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Bittersweet Symphonies:Popscene's decade of Anglophile adoration 

Wednesday, Aug 23 2006
Consider how much your music taste has changed over the past decade. I know I've been through a half-dozen different genre courtships. But in the mid-'90s I was pretty crushed out on Brit pop, pining for the likes of Suede, Slowdive, the Charlatans, and all the dapper U.K. dandies of that generation. So when I first moved to San Francisco in 1996, Popscene was a natural extension of those interests. Thursdays were all about the Cat Club, where Popscene DJs spun choice imports while we danced as if Friday afternoon were nothing but a way to ride out a hangover. The weekly event perfectly encapsulated a specific aesthetic — semi-underground hits both stylish and sophisticated but still ready-made for club culture, cool kid pop with dancefloor aspirations.

Popscene provided an Anglophile outlet from its early nexus — it started on Aug. 31, 1995, to be exact — and is still ushering in the next wave of modern pop. One of its founders, Omar Perez, claims the night is now the longest running indie weekly in the country. Not a bad accomplishment, considering the competition — and the way hardcore clubbers can behave like locusts, says Perez's cohort, Aaron Axelsen. "They go to one scene and devour it and move on. It's very transient," Axelsen admits. "Promoters we know are suffering because the demographic they were worried about focusing on is moving on to the next hot thing."

I'm sitting with Perez and Axelsen in Axelsen's office at Live 105, where he is the music director/assistant program director. Around us hang framed gold records from Coldplay, the Prodigy, and Blur; an old issue of U.K. taste-making rag NME sits on the desk. It's 1:30 p.m., but these guys are starting their days: Platinum-coiffed Axelsen has just arrived at the station, while Perez, clad in a Thrasher sweatshirt and black stocking cap, works as a full-time DJ.

Eleven years into the game, Popscene — whose other hosts include Disco Shawn and Nako — celebrates its, um, "10th anniversary" this Thursday, Aug. 24, at its longtime post-Cat Club location of 330 Ritch St. (tickets are sold out). The not-so-secret guests are the Killers, the Las Vegas MTV darlings whose members frequented the club when they were in town to record. The choice of headliner gets to the core of Popscene's formula: The Killers are by no means a breaking act with cred, but they fit into the dance-rock mold, Popscene DJs played their music early on, and they are a favorite among the club's young demographic.

One key to packing in 300 loyalists every week? Don't age with the audience. While Axelsen and Perez are both in their 30s, they passionately ravage British music magazines and import CD racks like college kids. "It's about embracing new bands and having the platform for all the great bands," says Axelsen. "Popscene started catering to an 18- to 26-year-old demo, and that's what we still do; with those parameters you stay focused. As cultural changes and different musical styles come in, it's important to make sure the club doesn't lose the soul of what it represents, but that it does adjust appropriately." (Popscene hosts a spinoff night, "Club Leisure" — which, like Popscene, takes its name from a Blur title — at Annie's Social Club for those "classic" 'Scenesters who only want to hear the '90s hits).

Adds Perez, "Sometimes you're accustomed to hearing so much new music, you can think, ÔThis band sounds exactly like another band I heard five years ago.' You have to remove your personality from the equation and keep in mind that the people who are discovering the Subways or Every Move a Picture have to make the same trip that you did when you discovered a band and its predecessors. We're still total nerds when it comes to being absolutely hungry about new bands, and that's what keeps things fresh."

Twenty-four-year-old fashion designer Joy Fan has been a Popscene regular since she turned 18 — she met her future husband there, and he proposed to her at the club. "Popscene epitomizes the diversity and passion that exists in S.F., and the dancing and good music and sweat strips away all of the stereotypes, the negativity, and the egos," she says. "Popscene brings together familiar faces and joins them as a family."

All that said, hosting the Killers at their apex isn't a typical night for Popscene. The club is better known for breaking buzz bands before they're heard or seen elsewhere. The long list of groups given fresh spins/bookings includes the Strokes (whose "Last Night" single was in heavy rotation while the music was available only on import), Kasabian, the Dandy Warhols, Be Your Own Pet, and even Wolfmother. The members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club met through Popscene, Blur's members danced there when their hit "Song 2" broke, and Interpol's Carlos D. swings by when he's in town.

Like any brand, the club has built a trusted reputation, which helped the promoters during the lean years of 1998-2001, when the wave of popularity shifted toward nu-metal and the DJs relied on back catalogs most nights. "There was a time when the most compelling thing we'd have going was like a record release party for the Space Monkeys," laughs Axelsen. "But music is very cyclical. When we started Popscene there was a huge musical renaissance with Radiohead, Supergrass, and the Verve breaking — we were at the forefront of that, and started a club based on that scene. I met Omar and [early promoter] Eric Shae at a Ride/Slowdive concert. I met [early promoter] Jeremy [Goldstein] at a My Bloody Valentine concert. ... As the music scene had a new revolution, we happened to be already in position to embrace the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Arcade Fire, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and bands like that. We took on the same scene, just a different era."

There's a lot of hard work involved at Popscene's core — street teams, fliers on college campuses, a Web site, a MySpace account, background visuals ("We take each band and treat it like it's the only show we have all year," says Axelsen) — yet the promoters insist on charging just $8 per event. The future holds shows with blogger darling Lily Allen, the Kooks, Voxtrot, and Love Is All, among others, while Axelsen has his ear on another import he recently purchased by U.K. act the Rifles. "Amazing new band," he e-mails me later with tangible excitement, "that remind me of the Jam, the Clash, Buzzcocks, etc.," putting truth to the idea that Popscene's thirst for unearthing the next big thing really is unquenchable.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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