On May 26th, thousands of punk music fans will congregate in downtown Las Vegas for four days of Punk Rock Bowling. The one-of-a-kind music festival, with additional dates in Denver and Asbury Park this year, is a staple of the punk rock festival circuit with this year’s headliners including Bad Religion, Cock Sparrer, NOFX and many more. I caught up with co-founder Mark Stern to get the skinny on this year’s event.
First, congratulations on the success of the festival over the past few years. For folks that haven’t been, describe it in three words.
Big. Punk. Party.
Can you share a little about the history of the festival?
So here’s how it went down. In 1999 or something, we decided to start a bowling tournament for record labels. Me and my brother ran BYO records for 30 years. At that time, with all the independent labels, there was a whole scene that was just that – bands, fanzines, what have you. We decided we’d start this local bowling tournament and it was Epitaph, BYO, Hopeless – just all the labels and a bunch of bands. That was sort of our thing once a week. Then we heard that Fat Wreck Chords had something going on in San Francisco that was similar, so we talked to them and were like ‘How about we all just meet in Vegas and have a big tournament.’ It was like an LA versus San Francisco thing but not really. I think it was like 28 teams and [Me First and The Gimmes] Gimmes played. It was one of their first shows. So yeah, it was just a crazy weekend and then word got out and people started signing up for the bowling. By the second year we were sold out and then it just turned into a waiting list thing. It wasn’t a festival at the time. It was more that if you bowled you got to go to the show for free. Friday was the show, Saturday we’d bowl and then Sunday we’d have an awards party. So yeah, it started as an independent music industry thing. We wouldn’t let the major labels get involved. We kept it like that and after a lot of years it just grew and we ended up with like a thousand bowlers and the waiting list got so huge and bands were doing shows all over Vegas so we just decided to turn it into a festival and that was about eight years ago.
Setting aside the bigger bands that you booked through agents, how many band submissions did you receive to play this year’s festival?
I don’t even count at this point. But seriously it all comes to me and I listen to pretty much everything that comes in. I check it all out. Even if it’s bands I’ve never heard of, if something catches my ear I put them on a list of bands. I have different categories of bands. Some bands are popular. Some are unknown. It doesn’t matter to me if the band draws or not. I just want to put out some good music. If I like it, I’ll put the band on a list and when I’m putting the bills together I’ll whittle it down to a few bands and try to give them a good spot. I think if they’re good, I want to give them an opportunity to play in front of a bunch of people and get their name involved with the festival. A lot of new bands that we put on there – like opening bands and stuff like that – it helps them and I see them go on from there to tour more and get more attention. But I seriously get everything. I got a submission once from a twelve piece Indonesian variety show. (laughs)
Who was the hardest band to book this year?
We’re doing Denver and Asbury Park this year, so it’s been kind of crazy. I was trying to get The Specials for a lot of years and same with Iggy Pop. Those both came through which was awesome. With Iggy it was just timing for probably five years. It was kind of cool, actually. I think he got wind of what we were doing through people that he tours with. The main thing is just to get through to the artist to let them know what we’re about. We don’t just want to be another offer or another festival. There are lot of festivals that are way bigger than us that can offer way more money.
I suppose at some level there’s this punk ethos where money isn’t everything, but at the end of the day bands have to get paid too. How hard is it to recruit bands when you’re competing against bigger events?
It’s hard. But I always tell people this festival is Punk Rock Bowling. It’s several thousand punk rock fans. You might go to a festival that has five stages and you’re going to play on one stage but those 50,000 people are not coming to your stage. I’ve gone to a lot of festivals where you see a punk band playing on one stage to a 1,000 people when there’s 100,000 people at the festival. This isn’t like that. I met The Buzzcocks at Riot Fest a few years ago and told them about us and finally we got them last year and they said to me “Hey man, you weren’t bullshitting!” They had the greatest time. I’ve seen some of the best sets from bands at Punk Rock Bowling. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a tight scene or what. I mean, take Cock Sparrer. Of all the times I’ve seen them, I think the best set I’ve ever seen them play was at Punk Rock Bowling. They just command the whole place.
As far as festival planning, the average fan doesn’t understand the minutiae that goes into organizing an event like this. What are some of the details that someone might be surprised to know about?
(laughs) Just building the lot is a job in itself. I used to design the lot myself as well as deal with all the artwork, promotion, booking the bands, all that stuff. I wasn’t a nice guy to be around for six months. Me and my brother run it. He deals with the bar and the contracts and all that. Once I book a band it goes over to him to deal with lawyers and stuff. But the hardest part is definitely all the little things that go in that people don’t think about. I just finished proofing a 50-page program guide. It’s probably not cost effective to do that – mean, we have an app – but people love that stuff. We make them as a souvenir. Every little thing from bowling to keeping scores, getting the trophies, various parties, wrist bands, passes, movies, moving the backline around. It’s a lot. We have a really small crew. There’s only five of us at the core but we bring people in for the weekend to help.
Have you ever chatted with someone like [Warped Tour founder] Kevin Lyman? What advice has he given you?
We’ve chatted before. Actually, he’s coming out this year. I don’t think he’s been since we moved downtown. You know, I used to promote shows in the ‘80s and we did the Hollywood Palladium. It was TSOL, Bad Religion – we had like seven LA bands and 3,500 people at the Palladium in 1982 when I was 21. When I was doing shows in LA back then that was when Gary Tovar started Goldenvoice in Santa Barbara. There was one agent that would try to play us off each other to get more money and we just started working together so we used to promote a lot of shows with Goldenvoice in the early days. So I have a lot of experience doing that. After a bunch of riots at our shows, that’s when we started our label and told Gary “Yeah, you can do the shows and we’ll just do this.” (laughs) But yeah, there are people I call for advice sometimes and to shoot ideas. All promoters have the same frustrations. Like keeping bands from overplaying and radius clauses that they violate. You’re trying to get the most out of a band because they hit you for so much.
Do you surf?
Oh yeah, but not a lot in the last six months which is turning me into a grump. (laughs)
On that note, can you share your best surf story?
Well first off, I remember that as a kid winters were way colder in California. The sand would be so cold that your feet would get numb. When the swell was big we’d always go up north. I’m really into beach breaks more than points and I can’t deal with people. I like to have my own peace. I remember one time there was a storm and we pulled up and we had to park a block and a half from the water because the street was flooded. It was probably more than double overhead breaking over the houses. It was a few of us that went but one of my friends and I were still getting stoned in the car with the heater on because it was so cold. It was grey and ominous and just insane. My friend was already out of the car in his wetsuit and we just look and we saw our friend coming out, more than a double overhead wave, probably four feet in front of the house that’s on the beach. He had to paddle out from about a half a block away from the sand. That’s how far the water was coming in. But yeah, that was one of the craziest experiences. We got great waves. I was a lot more fearless back then.
Punk Rock Bowling takes place downtown Las Vegas (May 26-30), Denver (June 2-3) and Asbury Park, NJ (June 9-11). Get tickets and more at www.punkrockbowling.com.