DS Interview: Mark Stern on putting together nineteen years of Punk Rock Bowling

In a lot of ways, Punk Rock Bowling has become the little festival that could. What started as a small, festival and scratch bowling tourney between labels and scene friends has grown to over a thousand bowlers and seemingly as many bands spread across venues of all shapes and sizes in three different states on back-to-back-to-back weekends. Steering the shop the whole time has been the same dynamic duo, brothers Shawn and Mark Stern (pictured above), whom you probably know are also the longtime core members of seminal punk band Youth Brigade and co-founders of BYO Records.

The 2017 edition ranks as probably the biggest yet, with Iggy Pop headlining Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend, The Vandals and Face To Face taking over Denver last weekend, and NOFX and the Specials and a handful of club shows this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We caught up with Mark Stern to discuss just what goes in to such a mammoth undertaking, some highlights from Punk Rock Bowlings past, and maybe a hint at what’s in store for the big 20th installment of PRB next year. Check it out below!

(*The following has been trimmed and condensed for clarity*)

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Congratulations on nineteen years of Punk Rock Bowling. As I write this, the Vegas edition of PRB 2017 kicks off in a little over 24 hours. Has all the hard work been done at this point, or is this period the calm before the storm?

Mark Stern (Punk Rock Bowling / Youth Brigade): I start working on this in August to be able to launch the festival headliners in December and the full lineup in early January. Once we launch the fest, I’m still working on NJ and Denver as well as 16-20 club shows, pool parties, movies, comedy and other added events, so it never really ends. Once the shows are all booked and announced we are still working all the way up to the festival designing the lot and working out all the little last minute details, so it’s never really over until it’s actually over. And even then, wrapping up takes another month, so if I’m lucky, I’ll get to go somewhere to surf for a month before we start up for the next year.

Punk Rock Bowling has extended to a four-day festival in Vegas, a three-day festival in Asbury, and two days in Denver for the first time. When you’re planning and booking bands, do you treat them as three separate events, or do you work on them all simultaneously?  

It started out that we would try to bring foreign bands over and have 3 good anchor shows for them to base a tour around, but it actually turned into the complete opposite. We have completely different lineups on both coasts with a few bands here and there doing all 3 cities, or at least 2 of them. It actually works out ok this way because we can book bands on the East Coast only and then have some of those same bands play Vegas the following year so it doesn’t overlap. We try to not repeat bands in one city for minimum 2 years but shoot for 3 years whenever possible. We strive to put great new bands on the lineups and also come up with different bills so we aren’t getting redundant each year.

There is always going to be some overlap between the three individual festivals, I’d imagine. In terms of at least the main stage acts, do you try to create a different vibe at each of the now three separate locations?

I think I answered this one above. But yes, it usually depends on the headliner in order to shape the day. While we want the lineups to be diverse, we also want them to flow. In NJ, we have The Specials, so we thought it was a great opportunity to throw some Soul in there as it really compliments the rocksteady sound, so we were lucky enough to get the mighty Charles Bradley. I think some people in the punk scene might not be familiar with Charles, but he puts on one of the most powerful shows I’ve ever seen. He exudes so much real emotion and his music will just reach deep into your heart and pull your guts out!

When you first cooked up the idea of expanding Punk Rock Bowling to the East Coast (which, as a Bostonian, I’m thankful for), and specifically to Jersey, was the Asbury Lanes still functioning, or was the plan always to have the bowling component in Bradley Beach?

The Lanes were functioning when we first thought of the idea, but it took a few years to actually get it together for the first one and by then the Lanes had shut down. We are waiting for the Lanes to open up again and by then have enough teams in the tournament to expand to a 2 day bowling tournament like we do in Vegas and have the playoffs take place at the Lanes.

The club shows, particularly in Vegas, have expanded to the point that the 2017 options seem overwhelming with 11 individual shows and, by my count, all of the active punk bands in existence playing at least once. Does it seem like that part is approaching critical mass, or do you have visions of this growing to a weeklong event in the coming years?

In 2015 we actually had over 17 club shows. One of our venues shut down this year, so we were working with 4 venues, but a few of those are really big (1,500 capacity and 1,000 capacity) so it actually turned into more people going to club shows then the previous year. It’s always a challenge to put that many shows together in one night and not have them compete, but I think punk rock is so diverse that we can do everything from Ska, soul, hardcore, ’77 style, pop punk, garage rock, rockabilly, etc. so we try to have different styles in each club per night so the shows don’t compete with each other and there is a little something for everyone’s taste. We’ve had everyone from Wanda Jackson, Laura Jane Grace, Television, Skatalites, Roy Ellis, Judge, GBH, Municipal Waste, etc. so you can see how different the styles can be.

Word came down that Riot Fest in Denver was cancelled in the middle of March. A couple weeks later we found out that Punk Rock Bowling would make its Denver debut. Obviously you didn’t pull your show together THAT quickly, but did the cancellation of Riot Fest give you more of an impetus to make something cool happen?

We were already planning on doing Denver, but decided we would hold off on announcing for a while to give Vegas a chance to sell through. Since we had a new lot this year in Vegas and stepped it up with Iggy Pop headlining one of the days, we wanted to ensure it was going to go off before getting deep into Denver.

Through your time in Youth Brigade, you’ve obviously crossed paths with the vast majority of the most influential bands of our scene over the last four decades. Still, Iggy Pop is headlining Vegas this year – that’s gotta be a pretty proud moment…. What’d it finally take to get him to play?

I had been talking to Iggy, his manager and his agent for probably 7 years. I was persistent and just kept at it. Iggy got what we were doing and I know it was something that he really wanted to do. We aren’t a big festival nor do we have big corporate dollars behind us, but our beauty is just that! We want to be an intimate festival with a clear idea of who we are and how we want our audiences experience to be. We do not price gouge on food or drinks, try to keep the ticket prices and service fees down to a minimum and understand it’s a big investment to come out to Vegas for a weekend and want to ensure there are affordable options for everyone so they can have a good time. We do a lot of free events around downtown all weekend long, the club shows are $15-$20 tickets with very stacked lineups and we work with all our partners to try to keep all the prices low throughout the weekend.

I’d imagine that with the amount of work that goes into planning three festivals (as well as keeping Youth Brigade active), this has become basically a full-time job. In spite of all the chaos nineteen years and running, are there moments that happen that are surreal, or at least overwhelmingly cool?

Of course there are or it wouldn’t be worth doing year after year. I mean it’s like punk rock summer camp and you get to see all your friends from all over the world that come out and gather in one place. It’s overwhelming but so much fun that we all look forward to every year. For me, getting to book bands like Wanda Jackson, Iggy Pop or Devo, getting the Weirdos to reunite or watching Alice Bag command the stage after not seeing her perform since the early Masque days of Hollywood, those are some special moments that make it all worthwhile. And the fact that everyone who works for PRB are from the scene and they all have great respect for the bands and the fans as well. Our goal is to make every band that performs completely comfortable and for them to have a great performance and we encourage them all to hang out for the weekend to enjoy the festival. It’s not just a show, it’s about the scene that we are all involved in and supporting one another and enjoying each other’s art. Because after all, that’s what it’s all about.

Like most outlets, we at Dying Scene obviously focus on the “Punk Rock” portion of Punk Rock Bowling and tend to overlook that what started as a competition between BYO and Fat and other labels like that has exploded into a massive undertaking with a thousand-or-so bowlers. That number boggled my mind when I first read it. What’s the most entertaining part of the bowling portion of the festivities? Are there any fairly well-known punkers that are surprisingly dominant bowlers?

Well in the beginning it was just a scratch league because we didn’t really know too much about league bowling. But when Epitaph was winning year after year, the bowling alley shed some light on the handicap system in order to even out the playing field for everyone so we didn’t have the same winner year after year. After we implemented the handicap system, then anyone had a chance of winning, so I think that was the best thing we ever did. You could be a great bowler, but if you aren’t consistently bowling your average (which is harder to do when it’s really high) then teams that aren’t that great, that have a big handicap, can all of the sudden bowl a few exceptional games and next thing you know, they are hoisting the trophy on the main stage!!

Just in the US alone, it seems like the festival circuit continues to grow every year, with PRB, Fest, Riot Fest and a couple others exploding to the point where they are destination events every year (and that doesn’t include Pouzza, Amnesia, Groezrock, etc). Is it revisionist history on my part to say that Punk Rock Bowling really started that trend a couple decades ago? Do you feel like there’s a competition amongst festival promoters to outdo each other? Do you worry about having to do something to set Punk Rock Bowling apart from the other fests, or do you feel like PRB really stands out by nature?

I think PRB is its own unique sub culture that is unlike other festivals. We work within our limitations and try to expand where and when we can, but have no interest in really getting “bigger”, but instead just getting better. We have no curfew at our event, the hotels are in within walking distance of all the shows, we incorporate bowling, pool parties, comedy and movies into the program. We are very adamant about one stage only and to give focus on each and every band that performs. We have no interest in multiple stages/genres, as we are a punk rock festival and if you are a fan of that, then this is where you will find 100% of the audience that is also. Punk Rock has very diverse influences and sub genres and we try to tap into those to appeal to the that audience.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary edition of Punk Rock Bowling. No spoilers (unless you want to…), but with that in mind, have you started crafting a dream lineup or some new ideas to mark the occasion, or do you wait for the dust to settle with #19 first? Who do we have to call to make an Op Ivy reunion happen for the occasion?

20 years is upon us, and yes we have multiple wish lists as do all the other festivals doing similar bands. We hope to make it the best one ever, and have some great ideas in the works. I would like to think that playing PRB is a great way for punk bands that are doing rare performances to really get the proper focus and attention on them that they deserve. That has proven to be true with most of the bands that have played at our event and it’s just a matter of relaying that sentiment to bands that have never played PRB before who might be on the fence.

Thanks for taking the time, and congratulations on 19 years of Punk Rock Bowling!

Thanks for all the years of support!! We really do appreciate what you guys do.

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