”To be the coolest music venue in the state.”
That’s the goal of TapRoot owner Martin Severin toward his recently acquired establishment. Arguably, TapRoot was the coolest spot before Severin bought it in 2015. The venue has managed to remain one of Anchorage’s most recognized landmarks for music and events. If you are following the local music scene at all, or find yourself within it, you have been inside TapRoot. If you have traveled the streets of Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood, you have noticed TapRoot at 3300 Spenard Road. The venue has been repeatedly voted, “best live music venue” and “best club” by The Anchorage Press, and now Severin and his team are ready to raise the bar once again with new visions for this Spenard hot spot.
TapRoot was founded in 2006 as Tap Root Cafe by Rebecca Mohlman. Located in a strip mall on Huffman Road, the place earned a name for itself quickly and outgrew its small space. Tap Root Cafe then made a move to a vacant location that was also well known: Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club, a legendary place in Spenard that thrived during the pipeline days of the 1980s. The relocation would prove to be perfect for the business because it would mean the merging of two popular landmarks. To this day, longtime residents of Alaska still only recognize 3300 Spenard Road as “the old Fly By Night Club.”
Another piece of history regarding the building would be the short-lived club that never quite took off — the “Players’ House of Rock.” This rock club existed between the closing of the Fly By Night Club in 2006, and the relocation of TapRoot in 2010. Since becoming TapRoot, the business has certainly grown, becoming what it is today… Alaska’s premier music venue.
Severin took ownership of TapRoot, picking up where Mohlman left off. “Rebecca created a really neat personality for it that people like. So I didn’t want to try and reinvent that.” However, Severin has made a subtle change by retiring the subtitle “Public House” and adding a second bar to help customers find a drink with more ease.
The building is due for a makeover as it was originally built as a hardware store in the 1950s. Not all of Severin’s new construction ideas have been set in stone, there is still much engineering to finalize. One of the main ideas is to better control traffic flow inside.
“It’s a traffic nightmare!” Severin said about the interior. “It’s all about making it easier for people to move around in the room.” The layout worked well for the dinner-theater shows that ran there during the Fly By Night Club days, but for what TapRoot is doing, the audience is much more mobile. The dance floor divides the room in half, causing traffic headaches for the wait staff and customers trying to get to the bar. Hence, the plan to fix that is to move the stage, creating a better flow for everyone inside. The stage will also see changes to enhance the spectacle of the shows. “We’re a music venue, I want that to be apparent.” Severin said. “I’d like more theater to it, more presentation to the shows.”
One thing that lacks at the venue is a separation between the artist and the audience. One moment you’ll be having a drink at the bar next to someone, and the next minute you realize they are on stage performing. So having this stage concept implemented will create the theatrics Severin is looking for. Other details of the plan are to relocate the sound booth and extend the main bar. The style within will stay similar to what it’s been – displaying a modern lodge look with wooden accents, local artwork and a new distinct neon sign that reads “Spenard” reminding you where you are.
Severin’s transition into TapRoot started with a separate idea he shared with work partner Hans Nowka. Severin and Nowka were looking to build a music venue and were shopping for real estate when Severin spoke with Mohlman, who suggested she was interested in selling TapRoot. “I would much rather buy this place already running and moving, than create something from scratch. Also, I’d rather have this place than compete with it.”
Nowka is a contractor who specializes in woodworking and cabinet making, and Severin admits he has an “odd skill set”, “I was a lawyer, an accountant, I’ve been a cook and a dishwasher. I’m also a musician, and had run a sound company. So a night club such as this is kind of the only thing I can think of that utilizes all of the skills that I’ve picked up over the years.” He added, “Music is my passion, so doing something that revolved around music made sense.”
Severin must multi-task to be sure all is functioning smoothly. “I’m all over the map,” he said. “Last night I was a bartender, I’m the bookkeeper, the enforcer …sometimes I have to clean the bathrooms,” he said with a slight smile. To succeed in any business you need to make money, and to make money you need customers. Success happens with a solid and organized team.
Severin gives much credit to one of his key staff members, Evan Phillips. “Ultimately, Evan is the one whose job it is to get people through the door, and without that we’re nowhere,” Severin said. Phillips and Severin had been partners prior to the Severin era of TapRoot. For nearly six years they have been running the Monolith Agency, a music booking firm, with Severin as the administrator and Phillips handling the booking side. Not much thought went into getting Phillips on board to handle the events. He was the one Severin felt needed to do it, and Phillips was happy to take the role. Phillips has a big job to do and must stay on top of things regarding booking. When he isn’t on the phone or at the computer engaged in his work, he is often found walking the floor of TapRoot during shows, making sure the bands get what they need. Although he is a busy man, he still manages to always appear down-to-earth, and ready to greet you. As events coordinator, Phillips explained clear communication is the key. “I have over 100 events on the books at any given time. It’s a lot of emails, phone calls, and organization.” Because he does communicate well, bands have been expressing a lot of positive feedback.
Knowing that TapRoot has become an important entity in the music scene, Phillips the musician, has had to put down his guitar more so these days in exchange for helping other musicians. Phillips is known locally for performing solo, with the americana-rock group The Whipsaws, and not to mention his efforts as a producer and recording engineer, all while collaborating in many other music projects. But he’s also a helping hand, “My role is very different being the events coordinator at TapRoot,” Phillips said. “Rather than focusing on my own art and music career, I’m putting a lot of my energy into helping others. This is a good thing, but I’m still getting used to it.”
Geared to please
Artists that play TapRoot see that the staff care and go out of their way to make their performances get the full attention they deserve. “Local bands seem to be stoked that musicians are essentially running TapRoot,” Phillips said. If musicians are running the place, then they must understand the importance of having good equipment and sound. “I equipped this place so that when a musician walks in, the gear that they’re asked to use is professional,” Severin said. As TapRoot brings in more national acts at least once a month, they are the ones who will be offered to use the majority of the house equipment, making their travel to Alaska a bit lighter. Already in the short time that the new gear has been available, compliments have been pouring in. One comment from a group that recently performed was, “I don’t get gear this nice in New York.” The equipment upgrade is already saying a lot about how determined TapRoot is toward improving the performance sound and quality the audience is getting. Not only is the effort being noticed, it’s also paying off. “We’ve gotten acts to come up here who might not have otherwise done so because they’ve talked to friends who have said, ‘Hey, it’s a really good experience.’” Severin added, “Evan and I recently received an email from the manager of a national act that said basically, ‘I have never had a band who came back from somewhere so happy. Keep doing what you’re doing!’” It’s becoming the norm that when bands play TapRoot, afterwards they are starting the conversation about when they’re coming back.
Another team member rooted in the venue’s growth is production manager Jay Bell. Bell has been the sound man at TapRoot for the last three years. In addition to TapRoot, Bell can be found running the sound at annual Alaska music festivals such as Salmonfest and the Forest Fair.
“I moved to Alaska with a PA system on top of my van in 1991, settled in Girdwood and became Girdwood’s sound guy” Bell said. Then TapRoot got a hold of him. Working the majority of nights each week at there, Bell is the guy wearing the beard behind the sound board doing what he does best… making the musicians sound great. “Jay in my estimation is the best sound guy in Alaska,” Severin said. “He’s just a real pro and a pleasure to work with.” Bell has earned credibility from the bands and people he has worked with during his 30 years in the business. “From high school and many years on, I was a musician and a techie and ended up being the guy in the band who had the gear” Bell said. “Playing in the band and doing sound at the same time is kind of an unworkable split of responsibility and attention to quality. You can do both but you can’t do both well. Music and sound are constantly flowing and changing, evolving throughout the performance and to perform well you can’t just set it and forget it. It needs spontaneous flexibility and change to connect with that kind of soul-reaching magic that draws people to music.” Thus, a sound man extraordinaire was forged. Bell gets a lot of respect from the artists on stage, thanking him during their shows for his work. But even for Bell, not every night goes smoothly. He said “If they trust me to do my job and focus only on doing theirs, we can make beautiful music together.”
To round it off you need a kitchen staff to prepare a welcoming menu. After Severin bought the club, TapRoot aimed high by bringing in chefs “Delicious Dave” Thorne and Rob Kinneen in 2015. The two of them showed to be a killer team of culinary artists. They ran a formidable catering business together that satisfied President Barack Obama and his entourage during their Alaska visit in 2015. However, Kinneen recently has decided to step away from sharing the kitchen and catering with Thorne to let him flourish there as prime chef and continue TapRoots’ catering. Thorne has earned high praise on his own and has been hired to cook for big names such as Neil Young, Dave Matthews and Steve Miller. For TapRoot, Thorne created a simple menu, serving what the crowd craves: burgers, tacos, specialized sandwiches, fresh salads, and house-made desserts. Severin said of Thorne joining the team, “He actually approached me because he had heard a rumor that I was going to become owner. He’s a great chef who has some really neat ideas and I think his style as a chef fits this place.”
A destination foretold
Perhaps it was fate for Severin to find himself owning the site. When he and his wife, Mara, decided to move from New York City to Alaska 17 years ago, they went to the local Barnes & Noble and bought a stack of books on Alaska. The first one he looked at was titled “Alaska Bizarre,” by Mr. Whitekeys. “If you open the book, the photo on the inside cover is the TapRoot building,” he said. “It was literally the first thing I saw of Alaska. It’s just sort of funny that the first thing I learned about Alaska is the place that I ended up owning.”
Quotes from local musicians and TapRoot staff:
“What separates TapRoot from every other establishment is that they have a business model that centers around 1. providing a venue for Alaskans to play music, and 2. building bridges with high-quality indie musicians willing to come play here. There are no other venues that have music truly at the core of their mission.”
— Laura Oden, musician / Anchorage Music Co-Op founder
“The Modern Savage played the TapRoot for the first time in 2012.
It has been our go-to venue ever since.”
— John T. Cripps Jr., musician for The Modern Savage
“TapRoot has been an integral part of my transition into being an Anchorage musician and resident. I’ve played some of the most fun shows of my life here, made amazing friends, and have been lucky to witness some of the best shows and bands I’ve ever seen.”
— James Glaves, musician / host of TapRoot’s open mic night
“TapRoot was born out of a love for live music, and with Marty as it’s new leader, I cant imagine a more qualified person to run a live music venue.”
— Jay Bell, sound production manager
“TapRoot and places like it need to exist in communities.
I think TapRoot is a diverse space and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
— Evan Phillips, musician / events coordinator