Riot Fest's Mike Petryshyn Talks The History Of the Fest And This Year's Line-up

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on May 14, 2014 3:00PM

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Riot Fest founder Mike Petryshyn a.k.a. Riot Mike, photo Katie Hovland

Ten years into the most unlikely festival to become the best festival in Chicago, Riot Fest founder Mike Petryshyn is riding high. His 10th anniversary bill in Chicago is easily the best festival line-up in the area all season. This is made all the more remarkable since Riot Fest makes its decisions by basically booking music they like, in a neighborhood they feel at home in. This leads to truly eclectic bills—and this year's eclecticism is powered by a high octane line-up that would be impressive for a huge corporation, but was instead pieced together by a handful of folks who actually believe if you love music you'll stay afloat. Petryshyn took a little time out of his hectic schedule to chat with us about the road that brought Riot Fest to where it was and why he loves the neighborhood it's based in.

CHICAGOIST: So as we come up on the 10 year anniversary of Riot Fest, tell me about what started the whole thing off. What prompted you to kick off the original incarnation at a handful of clubs around Chicago.

MIKE PETRYSHYN: To be honest, I really never thought I'd be doing something like this with my life. Everyone has certain visions of what they want to do in life, and being a fest creator was not one of them in the least bit. When Riot first came about, I was at work sitting at my desk and was pretty disenfranchised where I was at with my life. I felt indentured to both school and work. The thing is, when you're in the early parts of your college career, the world presents itself as something it really isn't—that you can do anything you want in life. The fact is, academia feeds into that fake reality because parameters and ceilings are always, always set—the same applies for any mundane job we take on or strive for. And, I can go back now, look at myself at 25 and see that starting Riot was a relief to me ... I needed it more than it needed to be created.

So, a desire to create identity outside of being a grad student or a pale dude in an office whose daily worry is coming to work on time was probably the main culprit. Riot, in essence, became my escape. And, as a kid, my only other escape was punk rock. The first time I heard the Pistols—had to be in like 4th grade or so—it spoke to me and made me feel good inside, that maybe I was different than the cool kids—an awakening of sorts, I guess.

From that point on, there was not a night, in my young years, that I didn't have my Walkman on falling asleep listening to them, The Jam, Clash, Ramones or The Damned. Those bands became my best friends. And, that's why, for those who know me, Riot instantaneously became the most important aspect of my life. For the last 10 years, it has wholly consumed me ... for better or worse.

C: Through the years it seems like your vision for Riot Fest slowly coalesced, moving from all over the city to shows mainly at Congress to where we are now, with you moving the central festivities to Humboldt Park. How did this evolution play out? Like, what caused this?

PETRYSHYN: In reality, early on I was against taking Riot outside. [Petryshyn's Riot Fest partner] Sean [McKeough]'s the one who had been pushing it for it. I was really scared. It's not like Riot was making any money at that time—we were just praying to break even every year or hoping not too lose to much money.

No matter what bullshit I've said in the past about this topic to spin it, the fact is I was scared to fail. In my head, if we took it outside and it didn't do well, that would have been the end of the fest. It really would have been. No more Riot Fest, and I don't think I could have handled that ... I still can't.

"I can go back now, look at myself at 25 and see that starting Riot was a relief to me ... I needed it more than it needed to be created."
But, both Sean and I knew that in 2011 that Riot began to cannibalize itself a little—too many competing shows, Congress wasn't ideal, and people were sour on those things. We kind of looked at each other back then and said that if we were going to do this, we had to do it differently than everyone else. Riot has always been a little left of the dial on stuff, so we never really cared what the big guns did or were doing. It was more along the lines of, "Hey, so if we are gonna take this thing outside, we better make it like Riot indoors, but do all of the crazy shit that's been in our heads for years. This is our one chance to do something that's cool."

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Petryshyn backstage at Riot Fest
C: Let's talk about Humboldt Park. It's certainly not the first location one would think of for a huge music festival. What drove that move?

PETRYSHYN: The park is beautiful and it was virgin ground ... plus, I live in Humboldt. Piggybacking off Mike Reed or North Coast is not cool, so I was always against putting it in Union. It was a non-option. Mike created an identity over there, and I thought we could create an identity in Humboldt. And the other parks in the city weren't as appealing to me as Humboldt. Not sure if we've created an identity yet at the park, but, I'll tell you this much ... that park still speaks to me and I get excited every time I walk it.

C: Your relationship with the Humboldt Park community seems impressively healthy and natural, and I think that's surprised some people. How have you accomplished that?

"If we are gonna take this thing outside, we better make it like Riot indoors, but do all of the crazy shit that's been in our heads for years. This is our one chance to do something that's cool."
PETRYSHYN: Simply, I think the community, for the most part, saw the passion we have for the fest and Humboldt. I live there, so I wholly give a shit about the park, the people, the businesses and community groups.

I love Humboldt ... and, for the first time since I moved to Chicago, I feel at home. And that trumps all of the behind the scenes crap we have to deal with on a daily basis.

C: Riot Fest is still pretty DIY, right? I remember the first year you took it outdoors I was talking to one of your employees about how you were actually putting together passes and festival lists and such in your own house up until showtime!

PETRYSHYN: Ha! That's so true. You have to remember that I've been involved in every aspect of Riot since the beginning, so it's difficult for me not to be involved in most things, including the little details. Granted, it drives everyone bonkers here at the office, but, at least it shows I'm vested, right?

But, if Sean and I didn't have the people that we do on the fest, there is no way it could be pulled off. Everyone here wears multiple hats and you can see the passion everyone has to see Riot succeed ... and I'm not blowing smoke up your ass. I come into the office seven days a week and put in roughly 14 hours a day, and when I see the gang come in on Saturdays too just to make sure everything is done, it makes me proud that we've assembled a team that cares.

In a way, we all bonded because of the anxiety and stress, but, goddamn, I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world when I look up from my laptop screen and see them smiling and hustling simultaneously. Whether it's a punk ethos thing or not, doesn't matter—it's moot actually. The reality is the Riot Fest team is like a family and close friends, and that bond will be still there years after the last note is played at Riot.

C: Riot Fest's booking appears more driven by personal taste and a love of the music than with an eye purely on the bottom dollar. Have you found it easier to book the bands you want as Riot Fest has gotten bigger?

PETRYSHYN: Yes, without a doubt. Some festivals have a tendency to become homogenized ... it looks the same as every other fest. With Riot, we make sure we add flavor and make certain that Riot is not like everything else. We need to be different because that's what attracts bands and fans.

Bands, I think, appreciate how we book the fest ... I honestly do. Obviously, our roots are with punk, so while many of those bands don't get a look from other fests in the U.S., they always have a home here. With most of the lineup this year, the artists either grew out of punk, are punk, or it was influential in their burgeoning years. So, it's a moral imperative, to me, that people recognize this. '90s college radio was born out of punk, a lot of indie music the same thing ... the same applies for many American metal bands, grunge, emo and just straight up rock and roll.

C: With the 10th anniversary of Riot Fest in Chicago, who on this year's bill has you excited the most? Who was the most exciting "get?" We know you like all the bands but there have to be a few standouts, right?

PETRYSHYN: O.K., I'll give you my list: Paul Weller, Samhain, Naked Raygun, Blue Meanies, The Cure, Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Slayer, Descendents, 7 Seconds, NOFX, Dropkicks, Social Distortion, Rise Against, Patti Smith, and of course, Pussy Riot ... just to name a few.

C: Finally, since lots of folks going to Riot Fest might be unfamiliar with Humboldt Park, do you have any favorite places they should check out? Maybe before or after heading into the festival grounds?

PETRYSHYN: Bullhead Cantina, Coco's, California Clipper, Guerrero's Taco and Pizza (soaks up the beer), West on North, La Bruquena, Flying Saucer, La Plena, Nellie's and a ton more ... I love my neighborhood, man.

Riot Fest is in Humboldt Park from Sept. 12-14 and tickets are on sale now.