Riot Fest Founder Mike Petryshyn Reveals the Legendary Band Reunions He's Still Trying For: Q&A

Daniel Boczarski/Redferns
 Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill performs during Riot Fest at Douglas Park on Sept. 15, 2019 in Chicago. 

Surviving as an independent promoter isn't easy. Outside the Live Nation/AEG ecosystem, the 2019 festival season has been rife with red ink, cancelations, and one prominent promoter filing for bankruptcy. Some face little choice but to sell out to those live music giants. All of this makes the survival and success of Chicago's Riot Fest especially impressive.

The punk-centric festival celebrated its 15th anniversary Sept. 13-15 with a headliner docket featuring Slayer's final show in Chicago, Bikini Kill's first in the area since 1995, and Blink-182's return following a last-minute cancelation last year due to the health of drummer Travis Barker. "Blink's cancellation certainly was unexpected, but we rolled with the punches," Riot Fest organizer Mike Petryshyn tells Billboard. "Attendance for Riot was certainly up [this year] and that makes us pretty happy about what we're doing, especially because 2019 was a down year for several festivals across the country."

Blink's absence threatened to derail Riot Fest 2018. With a headliner taken out less than two weeks before showtime, single-day tickets and daily schedules were suspended until the eleventh hour, leading fans to blanket social media with posts wondering if the festival was even taking place. Reinforcements were booked, and Riot Fest went on as planned, albeit with the less-traditionally-punk-than-usual headlining trio of Weezer, Beck, and Run the Jewels.

This year, the festival seemed to reclaim its mojo. Blink rocked out on every track from its hit-filled, now-20-year-old LP Enema Of The State. Slayer's fury appeased Riot Fest's sizable metalhead contingent. And Bikini Kill sounded absolutey massive on the main stage, summoning a fest-sized shout-along to "Rebel Girl" to close out the weekend. The seminal riot grrrl band has grown its fan base and influence immensely since disbanding in the late '90s, and while a bunch of other festivals surely would have loved to play host to their reunion, Riot was the only one to book them in 2019.  

When Petryshyn founded Riot Fest in 2005, the Chicagoan was simply a rabid music fan working in a law office and trying to throw a sort of punk-rock South By Southwest, despite having never booked talent before. That first year, Riot Fest included sets from punk lifers like Dead Kennedys and the Bouncing Souls at several clubs around the city. The festival grew steadily and thanks an investment from eventual partner Sean McKeough, moved outdoors to Humboldt Park in 2012 (Corrie Christopher also came on as a partner that year). Soon after, the organizers parlayed their cred and connections into a reputation for major reunions: the Replacements in 2013, the classic Misfits lineup in 2016, Jawbreaker in 2017. The fest added dates in other cities like Denver and Toronto, but after McKeough's death in 2016, scaled back to just Chicago.

Riot Fest is now held crosstown in the less-sprawling Douglas Park and its presence extends well beyond September. Petryshyn promotes club shows under the Riot Fest name throughout the year, which, as he discussed in this recent chat with Billboard, has been instrumental towards booking some of the festival's most eyebrow-raising talent. So how did he get so good at convincing famously feuding punks to bury the hatchet and reunite? What bands is he still trying to get back together? Where does he think the festival industry is headed at large? Here's all that and more from the man better known as "Riot Mike." 

Compared to last year, how easily did this year’s lineup come together?

Petryshyn: It’s different every year. Sometimes stuff happens really quickly. Sometimes you have an offer for a band and you’re pushing the deadline and you can get in trouble if the band says no. You take those calculated risks. This year, it wasn’t that hard. The Slayer conversations started last year, same thing with Bikini Kill. And because Blink-182 had to cancel last year, we knew they were going to be playing this year. 

So in those regards it wasn’t super-laborious. But outside the headliners this year, it [was] also pretty deep. I wanted a reunion back. It’s cool that Jawbreaker [came] back. Jack White [played] Riot for the first time, with the Raconteurs, which is a big deal to me. The B-52's [performed] their final Chicago show with us. It’s a lot... when Die Antwoord [was dropped from the lineup], it's cool our friends Wu-Tang Clan could take that spot.

Once the festival gets going, what are you doing?

Checking in with departments, making sure morale is up with the staff. Usually I stick to my trailer, on my laptop all day and responding to texts. Maybe I'll catch a band here and there, but I don’t get to see many. I try to catch some of my personal favorites.

In what year did Riot Fest have its best attendance? 

Probably 2014. The cap was bigger [in Humboldt Park]. It wasn't hugely different, but yeah, 2014 [with the Cure, Jane's Addiction and the National headlining].

Take me through the process of booking Bikini Kill. They've played a handful of dates since April, but did your discussions happen back when their reunion was still secret? 

Yeah. it started last year. That’s when we had the initial conversations and it progressed from there. [Frontwoman] Kathleen Hanna played the festival before [with the Julie Ruin in 2016], so she gets what the vibe is. She dug it, so that’s good for us.

When a band has been inactive for a long time, how do you gauge interest to decide if they're at headliner-level? 

You follow your gut. We’re all fans of the music we book and put on Riot, so if there’s any kind of litmus test it’d be like, "What do you guys think?" A lot of people want to see Bikini Kill play. Their music is probably more popular now than it was in the '90s. 

You have a knack for left-field bookings that aren't all over the festival circuit -- the Village People this year and Jerry Lee Lewis in 2018 come to mind. Does that take a lot of extra research and legwork?

No. I did Jerry's previous show in Chicago in 2010, a club show. We built a dance floor for a '50s dance party. It was awesome. I don't remember the exact headcount but it did around 3,000 [in ticket sales]. The majority of the crowd was in its twenties and thirties. They just wanted to see a legend. We'd been putting in offers for him to play the festival for at least five years. I'm glad it happened. Same thing with Merle Haggard [who played Riot Fest in 2015]. 

We talked about the Village People in years past and this year we pulled the trigger. We knew how fans were going to react -- there was a Facebook group dedicated to meeting points to start a circle pit during their set.

We don't have too many pretensions at Riot Fest. We have a list of other bands we want who don’t fit the mold, the left-of-the-dial stuff.

Who else is on the list?

I can’t say that -- it’ll take the surprise out. We talked to a bunch of them…. I know one and he books out really early. So we already have an offer in on him for next year. And we know it’s gonna pop. People will go bananas. 

For reunions, who else is on your wish list? 

Everybody we’ve ever mentioned [laughs]: Operation Ivy, Sex Pistols, Fugazi.

You've talked about pursuing the Sex Pistols in the past.

I’ve been trying for years. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I at least didn’t try. If it does ever happen, there was some time put into it over the years. They know if they ever wanted to get back together and play a few more shows, we’re here. Some bands just don't want to [reunite], some do. It’s all about timing. 

Fugazi would be a challenge considering their very specific ethos.

Yeah, it might be tough. But again, if the band wanted to do another show, it doesn’t have to be me. I’d physically get myself out to wherever they did it. A lot of people will want to see them play.

What about My Chemical Romance? Have you tried to get them back together? 

I mean, it's on the list. The band has a lot of fans and they've meant a lot to them. Those My Chem fans are rabid. So yeah, it's on that list of, "What do you think?" The "Do you think it's even possible?" list. 

Rumors of a reunion popped up recently when the Jonas Brothers said they heard them rehearsing.

Yeah, I saw that. I don't know. Maybe it was. I heard the story. Maybe it was just Gerard [Way] solo with a band... I know people would go apeshit, so I'm sure they will at some point. They broke apart pretty young. 

Who are some younger bands or artists you feel are close to headliner status at Riot Fest? 

I think the Front Bottoms have potential of making that next step. They went from clubs to playing to thousands of people. SWMRS are the same thing, doing huge numbers. On the Interrupters' next album, can they pull off a hit like No Doubt or something like that? They've got the talent to do it... PVRIS is another great example. They're doing big numbers already. 

There's a lot of kids picking up guitars, more than when I first started Riot Fest. The youth movement is happening -- there are a lot more basement shows, more local bands in Chicago. 

Many feel the festival market peaked around the middle of this decade and has started to come down since. Is that something you've noticed? 

Yeah. A lot of the lineups were kind of homogenous. They all started looking the same way, with the same headliners. There were a few festivals who really differentiated themselves and we were one of them. It's because of our audience, which we cater to.

In recent years, the Chicago version of Lollapalooza has booked fewer rock bands than in the past. Do you see that as an opportunity?

I think everybody has their own long-term plan. With Lolla booking less rock bands, I don't know how they do stuff internally. Maybe something didn't work out. But yeah, for sure there is [opportunity]. We're mostly rock-based. [Riot Fest] has gotten bigger so there are bands that would rather play Riot because they're playing to a hungry audience. 

As an independently run, punk-oriented fest, have you noticed artists being more interested in working with you as opposed big promoters like Live Nation and AEG?

Yeah, most of these bands grew up listening to the Ramones and played basements. They didn’t become pop stars automatically. They got in a van and toured. 

Backstage, it's like a reunion with those bands. They've all toured together, but they [often] haven't seen each other in years. It's a festival where bands check out other bands. Bands will rout in and not book anything for the rest of the weekend just to stay at the festival to hang out with their friends. 

A couple years back, I think 2016, I was scooting down to check if everything was okay in the artist bar and suddenly I see [guitarist] Fletcher [Dragge] from Pennywise, [who weren't playing that year]. I was like, "What the fuck are you doing here?!?" And he's like, "I love Riot Fest. I wouldn't miss this for the fucking world!" It's little moments like that... They just come to come. 

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