If you’ve tuned into radio station Live 105 on Saturday or Sunday nights, it’s highly likely you’ve heard the familiar timbre of Bay Area radio host and DJ Aaron Axelsen. As host of shows like Subsonic and Soundcheck, he’s been breaking new and unfamiliar artists for over two decades.
Besides being a fixture of Bay Area radio, his talent for showcasing up-an-coming artists also extends to nightlife, where his weekly party Popscene has become known as one of the country’s oldest indie/live music parties. Acts ranging from The Killers to the late Amy Winehouse have graced Popscene’s stages. And while the party has changed venues several times, the intimate indie dance spirit has remained inimitable and unchanged. We caught up with DJ Aaron Axelsen on twenty-one years of Popscene, his knack for breaking artists, and which bands are on his music radar. The celebrations start tonight [4/28] as Local Natives headline Popscene and continue tomorrow, Friday [4/29] for a Geographer DJ Set at Rickshaw Stop. Popscene takes place every Friday night at Rickshaw Stop.
[jump] What's it feel like to be one of SF's longest running parties?
It's kind of surreal, actually. Popscene was founded on the purity and simplicity of four music heads -myself, Omar Perez, Jeremy Goldstein and Eric Shea- who collectively had an insatiable appetite for new indie music. I would have never fathomed in my wildest dreams that twenty-one years later we'd still be throwing weekly parties here in this beautiful city. Another important factor to our longevity is that our staff is comprised of some incredible and tenacious music fans and DJs that provide the spark to keep us going throughout all these years. That, coupled with the passionate and loyal support we receive from our fantastic Popscene base, has really created a magical formula.
Being a Bay Area native, where and what was your first DJ experience ever?
Besides my old college radio shows at Chabot, Hayward, in the '90s, my first official “club” debut happened basically when we launched Popscene at the Cat Club back in 1995. Also, shortly thereafter, I started to DJ all-vinyl sets out at various SF venues, and opened up for shows at venues like Bimbo's, Justice League (now the Indy) and Slims. I remember spinning for the likes of Air, Fat Boy Slim, Royksopp, Sneaker Pimps, Les Rhythm Digitales, Roni Size, Tricky, Pulp, Jon Hopkins, Blur, Spiritualized, etc, all S.F. circa 1997-2001.
You've discovered and premiered many famous bands, and seem to have a sixth sense of doing so. What are some characteristics of an up and coming band that symbolize success to you?
Ha! Thanks. I don't know, I suppose it’s just something intrinsically programmed deep inside of me. I've had this unbridled obsession with music since I was a young lad growing up in Livermore and I vividly remember spending my weekends record shopping in Berkeley and in the City and returning home to suburbia with stacks of new records. I'd then subsequently spend countless hours in my bedroom making mixtapes for friends on my piece of shit stereo. I've always gotten such an incredible high from turning people onto new music that I love for as long as I can remember, and that hasn't waned one bit over the years.
Besides being on the radio, you've been an integral part of SF nightlife for over two decades. What's the most significant change you've seen in nightlife?
I know there has been heated discussions and articles on this very sensitive subject ad nauseam, but besides some of my friends in bands having to move out of the city to more affordable living situations in the suburbs, I still feel, for the most part, that the SF nightlife scene is as strong and vibrant as ever. We're fortunate to have a multitude of talented promoters and tireless champions of the SF nightlife scene who throw some of the most legendary parties in the country, like DJ Dials, Blasthaus, Lights Down Low, Marco at 120 minutes, Mezzanine, Adrian Roberts at Bootie, Allen Scott at Another Planet, club Mighty, Jeff at Public Works, Audio, Eye Heart SF and more. I don't feel Popscene would have hit the twenty-one year plateau if the SF nightlife scene and the appetite and spirit for discovering new music were dead.
The DJ scene has also evolved a ton during this time. What are some sage words you have for DJs just starting their careers?
The scene has become saturated with emerging new DJs. This is partly because of the accessibility of DJ software and other digital and social media platforms, not to mention the mainstream popularity and glorification of DJ culture, so its paramount for a new DJ to create a unique and inimitable style and somehow carve out their own niche.
Sure, having a Soundcloud and Mixcloud and strong personal socials are important, but also it would greatly aid a new DJ to diversify one's portfolio to include such skill sets as promoting, remixing, producing, graphic design, visuals, and a lot of practice perfecting your craft. Finally, get your foot in the door anyway you can by offering to spin at a club, venue or bar for “free” by doing a 45-minute opening set and offering to promote the event to all your friends! Be humble, appreciative and passionate and leave the entitlement and the ego at home.
Twenty-one years of Popscene's anniversary party happens this Friday. If you could assemble a dream line-up of past performances, who would be on it and why?
Amy Winehouse headlines, Muse is direct support, Phoenix are 3 of 4, Vampire Weekend opens and The Killers are the special surprise guests. And oh, and Mark Ronson and Flume are DJing.
How many more years do you hope to run Popscene?
Such a tough question, but what I do know is that new music and emerging artists are the fuel that drives the Popscene engine, so as long as the underground music scene keeps producing exciting and dynamic new acts, Popscene shall continue to provide it with a voice and platform here in our beloved city.
Where can we catch you checking out music when you're not working?
Its hard for me to differentiate between the two since both “work” and “checking out music” are so ubiquitous and omnipresent in my life, but I'm usually catching a live show about 2-3 times a week at various local venues, and of course, I'm always playing new music for the Bay Area on the radio every weekend on Live 105 on Subsonic, Saturday's at 10pm and Soundcheck, Sunday's at 9pm!
Lastly, can you share with us a band that's currently on your radar that you're excited about?
Too many to name! But if I had to only pick four I'd say Kill J from Denmark, Jerry Folk from Norway, Plaitum from London and Sjowgren from Fremont are a small sample of some exciting new artists on my radar.