Aside from the diffused sunlight and crisp air, nothing heralds the end of summer—and with it, the end of outdoor music festival season—quite like Riot Fest. The three-day Chicago music festival provides a showcase for new and legacy acts in punk, rock, and hip-hop, with a whole frickin’ carnival as a backdrop. It’s at once a jam-packed and laidback way to welcome the fall, which is the kind of vibe that Mike Petryshyn strives for every year. Along with the late Sean McKeough, Petryshyn founded Riot Fest, which spent its first seven years spread out across multiple venues in the city before heading to Humboldt Park. There, the festival met with considerable criticism and resistance from community organizers and Alderman Roberto Maldonado, so in 2015, Riot Fest moved to Chicago’s Douglas Park, which will once again play host to both bands and carnival rides this year from September 13 to September 15.
Before the reunions, nostalgia, and corndogs are upon us, The A.V. Club spoke to Petryshyn about what goes into the lineup every year, how even the scheduling tells a story, and the best way to navigate the “most intimate” large music festival if you’re new to it.
The A.V. Club: What are the most important elements that you keep in mind when you’re putting together the lineup every year?
Mike Petryshyn: I think at this point it’s pretty natural. I just go with my gut on things. I know who we are as a festival, what the fans want to see. I know the music, and I just trust myself and the other people here that the stuff we like, what we listen to, is pretty much what the fans want. It worked for 15 years in a way, so we got to stick with that calculus.
AVC: What is the split among the audience of younger fans who are discovering more established acts and longtime fans showing up for bands they might have already seen 30 times?
MP: I think it’s all the above. I don’t think it’s one or the other, it’s both. People go to see a reunion act or a final show or their favorite band doing an album play, but chances are they’re coming anyhow. When it comes to the kids coming, they’re usually there for liking a developmental band that’s popping or a band they latched onto a couple of years ago or something along those lines. I think Riot in and of itself is a little bit different in that a lot of people come just to come, and it’s a lot of familiar faces. People choose their festival or choose a concert based on bands, so to speak. I think the feel that we have, what we’ve become, alongside having, I think, a pretty good booking, is that people just come. It’s the environment. It’s everything. It’s a great crowd. I don’t know. I think it is the most intimate large festival out there. I think that’s attractive to a lot of people.
AVC: Do you think there’s an advantage to being so late in the festival schedule? Is the timing ideal for the type of festival you put together?
MP: We picked it initially when we decided to go outside. That’s around 2012. The thing is, June’s a weird month. You don’t know what you’re going to get weather-wise. July is Pitchfork, Lolla’s August, and we’re September. So we initially spin it out with that in mind to do it that way, but also, just weather-wise, September is for the most part in the 70s. It’s comfortable. It’s not a blazing 95 degrees outside. You get anomalies here and there, but generally it’s just a tad bit milder. It’s not humid, which makes festivals sometimes hard, for the bands.
AVC: You’ve described the lineups as telling a story, or trying to tell a story through the lineup. What story is this year’s lineup telling?
MP: There’s a couple of them. There’s our history—our story’s embedded in there, more so than any other year. Rise Against was our first headliner when [Riot Fest] first went outside. The Descendents have always been part of the family. They’re a band that played the club days with us. Same thing with Pennywise. You have Flaming Lips, who have done a bunch of—who played for us for, I don’t remember exactly how many, but enough to warrant that they’re part of the family for our 15th anniversary. Playing an album is pretty spectacular. You have Jawbreaker, a reunion band now from a few years ago. Slayer doing their final show. The last time we had Slayer was for our 10th anniversary: They played and they did Reign In Blood. It’s our story, our history. Even when we had to replace Die Antwoord [who were dropped from the Riot Fest lineup after yelling homophobic slurs at a fan during a concert], we replaced them with Wu-Tang Clan, who have played a bunch for us. This year is really like a lot of the previous years combined. We wanted to take elements of each year that came before it. You’re obviously gonna see Taking Back Sunday and GWAR and Andrew W.K. playing every year.
Outside of that, when you look at the lineup and schedule and see who’s playing on what stage, that’s its own sub-story. Setting it up so Patti Smith’s set leads into Bikini Kill’s, I think that’s really important. Having Slayer, Anthrax, and Testament on the same stage for what could be the last time—unless Slayer comes back in five, 10 years, but it’s really the last time they’re going to play Chicago together. Then, having Descendents and Jawbreaker together—I know on Jawbreaker’s end, that’s big to them. That’s important to them. So a lot of it is a lot of bands that played or have toured together. Maybe they haven’t done that in a while—shared histories and things along those lines. We’re pretty mindful of that. It’s not only the whole lineup. It’s who’s playing on whose stage and when.
AVC: What were you considering when you put together the group of album performances? Or was that more like you contacted the fans and they came back to you with suggestions for the album performances?
MP: It was both. It used to be like it was pulling teeth to get a band to do an album, but more than half of them will tell us they’d be willing to do an album [performance]. It started out like that, and it just kind of grew. So to have as many as we do is pretty awesome. And I mean, they’re all great albums, you know, everything from Ween—that’s another one. We’ve done a bunch of shows with Ween. The others are Flaming Lips, Blink[-182], Dashboard [Confessional], Taking Back Sunday, Bloc Party. There’s just a lot of great albums. A lot of them were volunteered. This is something they don’t get to do very often, so when there’s an anniversary or something like that, it’s like they’re adding to the celebration.
AVC: Speaking of this celebration aspect, when did you first realize you wanted to combine the musical elements with the carnival one? What made you think they would work well together?
MP: It was definitely a couple of years before we took it outside. A long time ago, I went to see Bob Dylan play. I grew up in Buffalo and I love Dylan. It was my first time seeing him. I think it was, it had to be, like, 2002. He happened to play the Erie County fair. Right? [Laughs.] It was a separate ticket or whatever. He played. It was amazing. I walked out, and the fair was still going on. It’s a monster fair: all the smells of all of the food vendors, and seeing all the lights of the carnival. I just remember thinking to myself it would be awesome if there were more shows that had that somehow embedded into it. There was a feel to it that makes everybody happy. That’s kind of where it started. When Sean [McKeough] and I decided to take it outside, it was, well, instead of a carnival, how about that? Make it a punk rock state fair in a way.
AVC: Which reunion or album performance feels like the biggest coup for you personally?
MP: That’s hard, but I think for reunions—they’re all special in a way—but I would have to probably say the Misfits. But they’re all special—the big reunions are all special in their own way, whether it be The Replacements, Jawbreaker, Naked Raygun, or Misfits. We’ve done a bunch of reunions, but for me it’s Misfits because they were part of Riot Fest for years in different ways. Glenn [Danzig] played Riot a bunch. When he brought Doyle out on stage at Riot Fest 2011, it was original, classic dancing stuff. They ended it with a Misfits set with Doyle out, and that’s where I think that idea started. A few years later, when [Riot Fest] was already outdoors, he did an hour-long Misfits set with Doyle. For our 10th anniversary, Glenn recognized the 30th anniversary of [his band] Samhain. So over these years, a friendship grew throughout this, and it was great. When we got the call that this was actually going to happen, it wasn’t like it was exhausting or anything like that. It was supposed to happen that way. When we finally did it, it felt great. Everybody wanted to see it. It was the one reunion that seemed would never happen.
AVC: I think everybody has that act that they’re sure they’re never going to see again. I was sure I would never see The Replacements in my lifetime. But then they came to Riot Fest, what was it, five years ago?
MP: Yeah, that was 2013. [Laughs.] I can’t believe that much time has gone by and that one was—I mean, they’re all special in a way. I picked the Misfits one just because of the years that went into it. With The Replacements, I heard no a dozen times. With the Descendents, I just kept on pursuing it, probably annoyingly. But it happened because it was the right time for it, and it was special. It drew a ton of people into Chicago to see those guys get on stage and have a good time and see the crowd just in awe. It was amazing. It’s 100% why I keep on doing this, when things like that happen. It’s not about them confirming. It’s about them getting in front of the crowd for the first time. I saw it with Jawbreaker. I saw it with The Replacements. I saw it with the Misfits. You look at the fans, and you see it in their eyes. Like, “Holy shit, this is happening. I’ve been waiting my entire life.”
AVC: For somebody who has never been to Riot Fest, what is your advice for making it through the weekend?
MP: If you’ve never been before, my advice always is to talk to people. Talk to strangers. There’s so many people from different countries, different parts of the U.S. It’s such an intimate crowd that everybody ends up liking each other within the crowd—whether they grew up on the same music, same favorite bands, there’s always something to talk about with somebody that you don’t know. It’s a really easy place to make friends, and I’ve seen it. There’s marriages that have happened because of Riot Fest. There’s lifelong friendships. There’s people from different countries who come every single year from Australia and the U.K., and they have a meeting point, where they all meet up before they walk in. They have a couple of beers or whatever, and then they come in together. They’ll spend the weekend together, and then it’s like, “See you next year.” Those experiences can be had. The good thing about the festival fatigue or what have you is we’re pretty lucky with being at Douglas Park, and that it’s really easy to traverse between the stages. It’s not like a 20-minute walk from one end to another. If you want to catch one band and another one’s starting, like mid-set or something, you have a 90-second walk. There’s less fatigue than most festivals of that size.
There’s plenty of chill-out zones, but if it’s your first time, I would say just absorb it. Make new friends because that, even more so than the bands playing, will be what you’ll remember far longer.
AVC: One final very important question for you: Have you ever met the Riot Fest pig?
MP: [Laughs.] I have not. I’ve seen photos though. I’ve not met him, but the pig did walk by me, I should say. I believe it was two years ago or maybe it was last year. But it was at night, and I was like, “Holy shit. There’s a pig.” But then it’s a thing. Staff members have seen it. I’ve seen photos of it. It’s its own little thing now, which is cool. I think it was two years that I saw it. I think I saw it during Jawbreaker. But I could be wrong.
AVC: It’s got to be the same pig. I very much remember seeing the pig that Sunday [of 2017’s Riot Fest].
MP: During Jawbreaker, right? Because I don’t go on the stage for stuff like that. I’ll go into the crowd and watch it. And I went to the back of the crowd, and suddenly there was a pig. I was like, “Huh. That’s great.” Yeah, it’s awesome. That and knowing that people are connecting. I’m telling you, that’s why I’m still doing this after 15 years. I take notice of stuff a lot more than I did at 26 years old. It’s a good feeling. I know on my end, it makes me smile.