Hitting Rock Bottom

Located at the dark corner of Jones and Avenue B, bordered by abandoned houses on one side and the San Antonio Museum of Art on the other, Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar is the essence of the complex culture of downtown San Antonio. Easily missed if you’re driving by, the venue is modest on the outside, but inside, where the music happens, the aura is one of high energy and equally high spirits. Drawing mostly from downtown and south-side residents, Rock Bottom Tattoo Bar tends to attract a wide demographic of music lovers by hosting local to international acts in a variety of genres.

The room where bands perform (and where the bar is located) has a basic black-box feel to it, perfect for those who enjoy a no frills, up-close-and-personal experience with the performers. Extending from the main room is a smaller, moodier room decorated by macabre art. Outside, a caged patio reminds you that you’re in the dark contours of the city.

The space has housed several different establishments (Generator, Green Onion, The Lounge on Avenue B, Reverb, Club 1033), and its current incarnation, which opened only nine months ago, has already changed ownership. A few weeks ago, it fell into the hands of James Garvin, the owner of dance-club Atomix and a vampire by night. Though his fangs may be frightening to some, his demeanor is hardly fierce; he is polite and laid-back, eliciting ease and comfort. And when discussing the acquisition of Rock Bottom, he speaks in the vernacular of a businessman, albeit one who knows and loves music.

Garvin purchased the club from Stephen Bishop, former lead singer of Pitbull Daycare (and owner of Tiki Tattoos), who took over the location in February, and used Rock Bottom for Pitbull’s July farewell gig.

So why did Garvin buy Rock Bottom?
“The opportunity presented itself,” he answers with strategic ambiguity, followed by a coy smile. He then explained that he prefers to work with smaller, non-corporate venues. “I’m using the idea similar to, say, a cavern club, with your local artists trying to make a name for themselves to international touring acts that need a place to play.”

Garvin moved to San Antonio from California about five years ago and has owned Atomix for two years. He says he’s worked in the music business, in various capacities for five years, but music and clubbing have been a part of his life for much longer. He is a former musician — he began playing the piano at age six, then took up the trumpet — who has made a habit of visiting nightclubs around the the world for 30 years.

The variety of musical acts at Rock Bottom is almost as diverse as the crowd Garvin hopes to maintain. For instance, local reggae band One Destiny plays the first Monday of every month. The other Mondays are host to “Rasta” night with DJ Victima. Most other nights feature some form of alternative rock: rockabilly, psychobilly, punk, screamo, emo, etc. Rock Bottom recently hosted Black Metal Fest, and on New Year’s Day, it will host Punk Fest, a yearly San Antonio event put together by Tony Chainsaw, Rock Bottom’s primary door and security guy, and an SA music-scene legend.

Rock Bottom has been the chosen venue of national bands such as Mushroomhead and U.S.S.A, and international acts like Japan’s female-fronted noise-rock band Melt Banana (who will perform at the end of November). Some of Garvin’s favorite local bands include A Kid Called Thompson, Sick City Daggers, and Ledaswan.

When Garvin isn’t talking about his experiences in the biz, he’s singing the praises of his staff, referring to them as “the core group that keeps this place running.” Oscar Bocanegra, the club’s manager, is friendly and talkative and it’s not long before my conversation with him develops into a sociological musing on sexism in the United States. This topic arises via his comment that Rock Bottom aspires to be a comfortable place where only good-natured rowdiness is tolerated and where women can feel safe and comfortable. We discussed the unfortunate reality that many bars either don’t care to watch out for their female customers or have security staff that don’t actually do anything. To be safe amongst this
reality, he recommended that women carry
pepper-spray, take self-defense classes, and learn how to be more aggressive when confronted with unwanted attention.

Garvin is hoping to outlive Rock Bottom’s prececessors, and he’s utilizing his long history with music and nightclubs to shape the club’s

“You find out what you like and don’t like in a club and you take those elements and try to create an element that you enjoy, a comfortable environment with nice people where you can walk in wearing a suit, khakis, Levis, shredded shorts, flops, or combat boots,” Garvin says. “Yeah, that’s our crowd. Flip-flops to combat boots.”