DS Interview: Kevin Lyman on the return of the It’s Not Dead Festival

If you’re of a certain age and you’re even a casual hanger-on to the punk community train, you no doubt spent your fair share of hot, sweaty summer days  baking under the sun at a suburban fairgrounds or amphitheater parking lot for the touring punk rock summer camp that is the annual Warped Tour. Tastes changed over the years and the classic mid-1990s “EpiFat” sound started to have less and less of a presence atop the list of Warped Tour headliners, though there has been a bit of a resurgence in the last small handful of years.

And so it was with great fanfare two years ago that the lineup for the first-ever It’s Not Dead Fest was unveiled. The debut festival took place as a one-off in San Bernadino, California, featuring a veritable who’s who of punk rock heavyweights:  Bad Religion, Descendents, NOFX, Pennywise, Anti-FlagStrung Out, Lagwagon, The Vandals, Less Than Jake and on and on and on. So where did the idea of such an impressive event come from? None other than the brain of Warped Tour founder and consistent figurehead, Kevin Lyman. “(The idea first came up) about December, and I thought I really wanted to do something,” says Lyman in his traditional rapid-fire cadence. “I started putting it out there, and the first couple of days — trust me, I get impatient sometimes — but the first couple of days it didn’t really seem to be going anywhere.” It was upon reaching out to the show’s major acts that things started to come to fruition, and quickly. “And everyone got the idea of what I wanted to do, especially the artists: Jay Bentley, Fat Mike, Fletcher (Dragge), Bill Stevenson, they all kinda got it all at once. When they’re saying that they want to do something, the agents and the managers kinda have to listen. Once I got those four bands confirmed, the rest of it took about twenty-four hours.”

The premier event, by all accounts, was a resounding success, spawning hopes among the punk rock masses — or at least of people like me — of more for the following year. A full “It’s Not Dead” tour? A Riot Fest-ish event spread across a handful of deserving markets across the country? At the very least, a similar one-off It’s Not Dead in 2016? Sadly, the year came and went without a second installment, because 2016 wasn’t quite enough of an unmitigated Dumpster fire. Alas, 2017 has seen the reformation of It’s Not Dead thanks to…the inimitable Tim Armstrong? Here’s Lyman to explain: “I wanted Rancid to play on the first one and their schedule wouldn’t allow them too. But Tim came out and played…with The Interrupters and he played with somebody else that I’m trying to remember. He played with two bands that day, and he was hanging out all day, and I said to him “Tim, it was great having you here but I would have loved to have had Rancid.” And he said, “well, hopefully we’ll get to do it again.”

When news of the pending Rancid/Dropkick Murphys nationwide co-headlining tour started to break, it seemed the perfect time to pull the It’s Not Dead machine out of the moth balls. While the roster may not be as chock full of mid-90’s staples as its predecessor was, it’s got an equally compelling UK and underground-heavy vibe to it, thanks in large part to the throwback influences of both headliners. With the announcement of the Rancid, Dropkick Murphys double-bill, groundbreaking bands like The Buzzcocks and The Selecter were quick to sign up.  “That’s why I really started focusing on the UK bands this time,” Lyman says. “We got The Adicts and GBH. I don’t think, even in the days of Goldenvoice, we had all those bands on one bill together….As soon as people heard what I was doing, all of a sudden your inbox starts filling up! With AOL accounts, you know? Throwback email addresses — everyone that still has their AOL accounts you know are the old punks!”

This year’s It’s Not Dead Festival takes place in the same spot as the original: the Glen Helen Festival Grounds in San Bernadino, California. It’s a one-off again, and it’s going down August 26th this go around, just before Lyman departs to bring his daughter to college. And don’t worry, punk fans…it’s not the last go around for It’s Not Dead either. “Sometimes you have to do something for your soul,” says Lyman somewhat wistfully (at least for an older punk. “The first one kind of replenished my soul…so there will be a next one!” 

Head below to read our full conversation with Lyman. In the interest of full disclosure, we talked quite literally just before Lyman headed out for the first date of Warped Tour, so the recent Dickies controversy hadn’t taken off yet. Sorry. Anyway, scoop up tickets to It’s Not Dead 2 here!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to us about It’s Not Dead 2. I do consider this a privilege as somebody who’s been going to Warped Tour for off and on for twenty years.

Kevin Lyman: We’ve got some good, old-fashioned punk rock this summer. It’ll be fun.

Like a lot of people in my age bracket, I took a little break from Warped Tour for a while, but I feel like the lineups have become more punk rock over the last couple of years than they had been in quite a while, which is makes the older guys like me sorta happy.

Oh cool. Good!

So It’s Not Dead 2 is officially just about two months away now.

Yeah! August 26th in San Bernardino, California.

What prompted this idea to resurrect the It’s Not Dead thing now? I understood at the time that the first one was going to be a one-off thing and there were not imminent plans to make it happen again or to bring it on the road; like, I live in Boston, and there were a lot of people here and in other places saying “man, I wish they’d bring that here!”

Right, right! We probably should bring it there at some point. It kind of came about through Tim Armstrong. I wanted Rancid to play on the first one and their schedule wouldn’t allow them too. But Tim came out and played. He played with The Interrupters and he played with somebody else that I’m trying to remember. He played with two bands that day, and he was hanging out all day, and I said to him “Tim, it was great having you here but I would have loved to have had Rancid.” And he said, “well, hopefully we’ll get to do it again.” And when Dropkick (Murphys) and Rancid decided to go to that tour this summer, it came back to me as “hey, we’d love to end it at It’s Not Dead if you want to do it again.” I checked my schedule, and it was in between Warped and taking my daughter up to college, and we had a great time (on It’s Not Dead).

As you had said, punk rock is in your fabric, and it’s in mine too. Sometimes you have to do something for your soul. The first one kind of replenished my soul; it was great just watching everyone, and watching how many generations of people were there. You had people that were my age, in their fifties, who were remembering the old days when they brought their kids who are now anywhere from their teens to their thirties. And we had it so that kids get in free, which we are continuing this year — under ten gets in free — so we had three generations of people come out. A lot of families were there!

That is wild!

Yeah, it was super cool. It was fun, because, you know, if you’re into rock, you’re into the Eagle and Fleetwood Mac and Journey and those bands never seem to go away. But the punk bands, that kind of world, those bands don’t tour as much or they’re playing small clubs, so I thought maybe bringing us all back out in the sunshine and teaming up on something like that (would be cool). And I guess almost 20,000 other people needed that music for their souls too. We had a big crowd.

How long did it take the first idea to go from the time that it was planted in your brain until it became the actual event? Was that really just a one year thing, or had that been going on a while?

It was in the back of my mind. It was about December, and I thought I really wanted to do something. I started putting it out there, and the first couple of days — trust me, I get impatient sometimes — but the first couple of days it didn’t really seem to be going anywhere. You had those conversations that I hate having; I’ve never been a guy who likes talking about who’s headlining and when people play. And everyone got the idea of what I wanted to do, especially the artists: Jay Bentley, Fat Mike, Fletcher (Dragge), Bill Stevenson, they all kinda got it all at once. When they’re saying that they want to do something, the agents and the managers kinda have to listen.

We figured it out, and once I got those four bands confirmed, the rest of it took about twenty-four hours. People were like “no way!” And then this year’s, with Rancid and Dropkick, I didn’t want to do the same lineup. The only band that’s playing twice is The Interrupters, who I think grow and grow into that new band that I think we’re all looking for in punk. So then, I had The Buzzcocks, I had The Selecter, so that’s why I really started focusing on the UK bands this time. We got The Adicts and GBH. I don’t think, even in the days of Goldenvoice, we had all those bands on one bill together.

So that’s one of the things I wanted to ask about. First It’s Not Dead was obviously heavy on the mid-90s Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords sort of sound, but there’s definitely a much heavier throwback, 70’s-80’s vibe to this one. Did that come from you or did that come from a combination of Tim and the Dropkicks guys?

No, I put the rest of the bill together. I think that’s the cool thing that Tim and the Dropkicks guys, they trust my package ideas and what I try to do. It started to take shape based on who was available and a lot of the people started reaching out to me. As soon as people heard what I was doing, all of a sudden your inbox starts filling up! With AOL accounts, you know? (*both laugh*) Throwback email addresses — everyone that still has their AOL accounts you know are the old punks! (*both laugh*) It just kinda transformed there. People are getting their heads around that these bands have never been on the same lineup at a show. Maybe over in the UK they have, but not on the West Coast.

Certainly not. And like you said, aside from The Interrupters, I don’t think there’s another band in there that’s a young band — maybe the Flatliners are younger, although I feel like they’ve been around forever even though they all turn 30 this year, so that’s a weird thing.

There’s a couple bands in there, there’s this band Heck that’s this young band that I saw at South By Southwest that are going to be over here so I put them on the show. But then I was able to have a lot of the bands that used to open all of the shows in LA, the Grim, Love Canal, a bunch of bands like that. To me, it was like “okay, you guys can come and play for your kids,” you know? So many people that I grew up with aren’t playing shows as much if at all anymore, so some of them will be playing for their grandkids!

That’s got to be a trip! And that was never the intention, I’m assuming, for any of these bands, that not only would you be playing for your kids some day but that you’d be playing for your grandkids some day!

Yeah. For me, that’s really my music. My wife’s like “really, you want to do another one after the summer? It’s going to be a long, hot summer for you again?” And I said, “you know what? It’s a great way to end the summer.” I’m already getting the emails from people that even if they aren’t playing, they’re planning on being there.

Is it a different sort of work that goes into putting together a one-day festival like that versus the two month touring operation of Warped Tour, which is obviously much more elaborate?

It’s all the same planning, you know? With Warped, it’s a matter of moving everything down the road. We have to get everyone there. It’s different pieces to the puzzle, but I’ve been doing this so long and I have great people working with me, so I get to go out there and, you know, be the detail guy. All the great, sweeping production was done by my people, and I could come in and do the details, and work with Lisa Johnson on the Punks Well Read tent. I’m getting ready to fly out to Warped Tour in a half hour, 45 minutes, and Lisa will be out with me all summer, so I’ll get to focus on that and put the final touches on the show.

Oh, okay. So even though it’s all booked and whatnot, it’s still a work in progress getting all of that stuff finalized?

Absolutely!

How do you manage that with the day-to-day goings on of Warped and as draining as that must be for you?

Yeah, you know, it’s one of those things were I always say you have to make all of your decisions before noon on Warped Tour, you know? That’s really what it becomes. You get up early, in the cool of the morning, and try to work through your big moments and big-picture stuff, and starting around 11 o’clock it just becomes reactive, you know? You’re reacting to the environment you’re in. And trust me, I’m leaving for Warped Tour in the worst time. The hardest thing for me is the physical side now. I’m 57, and going out there and running as hard as we do for so long — wait, I’m 56 now. God, I just added a year! I’ve started to think that I’m adding years now, it’s like dog years, how this ages you! (*both laugh*) But I have a lot of the punk bands out on Warped Tour this year, and I’m mixing in a lot of bands that might have played at that first It’s Not Dead.

Do you get a lot of feedback from people saying that they wish It’s Not Dead would not necessarily supplant Warped Tour, but that it would make stops in New York, Boston, Chicago, places like that?

Yeah, I’m moving to a different point in my life where maybe there’s a chance to do this somewhere else for the right partners. Right now, I do it on the West Coast because I live here. I can drive out with my truck and camp for a couple days and see friends. Once we start moving around the country, it becomes a lot more about the travel and the physical side of doing this tour. But maybe I could do it, though I like the direction Riot Fest has taken this year. They seem to have gone back to their roots a little bit of where they started in Chicago. And maybe they did that because they saw how well It’s Not Dead did the first time!

Was there ever a goal to do It’s Not Dead 2 after you did the first one?

No. It really wasn’t. I have a couple other people that I’ve brought in on the show, and they really, really pushing to do it last year. They want to do it every year. But, I’m like, “you know, you don’t need to do something every year.” Well, I guess I have to do Warped Tour every year! Not that I HAVE to, but I’ve done twenty-three years of Warped Tour every summer. Maybe there would have been a summer I’d like to have taken off, but I just don’t feel I could have. When you’re running the flag for this scene of music, you need to get those young bands out there and reintroduce people to bands. That’s what I do. So, It’s Not Dead? Who knows when the next one is. There will be a next one. Maybe we’ll do it somewhere else.

Do you ever foresee yourself turning Warped over to somebody else when you’re done with it? Or when you’re done, it’s done?

Yeah, I think it’s going to be done when I’m done.

Not that that’s in the plans anytime soon, of course.

No, there’s not really a set plan, I’m just thinking that way.

Like I said before, we talked about the pull toward the older punk bands over the last handful of years at Warped. Has that been a conscious thing? Has that been a reaction to the market, or do you just book who you feel like?

I kinda book who I feel, but I also thought that there’s some great young punk bands out there, and maybe with some of the old bands, they can all tie into each other and show that there is a unified scene. The internet has kind of split us in some ways. The most vocal people and opinions out there tend to lean towards the negative. I’m trying to push toward the positive, that you can be a band for thirty, thirty-five years and keep doing what you love. And don’t discount the young kids, because they’re singing very passionately the same way you were, just a different generation. I saw that last year a lot. The older bands and younger bands all got along. Everyone got along great in that parking lot. That’s the great neutralizer out there; everybody’s got to hang out and support each other!


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