Night after night, in the shadowy light of the Badlander bar, Aaron Bolton’s relaxed smile beamed from behind the sound board. He was in his element, there in the bar that he bought with a trio of friends in 2007 and helped transform into a cornerstone of Missoula’s nightlife scene.
On Monday, Bolton’s friends in the music community struggled to cope with the news that his body had been pulled from the icy waters of Seattle’s Elliot Bay early that morning.
“He was simply the nicest person I ever knew,” said Justin Lawrence, owner of Hellhouse Sound and the regular sound-man at the Palace Lounge, a music venue in the basement of the complex of bars at the corner of Ryman and Broadway. “(He) never had a cross word to say about anyone or anything.”
Details of Bolton’s death remain sketchy. According to Seattle Police spokesman Jeff Kappel, police fielded a report at approximately 6 a.m. Monday of a body floating in Elliot Bay, near Pier 57 in downtown Seattle. Bolton’s body was fished out of the water by firemen around 7 a.m.
Kappel said that no cause of death had been determined, and would not confirm Bolton’s identity.
The King County Medical Examiner’s office also declined to confirm Bolton’s name, and said that an initial report on his cause of death would be released at approximately 4 p.m. Mountain Time on Tuesday.
While early news reports in Seattle said the body was found wearing a life jacket, that proved not to be the case.
Bolton was a fixture of Missoula’s music scene long before he got into the bar business. Chris Henry, one of the co-owners of the Badlander complex, first met Bolton in the spring of 1994, when the two were fellow students at the University of Montana. Bolton was living in a house nicknamed the Badlander, one of the first unofficial hubs of Missoula’s electronic dance music scene.
“They were really pushing it, doing these amazing parties,” said Henry.
Henry and Bolton became fast friends, and in 1998 they joined forces with local musician John Fleming to run EarCandy Music, an independent record store that specializes in obscure independent and electronic releases.
Fleming said he didn’t know Bolton well before he approached him to help out with the store.
“After the store opened, I realized I had to get some electronic music in there and I didn’t know about it, but I knew he did, so I approached him one day and asked him,” Fleming recalled. “He really knew his stuff and was just great to work with.”
But Bolton’s first love was the drums. Over the years, he played in several local bands — including a couple with Fleming. In 2001, he moved to Seattle with the aim of becoming a professional drummer.
Bolton eventually returned to town in 2005, to help build an online store for EarCandy. Two years later, Henry heard through an old roommate that two acquaintances, Mark McElroy and Scott McIntyre, were looking to buy the former Hammerjacks bar. Eventually, the four joined together to purchase the entire complex of bars, which now include the Palace Lounge, the Golden Rose, and the Savoy Casino.
It was tough going at first.
“He put in about three years of just a grinding schedule, seven days a week, always there,” said Henry. “It was just a maelstrom of stuff to deal with – the whole event production side, he’s the sound guy and manager and artist liaison and he’s managing the building – and yet, oh my God, he’s just phenomenal at it. He was built for this work.”
Henry said that Bolton’s natural ease in the face of dizzying duties was a calming influence on him and the other owners of the bar complex.
“He rarely if ever stressed out; always had this relaxed, positive attitude about everything,” said Henry. “Stuff could be going crazy and he would have an even keel. He was constantly sprinting around the building all night dealing with multiple sound systems, and yet he always had that smile on his face.”
Henry said that Bolton traveled to Seattle with his step-brother over the recent weekend to pick up new speakers for the Badlander’s sound system. Around 11 p.m. Sunday evening, Bolton left his step-brother at their hotel, telling him he intended to visit Re-bar, a downtown music venue located at 1115 Howell Street.
The fact that Bolton’s body was found more than a mile away from the nightclub leaves a gap in the events leading up to his death. However, Jeff Kappel of the Seattle Police Department said that Bolton’s death was not being treated as suspicious, noting that anyone who fell into the bay at this time of year probably wouldn’t last long in the frigid waters.
“This time of year if someone fell in there, there’s a high likelihood they’re going to get hypothermia relatively quickly,” he said.
Regardless of the circumstances of his death, Bolton will be remembered for his contributions to Missoula’s music community, said Colin Hickey, a longtime friend of Bolton’s who serves as booking manager for the Badlander and Palace.
“He opened the door for all sorts of talent at the Badlander, he was a hell of a drummer and just a hell of a guy,” said Hickey. “It’s just a huge loss.”