Bob Byrne of Legions of Metal Fest talks throwing a big gig
by Interviews

Legions of Metal is an annual multi-day festival dedicated to the best in underground heavy metal. This festival takes place at Reggies Rock Club in Chicago featuring bands playing on two stages. This unique festival rivals metal festival lineups from all over the globe. The fest has had a natural progression from initial focus on traditional metal to now even the inclusion of hard rock. Punknews' Jason Baygood recently had the chance to sit down with one of the fest's organizers Bob Byrne to discuss the past, present and future of Legions of Metal. You can check out the interview below.

For those unaware, please tell us how the "Legions of Metal" story began Do you have any experience prior to "Legions" with show promotion? It is funny. Back in the 90’s my brother booked the punk band The Ne’er Do Wells at this small venue in the city. That was the first experience with doing a show. I didn’t do too much but got an idea of how things work. But being active in the punk scene in the 90’s I learned tons of how shows work and stuff. It is one of the things I am grateful for. Going to metal shows back then you never saw or heard how things work much. But going to all the DIY shows you would see first hand how things work. So I learned tons that way with promoting and booking. Then when the Ragnarokkr fest happened in 2011, I saw the flyer online pop up. Actually we messaged each other about it. I messaged the fest page suggesting some bands. I started talking more and more to Mike Odin who ran the festival. He took a few of my idea’s and at the fest we met and became friends. We would talk a lot over the next year and I stared suggesting bands and the night of the Pre Party for the 2012 year he asked if I could help drive some bands around to the show. So I helped out with that and after the show he said he wanted me to help out more. I enjoyed it so that year he had the festival at Reggies and put me in charge of booking and running the second stage. We became really good friends and I started helping him out more and more. Then in 2016 he was booking the 2017 line up and he got tired of it all. A lot of people don’t realize how much money he lost over the years. Mostly due to bad budgeting, but also with festivals a lot of hidden cost hit the week of the show with small things. But when he unexpectedly pulled the plug on the fest without telling anyone from the venue or the bands, everyone was freaking out. I was getting hit up by fans and bands asking what was happening. It was really insane. So a few of us were talking about trying to put together a very small version of the fest at a small venue. A lot of different idea’s were popping up on what to do. The original idea was to just keep like 5 or 6 of the bands and do a very small one day thing and make the best of it. Odds are lose tons of money but at least the bands who were already set coming could play and anyone who had airfare set would at least get to see some of the bands. Then a few days after I got a message on Facebook from one of the Reggies staff, the venue the fest takes place at. They asked me what was going on and if I could come in to meet with Roie the owner. So I stopped over one day and he wanted me to keep the fest going. He put me in touch with Shane who is a full time promoter here in Chicago with Empire Productions. Shane has been doing shows in Chicago for decades and a total pro. So out of nowhere I had a new fest partner and a new fest to work on. The best part with teaming up with Shane was learning so much about how things work. Ragnarokkr was very DIY in a sense. I could write a book on all the odd and funny things that happened with that. But Legions of Metal was a professional thing. A real organized budget and plan. No messing around which was great. Even now I don’t look at myself as a promoter. I still feel like I am a guy who just organizes a fest and I mostly do it for fun. I enjoy organizing stuff like this, from the logistics to figuring out what bands to get and so on. It is great having a partner like Shane to learn from. He has seen it all and is always calm and cool so when crazy things happen he is great to have around. It takes a full year to put this all together. Every day there is something to work on from posting on social media, to answering peoples questions on travel or band stuff then the promoting part.

- The initial 2011 edition of Ragnarokkr was indeed very memorable. It's obvious that an insane amount of work goes into pulling this off. What made you want to take on the challenging task of organizing a heavy metal festival? Like I mentioned earlier. I kind of fell into it. I love organizing. So this for me is a blast. One of the key things that made me want to do Legions was getting great bands to play Chicago and also seeing a lot of great people I met over the years. It is the one time where everyone gets together from all over the country and gets to hang out. When the Ragnarokkr fest was cancelled one of the first things I thought of was not seeing a lot of my friends from all over the country ever. So when Legions came about it was one of the major factors in wanting to still keep doing it. Plus I love putting stuff like this together and seeing people’s reactions when they see bands live or discover a new band. These are some of the main factors of wanting to do it. Music was a huge part of my life so being able to put something like this on is crazy to me. Growing up and going to shows we always would talk of cool idea’s for tours we would love to see. Now in a sense I can make some of these happen. So this is what makes me do this.

What void does the "Legions of Metal Festival" fill for the metal scene? At the time when Legions started there was still not many US festivals. The festival scene is huge in Europe. We have a lot of death / black metal ones and we had ProgPower USA here but not many traditional / classic metal ones. So at the time there was only a few small ones happening. Spring Bash in Milwaukee started changing from death metal to more traditional metal around this time too. Then Frost and Fire in CA hit and did huge. Now we have more and more festivals popping up all over. But the first year it definitely filled a void for many who don’t want to travel overseas to a fest.

That is very true as historically the mind goes to Europe at the thought of a traditional heavy metal festival. The festival takes place annually at Reggie's in Chicago. Two questions: Why Chicago? Why Reggies? Well we have it at Reggies since it is the best venue in the country. Two stages, amazing staff, great sound and a full bar / restaurant and a rooftop deck and second floor room for stuff too. It is the best place to do a festival like this. No need to leave to get food since you can eat right there. Chicago is perfect since we have two airports with direct trains to the venue area as well. Plus a major city so people can do tourist stuff on downtime before the show too. Works out great for everyone.

You came out the starting gate strong in hosting headlinders Ross the Boss and Diamond Head in the inaugural edition of the fest. Did you feel pressure to "go big" the first year or did that happen naturally? It is interesting actually how it worked out. Originally when Ragnarokkr was going on we had Ross the Boss and Praying Mantis, a UK band set as headliners. Then when that fest we cancelled Praying Mantis was unable to do the new fest. We carried over Ross the Boss. It was different for me since before I was only dealing with the smaller bands and ones you just make deals with via Facebook and email. With the headliner bands you deal with agents / managers. So one night I had to call up agent for Ross and we ended up talking for two hours. It was great. So then once things got going Shane, my fest partner, who is a full time promoter in Chicago for decades mentioned we should get a large name to headline. He has connections to all the agents and stuff and was able to get Armored Saint. I was blown away since I never thought we would ever get a band of that size and name to play our fest. But Shane made it happen and then a month or so before the fest he messaged saying Diamond Head is touring and we can add them. So Shane made all of that work out for the fest and really pushed it to the top to get people to take notice. It was no longer a fest that was just happening to salvage the old Ragnarokkr line up but something brand new and something for people to take notice. I honestly thought it was going to be a smaller fest but thanks to Shane for making it what it became.

No one would deny that you came out with all guns blazing! As with every band, tour and festival, "Legions of Metal" felt the impact of COVID. How did you handle the fest's cancellation? The covid stuff really messed up a lot of stuff for us. When we saw the first wave of fest and tours cancelling we knew deep down it was not going to happen. But there was that small glimpse of hope that we had. But once things were not getting any better we knew we had to postpone. The largest impact we had was we lost our headliner Exciter. We moved the date to Labor Day weekend thinking things would be back to normal by then but sadly that was not the case. Then we pushed it back again and again. We lost a few bands with all the moving around. Hard part is a lot of bands had great hype going and then Covid really slowed it down a lot for many but then some bands through the pandemic grew more popular so it kind of worked out in that sense for the line-up. But once we announced we were moving the dates to May 2022 we knew we had another full year to wait. In May of 2021 when some shows were starting to get announced for mid-summer Shane asked if I would like to do a mini fest in Fall, To help kickstart things again and get people feeling safe to going back to shows. I was down for sure since there were so many bands on my list that I wanted to have on the line up but covid stopped all of that. Thing is it was crazy as most saw, a lot of shows did huge when venues were re-opening again. It was great to see. So many were not too scared to go back to shows. The 3.5 show was a great thing since we were able to get back into it again and it was fun to start booking and organizing again. I was able to check a few bands off my list of ones I wanted on Legions as well. It did feel weird being back in a room with a lot of people. It was my first show back after a year and a half almost.

Last year's Legions of Metal 3.5 seemed like a great opportunity to get back in the ring without going as full scale as a multi-day festival. That being said, how would you sell this festival to someone who has yet to attend? I actually love selling the fest to people who have not come or been to something like this. I usually sell the experience of it, from the two stages of bands from all over. Not like a local show where you get a few new bands and then the main bands, out fest has bands from all over the country playing. Most you will never get a chance to see live in these parts ever so getting there early is important. But I sell people on the vendor area, meeting other fans from all over the country and world and the whole idea of two days filled with bands and what is nice is Reggies where we have the fest has a full restaurant there so you literally don’t have to leave to get food. So it is like a mini resort for the weekend. So it is easy to sell to people

You have been doing this for a few years now. What are some of the main things you have learned about doing a festival? Always have back up plans. I am a worst case scenario type of personality. I always think of the bad things that will happen. So I always have like 3 back up plans when stuff goes bad. This helps when things happen last minute. A lot of people wonder why I don’t freak out and panic much. I have already done it in my head so with a back up plan I already know how to fix the issue. I also learned a lot about logistics and stuff like that and dealing with flights / airport stuff too. A key thing learned is always paying attention online to what is hot. With a fest you almost have to be a year ahead of things. It is the hardest part. So many times when booking I will wait a few days to really jump at it. Last thing you want is to get a bunch of bands that may be hot now and in a year no one will care. So there are tons of things learned. Also never to get excited till something is confirmed. Even then not to get excited till the day of the show and everyone is in place. But there are so many little things learned. I now have a notebook with idea’s, band list to keep track of who I want to get, and tidbits of info. Main thing learned is to stay super organized. If you are sloppy you will have issues.

It sounds like you are prepared for almost every situation. We all know lineups can change at the drop of a hat for many reasons. Aside from logistics, any major hurdles you had to overcome? The largest hurdle was I am actually super shy. I always get kind of freaked out talking to strangers or asking for stuff. But doing this you quickly break out of that and have to be outgoing. It was odd. I hate making cold calls to people and a few times some bands don’t have email contacts and all I get is a phone number for some. So I have to call up out of the blue and hope they don’t hang up on me. There was a band I was wanting to book for 2019 and still trying…I will keep that secret who since I want them for 2023. But it was a hard rock band from the 80’s. I was telling this one band who I was booking on I really wanted them but they have no Facebook contacts. He goes, oh I am best friends with the drummer. He gave me his number and goes. Call him. It was really odd. I never done anything like that and gave him a call and we ended up talking for an hour about stuff. Sadly we were unable to get them on the fest since the band rarely plays but it is my mission to get this band here one day. Another hurdle is trying to do too much. One huge thing we did with the fest is hire a guy to be a van driver. Jay is a huge part of making this work. It is always hard having to get bands back and forth from the hotels to the show and then the airports. During Ragnarokkr we would get like 2 hours of sleep each day and by Sunday be dead. This was a hurdle we deal with every year. Another hurdle is to stay relevant and keeping it fresh. It is way too easy to get lazy and do the same thing year after year. It works for some but you need to keep new idea’s coming. This past year we booked a hard rock band from the late 80s and it is great. It is a route I want to continue with. It helps us stand apart from other festivals. I am sure now a few will do the same thing. It happens all the time. We won’t change what our fest is but it is nice to mix things up and have more variety.

Anything you have stopped doing? Meet and greets. It is something a lot of places do and we tried the first year and not many seemed to care since the bands all hang out around the venue all day so it is very easy to meet them. But for people who wanted to get stuff signed it was great since the band was all in one place. Less running around. But it was hard to try and get all the members to go to the upstairs at the appointed time. So we stopped doing that. Another thing I stopped doing was booking with one mindset. I used to over think and worry about what a small faction of the scene would think. I got over that and now book with what I know will draw and be fun and interesting. We got tons of people pumped when we booked Vain. It was something I wanted to do for years. Back during Ragnarokkr 2015 I started seeing more and more guys wearing hard rock shirts and knew that it would be cool to bring in some of these bands one day. So I stopped worrying about what people think. Now Vain is one of the bands most are excited about.

Anything you would now do different? There is not much I would do different. We are a well oiled machine and have a great staff at the venue who are all pro’s. Once we get to the venue it pretty much runs itself Our backline guys are amazing as well. Every year I tell myself to get less bands but that never happens. There are just too many great ones to have.

Legions of Metal has hosted both domestic and international bands. Can you please explain the difference between booking an international band as opposed to domestic? I would love to get more international bands. Just way too hard now. Years back you could have them but now visa cost is out of hand. You could end up paying almost 3,000 for one band and that is not a sure thing they will even get into the country still. With a fest out size that is a large part of the budget to risk. We had Battleaxe from the UK cancel after buying airfare a week before. We lost over 2,500 on that. Even getting bands from Canada is super tough. So for now we are sticking with US bands. Way less headaches when putting it all together. One day hopefully we can bring over some bands from overseas.

I know you have traveled globally for festivals. Please describe the difference between the crowds in different countries. What is the geographic makeup of the average "Legions of Metal" crowd? It is interesting to see fans from different regions. I went overseas a few times to see festivals and it was a lot different. The fans were very passionate there. I seen a few grown men crying front row watching legendary bands play. People are very friendly there too. After the show or even during the festivals strangers will just start talking to you and stuff. It is like a huge family in a way. It is really hard to describe. The Legions crowd is a mix of older and younger fans. A lot of the older fans want to come to see the classic bands and the younger crows is here to see both the old and new.

From how far have folks traveled? We have had people from all over. From Mexico, Ireland, Germany, UK and a few from Australia. The fans are die-hards and will travel far to see a band they may never get a chance to see live anywhere else. It is always appreciated when we see them travel this far for our fest.

Are there any bands which you can reveal that you have attempted to book that for whatever reason simply could not be obtained? We had some bands that were all set to go for example. Rough Cutt was booked for the second year and we were about to announce it and literally as I was making the post I was message by my fest partner to hold on that something was changing. Then we found out they were canceling and later found out the band broke into two versions. We had a few other older 80’s bands set to go but then either line up changes or member can’t get off work so they can’t do it. For example, we had Heir Apparent booked for the second year of the fest but they had to go into the studio to get the new album recorded the same weekend so they had to cancel. It is just how it goes. We had a few cool theme idea’s that just didn’t work out to. The main issue is a lot of these bands have full time jobs and the band is just a side thing, so hard to get everyone in the same place at the same time to make some cool things work out.

What would be your personal "bucket list" band or bands for the fest? Demon…hands down I would love to have them but just so hard with overseas bands and dealing with visa’s. I do have a lot of hard rock bands I would love to get as well as a lot of obscure 80’s cult bands to. Thing is you have to book with that people want to see and not what you want always.

Any advice for anyone looking to getting in to festival organization or promotion? I usually warn them to turn away HA. Not really but I try to tell them the hard truth of it all. Most of the time it falls on deaf ears. It takes a lot of time, money and effort to make it all go smooth. Many think if you book bands people will come. Not always the case. With so many tours, other festivals and special one off’s, it is a lot of competition now. Plus many don’t see how many hours a day go into it. I spend a few hours every day with emails, messaging people and bands and working with our graphics guy and so on. The key thing I tell anyone is to be organized and to realize the day of the fest, odds are you won’t even get to watch most of your own show. You really have to love doing this stuff to get into it. I seen a few fest pop up and fall apart due to this.

There is no doubt you have your work cut out for you every year. The fans are certainly grateful for all you put into making this happen. Any last words? Hmmm I was trying to think of a good joke to end with but I guess I will go with be grateful for what you have. With doing the fest I look at it as luck. 10 years ago I was just a guy who was going to shows and working all the time. Out of doing this fest I have met so many great people and made so many new friends. I am super lucky to have gotten to do this. I am grateful to have a great fest partner in Shane and being able to learn from him. I always get asked if the fest would go larger or move. Nope. We are happy with how things are and I am always grateful to what I have. We built a cool thing and it is a great feeling when the show is happening to look around and see everyone having a great time at something you help build. As corny as it sounds. I have a fun time standing off to the side watching everyone have fun. At the end of the day if you are not having fun doing something, why do it. I have a blast with this every day. Hoping we can keep it going for as long as we can. We have a lot of ideas for years to come!