Interview: Mark Stern of BYO Records and Youth Brigade, and Co-founder of the Punk Rock Bowling Music Festival

words by Jackson Ellis and Shahab Zargari
| Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
Shawn and Mark Stern, BYO Records

Shawn Stern (left) and Mark Stern

2017 marks the 19th year that Punk Rock Bowling will return to Las Vegas, Nevada — and the second year that it will take place in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Here, the co-founder of the annual punk music festival (and bowling tournament, of course), Mark Stern, gives Verbicide the inside scoop on how it all began, what makes it work, and what to expect in the future.

In 2016, Punk Rock Bowling made its first-ever expansion beyond Las Vegas, landing a two-day festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey.  With the festival returning to Jersey in 2017, it was obviously a success; however, are there any unique challenges in organizing and attracting an audience in the New York metropolitan area that you haven’t experienced in Vegas? Is there anything you must do to differentiate the Jersey festival from the Vegas fest?

2016 Asbury was very successful for our first year. Everyone seemed generally excited and appreciative about the whole weekend, and it had the feel of early Vegas PRB when it was still small. We get a lot of help with promotion from our friends in Asbury and The Stone Pony, as well Rocks Off Promotions in New York. They all help spread the word for us, along with our built-in PRB following around the country and the world.

The challenge we have with Asbury is that there is a curfew, where in Vegas we can go all night. So our time schedule is limited, but I think it worked out great since the two venues we have late-night club shows at are right next to the festival venue. We also try to get as many out-of-town bands as possible so the lineup is more unique, as the bands aren’t playing around as much.

Do you see the Jersey festival eventually expanding by a day to match the three days of Vegas PRB? Or do you see the festival growing in other ways, by perhaps taking place in other cities in either the U.S. or Canada?

We don’t have any plans to add any more days in New Jersey. Three days works in Vegas because it’s a holiday weekend. We also do some satellite shows in Denver in between Vegas and Asbury, but other than that we don’t want to take it anywhere else. East Coast/West Coast is pretty much where we like it to be.

Was the first annual PRB really just a Youth Brigade/NOFX bowling vacation in Las Vegas? What was the first year the annual trip became an actual festival?

Actually, we had a little bowling tournament in L.A. with all the independent labels like Epitaph, BYO, Hopeless, Fearless, and punk bands around town. This ran once a week for while. Then we found out Fat Wreck Chords was also doing something similar in San Francisco, so we decided to have a bowl-off in Las Vegas.

We had about 28 teams total, and we all stayed and bowled at The Gold Coast Casino just off the Strip. We had a kick-off show at a club on Friday night, first round of bowling was Saturday, and Sunday was the playoffs. The awards party was at The Double Down Saloon, which is a cool punk bar in Vegas that holds maybe 150 people, and we had Me First and The Gimme Gimme’s play (might have been one of their first shows), and it was just insanely packed. It was like a convention for punk bands and labels. No business, just hanging out with all your friends, party, bowling and music. That was the birth of Punk Rock Bowling!

After that year, we sold out all 60 lanes, by the third year we added a second bowling squad, and now we have three squads bowling in three different bowling alleys (1,000 bowlers). Who would’ve thought!

While PRB features a unique lineup every year, there are plenty of bands who regularly return to perform. Which do you most look forward to seeing?

We do have returning bands, but I really strive to not repeat bands for at least two years, but really try to wait three or four years whenever possible so the event doesn’t get redundant. This year I’m really excited to see a lot of new bands, like PUP in New Jersey and FIDLAR and Plague Vendor in Las Vegas. Also, Charles Bradley and The Specials, which I think really branches things out for PRB, but in such a good way. The Specials are one of the pioneers of the Two-Tone era and one of the best bands I’ve seen live! You forget how many great songs they have until you see them again. And Charles Bradley is one of those talents that you just have to see!

And having Iggy Pop kick off the Vegas weekend this year is something I’ve been going after for years now. I mean, Iggy Pop! Without him, we wouldn’t be doing what we do.

But as far as returning bands, Cock Sparrer is always one of my favorites. 2017 will be the third time they’ve played Vegas PRB in eight years, and both times before they were just phenomenal. Great guys, and they just take over the audience when they perform at PRB. I’ve seen them at other festivals, but I think the best performances I’ve ever seen them do has been at PRB.

Are there any bands from PRBs past that aren’t household names that you’ve been blown away by or that exceeded your expectations?

PEARS, Drug Church, Interrupters, The Skints, Tartar Control, A Global Threat reunion, Wanda Jackson, The Undertones, Roy Ellis, Laura Jane Grace, and Murder City Devils.

What have been your favorite lanes to bowl at in Vegas? How about your favorite accommodations?

I’m not a great bowler or anything. I like the old bowling alleys, not that black light shit. I guess I always liked Sam’s Town. That’s where we held Punk Rock Bowling for six or seven years. We took over the whole hotel and casino, bowling was three squads, so it went all day from noon until 9 p.m. It was a huge party on the lanes!

For accommodations I like the Golden Nugget, which has been our official PRB hotel. The people who run it are great — they love when PRB comes to town, and the rooms are the nicest in the downtown area.

If you or attendees ever have a chance to step away for a few minutes from the punk rock and the bowling, what are your favorite things to do/sights to see/places to visit while in Las Vegas?

I don’t golf, but I like to gamble and I like good food. That’s about the only three things there are to do in Vegas (besides PRB, of course).

Likewise, what are your favorite Asbury Park attractions?

The Boardwalk, my friends, and, of course, the ocean (and hopefully some surf if we’re lucky).

What are your criteria for bringing local Vegas (or Jersey) talent to the main stages of the festival?

They have to be good, first and foremost, and be active in their scene. There are so many different microcosms in punk rock, and I really like to find all the different niches and bring them all together. So a band could be good, but not really tour or be involved in any scene, and that doesn’t do a whole lot for us.  A great band that is looking to get exposure and meet other bands to further their scope of where they can play and what they can do — those are the bands I am interested in. Because in the end, the social aspect of the music scene is just as important as everything else. Music is a community.

Is there any band or performer you’d love to have perform that, as of yet, you’ve not been able to book?

Of course, but most of them would be next to impossible to get: Op Ivy, Minor Threat, Madness, Fugazi, Jawbreaker, and Circle Jerks, just to name a few!

Punk Rock Bowling 2017, Las Vegas

Punk Rock Bowling 2017 Asbury Park, New Jersey lineup