(A Funny Thing Happened On) The Road To Rock Stardom
by Tammy Moore

In the semi-autobiographical Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, while young William Miller is coming of age on the road with the fictional band Stillwater, his distraught mother tells her philosophy class one day that she can’t concentrate because “rock stars have kidnapped [her] son.”

Rock stars really did kidnap Mark Olivarez once. Real rock stars, a real tour bus, and one hard day’s night ride to Houston, Texas. It was a winter night in January of 1990, and members of Warrant and Mötley Crüe came wandering into The Backroom after playing their show at the Erwin Center. Joey Allen from Warrant was a friend of Olivarez’s, and Allen invited him into the tour bus on the premise of showing the club manager pictures of his new home.
A lot of drinking had already gone on that day, and Olivarez was ready to call it a night. But he didn’t get to see Allen every day, so he agreed. He boarded the bus, had a couple more drinks, and looked at pictures. At some point, he remembers looking up at Jani Lane. Warrant’s front man was sitting in front of a window, and Olivarez noticed that everything in the window frame was moving. When Olivarez stood up and said, “Oh shit, we’re moving,” the entire busload of rock stars started cracking up and informed Olivarez that they were half-way to Houston at that point. He didn’t even have a wallet, only the clothes on his back. The bands assured him they would take care of everything, and they did. It turned into one long weekend party, and a haggard Olivarez found his way home two days later.

That is just one memorable event in the life of The Backroom’s General Manager. His everyday life, especially during the hey day of The Backroom, was made of the stuff that many people only fantasize about. Some of it he remembers, and some of it is, let’s say, a little hazy. He likes to joke that people tell him he had a really good time in those days. It isn’t hard to imagine given the opportunities that came his way. The question isn’t who has played The Backroom, but who hasn’t? The list of bands and genres is endless. And Olivarez was always up for a good time.
But that was then and this is now. That is not to say that thirty-five year old Olivarez doesn’t indulge in the fringe benefits of the business from time to time, but time and other opportunities that the human experience can offer, like finding a beautiful wife and having two amazing children with her, can often change a man’s priorities. By night, Olivarez is a smooth operator who presides over the wild kingdom that is The Backroom, but by day he is…Mr. Mom. And he likes it that way. By working at night, he has the rare opportunity to spend time during the day with his children, Kane, 7, and Kassidy, 4, while they are young and in their crucial formative years, and that means everything to him. The kids and wife, Melissa, are his treasure.

But seventeen years ago, he was a teenager from San Antonio who was moving to Austin to attend The University of Texas on a five-year electrical engineering scholarship. The math wiz took the basic courses and planned to eventually get into electronic design. But two years later, he realized that he didn’t quite fit into the mold of the typical student enrolled in the same program. He says they were a bit more “academically inclined” than he was. Olivarez was outgoing and more open in his thinking, and he started looking for something else. He tried playing keyboards in a rock band for a while. He tried looking for a job. It was the summer of 1988 after his sophomore year, the economy was tough, and he had filled out maybe twenty applications. He didn’t really care what kind of job he got. He just wanted to work. And then fate stepped in. He saw an ad in the paper saying that “some club” was hiring.

When he arrived at The Backroom, which he was instantly smitten with, to put in his application, he wasn’t sure that things had gone very well. The entire interview process took all of two minutes. Olivarez left thinking he had probably wasted a trip and went back to the two bedroom apartment he shared with seven other guys. The phone rang at 11:30 that night, and a drunk guy told Olivarez that he saw that he had filled out an application and wanted to know if he could come in for an interview right then. Olivarez thought it was probably friends playing a joke on him, but just in case, he drove over to The Backroom.

Chris Johnson, a bar manager there, did indeed want to interview him. As Johnson asked questions, it began to occur to Olivarez that everything he was asking was right there in his application, and he wondered why Johnson didn’t just read it. The experience became even more surreal when he realized then that the application Johnson was holding in his hand was upside down. It didn’t matter, though. Johnson hired him right then and told him to show up the next night at 7:00 p.m. Olivarez left that night not even knowing what his job there would be.
When he arrived for his shift, he met the owner of The Backroom, Ronnie Roark, who had come there only to fire the man who had just hired Olivarez. He thought for sure that would mean his job was over before it started, but he was put on security detail and stationed outside the backstage door to guard Vinnie Vincent.

Though once a huge fan of industrial music and the underground, he now appreciates all types of music for what he says it is an art form. Olivarez is an interesting combination of free-spiritedness and stability. He knows how to have fun, and yet, he has an extremely strong work ethic and a knack for handling people. His gifts helped propel him quickly through the ranks at the club, moving from bouncer to busser to barback to bartender. He was soon made the bar manager, rose to General Manager, and now he even acts as in-house promoter. The excitement just keeps on coming.

When I asked him some questions regarding what he knows concerning this business of music, this is what he had to say.

R&R: What kind of musical format does The Backroom follow now?
MO: Anything in the rock vein. I should say ‘rock artery’ since it has so much blood pumping through it now. But, I’m still trying to break the stigma of The Backroom. So, I’m not doing it because I want to; it’s because that is the direction that the horse is leading me. But any opportunity that I do get to have a different form of music go in there, I’ve always been willing and open to do it.

R&R: How do artists get booked there?
MO: Depends…local artists will go through either me or Mike Boudreau who handles the local booking, and all they do is call The Backroom or email us through the website. National acts…the way those get booked is that there is a group of promoters that either book in various clubs or dedicate themselves to just one club like me. So, you’ll have an agent make a call to this group of people, and the show just goes to the highest bidder. I wish it was more than that, but the bottom line is that it is all about dollars.

R&R: Will The Backroom help develop up and coming artists by putting them in front of road shows?
MO: Any opportunity that we can…but with the slow-down of the music industry, the labels don’t have the kind of money to support all their new bands that are going out on tour. So, they package them all together. They put three or four bands that are all on the same label, usually, and they send them out. It is an extremely rare opportunity now to be able to open for a road show, but when the opportunity does happen, [we will choose] the bands that have spent the most time here, that have been on our roster for the longest time. In other words, the headlining weekend bands are the ones that get first dibs on it.

R&R: There have been several local artists that have used The Backroom as their home base and have gone on to secure recording deals with major labels. With the view from your seat, what do you suppose the secret to their success is?
MO: Perseverance.

R&R: Knowing all that you know now…what is the best piece of advice you could give to aspiring musicians in this crazy pursuit of success in music?
MO: Be flexible. Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are tons of people that want to get into it…the ones you need to listen to are the ones who have stayed in it.

Over the past fifteen years, Olivarez has successfully navigated The Backroom through good times and bad, and during his tenure there, he has been witness to or has been part of many now legendary events. He has learned from trial and error, but the long and short of it is that The Backroom is celebrating its 30-Year Anniversary on November 7 and 8 , and that is due in no small part to his leadership there. If Mark Olivarez is anything, he is a man who has evolved and learned from all that life has handed him. Congratulations, my friend, on a job well done. Did everyone catch the ‘perseverance’ thing again? Keep reaching for the dream.


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