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Underground Culture Still Thrives at Coachella’s Do LaB

Like many before her, Billie Eilish discovered music, art, water and celebration in a 'renegade' corner of the festival
Billie Eilish Do Lab
Billie Eilish surprises fans at the Do Lab at Coachella (Credit: Jamie Jar)

Billie Eilish looks like she’s about to lose her mind with excitement. It’s the opening weekend of this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Ca, and the singer is standing behind the Do LaB stage, dressed in a light blue basketball jersey and baggy shorts, bouncing to the beats of a DJ set. In a few moments, Eilish will step out to dance and celebrate on a stage crowded with her friends and at least 15,000 fans spread out on the grass in front of her.

Her brother and key collaborator, Finneas, is here too, wearing shades as the sun slips behind the desert mountains. And their mother, Maggie Baird, is taking pictures with her phone. Together with a crowd of friends and artists, little girls and several photographers, Eilish steps onstage as a DJ plays some classic G-funk from Dr. Dre, then some Rage Against the Machine and Eminem before getting to the main event – previewing songs from Eilish’s upcoming album, Hit Me Hard And Soft, including the unheard tracks “Lunch,” “L’Amour De Ma Vie” and “Chihiro.” 

Eilish isn’t here to sing, however. She mainly spends her hour onstage happily dancing to the music and interacting with fans. At one point, Eilish grabs a vintage video camera and films the smiling faces looking up at her from the crowd. It’s the type of surprise appearance that has become a regular occurrence on the Do LaB stage, which last weekend also saw the likes of Diplo, Katy Perry and Anderson .Paak drop by.

While the Eilish appearance, which was announced via social media just an hour beforehand, became another high-profile event at Coachella, the Do LaB stage is less about big names than a mission to bring a bit of underground culture to Indio. Since its first year in 2005, Do LaB has offered a weekend-long party of art and music, drawing on its roots with Burning Man, the art happening in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Do Lab
Billie Eilish and friend at the Do Lab (Credit: Jamie Jar)

Do LaB was founded by brothers Jesse, Josh and Dede Flemming, who also run the annual Lightning in a Bottle Festival in central California. This May’s LiB fest will deliver a cross-generational lineup of artists including Skrillex, Labrinth, Lane 8, James Blake, M.I.A., ISOxo and Fatboy Slim.

At Coachella, the Do LaB stage is meant to be “a mix between art and architecture,” says Josh, with this year’s location shaded beneath curtains of fabric of red, blue, white and orange flapping in the breeze. And there is always room onstage for a crowd of people besides the performer, further blurring the line between the stage and the audience.

It is now a well-established attraction at Coachella, with its core audience of fans who spend quality time during the weekend at Do LaB. However, in its first year, music was barely a part of the Do LaB experience. The Flemming brothers set up a 60-foot geodesic dome, a water wall and several art pieces. It was designed as a visual and sensory escape from the rest of Coachella. Some friends sat in as DJs.

“It was so hot, people started coming up and were just rinsing their heads off and trying to drink it. Like, don’t drink that water!” recalls Jesse with a laugh. “Then we were like, oh, people just really want to get wet. So we grabbed the hose and hooked it up to a pump and a 55-gallon drum of water and started spraying people with the hose. That was kind of the beginning of it: oh, this is our thing.” 

Fans were often drawn to the water, but the Do LaB stage as a setting for music also grew. While the physical stage has evolved in wildly diverse directions over nearly two decades in Indio, Do LaB remains an essential part of the fan experience at Coachella, which was founded in 1999 by L.A. promoter Goldenvoice Productions.

“Goldenvoice started as punk rock and we break every rule imaginable and push the envelope,” says Dede. “They give us an inch and we take a mile. We used to have to cruise around the field late at night when everyone else wasn’t working and poach the heavy equipment, so we had more resources to do what we wanted to do. We still do that.” 

“Creatively, we’re trying to push boundaries,” adds Josh, who is Jesse’s twin brother. “What we do is very unorthodox, unconventional. It takes a lot more time and a lot of hard work. It’s challenging. We’re trying to be true to our vision and just kind of level up.” 

Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish taking photos at the Do Lab (Credit: Jamal Eid)

Hours ahead of the Eilish appearance, the three brothers step into a vintage black limo parked behind the stage. Clamped to the hood ornament is a shiny lightning bolt, but the car’s days as a luxury vehicle are years in the past. It has also been sitting in the desert heat all day, and the anemic air-conditioning isn’t helping much.

The Flemmings sit side-by-side in the back across the leather seat, as a DJ set blasts outside. It’s sweltering inside the car.

“We wanted to get an old Donald Trump-style limo and we found this in Oakland. It was five grand,” recalls Jesse. “We’re like, we can’t not buy this for five grand. It’s in great shape.” He reaches for the drink dispenser and flips on a light. 

“Last night I went to camp … and we were slowly doing loop-de-loops in our area and a bunch of security ran out like, ‘Who are you? What’s this limo doing here?'” he adds with a laugh, describing the three brothers’ general “renegade” attitude. “We’re still doing it. We just can’t help ourselves.”

The Flemmings grew up in Morgantown, Pa., a small rural town with a population of 1,400 an hour outside of Philadelphia. That’s Amish country, with corn fields and cow pastures, horses and buggies. And the Flemmings had to leave to find themselves as a creative force.

“We just skipped town because there wasn’t enough stimulation for us,” says Jesse, who was the first to head west in late 1998, followed within a few years by both brothers. “We were getting in a lot of trouble. We were also probably going to get arrested, but we moved to L.A. and we just fell into the rave scene and started throwing parties right off the bat.”

Do Lab
The Do Lab, from above (Credit: Jamal Eid)

Their first visits to Burning Man introduced them to a culture of art and freedom that would remain a foundation to their work with Do LaB and Lightning in a Bottle. They discovered a different path that hadn’t occurred to them before. “We went to Burning Man and it pretty much blew our minds open,” explains Jesse. “We were going this way with life and then all of a sudden it’s a sharp left turn. We went home, we quit our jobs and we were just making art.”

The Do LaB name came from their loft in downtown L.A., which they were told used to be a meth lab. 

“There really was no idea or master plan,” says Jesse. “We started throwing parties and building art and people started to ask us to come kind of decorate their parties and we needed to be able to collect checks to get payments. So we had to start a company to get a bank account. The whole reason it exists is just for us to kind of build art, do our thing.”

Each brother has a specific role in the organization: Josh designs the physical locations, Jesse books the music and Dede runs the production. Each leads a team of workers who create the Do LaB stage, working non-stop in the days leading up to doors opening at Coachella, then joining the partying crowd to celebrate their creation.

“We want it to look completely chaotic – like it’s out of control even though it’s completely under control the whole time,” says Jesse. “We’re just kids from Pennsylvania. Of all the people in the world, how do we get to have our own stage inside of Coachella? We built it from the ground up and they have us back every year. For some reason they let everybody else go and moved on, but they kept us.”