A conversation with Shawn Stern of Punk Rock Bowling

April 14, 2010 by James Shotwell

A conversation with Shawn Stern of Punk Rock Bowling

It's difficult to believe it's been 12 years since BYO Records founders (and Youth Brigade members) Shawn (pictured above left) and Mark Stern (above right) assembled a ragtag group of punk musicians for the first Punk Rock Bowling tournament in Las Vegas. But on the verge of hitting its teenage years, the event has turned into a full-on festival with this year's lineup which includes Flogging Molly, NOFX, Hot Water Music and more. The event is open to the public, so not only can you watch all these bands perform, you can bowl right alongside them. So what's it all about? SHAWN STERN provides us with some insight and advice for possible attendees.

INTERVIEW: James Shotwell

Can you give a us a brief history on how Punk Rock Bowling came to be?
Andre Duguay used to run a zine in the '80s that covered punk like ours and started working with us in the '90s. He mentioned that Fat Wreck Chords was doing a bowling league in San Francisco and that we should do one in Los Angeles. We didn't know this then, but Andre was a good bowler. Anyway, we put on the first one with 20 to 30 teams, and it was pretty fun. [People from] Epitaph and other labels and bands were there. Afterward, I talked to my brother [Mark Stern] and he thought since it was so cool, we should do it in Vegas. The first year there were 27 teams, and it's been sold out [every year] since. The place we used to use had 105 lanes and had a great, but small, casino we could take over. When we went back the next year--during year four or five--the sheriff came about a week before us and escorted everyone out for unpaid bills. So we had no venue. Sam's Town Casino came through for us. We've been there since, with the exception of a few years at Gold Coast. This will be the best year yet by far.

Bowling registration is open to the public this year. Any reason for the change?
The thing is that it was never private, but we didn't really promote it. We always did a show on Friday and an awards [presentation] on Sunday, but it got to the point where you needed to be on a team as previous teams have dibs on each new year. So it used to be like a party for the industry folks when we bowled because anyone could come, but we were limited by lanes and such. Now we have a larger venue and 210 teams over 70 lanes. Luckily, the venue also has a 4,000 seat amphitheater outside and since there's no longer a travel requirement for the show, we decided to do shows every night [of the tournament] and have everyone there. It's becoming more of a music festival than a bowling fest. Also, these are much bigger shows [than we've done] with 4,000 people per night or 12,000 over three days. We also have a 21 plus lounge with nightly shows until 3 a.m.

Any advice for those attending for the first time?
If you're really a serious bowler, you may have a rough time due to distractions. There are drunks, scantily clad women and pranks galore. We generally don't take ourselves too seriously, but it's unavoidable that one serious team will be next to the most ludicrous team. Basically, it's the greatest punk-rock event you won't remember.

Even though you're the organizers behind it all, is there a BYO team?
Yes. We've won twice. Our team is me, my brother Mark, Andre and this kid Diego who interned for us when he was in high school. When we beat Epitaph a few years back, Diego was our golden child.

How do you keep it all balanced and running smoothly with the tournament, the shows and bowling for BYO?
I really have no idea how we do it. There's so much alcohol involved and it never makes total sense, but it works. There are only a few people who work on it, but they've been doing it for years, so there's a method behind it. When it comes to music, we're able to kick back and enjoy it for the most part. It all comes back to our history of event planning and business tactics being applied to a new and different situation.

The lineup for this year features a lot of big names like Flogging Molly and NOFX. What can you tell us about some of the younger acts that will be attending this year?
People should really check out Saint Alvia who are from near our hometown of Toronto. They play Sunday with Me First And The Gimme Gimmes at the lounge. There's also Blue Collar Special, a nine-piece punk/bluegrass band. Seriously, it's crazy. Also, Guilty By Association, a Vegas band, are joining us on Friday. Oh, and if you don't know Cobra Skulls, check them out. We also have an old, old band called Stretch Marks who haven't played in 25 years. That should be really fun.

Do you have any timeless Punk Rock Bowling moments you can share?
You know, most of it really is pretty hazy. Everyone [has] a smile on their face until Monday, and then it looks like a hurricane blew us all over. Some teams come dressed as bananas or carrying trombones and blasting them to distract people. Others simply bowl naked. There's pure insanity everywhere, and it's crazy. We got 400 hotel rooms and they sold out in three weeks. So we got 300 more, but they're nearly gone.

How has the evolution of technology and social networking affected BYO and Punk Rock Bowling?
We put out [Let Them Know: The Story Of Youth Brigade And BYO Records] for our 25th anniversary. We started a label with a compilation and decided to do that again, but then we realized kids would steal it. So we decided to make a documentary, but kids would steal that, too. So, we made a book with those things in it and it seems to work. Do I have a solution for this? No. We've been around since vinyl and have seen it all come and go. However, I have no solution for how to fix the record industry. Labels are unnecessary at this point. Kids seem to think music should be free and they'll support via live shows, but then complain about live prices. We're still trying to find our footing in the face of the digital age. So, come to Punk Rock Bowling! [Laughs.] I know it's on Mother's Day weekend, but Mom will forgive you. alt

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