2006 – NAKED RAYGUN
JOE PRINCIPE (BASS, RISE AGAINST): With Naked Raygun, if you’re not from Chicago, more than likely you don’t get it. But that was a huge deal.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: When it comes to punk rock, they are the gold standard here. They are an amazing band that wrote amazing songs. They are legends.
MCILRATH: They were truly some of the godfathers of punk. Naked Raygun were definitely pioneers in Chicago, and no one had convinced them to do it yet.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: Early that spring, I got a message on MySpace from Eric Spicer. Flat out, the question was, “Would you be interested in having Naked Raygun play at Riot Fest?”
SPICER: We hadn’t played in a really long time—and this was back in the MySpace days. [Laughs.] I had a MySpace page. So I just got a hold of Mike.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: I thought it was fake [when he sent me that message]. I was excited, but I thought, “There is no way this is fucking real.”
SPICER: I just said, “Look, we haven’t played in a long time, I think that people have probably forgotten about us. I wouldn’t get too excited…”
MIKE PETRYSHYN: I wrote back and said, “Send me your number,” and we spoke over the phone. He said, “I’d like to do it. I don’t know if the other guys are there.”
“Jeff [Pezzati] was leery at first. It took some convincing. Then he said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it… but we can’t go up there and suck.’”—Eric Spicer, Naked Raygun
SPICER: Jeff was leery [at first]. It took some convincing. Then he said, “Alright, I’ll do it… but we can’t go up there and suck.” [Laughs.]
JEFF PEZZATI (VOCALS, NAKED RAYGUN): [After we all agreed], Mike got us together where [guitarist] Bill [Stephens] worked. It was a country club where his mom catered food.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: I had heard about Jeff being potentially sick before I even talked to anyone in the band. He had Parkinson’s. It was kind of being whispered around.
SPICER: It was not something we publicized or talked about at any great lengths.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: But [early on] we talked about it and, you know, all the medicines he was on… [and I thought] it was manageable.
PEZZATI: At that meeting, Mike said he would like to put the band back together, and that he would be interested in being our manager. It kind of went from there.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: One thing led to another and they ended up reuniting for Riot Fest. It’s still probably one of the most exciting moments of my life.
PEZZATI: [In that meeting], Mike also told us that he had a practice place for us. Turned out it was the worst place we ever practiced. [Laughs.]
SPICER: It was dark and damp and it always smelled like mold. We were sick all the time. I had a chronic sinus infection.
“I thought having not played out for a long time we probably could pack them in—and we did. There was a lot of screaming people.”—Jeff Pezzati, Naked Raygun
MIKE PETRYSHYN: [But] that is where we first met Sean.
ERIN RAYMER (SEAN’S LONGTIME GIRLFRIEND): Sean came from a middle class family. He didn’t come from money at all. But he was always good with numbers.
JAKE CRONIN (FRIEND, FORMER MANAGER OF COBRA LOUNGE): He ended up working right out of high school as a day trader.
RAYMER: But he was, like, a prodigy at it.
CRONIN: Eventually, he worked himself up to a point where, all of a sudden, him and these two guys he knew were the bosses. They were calling the shots.
RAYMER: He would call me from work and there would be all these guys screaming [on the trading room floor]. I was like, “How do you even do this?” But he was very smart. I think he was 21 when he made his first million.
PEZZATI: But you would have never guessed it by looking at him. Honestly, you might think that he was a homeless person. [Laughs.]
RAYMER: I mean, he shopped at Walmart. [Laughs.]
CRONIN: [Working on the stock market] was kind of the ideal job. You could make a bunch of money, but [because you got off early when the market closed] everyone had a thing [they did on the side]. That is essentially what Sean did. He decided to make as much money as he could to build out things like Cobra.
SPICER: Jeff had been to Cobra [Lounge, a club in Chicago that Sean owned]—and Sean showed up that night to talk to us about playing there. At first, he was quiet. I thought he was shy. But he was just nervous. He liked the band a lot. He wanted us to play [unannounced before Riot Fest]. But we had to be careful. Cobra only holds a few hundred people.
CRONIN: It was unbelievable. The fire marshal had just been there the day before, and that night we had, like, 500 people in there. I was like, “Dude, we are going to get the place shut down.” [Laughs.] It is crazy how big that show was.
SPICER: Then we went and [headlined that year’s Riot Fest at the Congress Theater]. And that was a big room, and a big stage.
PEZZATI: I thought having not played out for a long time, we probably could pack them in—and we did. There were a lot of screaming people there.
PRINCIPE: For years, Naked Raygun had covered Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device,” and at that show they got Jake to do it with them. That was, like, a milestone.
BURNS: I basically turned up for Raygun’s set and stood at the side of the stage. I remember I had a scarf on because I had just come in from the cold. But I thought, “It’s not particularly cool wandering on with a scarf.” So I turned to my wife and said, “Here, hold my scarf.” And she said, “What about your beer?” And I said, “No, I’ll take my beer, thanks.” [Laughs.]
TIM MCILRATH: It’s one of those things where reunions could be cool, or they could be seen as cheesy and opportunistic. But something about Naked Raygun through the lens of Riot Fest just made sense. It was a big deal. People lost their minds.
2007 – 2012: GOING OUTSIDE
MIKE PETRYSHYN: I remember seeing Sean at Riot that [previous] year, and we started talking a little more afterward. He came in and said, “If you would ever like to grow this thing, I would like to be an investor. I like what you’re doing. It’s cool.”
We talked, and he became an investor in 2007, and a full-fledged partner two years later…
CRONIN: …and that is essentially what started the whole thing.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: A lot of the bands [who still play Riot Fest] were with us in the clubs. Even though there are tens of thousands of people at the show now, I still think it has the vibe of the early club days.
MCILRATH: The first time I went was NOFX at the Congress Theater [in 2009]. I will always remember that one.
FAT MIKE (VOCALS/BASS, NOFX): That is when I did the “Cokie The Clown” video. That was quite an interesting day.
MCILRATH: I remember I showed up and I got to the side of the stage, and I saw Fat Mike. He motioned to me like, “I have to talk to you. We have to talk…”
FAT MIKE: I don’t know if you have ever seen the “Cokie” video, but I had this CO2 [container filled] with flour that shot out of my jacket as a joke.
MCILRATH: I should’ve prefaced this with saying that he was dressed like a clown. [Laughs.]
FAT MIKE: But it shot out really hard. So, I went to all the shows at Riot Fest [that year] and I just ruined everybody.
MCILRATH: [His] cocaine flower just exploded into my face. I just got there. I drove my car down, got inside, I’m all ready to enjoy the show, and now I am covered in flour. It was in my eyeballs and in my mouth.
FAT MIKE: Then, after the show, me and my wife at the time went to a dungeon in Chicago. There was, like, five dominatrix there. People from bands came. It was gnarly. I was getting tied up by this dom’… and I was still in clown makeup.
MCILRATH: [At the time], Riot Fest was taking place across multiple venues around the city. It wasn’t like a proper festival. It was in a few different venues and there were a couple of different shows.
KELLY: It was, like, an SXSW-style thing, where it was just in small clubs around the city.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: Then, during our fifth anniversary, Sean came by the office, and he was like, “You know what? This thing belongs outside.” And I was like, “Are you out of your mind? There is no way.”
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Taking it to the different markets and growing the size of the artists we book, and the attendance… it certainly started to take on a life of its own.”—Corrie Christopher Martin; partner, Riot Fest
RAYMER: Sean always had these grand ideas. Nothing could ever be simple. It was always, “We can turn it into this crazy thing.”
MIKE PETRYSHYN: I just thought, “We’re punk rock. They like it in the clubs. We’re not big enough.” And he goes, “I don’t know. It will always be in the back of my mind. We should do this.”
CORRIE CHRISTOPHER MARTIN (BOOKING AGENT, RISE AGAINST; PARTNER, RIOT FEST): [At the same time], Mike kept putting in an offer for Rise Against, and every year, I would have to pass. It was still an indoor event, and Rise were starting to play arenas.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: Then Corrie said something along the lines of, “We could maybe make this work in 2012 if you take it outside…”
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN: It was good timing. Sean had been talking about it, too.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: Sean and Corrie didn’t know each other before I was like, “I think we need to make Corrie a partner,” [But almost immediately] Sean loved her. He wasn’t willing to show his hand too often, but I remember [that year] they had some kind of conversation and she went off, and he kind of looked at me and was like, “Yeah… she’s fucking cool, man.”
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN: But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Taking it to the different markets and growing the size of the artists we book, and the attendance… it certainly started to take on a life of its own.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: We kept it a secret at first. We were looking at sites of where to do it [in Chicago], and I wanted to do it at Humboldt Park. Everyone thought that I was nuts.
MCILRATH: I know that I, as well as a lot of people, were like, “Why are they doing that there? That will be a disaster.” It was the kind of place where gang fights happen on a Sunday afternoon when everyone is trying to barbeque.
KELLY: But that first year in Humboldt Park was maybe the best Riot Fest. I just remember there being a sense of, “How the fuck did they do this?!”
PEZZATI: I mean, he had clowns and circus people.
MCILRATH: There were people breathing fire.
KELLY: There was Tilt-A-Whirl.
MCILRATH: There were Mexican wrestlers.
FAT MIKE: I remember I had my daughter with me [that year at Humboldt Park] and we stole a golf cart. She was like, “The last time I stole a golf cart was in Hawaii.” And I was like, “You are 9 years old and this is the second golf cart you’ve stolen?” [Laughs.]
KELLY: It was just awesome.
CHRISTOPHER MARTIN: Still, I don’t think there was a moment beforehand where we were looking at the ticket counts thinking, “Oh, this is going to be great.” It was really not until the day of, looking at what we had put together, that I felt it.
MCILRATH: I remember having, like, an out-of-body experience that year. I was standing onstage, in my hometown, in a neighborhood you wouldn’t be caught dead in when we were going to shows, and it was swarming with punk kids.
MIKE PETRYSHYN: [At the end of that weekend] Sean came into my trailer and was like, “What are you doing in here?” And I told him [I was looking at projections for the weekend]. He was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Get in a golf cart.”
So we took this golf cart behind the audience. He just pointed. There were tens of thousands of people watching. He was just like, “Dude, you did this… smile.” [After that], we knew it was on. ALT
Riot Fest is September 15 to 17 in Chicago, and you can grab tickets and see a full lineup here.