It’s closing time at the bar, and Mark Armijo is on the prowl. The madman MC is frantically glancing between his watch and laptop, eventually pacing the length of the makeshift stage and calling out to the crowd: “Yes, it’s that time, (expletive)! Everybody get up here! This is (expletive) Mark Star Karaoke!”
It could be Wednesday at 3 Kings Tavern on South Broadway or Thursday at Interstate on Santa Fe Drive. It might also be Friday at Teddy T’s on East Evans Avenue or Saturday at the popular Tennyson Street spot The Hole. The 40-year-old Armijo, better known as “Mark Star,” is one of Denver’s champion karaoke hosts, with a revolving door of residencies that have given him an impressive, self-made following.
“Let’s doooo this,” Armijo howls into the microphone, injecting immediacy and excitement into the dwindling crowd. Sure enough, half the audience walks on stage with Mark and starts shedding clothes. The guys take their shirts off, and some of the women stand there in bras, jeans and smiles, awaiting a cue from the man they’ve come to sing with.
And just like that comes the surf-inspired guitar that jumpstarts the Electric Six garage-rock favorite “Gay Bar,” the tongue-in-cheek straight-guy song that has become Star’s karaoke trademark. Suddenly it’s a dance party, a riptide of enthusiasm and shared microphones. Singers are jockeying for position. Armijo is in the splits playing air guitar. Two ladies have sandwiched their guy-friend in a group grind.
It’s an event.
But this moment isn’t about Armijo and his ego, even though he’ll later joke that it’s another attempt to feed his need for attention. The full-group freak-out that is karaoke “Gay Bar” is a nightly tradition, and it’s about the young, talented and loyal community that has sprouted up around Armijo’s various nights in just a few short years.
“Oh, he’s crazy all right,” said Joey Newman, the 33- year-old co-owner of Interstate Kitchen & Bar, which became Armijo’s first solo account a few years ago. “His Thursday is the most revered and longest-running night that we have.”
Newman isn’t talking from the safe confines of his own bar. He’s at 3 Kings spending a rare night off with Armijo and his all-stars. As Newman listens to Armijo introduce another singer via a creative narrative dotted with expletives and factual liberties, Newman laughs.
“Ah, Mark,” he said. “The man has batteries. He has Duracells.”
Armijo is a natural performer. Whether he’s raging at a rock show at the Larimer Lounge — jumping on stage with the band from the pit, completely uninvited — or rocking his own karaoke nights, he is at home on a stage.
“Mark has more personality and character than anybody else I’ve ever seen host karaoke,” said Ian Cannon, a 32-year-old “scooter kid” who typically sings at Armijo’s night at The Hole. “He really wants to be friends with everyone he interacts with, and he usually succeeds.”
Armijo got his showbiz grounding in Albuquerque, where he played in metal and punk bands. He eventually joined the Denver ranks, playing drums for a band called Gina Go Faster along with a couple of shorter stints in the Red Electric and the Omens.
“A lot of people who don’t know my history of being a musician in Denver have come up to me in the last year and asked, ‘Why aren’t you fronting a band?’ ” Armijo said. ” ‘Have you ever thought about playing music?’ I smile and tell them that it’s a great idea. But truthfully I’ve never been confident enough to front my own band. I’ve never had enough self-control or dedication to write songs.”
While Mark Star exudes self-confidence, Mark Armijo is a quieter entity. His insecurities are real, and he doesn’t mind talking about them. He never met his real father, though he knows his name and used to indulge in a fantasy where he’d run into him in a checkout line at the grocery store.
“I always thought we’d have this epiphany in a King Soopers — ‘Father!’ ‘Son!’ — but that never happened, and by the time I was 25, I’d given up on the idea.”
Armijo was born in Denver, but his family moved to Albuquerque when he was 7. He was consistently drawn to music, and from 9 on, he was playing the cornet or the trumpet or the alto sax. He remembers being 13 years old when his mom spent her income-tax refund on a new Fender Bullet bass guitar for him.
“It was almost like the one Steve Harris from Iron Maiden played, except his was blue sparkle with a white pick plate, and mine was black lacquer with a white pick plate,” Armijo said. “My mom laid down 12 $100 bills on the counter, and the guys behind the counter were stifled.”
Armijo then got quiet, holding his hand to his mouth, fighting back tears.
“She said, ‘Get him whatever he wants.’ I looked up at her. . . . How much she believed in me and whatever I wanted to do. If I wanted to be a mathematician, she would have bought me whatever books I wanted. It didn’t matter. She believed in me like nobody ever has.”
Armijo’s mom died in October 2009, and it’s still hard to talk about her.
“When I give myself time to think about it, it hurts and I’m angry,” said Armijo. “And I know how to self-medicate. I’m a professional. I’ve got that down. I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years.”
But he’s starting to resist that urge.
“I want to feel those feelings. They say time heals all, but if you don’t give something the time, you’ll never heal.”
Armijo was born to rock — and to live the lifestyle. He spent 90 days in a live-in treatment clinic when he was 15 because he was drinking too much. Sober from 16 to 21, he overdosed on cocaine when he was 23, and he’s since fought his affection for the drug.
“I’ve pushed my body as far as it can go using substances, particularly cocaine,” said Armijo. “That was my reputation for a while. I was ‘Mark, that dude who does all kinds of cocaine.’ If you wanted blow, I could hook you up. But I don’t indulge anymore. When I’m running my nights, I’ll have a couple drinks. But I don’t party the way I used to.”
There was a time when Armijo didn’t take his karaoke gigs seriously. When he was getting started, he and another local musician (and character), Jermaine Smith, created Rock Star Karaoke — with Armijo’s cousin Brandon Cruz as a silent partner. Smith and Armijo had a few big accounts, including the Hi-Dive, RockBar and the Walnut Room. They later lost the accounts, and after seven years of hosting karaoke, Smith quit and handed over the reigns to Armijo — who created Mark Star Karaoke.
“When he first started, he was trying too hard to be the center of attention,” remembered Smith, who now works at 3 Kings, the Hi-Dive and the Ale House. “I remember telling him: ‘Don’t make it about you. Make sure your guests are having a good time.’ And now look at him.”
Armijo found his balance.
“I’ve been to all of his nights. And I’ve seen other people following him from place to place. He owns what he does, and he loves it.”
When Armijo is passionate about something, or somebody, he’s not afraid to say it. When a regular singer walks into a room, it’s not uncommon for him to shout out his name and buy them a shot.
“Mark’s a total character,” Shawna Bowler, his girlfriend of two years, said over a Black Sabbath song at 3 Kings last week. “Has he told you the Little Red Riding Hood story?”
He hadn’t, and while it’s not pretty, it’s an insight into Armijo off the stage.
In November 2010, Armijo had borrowed her car for a karaoke shift but didn’t come home that night. The next day, he went to borrow her car again, but she said no. A struggle followed, and soon Armijo had escaped into the car, which he started — but not before Bowler jumped on the hood,” she said.
“He’s a wily (expletive) bastard,” Bowler said. “He drove for three blocks with me on the hood of the car screaming at him. They took him to detox and me to jail because I had a warrant. . . . There was also the time I duct-taped the front door shut so he couldn’t get in the house. . . .”
To call Armijo’s life colorful is an understatement. And while he’s not the right man for every job — “I hired and fired him five times before he found karaoke,” said cousin Cruz — he seems to have found his niche.
“When we first opened this bar, we said, ‘No Abba on the jukebox, and no karaoke,’ ” said Jeff Campbell, a co-owner of 3 Kings. “But the karaoke has been off the chain. And it’s all Mark. You can actually see him feed off the energy of the crowd, consuming it and pushing it right back out there. It’s really amazing.”
Mark Star Karaoke
Mark Star hosts some of the best karaoke parties in town. Here are his four current residencies, but check out his Facebook page (Mark Star Karaoke) for the latest on where he’s singing.
Wednesdays: 3 Kings Tavern, 60 S. Broadway
Thursdays: Interstate Kitchen & Bar, 901 W. 10th Ave.
Fridays: Teddy T’s, 6635 E. Evans Ave.
Saturdays: The Hole, 3877 Tennyson St.
Mahala Gaylord is a Denver Post videographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.