Interview: Mayhem co-founder John Reese talks booking, wish list, and if anyone is too extreme to book

Posted by on June 16, 2014

When the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival kicks off on July 5th, it will be entering its seventh year. While Ozzfest has existed in the United States for twice as long (even though it hasn’t taken place here since 2010), Mayhem has grown from an upstart to an established annual event. Co-founded by Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman and John Reese, the fest has done a commendable job of combining mainstream metal bands with more underground ones while helping develop bands as well (both Suicide Silence and Five Finger Death Punch played the second stage in its first year). We caught up with Reese about what he looks for in bands and sponsors, the  bands he’s tried to get, differentiating between who plays Mayhem and Uproar tours, and if anyone is too extreme for him to book.

Let’s talk  about Mayhem. How has it changed over the years?

When we started, our goal was to get to five years, and now we’re in our seventh year. There’s no magic pixie dust, just try to keep it at a fair price, and put on as great a talent as we can put on. One thing that we wanted to do from the get go is do a really diverse heavy music roster. We didn’t want to call it metal; we didn’t want to call it hard rock; we wanted a heavy music roster. That’s what we did. We take a lot of shit from people but at the end of the day, if we don’t put asses in seats, we don’t have a tour. We’ve got to analyze what’s going to be good from a musical standpoint, what has to appeal to people to make them want to reach in their pockets to shell out some money to go see the show. There’s a delicate balance of putting together a line-up that people are going to dig, and like, and want to go to, and yet stick to the core heavy music scenario. It kind of sucks in music these days, when the only band that can play a stadium or multiple stadiums is One Direction. Metalheads are metalheads for life, and we try to stick to that core of delivering a line-up that people are going to dig.


You don’t seem to have any qualms about having bands come back and perform again. Is there any sort of limitation, like a two-year moratorium?

Two years is where we set the bar at. I don’t think anybody except Emmure that I’m aware of has played multiple years and that’s because we’re doing a Victory stage this year. We wouldn’t have normally had them back this year. Victory is doing a stage and we gave them some wherewithal with who they could program on that stage. That’s why you see Emmure this year, but in years past I don’t think we’ve ever repeated a band before, and that’s been good for us.


Sumerian and Victory have stages this year. I know Metal Blade has in the past. Do you find it limiting at all to relegate a stage to a whole label?

We work with the label on who gets programmed. We don’t give them a stage and say, “This is your stage to do.” We discussed Sumerian with Ash [Avildsen], talk about all the groups and so forth. This is the first year that Sumerian’s done a big stage. Historically they’ve been more of a tent stage in the past three years but this year we really stepped it up. Ash has an agency as well, and we talk with him about stuff on his agency and who’s on his label and program the stage. The main stage and the second stage are completely programmed by us those will be acts that we put on. Victory and Sumerian, we have consultation with them and we work with them on what’s important to them, and obviously it’s got to meet the core values of what we do as a tour.


Have you had other labels come to you and try to get their own stages?

We work with Metal Blade, we work with Roadrunner both on the tour and do activation but there’s never been with them a request from their side nor a discussion from our side on creating a stage. Sumerian, I think this is the fourth year they’ve been with us so we have a great partnership with them and it works well for them and it works great for us. It’s tough to put twenty bands on tour and keep a production budget where it needs to be and so that’s why we do sponsorship, that’s why we do stages with labels. We want to bring as much talent as we can to the fans, and we’ll use whatever device necessary to bring that talent and to keep the ticket price super low. We just did a massive promotion this weekend that we do every year called “Devil of a Good Time” and you can get six lawn passes for sixty-six bucks. You can’t get eleven hours’ worth of entertainment for eleven dollars; it’s pretty rare these days. You can’t even go to a movie for eleven bucks. We try to do things for the people that don’t have loot, and the reason we give that discount is because they’re buying in bulk, they’re buying a lot of tickets. We try not to do any discounting after the first weekend because we don’t want to be unfair to the people that already purchased tickets. They’re like, “Why the fuck am I paying twenty-five, thirty bucks for a lawn seat and this kid gets it for fifteen?” We try not to do that. In situations where we’ve got complete stiff shows, then we’ll come up with more ways to get folks in the door. We try to keep the brand valuable in that sense and not do a ton of discounting, and we’ve been pretty successful at keeping that going.


There are probably some bands that cost a lot more. How do you figure out how to efficiently make offers? 

That’s the best question I’ve ever been asked because I’d love to talk about it. The three that we really approached and didn’t get were Metallica, Iron Maiden and Rammstein. Those were the three we really wanted on Mayhem but just have not been able to strike a deal or they are too expensive. My take on it is I think it would be great for them to play with a whole bunch more metal bands, but it’s their life and their decision and I’ve worked with Metallica in the past, when I worked with Guns n’ Roses, so I know Lars really well and all the guys, and they’re great human beings and I’d love to have them on the Mayhem Festival but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but never say never.


What about sponsorships? Are there any sponsors that you’ve turned down because they don’t make sense?

Yeah we do. We try to keep it in the core of what our audience will like. Our audience drinks energy drinks and they drink a lot of them. It’s a working class audience that goes to the 7-Eleven or the Circle K and picks up an energy drink so it’s kind of a natural fit to have an energy drink as our title sponsor. We do motorcycle companies, we do beers, we do condoms, shit that our customer uses. That’s what we try to go after and that’s what generally comes to us, lifestyle products.


Do the sponsors come to you, or do you have a sponsorship team?

Kevin and I both have pretty big infrastructures that sell for all of our festivals we do some things together and then we do things separate. He does the Warped Tour, I do all my festivals. We both have sponsorship staffs. I have about eight people that work within my organization that just do sponsorships and they sell for everything. We’ve sold deals for Kaskade, we’ve sold deals for Afrojack in the EDM space, we’ve sold deals for Britney Spears, and Avril Lavigne. We also have an activation agency that once we sell it, we activate it for them because most of these companies don’t have built-in activation arms. To answer your first question, I don’t think we would take anything that doesn’t fit the lifestyle of our brand.


Speaking of Kevin Lyman, he’s synonymous with touring via the Warped brand. What have you learned from him?

I learned something from him yesterday. I love him, he’s my brother. I can’t really even say enough great things about him. He cares about others before he cares about himself. He’s my bro. Directly working together, we’ve got eleven years in partnership and prior to that probably five or six years working with my groups when I was a manager. You know, he’s a selfless person and that, to me, is so rare these days and he really cares about what he’s doing for other people. He’s taught me a lot about charity, just a lot of things. It almost chokes me up. I try to mold my life after that dude. It’s like nobody’s too little, nobody’s too big. We all bleed we all fuck, we all fart. If you have humanity, I’m all about you. My dad, when I was a little kid, just fucking pounded it into my head, the golden rule. Treat other people how you want to be treated and you’ll do great in life. I’ve tried to live by that, I know Kevin lives by that.


You’re behind Uproar as well right?

I have Uproar, I have a comedy festival, Oddball that Dave Chappelle headlined last year. Uproar, we’re going to announce next week and it looks to be a great line-up. I also have a dance music festival. I had one called Identity with Live Nation when it ran for two years; it was kind of the forerunner of dance music, and it was the first ever touring all-DJ festival, and I’m launching another one this year.


There have been bands that played both Uproar and Mayhem, right?

Yes, we’re super selective on that. Avenged Sevenfold has played, they played the first two years of Uproar, and we saw what this new album was, and saw that they were the perfect fit for Mayhem. We’re trying now to keep the two separate, but for a couple years there, there weren’t that many headliners out. Godsmack, Disturbed, and Avenged have been the three that have crossed.


But you’re definitely trying to make it more of an active rock thing than metal.

Yeah, the line-up this year, a pretty big band is the headliner and there’s really more melodic, active rock. That’s what we’ve always tried to do. If you have hit songs on rock radio, you get on Uproar. Mayhem is more geared towards the heavy music, and so there is some intersection there between those two styles. This year they finished an amazing album, and with our relationship with them, we felt like this was the perfect year for them to come out to Mayhem, and their fucking stage show is just out of control. They spend dollars on stage to bring the fans a big-ass show. I respect the shit that they sacrificed historically to do that to take them to the point they are at now, because there’s not a lot of other groups that get that and that have done that, they just want to go, they just want to put up some fucking amps and a few lights and get the check. These guys put their fucking cash behind it and I respect the hell out of all five of those dudes for doing that, and their manager, Larry.


Are there any bands that are too extreme for Mayhem?

We’ve made offers to all the Norwegian and Swedish death metal bands and for some reason or another they can’t do it or something maybe were too pussy for them. It’s as heavy as it gets. One, they’re not killing people on stage. I’m all about it, that’s why we have Cannibal Corpse, Behemoth, and all the different stuff that we have. Big George, when he was on five years ago we had parties every night. We had these big metal mixers and they’re all themed, and the last night of the tour in Oklahoma City, this big burly bastard, and I’m a pretty big burly bastard, comes up to me and gives me a big hug and says, “You know this is the fucking best summer I’ve ever fucking had,” and when a guy like that from Cannibal Corpse says that to me, I know I’m doing something right.


Is there anyone in particular you’re really looking forward to this year?

Body Count. I’m really good friends with Ernie C. and have been since the Guns n’ Roses days. They opened for us at the L.A. Coliseum back in the early nineties and toured with us. I’m a big Ernie C. fan and stoked they came back. I’m excited to see Coco and Ice-T. I love Korn, I love Trivium, I love Avenged obviously. I’m stoked to see Cannibal again. I’m really happy for the guys in Suicide Silence, that tragic thing with Mitch. I love Mitch to death but happy for the other three dudes that they get to go out and tour and do what they love. Emmure is great, the list goes on. I’ve seen all of them. I’m stoked for Upon a Burning Body and how well they’re doing. We’ve never had Mushroomhead on the whole thing and we’re stoked that we could do that this year. Asking Alexandria is a great band and we made a good situation for them to be able to come with us.


Speaking of Mushroomhead, between them and Body Count and Korn, it seems a little throwbacky this year. Are you cognizant of that?

Yeah, of course. We want to give the old metal heads something to come check out. Maybe not ten things but five things, and that may make them want to come see the show. We also want to give the younger kids shit that they like and shit that they’re going to want to come see. On nineteen bands, we try and make it diverse enough where it’s going to be a touch point to everyone and, according to our sales, we have achieved that. Right now we’re tracking in a dead heat with our biggest sales ever. We’re thousands of tickets ahead of last year. So if it closes like I think it’s going to close, it’ll be the biggest mayhem ever.

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