Beginning in 2005, Riot Fest, Chicago’s and perhaps the US’ premiere punk festival, has grown both in size and reputation since its inception. After six increasingly successful years, Riot Fest Chicago expanded to Philadelphia in 2011. With the subsequent success of the additional city, promoters once again expanded the festival for 2012.
Though 2012’s Riot Fest Philadelphia was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, promoters continued with the festival’s expansion with festivals set for Brooklyn, Dallas, and Toronoto, in addition to expanding the Chicago festival from five days spread across multiple venues to three days, two of which will be held outside for the first time in the event’s history. With a lineup that includes acts such as the Descendents, Iggy and the Stooges, Rise Against, and Elvis Costello, Riot Fest stands poised to continue setting new trends and raising the festival bar.
Consequence of Sound caught up with Mike Petryshyn, one of Riot Fest’s promoters, to discuss Riot Fest’s changes this year, both in Chicago and elsewhere, Petryshyn’s “philosophy” of dropping the politics and just having a good time, as well as what it’s like standing just off-stage while the Descendents perform.
Riot Fest is considered one of, if not the, premiere punk festivals. This year includes The Stooges, Rise Against, and Elvis Costello. You’ve earned a reputation for quality lineups that has subsequently attracted higher profile artists each season. Without bringing up names, Riot Fest seems to have partially filled a void left by another once prominent punk fest. What was the impetus behind starting Riot Fest, and do you have a mission statement that keeps you true?
Wow. That’s loaded. I’ve got to be honest with you, when we started doing it in 2005, there wasn’t any reason to do it outside of me being bored and wanting some of my favorite bands to play together. I had a normal, 9-to-5 job, I was going to school, everything like that. It was a couple years down the line where it took on a life of its own. And now, fast forward, it’s going to be our eighth festival. It still is what it is. Implying that we’re filling a void, I guess we are, whether it’s in punk rock, or rock n’ roll, or what have you. I guess we are, but I really don’t view it like that. We just like to put on shows with music we like. If that’s filling a void, so be it. Cool.
Lineups aside, another thing people note about your festival relative to other festivals is the affordability.
Yeah. Listen, these things aren’t cheap to put on. If I look at Lollapalooza or Coachella, I get it, and they have some heavy hitters on there. You’re essentially building a venue outside, so the cost associated with production, all the little things that no one thinks of, whether it be catering, or rentals of port-o-potties, fencing…There’s a million things and stuff’s expensive. But our mindset was that we understand Lollapalooza charging $90 a day or whatever it is, is fine. We get it. But there is other ways of keeping your festival in the black without making tickets that expensive. It’s not like we’re planning on making millions of dollars or anything like that. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to put on a cool festival. Our tickets, at most, will be $45 a day. It’s completely worth it. Some of these bands charge more just being by themselves. We’re more about volume than just doing a show for X amount of people. We went for the volume side of it and it’s worked.
Speaking of volume, this year the festival is expanding to three days in Chicago. Why this year?
It used to be five, but it was all indoors, so it’s a little bit different. Apples and oranges. We’re doing two days outside on a Saturday and a Sunday, and then we have our opening night at the Congress Theater.
Why this year? What was so big about the eighth year?
Sean [McKeough], my partner in Riot Fest, and I, we’d been talking about this for a couple of years now. Back in the day, I was dead set against it. I kind of liked the hub-less folk feel we had of multiple venues and stuff like that. But that carries its own amount of headaches and you start to really cannibalize your crowd a little bit when you have competing shows, like three or four competing shows at the same time. When we started talking about it a couple of years ago, we were like, “if we’re going to do it, we should do it a little bit differently, not like everybody else.” Not to say that we’re reinventing the wheel or anything like that, but we just want to have a different feel than say, any other festival that goes on in Chicago. I think we achieved that.
So, when last year was really successful, we knew we could have done more. So, last year, our four big shows at the Congress, we treated them like stages. This was all in one day. We’d have Social D close one stage, we’d have Danzig doing Samhain closing one stage, we had the Descendents close one stage, and we had Weezer close one stage. And that was how we treated it last year, and it just seemed that last year was so successful that this was the year to do it.
So, will the expansion be permanent or do you have wait and see how successful this is?
It’s permanent. We’re staying outside.
Last year, the festival expanded to Philadelphia, and this year you added Brooklyn, Toronto, and Dallas. How were those cities chosen and why haven’t you chosen anything out west?
Brooklyn’s Brooklyn. I thought it was important to do something in New York. Same thing with Dallas. Dallas is a really large market, like the fourth largest market in the US right now, but it seems that it’s overlooked by the stuff that we do. We met up with some people from those cities and that’s how it came about. Everybody’s behind, everybody believes in what we’re doing. Toronto, out of all of them, is probably the most special to me, because as a kid, I grew up in Buffalo, and I’d go to shows in Toronto. I’d go to Canada all the time. That’s the one, out of all the cities, I’m excited about all of them obviously, but Toronto’s a special one for me.
Do you think you’ll move out west and do something in California or Washington?
I don’t know. People have talked to us about it, but nothing I see in the foreseeable future.
Online discourse regarding last year’s Philly Riot Fest, most of the negative comments seemed aimed at the location…
Did that have any effect on this year’s show and cancellation?
Perhaps. Next year when we go back into Philly it’s going to be a little bit different. I can’t really go into it now, because nothing’s set in stone, but it’s going to be a lot more akin to what we’re doing in Chicago.
Are you going to have three days in Philadelphia as well?
No, just the lineup and the feel of it is going to be much more akin to what we do here [Chicago].
With the festival branching to other cities and many artists like the Descendents appearing on multiple bills, is Riot Fest evolving to become a traveling festival like the original Lollapalooza?
No. Never say never, but it’s definitely not in the plans. I think back then when Lolla and Warped were in their burgeoning years, what they were doing made a ton of sense. And I still think Warped tour for the new generation of kids makes a ton of sense. It’s still really successful. I know they killed it this year. But for us to be traveling just like Lolla did it…nah. It’s not in the cards. The climate’s changed. At least in my eyes, it’s a little bit more special when you pick cities and embrace those cities, do stuff on the weekends and have the community involved. They’re a part of something. That’s kind of our ethos here and it’s one reason why we’re successful in Chicago. We have this grassroots feel. There’s not that many people working on the Fest. There’s a handful of people, but we dedicate our lives to this stuff.
Are you guys involved with any other festivals in the city?
No. Our production staff and all that, they do a bunch of festivals, but no, we’re not involved with anything else. It takes a year to do one of these things so…(laughs)
On behalf of all the fans, I want to thank you for doing it. I look at the lineup of Riot Fest and it makes me yearn for the punk bands of yesterday. I like today’s punk, don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of contemporary punk, but seeing some of these old bands again on tour like the Descendents just really excites me.
Yeah. Listen, I’m 34 years old, so my bread-and-butter is always going to be Descendents, Rancid, that kind of stuff. Look at any Riot Fest in the past. [Naked] Raygun and Screeching Weasel, that’s the stuff I grew up as a kid listening to. But if some kid is listening to the bands that play Warped and considering that the new hardcore, who am I as a 34-year old guy to say no to him. I’m not going to be that guy. “That’s not punk rock.” Because that’d be like the kids that were older than me when I got into the [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones. “That’s not ska. the Specials are ska. Bosstones aren’t ska.” I’m not that guy. There’s no reason to fight it. This is the music that means a lot to people. The Descendents or any of those older bands, they hold a very special place in our hearts because we listened to them during our most influential years. And kids now are listening to A Day To Remember, Chiodos, All-Time Low, and even going back a little bit further with Taking Back Sunday and stuff like that. That’s what speaks to them and I’m not going to argue with that, because when I was a 16-year old kid, the Exploited spoke to me.
Our goal internally is to drop all the politics, all the bullshit that comes with scene points. That stuff drives me bonkers. I’ve always hated it. The music we deal with sometimes has a tendency to be very secluded and not welcoming for whatever reasons. We don’t believe in any of that stuff. Good music’s good music. There’s going to be people rocking out to Elvis [Costello], there’s going to be people rocking out to A Day To Remember. That’s awesome and great. I don’t know if it’s going to be the template for more festivals to come or whatnot because it’s successful. But I just think, drop the politics, everybody have a good time.
That’s a good mantra. When you look at the lineup, it’s almost a history of the genre and you can go and get a grasp of what it’s all about.
Yeah, and that’s something we’ve always done. It’s not like we’re historians of the music, but we listen to a lot of music, we all have our different backgrounds, and I just see a line between all the bands that connects them all. And if other people can’t see that, that’s fine. But we think that if we get to play around with 35 years of music, that’s awesome. That opens up a lot of possibilities for booking some really great acts. We’re not limited like the electronic scene. That’s pretty much the last five years of bands. And that’s why every electronic fest in the US looks exactly the same. I don’t think there’s another fest in the US that looks like Riot Fest Chicago. We just want to be a little bit unique and we’re very passionate about the music too, obviously.
That definitely comes across.
We just have a good time. There’s no real philosophy to it, I suppose. We know when Elvis Costello wants to do it, that’s really cool. It’s as simple as that. He’s excited to play. That’s the 1% that keeps us doing this, stuff like that. The Descendents playing two years in a row, that’s awesome. Milo gets to experience Riot Fest when it was still inside and then also a mega concert that’s happening the next year that’s outside. He gets to do both. It’s great.
You could probably answer this from personal experience: have the Descendents even aged? They seem like they just continued from where they left off before he [Milo Aukerman, singer] went to college.
Nah, man. They’re awesome, they’re so good. Stephen [Eggerton, guitar] looks exactly the same as he did 25 years ago. Bill [Stevenson] hits the drums just like he did 25 years ago, and Milo, even though he’s a little grayer, once he gets to that unique posture thing he does, where he slams the mic up to his lips, it’s like “holy shit, that’s Milo.” (laughs) And the funny thing is, I did two shows with them last year and at each one the backstage just cleared because every single band, every single staff member was onstage watching them. They’re a band’s band. Everybody loves the Descendents. I’ve never heard anybody say, “fuck those guys, they’re terrible.”
They’re amazing. Everybody has their favorite song, whether it’s “Bikeage”, “Suburban Home”, or “Hope”, or whatever. People just associate with that band. They’re a perfect Riot Fest band because there’s no politics about them. For Christ’s sake, they write love songs that people mosh to. I love it. It’s a great irony about that band, they’re fantastic.