Interview with Punk Rock Bowling organizer Mark Stern | By Hutch
Mark Stern first appeared to most angry kids of the ‘80s on their turntables or TV screens. Playing in Youth Brigade, Stern got to express himself and cultivate a national scene. Scraping through the U.S. with Minor Threat and Social D, Stern spread the gospel of hardcore for people to now visualize beyond the turntable. He and his brother Shawn started their own DIY label in 1982 while playing in a band and touring. Four decades—and multiple releases by most of the punk bands you like—later, BYO is a template for business in the underground scene.
Now, Punk Rock Bowling is Stern’s next enduring gift to punk, shedding its small party structure to become a multi-day fest in downtown Las Vegas. “It’s our sixth year as a fest; our fifth downtown,” he explains.
Why Vegas? “‘Cuz it’s Vegas!” Stern says. “24 hour bars. You can get away with anything. Now, we’re downtown. You get three days of outdoor shows and four days of club shows.” The shows are placed strategically around two hotels within easy walking distance.
“We used to have it just outside of the city, in Henderson,” he continues. “It got to the point where we just took over.” It had been going well until a general manager made some changes five years ago. “He increased the price of the drinks. I had wanted to keep drink prices down. He also allowed reentry, which I didn’t want. And I knew what would happen. The hotels were across from a Costco and a Wal-Mart. People bought tons of beer there. Then, they partied in their rooms and planned to come back for later bands.” Or never came back. 4000 punks power-drinking in the afternoon. Things got broken. Police were called.
Stern took what was started as a private party for bands and labels, and looked for a new venue… A larger one. He wanted it to be a small punk city for a few days. PRB—which still embraces the bowling as seriously as the music—found a friend in Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. Hsieh owned some land downtown and they moved the fest. The well-timed move propagated a better culture in which to flourish. “It helped spark restaurants and clubs and venues. Everything is new. It’s becoming a real city,” Stern explains with a contented exhale.
“There will be comedy shows, poker, art galleries,” he continues. “We have classic punk rock photographers showing in the gallery. Last year, we had Peter And The Test Tube Babies at the pool party. The pool party is awesome.” This aquatic shindig begins at 3 p.m. Friday and kicks off the event. Each day has a film screening. “Bloodied and Unbowed,” a doc about late ‘70s Canadian punk, is Saturday, with “Filmage: The Story of Descendents/ALL” on Sunday and “Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records” on Monday.
Stern explains that he has been putting on shows since he was 18. “I put on the first punk show at the Hollywood Bowl.” Even with his pedigree, four days with this many cogs has to be intimidating. Stern recalls what made the rapid growth feel so natural: “The punk scene, we were tight. It was a complete DIY vibe. In 1999, it was a cool party.”
In May of 2010, PRB had to upgrade to outdoor shows. Stern begins to list every country that punks abandon for the weekend to join this melee. He could have saved time by listing the two dudes from Ghana who missed the plane. So many people.
So many bands. “I’m stoked to have Frank Turner finally—been asking him for years,” says Stern. Turner will be playing an acoustic bill at a club. Stern can’t contain the enthusiasm for some killer sets from the main stage bands. “We got Murder City Devils, Rancid doing Out Come the Wolves 20th anniversary, [The Mighty Mighty] Bosstones, Dropkick [Murphy]s doing their first album, and since Street Dogs are in town, maybe [vocalist] Mike [McColgan, ex-Dropkick Murphys] will come out? We have Refused. Turbonegro.”
“Then, there are five club shows at venues each night.” These pair usual underground headliners together: The Templars, The Beltones, Bishops Green, and Booze & Glory all in one show. There’s a lineup for every shade of punk. Stern spills the formula. “Not the same genre, but I keep it cohesive. You approach it like it’s a compilation or a setlist. I have been making those for 40 years. Don’t do a random mesh. I got the ‘77 group with The Weirdos and Rezillos and Dickies. Acoustic with Tim Barry, Dave Hause, Kevin Seconds.”
7 Seconds has their night with The FUs and Street Dogs. GBH will headline with Abrasive Wheels, Infa Riot, and—a name no one has heard since the late 90’s—Schleprock. 88 Fingers Louie are returning to the stage with Strung Out—who have a new album dropping—and Pulley, that punk band featuring major league pitcher Scott Radinsky. Stern continues, “I have a ska bill. A Rockabilly bill.” Yeah, he does, with entries like Bad Manners, English Beat, and Mobtown. On top of that, Stern adds, “There will be a hundred little parties and DJs and room parties. There’s a beer garden. Cheap drinks. Handpicked food trucks. We make sure there is a variety: vegan and vegetarian and meat. I want it to be the Anti-Fest. Not Overwhelming.”
Not shocking is that they sold 6500 tickets for each day. Stern has to start planning in September, and “get things rolling by October. We like to announce headliners before Christmas.” How many people does he have working with him on all this planning? “It’s just me,” he announces. “I personally book each band. We have a hundred plus bands. I designed the fest grounds, picked the themes. We have some cool ones this year.” He sounds like he just set a table: spoons lazily placed in proximity to knives. “Some people come just for the room and pool parties. It’s a smorgasbord.”
There’s more. The Humpers have a night with Los Creepers and The Hangmen. Icons Of Filth are playing with Krum Bums and Anti-Vision. Mike Virus pulls double duty with Cheap Sex and Evacuate. These are the club shows. The main stage will have Sick Of It All, The Business, Bombshell Rocks, and Sniper 66—angry, dark, fast punk from some Texan young’uns. Crust legends Conflict are on the list. Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine. The official flyer lists another dozen bands: A Wilhelm Scream, Anti-Flag, Mahones…
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, Stern insists PRB is just a laidback theme park with every possible option. It’s easy to get distracted by the music and forget that there is competitive bowling and tons of pickup games. Stern plans PRB with sympathy, as he is a truly seasoned participant. “That’s why I sell the drinks cheap,” he assures. “People can plan to drink all day. And eat. Hang out and catch up with old friends and make a bunch of new ones. Have some time off.” Stern wants everyone to hang out; call it the casual approach to punk mayhem and chaotic indulgence.
Where will Stern and PRB go from here? “I don’t want it to grow,” he admits. “It sells out each year. But, if we grew, we would have to be in a big desert or field, add TV screens. Who comes to a concert to watch it on a screen? And honestly, I don’t want to contend with 25000 people. I’d rather have 4000 people together.” Stern may be a promoter, but he’s foremost a member of the audience and the subculture. “Last year, I had Cock Sparrer play to 400 people. It was crazy. They were incredible. Bands love it. They get nervous. But, I have seen these bands play their best sets. Angelic Upstarts played an amazing, tight set. And they ain’t young.”
Most of the scene isn’t. Despite our growing list of adult responsibilities, Mark Stern has matured this fest into a place where a real punk community—youthfully overindulging and thriving on DIY ideals—can forget about their troubles for a few days.