As Punk Rock Bowling prepares to take over Downtown Vegas May 22-25, the event's co-founder Mark Sternprobably the busiest man in Sin City right about now. In the five years since PRB went from a small weekend tournament to a full-on festival, Stern and his brother Shawn have created one of the wildest parties on the West Coast catering to punks of all different pedigrees. Taking advantage of an ever-improving location, Stern has fully integrated his three-day festival into the culture of Vegas while keeping a focused niche that makes it unique.
This year's headliners–Rancid, Refused and Dropkick Murphys–are only the tip of the mohawk. Between the list of intimate club shows, exhibits, movie screenings, the actual bowling tournament and other special events, there's no way the action ever lets up once you step out of your hotel and into the biggest Memorial Day moshpit in the country. We recently talked to Stern to get his take on charting PRB's growth as well as keeping the vibe as intimate as possible.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): After five years of doing Punk Rock Bowling as a festival, how do the Vegas locals respond to what you guys are doing?
Mark Stern: They're so into it. The whole Downtown area has been changing over the last five years, that's why we went down there. Zappos bought city hall and we contacted them about using the whole property. They run a thing called the Downtown Project and it's been fixing up the whole arts and entertainment district for six years. There's all new restaurants and clubs. So they love us out there.
With all the different festivals that are striving to be bigger and be everything to everyone, you guys have remained focused on your specific audience with a more intimate experience. What kind of steps do you have to take to keep it at the level you want for the fest?
I play music [in the band Youth Brigade] and I tour and I go to a lot of festivals. And when there's 50,000 people and I'm there to see three bands, there's eight stages, my feeling is why do I have to deal with 45,000 other people who are at the dance stage or whatever? And punk rock is still a pretty broad genre in my mind. I've been promoting shows since I was 20 years old and everything was a little different and everyone had their own sound. There's more genres of punk of course. But whether it's the English Beat, or Devo, or Bad Manners or Mighty Mighty Bosstones, it all works. We had Wanda Jackson perform here–that works. She's the first bad girl of rock-n-roll. So we definitely try to mix it up. We try to eliminate all the things from festivals that we don't like. Its a festival, but it's comfortable. We charge really cheap drink prices, we hand pick all the vendors. We charge $5 drinks and people think we're crazy…but people are here for the weekend, let them enjoy themselves. Who wants to pay $12 for a beer? I don't. Our goal is to keep it intimate because if we go any bigger we'd have to put monitors next to the stages and that's not really what live music is about. Why am I here if I can't really see the band?
What signs tell you that you're going in the right direction with that approach?
We've been selling out every year, so that's ideal. And when we put the club shows up online, usually within 24 hours they're sold out. That just shows that people want that intimate experience. And the clubs are really cool that we work with. The reason why we don't do full weekend passes is because if you have a really good event that everyone wants to go, everyone with a pass can get it and I don't think that's fair. So we individually price the shows. So if you buy a ticket, you're in.
Have your skills as a bowler improved since you started PRB?
Hell no! They've gotten worse. I'm actually not bowling for the first time this year. We've got so much going on with the setup and the bowling starts the first day off of the festival. My brother's bowling, he's my partner in all this.
Are there teams that win consistently every year?
It's been changing a lot. When we first started it, PRB was all labels and a few bands and it always sold out, there was a waiting list. Epitaph used to win a lot. But in the last three years it's been different people. And of course different teams try to bring in ringers and stuff. It gets cutthroat–we're playing for $16,000 in prize money. We also use four different bowling alleys, 240 teams, over a 1,000 bowlers.
What do you enjoy the most about the headliners you chose this year?
We've never had Refused, so I'm really into that Sunday show. I really wanted to make something different. Between them and Murder City and Turbonego and Jello [Biafra], it's gonna be a great bill. And Monday is like the hardest show of the whole weekend, Dropkick Murphys is doing their whole first record. But I'm stoked for all the lineups and the club shows. I think it's going to be out year yet.
Would you ever see you bringing the festival anywhere besides Vegas?
We've talked about it and I'm not sure yet. I don't know if there's anywhere else where you could get that vibe. The shows get to go until 3 a.m., the casino's within walking distance. It's a perfect situation for us. If something presented itself, maybe. But definitely not on the West Coast. There's enough festivals out here anyway.
For full ticket and event info on Punk Rock Bowling, visit their website.