Indie mainstay Popscene continues to be a force in the local music scene. On August 26th, with Capital Cities performing, Popscene at Rickshaw Stop will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. DJ Aaron Axelsen, one of Popscene’s four original founders and promoters, opens to kick the evening off. In recognition of the milestone anniversary, we reached out to Aaron to get his thoughts about Popscene, Capital Cities, and the Bay Area’s music scene.
What have been the most standout shows organized by Popscene during the entire 25 years?
That’s a tough question since we’ve thrown well over 1,500 events here in San Francisco over the decades, but here there are five shows that especially resonate with me.
Amy Winehouse (April 27th, 2007): The crazy thing about this show is that A) Amy actually opened for fellow Brits Klaxons that night and B) sadly, it turned out to be Amy’s only show ever in the Bay Area.
The Killers (August 24th, 2006): This was actually the second Popscene show for Brandon Flowers and the boys as they made their SF headlining debut with us back in June of 2004, but this particular show was our “Popscene 10-year anniversary party” and they were the secret band performing! We sold physical tickets to this anniversary gala without unveiling the ‘”special surprise guest” and their identity wasn’t disclosed until they took the stage at the very intimate confines of 330 Ritch Street.
Billie Eilish (September 9, 2016): Her Bay Area debut was actually as the opening act for an electronic producer by the name of Michl! There were maybe 150 early attendees at Rickshaw Stop that evening to witness this.
Calvin Harris: (April 24, 2008): Before Calvin became one of the biggest DJs on the planet, he actually fronted a fantastic electro-pop outfit! Yeah, he played keyboards and sang in a 4-piece band in support of his incredible debut album “I Created Disco.”
Glass Animals (July 1, 2014): It’s funny, it took almost 10 years for this British band to blow up! They were Grammy-nominated this year for “Best New Artist” and their smash hit “Heat Waves” recently became the third longest-running Hot 100 Billboard hit of all time, landing at #6 on the chart.
What’s the future of Popscene for the next 25 years and how can artists get involved?
Continuing with our commitment to new music discovery and providing the Bay Area with innovative, emerging, and “next big thing” caliber talent that we are ridiculously excited to share! And doing so immersed with our patented Popscene “indie dance parties” and personalized live DJ curation It’s a formula and blueprint that has worked well for us during our first 25 years and one that we hope continues and thrives for years to come. And oh, we’re always looking for quality up-and-coming local artists and DJs to be involved with our parties as well.
What advice would you give fellow concert organizers looking to create a sustainable concept like Popscene?
These are the most important ingredients and building blocks that go into becoming a successful music promoter: Passion, tenacity, vision, filling a niche in the market, luck, timing, marketing/branding and investing 100% of your blood, sweat and tears (and heart and soul) into your music endeavor. When we first created the concept and launched Popscene in the mid-’90s, it was Omar Perez, Jeremy Goldstein Eric Shea, and I, all the original founders and promoters and all had insatiable appetites and a crazy passion for British indie music. We loved My Bloody Valentine, Pulp, Blur, Supergrass, Elastica, Suede, Radiohead, etc, and we would go see these British acts from across the pond pack and sell out various SF venues, so we knew there was a viable buzz and demand for Britpop in our city. And surprisingly, no one at the time was doing a “British Indie Disco,” so that was basically the impetus and genesis of Popscene!
The SF music scene at that time was saturated with house, hip-hop, electronic, top 40, drum & bass, acid jazz, trance, and ’80s new wave parties, but there was a huge void that wasn’t catering to the massive Bay Area Anglophile community. After a few years of exclusively throwing weekly indie dance parties, we eventually expanded the parameters of our brand to include ‘live music’ and subsequently, started to book emerging bands integrated with our epic DJ dance parties, and well, the rest is history. Fun fact: one of the first live bands we ever booked was Portland newbies The Dandy Warhols!
What makes Capital Cities’ sound and live show so impressive?
They are the quintessential indie party band, incorporating electronic music, dance punk, electro-pop, nu-disco, synth-pop, etc, into their sound, and doing so as a super tight 7-piece band, complete with a powerful horn section! Capital Cities actually played their first few San Francisco shows at Popscene in 2011, first as an opener and then returning to headline.
Funny story: Ryan and Sebu of Capital Cities once stopped by my office at radio station LIVE 105 in North Beach and dropped off a demo of “Safe And Sound,” which I started to play on my weekly Sunday new music show Soundcheck. It became a big regional hit for us here in the Bay Area and this was two years before the boys would sign with Capitol Records. Eventually, the song became a colossal international hit in 2013, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Alternative Radio Charts and incredibly, landing at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It propelled their debut album to platinum!
For those unfamiliar with Rickshaw Stop, what aspects of the venue stand out most?
It’s really the culmination of many things, but primarily their passionate team of music heads. Owner Christopher White, Managing Partner, and Talent Buyer Dan Strachota, and their entire team are all committed to bolstering the San Francisco music scene. The venue itself is very malleable and almost chameleon-like, which I love! Rickshaw Stop can eclectically and pliably mold into hosting punk bands, electronic acts, DJ-themed dance parties, hip-hop, R&B, post-punk, goth, shoegaze, and alternative rock shows and everything works effortlessly in this iconic and genre-bending Hayes Valley venue.
Back when Popscene was at its old home at South of Market’s 330 Ritch Street, I really admired what Rickshaw Stop was doing from the day it launched in 2004. Not only did they book incredibly vibrant bands, but they also hosted dance parties similar to Popscene, including the long-running weekly nu-rave/blog party Blow Up, founded by Poolside’s Jeffery Paradise. I hosted my first ever remote Popscene event here in the summer of 2007 with Swedish indie-popsters Shout Out Louds and a new little Brooklyn band opening called Vampire Weekend, and this experience cemented my desire of someday move Popscene to this quirky independent venue. We ultimately achieved this in January of 2011 and it’s been a fantastic partnership ever since. We kicked off this new chapter of Popscene by hosting our first official party, which was anchored by a new, unsigned LA artist called Foster The People. They had five total songs at the time, haha!
How would you describe the current state of the SF and Bay Area music scene?
Thankfully, despite all the challenges and tribulations we’ve recently suffered through during these unprecedented times, I feel the SF and Bay Area music scene is mending, healing, and beginning to thrive once again. We have two brand new local music festivals this fall, Portola Festival and Breakaway, and an insanely packed 4th quarter schedule that features brand new tours and rescheduled shows alike.
Dealing with cancelations, postponements, no-shows, and other related pandemic issues have been taxing, grueling, and emotionally exhaustive… and there are still many hurdles that lie ahead. Nevertheless, the SF/Bay Area music scene is unassailable and resilient, abounding with talented and creative promoters, phenomenal venues, musicians, DJs, and visionaries. I’m confident we’ll all eventually emerge on the other side of this disaster stronger than ever.