[Punk Rock Bowling founder Mark Stern and daughter Madison photo by Danielle Spaust; NOFX at PRB photo by Madison Stern]
Punk Rock Bowling, the destination event for punks worldwide, is gearing up for its 20th iteration in Las Vegas, Memorial Day weekend (May 25-28) at the Downtown Vegas Events Center, as well as select local clubs. With a stellar lineup including headliners Rise Against, NOFX and At The Drive In, as well as Against Me!, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Hot Water Music, Crass’ Steve Ignorant, Dillinger Four and so much more, this may very well be the franchise’s biggest year yet. Pretty good for an idea born out of a social night for punk lifer Mark Stern.
“Can you believe it, 20 years?” Stern asks, rhetorically. “When we started this, we had absolutely no intention of turning it into a big festival. It started out because we had a Sunday bowling league in Santa Monica. This was 1999, so we thought, ‘Let’s hit up all the record labels,’ and it was 30 teams and about 100 people. It had turned into this weekly thing, and then we heard Fat Wreck Chords was doing something similar in San Francisco, so we said, ‘Why don’t we meet in Vegas and have a big bowl-off?’” Stern brought the league to a casino that had bowling facilities; Me First And The Gimme Gimmes played one of their first shows at the awards afterward.
After that first year, Punk Rock Bowling became a destination. More bowling squads signed up, and more bands were added to shows. In those days, Stern says if you’re a bowler, you show up Friday for the kick-off party and a show somewhere, then bowl Saturday and Sunday. Everybody stayed in the same hotel/casino/bowling alley. In 2010, the PRB team found a huge facility, Sunset Bowling, that had a big amphitheater, so they hosted NOFX and Flogging Molly. Then the next year, Sunset “didn’t want to have us back,” so the event was moved to downtown Vegas. “We used to scramble for venues in those early days,” Stern says. “There’s not a big punk scene in Vegas. All of the crowd came from California.” Today, though, the crowd comes from all over the world: PRB is definitely a destination, incorporating both club and amphitheater shows, pool parties and (obviously) bowling. With all of that happening three blocks from the hotels, “nobody leaves downtown. After the club shows, everyone hits the casinos.” When asked how good can anyone possibly bowl after being up all night drinking in clubs and casinos, Stern laughs. “That’s part of the challenge! It’s a long trek to get to the championship.”
For close to four decades, Stern and his brother Shawn were the founders of the band Youth Brigade and BYO (Better Youth Organization) Records, the fiercely independent, DIY label that was a pillar of the California punk scene, in terms of crucial releases and positive philosophy. Seeking to foster community in a bigger way beyond the label, the Sterns set their sights on Punk Rock Bowling becoming a cross-generational event, building camaraderie for anyone who has surrendered their hearts to punk rock.
Like Warped Tour, a bulk of the administration behind the scenes is overseen by a veteran team of women who are recognized professionals in their respective fields. PRB production manager Cathy Mason came up through the ranks to the top of her game working for various bands and events. Marketing and sponsorship maven Kate Truscott has also been Kevin Lyman’s right-hand woman at Warped Tour for years. Event publicists Vanessa Burt and Christina White have worked for many indie labels, while folks such as Danielle Spaust, Rachel Carroll, Maria Principe (sister of RA bassist Joe Principe), Alex White and Lindsay Beaumont are vital to the running of the event. Stern says that 75 percent of his staff are women, “except for me, my brother, our artists and some stagehands. We give Cathy Mason carte blanche to hire the best people. We like to work with like-minded people who understand what this thing is about.”
In addition, Stern’s daughter Madison is taking an active role in the proceedings this year as the official event photographer. Stern had been taking her to shows since she was 3, which puts her in the unique position of “growing up punk,” but still having her own culture and her own viewpoints like any other 18-year-old. While she reps old-school faves such as Jawbreaker, blink-182, Bouncing Souls and Alkaline Trio, tracks by A Day To Remember, Turnstile and Hot Mulligan also populate her playlists.
“I’ve been taking pictures since I was about 13, and I first started at Punk Rock Bowling,” she says in a separate interview. “I did Warped Tour in 2013, and after that I started going to shows around Hollywood and L.A., and it’s just sped up from there. I’d like to take photos for fashion modeling and music, perhaps [get into] production, tour managing or anything like that. My family is all music; that was my upbringing. I never learned how to play an instrument, and we had a lot of family friends who took pictures, like Lisa Johnson. Her photos were really inspiring, and I thought, ‘I wanna do that.’”
The young Stern says her life in this realm has been a wealth of great experience. “There are some people who only know me as ‘Mark’s daughter,’ and they forget my name,” she admits, “but there are positive aspects. There are a lot of connections, and everybody has been really nice. I was going to Warped when I was 3.” When asked if Dad approves of her choices in music, she semi-shrugs it off. “When I was getting into my own bands like Pierce The Veil and Sleeping With Sirens, it was weird going from punk to that kind of music. He definitely puts down all my favorite bands. Especially bands who are considered ‘punk’ who he never likes. When I was younger, I was into Simple Plan and Avril Lavigne, and then I was in a Lady Gaga phase. He wasn’t too happy about that.
“She’s turned me onto a lot of stuff that’s good. And a lot of stuff that’s not,” Stern says, laughing. “She’s very knowledgeable about music. I have a picture of her onstage with NOFX when she was 4. She still likes all of that stuff, and she was aware of what I did because she used to play hide-and-seek in the BYO warehouse with the employees. Now that’s she’s older, she has her own opinions. She actually has more variety than I do.”
When asked if she has any desire to one day run the family business of PRB, Madison responds, “I don’t know. Right now, I don’t know very much about running a festival. I’ll have to learn a lot more, and if it is in my hands, I will need to be a lot more experienced. All of the women behind the scenes are really, really nice. They’re all really supportive of me and make sure I have my own platform going on.”
As a founder of BYO, one of Stern’s mottos to live by has always been, “Youth is an attitude, not an age.” And he’s been able to walk that very walk. He’s got a book of contacts who might rival Kevin Lyman’s, but he’s still ready to drive 20 miles to a house he’s never been to hear a band play a keg party. (That’s how he discovered Off With Their Heads years ago.) With PRB, he’s maintaining punk-rock culture in a big way, from the veteran lifers to brash young upstarts. As a reminder of the event’s popularity, they’ll be offering a commemorative hardcover book celebrating its history, with artwork designed by Shepard Fairey and populated with memories from bands, bowlers and photographers attending. These days, it feels like on Memorial Day weekend, PRB is probably as close to utopia punk rock actually gets these days.
“We throw a great party,” says Stern, who says that PRB has put the cap on attendees at 7,000, after growing to 3,600 way early on. “We want to keep it an intimate festival; keeping the drink prices low, having art exhibits and really excellent food trucks. We’re trying to nurture the scene: My brother and I ran BYO for 30 years, and to me [PRB] is the same thing. It’s like making a compilation tape. I book all the bands, and you gotta see what flows. It’s a wide scope. It’s how I grew up.”
For more information on Punk Rock Bowling, head over to punkrockbowling.com