which we’re super excited about. We worked out a long term arrangement with them. They built us a grass field that’s the size of three football fields. This is the first time ever that Neon Carnival is going to be on grass, which is pretty exciting because we’ve always been on asphalt. So you can go on the Zipper and then you could lie down on the grass and look at the stars. The weather is going to be great this weekend, so that’s gonna make it perfect for Neon Carnival.
Was there a particular moment throughout the years when you realized, “Woah, this is getting big!”
Well, it’s always been a private party. And we’ve always curated the guest list like we have at all of our nightclubs from my whole 30 year career. So [Leonardo DiCaprio] has been coming to my nightclubs since he was 15. So we look at each other at Neon Carnival like, “Dude, we’re still here!” It’s crazy. We’ve been friends for a very long time and he’s a sweet human. I have friends from all over the world, so there’s very few parties in the world where literally you get a melting pot of people from like New York, Miami, Sydney, Tokyo, London. It’s a very special thing to have.
Why do you think people keep coming back year after year?
I mean, when was the last time you’ve been to a carnival? Honestly.
It’s been over a year, I think.
But was there a dancefloor and DJs? Was there Don Julio flowing? There’s something about carnivals that when you get there, you feel like a kid again. I think that’s what makes Neon Carnival so special. We have a Zipper, a Ferris wheel, bumper cars — we have all those things. And we’ve got teddy bears and Koala bears and Kangaroos — because we have an Australian sponsor this year. You get to do all those really fun things that you like about the carnival, and on top of it, you add this layer of amazing music, drinks and people. It’s like a recipe for perfection.
Throughout this whole experience, how do you think this has inspired the party scene?
I’ve always been market leader of seeing opportunities that weren’t there and bringing opportunities there. Like I said, when we started, nobody was doing daytime parties, or much [in the way of] activations. Obviously there’s plenty of room for everybody. There’s a lot of people in that desert this weekend. So I think we’ve definitely opened up the pathway for that world.
I imagine if I owned Coachella, I’d be annoyed at people taking people away from my festival. But I guess, you know, it is what it is. We’ve always tried to do things late at night so we weren’t competing with the festival. When they’re closed, we’re open. We always tried to be respectful.
Is there anything you’re most excited for this weekend?
We have A-Trak DJing, and he’s incredible. There was one year where he jumped up and did a set for 30 minutes. But now we have him for a full, real set. We’ve got more parking. We’ve worked with the California highway patrol to make sure that it’s more organized. We’ve kind of amped it up so it’s on a whole new level.
I know you’re expanding to three weekends this year. Can you tell me the decision behind that?
Well, when we’re at the hangar we could never do all three [weekends], because it was an active tarmac and everything had to come down the following day. So we can never leave any structures up. And when we found this new location at HITS, we have the ability to leave up all the towers, all the stage, all the lights. So now, we’ve partnered with Boots Onstage, which is a great marketing company that really has a lock on the country music scene. Just like Coachella was 10 years ago, there’s nothing to do after the Stagecoach festival on Saturday night. So now we have something and I’m excited to see what happens with weekend three. It could just be a whole new thing that opens up.
Would you ever take Neon Carnival to other cities?
We’ve always talked about expanding and doing other things, but nothing really has materialized. I think the challenge that always holds us back from this is it, it costs a lot of money to have it. And I think without the celebrity component driving the sponsors to give large sponsorship dollars to make it happen, it’s hard to make the Neon Carnival. At least the way we do it. It takes a lot. We’d love to expand it to other parts of the country or do something else with it. We just haven’t been able to figure that out yet.
So my final question for you is a fun one: if you could create your own fantasy festival lineup, who would you choose?
I mean, obviously it’d be amazing to have David Bowie, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Along with Leon Bridges and Otis Redding. I just would love to see old Memphis soul meets this old rock n’ roll kind of festival. I think that would be so cool. They will all be borrowing from each other in some weird way. Like, here’s James Brown! And then now here’s Prince! Just to see that would be so amazing.