Mark Stern won’t get to bowl when he’s in town this weekend, a development he notes with a gutterball of a sigh. “It’s too hectic,” the Punk Rock Bowling co-founder and Youth Brigade drummer says. It’s a good dilemma to have: The festival has grown so big, Stern needs to be on the grounds each day to make sure things run smoothly.
It underscores Punk Rock Bowling’s remarkable growth since its origins nearly two decades ago, when an assortment of musicians, fanzine publishers and indie-label folks—no majors allowed!—got together at the Gold Coast to bowl and booze. Since then, PRB has gone from 280 bowlers to 1,000, from hosting one or two smaller shows in various local venues to the full-fledged festival, which launched in 2010 at Sunset Station.
PRB now takes over a large of swath of Downtown, with dozens of club shows raging long after the festival stage has closed. “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the difference between Punk Rock Bowling and other festivals?’” Stern says. “The difference is, when it’s over you don’t have to go home. There’s still tons of things that you can do.”
This year, Punk Rock Bowling has also expanded beyond Vegas for the first time, with fests to be held in Denver and Asbury Park, New Jersey next month.
Has Punk Rock Bowling become a year-round endeavor for you, especially now that it will be in multiple cities? I’m actually starting to book next year already. There’s so many festivals now. Riot Fest just announced [its] lineup.
Speaking of which, how many times do you think you’ll be asked if The Misfits are playing PRB 2017? I would have been into them playing 10, 15 years ago, but those guys have been playing around doing Misfits songs in so many different forms. It would have been cool if they weren’t doing that—to me, it would have been way bigger. But it is a big deal.
Has Punk Rock Bowling gotten as big as you want it to be? It’s exactly where we want it to be. I go to festivals with like 50,000 people there, and I find myself looking at the [TV] screen and have to make myself stop. I’m at a show, I want to see the band, but if I look at the stage and it’s so tiny I can’t even really make out the guy’s face or what he’s doing on guitar, I don’t feel the energy. It’s washed out. It’s too big.
There are a limited number of headliners capable of anchoring a fest of this size. Do you ever worry about running out? Oh yeah. It’s always a challenge. My rule is I try to go three years before repeating if possible, but it doesn’t always work. My daughter said to me like four years ago, ‘What happens when all these bands die?’ because they’re older bands. You can’t use them forever.
There are some fresh additions this year, like Dag Nasty, Millencolin and The Bronx. The Buzzcocks, we’ve never had them. They’re great. The Exploited hasn’t been out in 12 years on the West Coast at all. No!se, from Tacoma, that’s one of my favorite bands right now. I think the supporting casts are great this year.
You’ve brought some bands to these parts that haven’t played here in a long time, if at all. What are some PRB bookings you’re proudest of? The first year we went Downtown , we had Cock Sparrer, who hadn’t been out here, and also The Undertones, who I was a huge fan of. Even though it wasn’t the original singer … the guy who sings with them was their roadie growing up. He sang exactly like him.
Some of my favorite PRB sets have been from the outliers, bands that don’t fit so neatly into the punk-rock niche, like Devo in 2013 and Municipal Waste in 2012. I’m not sure if the Murder City Devils qualify in this sense, but they were great last year. This time, you’ve got Ministry as the one of the bands bringing a different vibe to the fest, kicking things off on Thursday. They’ve been on the list. … And then we ended up getting Jello [Biafra] to play the same day, and everybody thought they would get together and do a Lard set, which would have been cool. We couldn’t do that, but having Jello on Thursday is just a good way to kick off early.
Do you have a bucket list of bands you want to get on PRB some day? Of course. There’s bands I’ve being trying to get for five years. I keep plugging away. It all depends on schedules and other festivals outbidding. Like The Specials—that’s one band I really have been wanting to get. They’re playing Riot Fest. It’ll be in front of 30,000-40,000 people, and I don’t think it’ll have the same effect. It’s hard to explain that to agents—everybody wants to get as much money as possible, obviously. But it’s like, ‘If you play here, it’s 7,000 people, you’re headlining, it’s all about you. It sounds great and it’s a whole different presentation to the audience.’
There’s a pretty amazing culture clash when PRB takes over Downtown—great people watching. It gets crazy on Fremont Street. It’s already crazy. I was just out there on a Tuesday, and it was just packed with nutjobs. And then you throw 15,000 punks on top of that.
PUNK ROCK BOWLING Festival May 28-30, $120/weekend, $45/day; club shows May 26-30, prices vary. Downtown Las Vegas, punkrockbowling.com.