The closer we got to show time, I felt that I was being led to the scaffold of the guillotine. Five minutes before, I’m at the side of the stage, and I could hear all the chatter with the crew and somebody said that the projectors and lights weren’t working. I can hear everybody just going crazy. I said to our offstage manager, “OK, at 8:00, I’m going to go on — light or no light. We’ll play it in the dark.”
We went on, at 8:00, and the lights came on! The most amazing thing, really, truly, honestly, are these crews — it doesn’t matter what the problem is, they will fix it. When the lights finally came on, and I looked out, and there were all these people there, it was glorious.
We just wanted to play to the people. We had nothing to sell. I don’t have an album coming out, I’m not playing anything from the new movie that I’ve finished. We just went to play for the audience and to say thank you for supporting us over all these years.
I never have anything prepared that I speak about onstage, and when I went out there, I just wanted to see how this would go over: I said, “OK, we’re now going to play a cello concerto.” I wanted to see if everybody was just going to shudder and say, “He’s pretty much lost it. He’s going to do classical music now?”
I heard the audience cheer and somebody say, “A cello concerto!” That was pretty great. Of course the cello concerto was (Pirates of the Caribbean), which is a cello concerto, you know? Getting out there, looking people in the eye, playing the music, the audience becomes part of the performance. They’re like part of the band.
I haven’t counted, but there were 70-something musicians with me onstage. Having that many people onstage means I get to have a lot of people whom I truly adore. Friends and family, and I include Pharrell Williams in my family. I absolutely feel he’s family. You can’t have a better friend than someone who actually drives all the way down to do one song. So having him there adds to the thrill. He played “Freedom” with me — that’s one of my favorite songs. It’s an important song for the time that we’re living in right now. The adrenaline was overflowing. Basically, you’re out of your mind.
I had the incredible Jacob Collier onstage, too. I’ve been following Jacob on YouTube forever and ever and ever. I knew he was going to be at Coachella, so I said to him, “Hey, why don’t you come up on the stage and do this thing with Pharrell and me?” We didn’t have any rehearsal. Maybe I’m a bit reckless, but it worked out, you know? We just made it up on the spot. Sometimes you just have to push it all a little bit.
Finishing a film score, you’re forced to be very, very perfect about everything. That requires having the time, the energy, the paranoia and the adrenaline rush that goes with it. Coachella is — I mean this in a loving way — it’s like fantastic shambles and that makes it great. It’s like a bit of a mess, and that actually makes it more human.
I don’t think much about being the first composer ever to perform at Coachella. Instead, I’d like to thank Coachella for taking the risk of letting a 59-year-old German get out there on the stage and play his music, you know? The people on my stage, we come from every culture. We have people from China, Australia, Africa, Europe — we have people from every gender and every color and every culture, and we play nicely together. That’s the great thing about these festivals, you know, because it doesn’t matter. We can find a common language in music. It reaches across all the culture. A moment there at Coachella, we could all really get along by listening to each other.
The blame for my Coachella appearance lies entirely with my friends Johnny Marr, Pharrell Williams and Ann Marie Simpson, who sort of ganged up on me and said, it’s time you got out there and looked your public in the eye. There comes a point in life where you have to go and do things in real time and stop hiding behind a screen.
At the same time, I was saying, “What if nobody comes? What if nobody comes? Am I picking the right pieces?” The insecurities are always there. Suddenly it changed, and I realized I’m just going to pick the pieces that I like. I have to tell you: We picked the right pieces, and it felt incredible.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.