Mark Stern is a punk rock luminary. After helping form Los Angeles punk band Youth Brigade in 1980, he co-founded BYO Records, which released records by a number of influential, if not genre-defining bands for over 30 years. Today, his time is consumed by his iconic music festival creation, Punk Rock Bowling, which showcases the world’s finest punk rock bands and will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in Downtown Las Vegas May 25-28. I talked to Mark to get the skinny on this year’s festival.
Last year was your first year holding Punk Rock Bowling at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center. How did the venue change go?
Everything went great! If you had been to years prior, we had a lot of challenges because we built everything from scratch. We had a parking lot and had to bring in everything and build the whole set. The [Events Center] had been asking us for a couple years to come over there and we finally worked it out and it was great. They have the video monitors, the air-conditioned bathrooms, and it’s right next to the Golden Nugget, which is our main hub. It’s just central. And also, last year was the first year – I don’t know if you made it to any movies last year – but there’s this cool theater down the street owned by the same people who own Gold Spike. We did movie screenings there. We used to do them at a club. It was perfect last year. It holds like 150 people and has a bar, great sound, everything. We showed Iggy’s movie and a couple others. This year we got The Godfathers of Hardcore and we’re about to announce another next week.
Did anything go wrong last year?
Not really. There were a couple little hitches here and there but it’s always like that, like when someone blows up my phone because there is no microphone at the Golden Nugget and the Bouncing Souls are about to play. That happened. I took an elevator down and ran into a sound guy and was like “Hey, you got a microphone?” He says “Sure.” I said, “I’ll take it over.” It’s things like that.
Who were the first and last bands you booked this year?
That’s a good question. Let me look at my list (laughs). My first band might have been – well, I had a bunch on hold already so it’s hard to order them. I had been talking to Turbonegro for a while about having them back. And I was working on a lot of stuff right from the beginning, like L7 and The Partisans. [That booking] was six years in the making.
Six years? What goes on back and forth for six years?
They all have jobs and live in different parts of the world and they don’t really play that much. I’m like “Well, you guys can still stand and walk and play guitars. Let’s make this happen.” I’m a huge Partisans fan so I’m pretty excited about that. And they’re a band we’ve never had. That’s kind of what I was trying to do this year – go after some stuff that’s never appeared. Steve Ignorant and X have never played. Suicidals have never played. We branched out a little bit. We’ve never had Rise Against – that’s a first. And also At the Drive In. Those bands are a little different for the hardcore Punk Rock Bowling fan, but to me it all sort of fits in the same genre.
Speaking of branching out, when you first announced your lineup, the reaction on the internet was harsh…
It’s crazy. If you think about it, there’s a small pool of bands that we work with. It’s pretty limited. I try and branch out whenever we can. Getting Iggy last year was pretty big for us. One year I brought Devo out. I had Refused one year and that did really well. But there were also a lot of people that bagged on Refused. We got tons of shit about Devo too, but it turned out to be one of the best sets we’ve had. For me, that was one of the first bands I saw when I was 17 years old. That band is the real deal. They’re so good. I had that same issue the first time I had The English Beat play. I put them on with NOFX and got a lot of shit about it. It’s funny because you’d think it’s punk rock and people are more open-minded. People give you a hard time when you’re just booking all the Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords stuff – it’s like “Oh, it’s the same lineup every year,” but I know that if we try new things and get people out there they’ll have a good time.
My daughter said to me a few years ago, “What are you going to do when all these bands die?” (laughs). She’s 18 now. She grew up with NOFX and Pennywise and everything and turns me on to some bands that are good, and some that I don’t’ like. But I’ve put bands on the bill that I found out through her. All our opening bands and all that – they’re all new. We have Crazy & the Brains playing this year and Slaves from the UK. It’s all different. It’s funny that no one is going to bag on that because it is different from what we do. But they do want to bag on the headliners. And the thing is, if that’s what keeps you away from Punk Rock Bowling – like two headliners that you’re not familiar with – then I don’t get it because there’s GBH, Suicidal Tendencies, Angelic Upstarts, Against Me! — these bands that have always played Punk Rock Bowling or that style. People can be harsh but I try not to read it anymore. Sometimes I take it personally because I book everything but honestly, I’ve known the Rise Against guys for decades. I just saw them at a 500 capacity club six months ago in LA. They were awesome. They’re on the radio, but they come from this scene.
Your band Youth Brigade is playing on Friday with TSOL. Why not put yourself on the main stage?
Well, we did the main stage in 2016. Before that, we hadn’t played for six years. I don’t really like playing it (laughs). There is too much stuff going on. But since it’s our 20th year, it was kind of like “Eh, we should play.” I talked to Erin at Fat Wreck Chords about doing a Fat show, then thought we’d do a BYO show. So that’s how our show started. We put a whole Fat show together for Saturday with Lagwagon and Dillinger Four and Good Riddance – that’s a pretty stacked lineup. Then we had the BYO show which was awesome with 7 Seconds, Youth Brigade, SNFU. We announced that then SNFU had to cancel because the singer isn’t doing well. So then I got ahold of this band Stretchmarks which was on BYO back in the early 80s. They’re Canadian. They were in. Everything was set, then a week later the bass player had to go fix a satellite dish in Winnipeg in the middle of winter and he slipped off the ladder and broke his back in two places, so they canceled. I was like “Oh man, this whole bill is jinxed!”
In an interview a few years back, you said that PRB breaks the record for alcohol consumption in downtown Vegas. Have you seen figures?
(Laughs.) Yeah, we’ve gotten figures from the hotels we’re at. The casinos have talked to me about it. Before we were a festival, we were staying downtown at Binion’s and they ran out of booze. Also, the Gold Coast, which was one of the first festivals — they also ran out of booze – not completely out, but pretty much anything good was out. People ended up going to the mini-mart across the street and to the gift shop. They were walking around the street with bottles of Patron and things like that. Anything they could get their hands on. Everyone was like “Who are you people?!” It was like “Hey! It’s Punk Rock Bowling!”
Yeah, as I looked around last year I noticed plenty of casual tourists that probably expected a calmer weekend. I think The Golden Nugget and all the hotels should put up a casual warning like “Attention! You’re visiting on Punk Rock Bowling weekend!”
What’s funny is that people that aren’t part of the festival always tell me “I thought you guys were just so weird, but then I started talking to you people and you guys are really nice.” It’s like “Well, yeah. Everyone is really nice.”
Our first year, we were at this place called Sam’s Town, which is in Henderson. They have a trailer park out back. It’s a nice place but it’s for older people. They bus them in and that’s where they go. Well, of course, they aren’t our crowd and were kind of scared. But by the end of the weekend, there were old ladies dancing in the lounge to Manic Hispanic (laughs). I go to Vegas a lot for meetings during the year and will bump into pit bosses at the tables and they’re like “Punk Rock Bowling! When are you guys coming back?” [Sam’s Town] is really bummed that we left there.
The Denver and Jersey shows were a no-go this year. Can you speak to that?
We kind of just wanted to concentrate on Vegas for our 20 year anniversary. It’s a lot of work doing other cities. Asbury — as much as I loved it — it’s just different for us. We try to control everything and out there we don’t. It got a little frustrating. It’s not like we can just go in and it’s our venue. We have to deal with all their rules and regulations. We don’t get to control the bar or the bar prices and stuff like that. It sucks because the vibe there is great and people have a good time. Last year was one of my favorite shows because we had The Specials and Charles Bradley. We also had a bunch of east coast reunion stuff like Lifetime, The Explosion, The Pietasters. And H2O played. It was really cool.
Editor’s Note: Punk Rock Bowling is taking place at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center May 25-28, 2018. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.punkrockbowling.com and follow them at @punkrockbowling.