Aaron Axelsen’s office at Alt 105.3 (née Live105) is a shrine to local music. There are shelves tightly packed with countless records, and the walls are covered with concert posters. An autographed setlist from The Killers rests in a frame. At the center of it all is Axelsen, a man with multiple careers that all stem from his relentless obsession with discovering and sharing new artists.
It’s this passion that led him to his current gig as Alt 105.3’s music director and assistant program director. It’s why he has a softball team with other music industry folks called the Happy Mondays. It’s also what inspired him to start his weekly Popscene concert series back in 1996. Before that, Axelsen was a skater in Livermore doing his best to hide all records he was regularly buying at Berkeley staples like Rasputin and Leopold’s.
“I used to have to come home and sneak my music in through the backyard and then climb out my window to get it so my parents wouldn’t know,” Axelsen recalls.
When Live 105 launched in October 1986, Axelsen would blast it on his boombox while skating around the East Bay. Having a local station dedicated to playing acts like New Order, Depeche Mode, and The Cure was something of a revelation for him, and before long, he knew he wanted in.
Following a stint with college radio at Hayward’s Chabot College, Axelsen landed an internship at Live 105 in 1995. That same year, he would join forces with Eric Shea, Jeremy Goldstein, and Omar Perez to launch Popscene — a club night dedicated to the music all four were obsessed with.
“We were the Britpop indie kids,” Axelsen says. “We loved everything from Supergrass to My Bloody Valentine. We just felt there wasn’t a club at the time that catered to that demographic.”
Popscene spent its first two years at the Cat Club on Folsom Street. It was there that the idea to feature a new and upcoming band along with the dance party emerged. Brian Jonestown Massacre was one of the first groups to play, but when Popscene moved to 330 Ritch St. in 1997, things really took off.
The list of acts that played their first Bay Area show courtesy of Popscene is staggering. It includes The Killers, Phoenix, Bloc Party, Mumford & Sons, CHVRCHES, and Amy Winehouse. It’s since moved over to Rickshaw Stop in Hayes Valley, but while Popscene’s venue may have changed, its ethos remains the same.
“Popscene would not still be around after 20-plus years as a weekly party if it wasn’t for this perfect storm of elements,” Axelsen says. “A lot of it has to do with being in San Francisco and the Bay Area, where there are a lot of insatiable music fans. Music is very cyclical, and Popscene has this template of highlighting what’s hot and burgeoning, whether that’s Flume or the Dandy Warhols.”
There is arguably no one better qualified to discuss the fickle nature of local music trends than Axelsen.
As the host of Alt 105’s shows Subsonic and Soundcheck, he is obligated to be up-to-speed on what listeners want to hear and which artists may be about to break big. Twice a year, Axelsen must also read the musical tea leaves as a booker for the station’s two flagship live events: the summer festival BFD and the December soirée Not So Silent Night (NSSN).
Sometimes, Axelsen’s efforts to support and feature young bands pay immense dividends, such as when he booked Green Day as a last-minute headliner for NSSN in 2011. The night before the show, original main act Jane’s Addiction was forced to cancel due to a family emergency. Axelsen was at NSSN’s annual pre-party at the New Parish when he decided to go out on a limb.
“It was Tre Cool’s birthday and he was there with some friends,” he says. “I was facetiously, like, ‘Dude, I just found out that our headliner pulled out for tomorrow night. What are you guys doing? You have plans?’ They live close to me in Oakland. They’re East Bay kids. Tre was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’ I remember the next day, we talked to management and the label and it just kind of worked out. They drove to Oracle [Arena] in their cars — they live close by — with their gear in the back and played a kick-ass set and saved our asses.”
Green Day may have saved Axelsen’s ass, but in some ways they were simply returning a favor that the beloved local DJ, radio host, and music magnet has extended to countless bands over the years.
“It’s rewarding when you develop an artist from Day One,” Axelsen muses, “because if they do blow up, they always will have that bond with you. They’ll appreciate you and respect you for being there at the beginning, for taking a chance on their art.”