Steve Aoki: Pop Oddity
Steve Aoki has touched down for his first residency in Ibiza, Spain, the international epicenter of electronic dance music. Since he’s set to perform for the next eighteen weeks straight, he has set up shop in a Mediterranean villa equipped with mini studio and room enough for his friends to join. Aoki, the son of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, has carved out his own fortune as a transcontinental purveyor of fist-pumping party anthems. Billboard magazine estimates that he brings in about $11 million each year, making him one of the top-paid DJs in the world and a rarity among contemporary musicians at large in the age of cheap digital content. But it doesn’t come from nothing. Aoki plays around 300 shows a year across the world, all the while managing his own label, Dim Mak Records, which he insists is the long product of passion, not inheritance. This September will see the release of his second full-length LP, a two-part project filled with high-profile vocal cameos from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Empire of the Sun, and Will.I.Am. From a wannabe punk rocker to underground party-thrower to business mogul, Steve Aoki continues to baffle expectations.
What was your first musical discovery?
The one that started it all for me was back when I was a tween. We all had cassettes (that’s how old I am), it was all about sharing music through mixtapes. This older kid made me a mixtape of five bands that introduced me into the world of punk, hardcore, straight- edge, all that stuff. I became a diehard committed follower. It was almost like my new religion. [That ethos] has always been a part of my process when it comes to how I approach things creatively, how I approach business, and how I approach life. One of the main things I took from that community is this ethic that it’s all about your own discovery and charting your own pathway. It’s not necessarily about how amazing you are at it, but how much you put into it and bring back to the community. With everything I’ve done since then, I’ve wanted to be respected in that community, and to gain that respect you have to do something.
Thats what led me to picking up the guitar and learning to play in a band. Then I picked up the bass, the drums, and learned to sing—even though I couldn’t sing. It was a very empowering feeling. In school, you feel like you have to get straight A’s; this was a different kind of philosophy. Obviously quality matters, but it’s more about how you give your heart. The bands I played in, we were actually pretty horrible musicians, but we bled on stage and gave our feelings on stage. When people see that, they cling on to that instead.
That philosophy was what built Dim Mak Records. We started with $400. There was no investment—no daddy money, no one helping out—it was just this project. We pressed a seven-inch vinyl and grew the label from there. I had 450 bands playing in my living room over the course of five years, and I did it entirely for free. I wrote for a magazine, Art Attack, for seven years unpaid. You do those things because you love the community that you’re a part of. That was my whole idea of music. It was a sacrifice.
Did you envision the trajectory of your career when you started out?
There was never a plan. You can never pinpoint where you are going. Five years from now: who knows. At the end of the day I’m going to follow my passions and interests—what I believe in— it’s what has led me here. That pursuit of happiness. I’m always following the happiness, as cheesy as that sounds. In retrospect, it’s about making significant choices in the present, and I continue to do that without intention.
I remember a period of time, when I was just starting to produce, around 2005 to 2007, when I was on training wheels, trying to understand electronic music production. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I teamed up with Blake Miller, who pretty much taught me everything. We were called Weird Science and all we did were remixes. We only did one original—it was pretty bad. I didn’t even consider myself a producer back then, I never thought anyone would play my music. In 2007, I started producing on my own; I finally got the balls to do it. Up until then, I had always leaned on someone else to help me. When I released my first single with Will.I.Am, it gained a lot of attention for me as an artist. That was a really big step, which gave me a lot of confidence. And that was one thing I was lacking.
Are you able to capture musical ideas on the road?
I’d say the process when I’m on the road is more off the cuff. A lot of the ideas come from leaving a show with that vibe. Then I get on the computer and start dabbling and riffing. I’m always immersed in new environments, sounds, and experiences. If I don’t take advantage of that movement, I’m really missing out in my own creative process.
Do you ever feel vulnerable or frightened releasing music into the world?
Absolutely. Once it’s out there, it’s no longer yours. The world owns it at that point. You see when artists want to try new sounds, but sometimes people aren’t ready for it, that’s a scary thought. It’s about walking a fine line, making connections with the audience. It’s like teaching a class, and you don’t want to go over everyone’s head when you get to the next chapter. You want them to go with you so that you are all engaged together, interacting. Your classroom gets bigger and more exciting. Everyone has a different approach. Some artists just don’t care, like Radiohead or Justice, they’re going to do it their own way and I commend them. I’m of a different school. I want to keep people engaged. At my live shows, I always want to find more ways to connect. I always ask myself how can I connect in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Tell us about your forthcoming album, Neon Future. It will come in two parts; what separates them?
Neon Future part one is opening a doorway to an idea. You walk in, and it’s a fucking party. All the songs on the album are fun, some are full-on bangers. The title track, “Neon Future,” with Empire of the Sun, is the bridge leading to part two. Part two is more of the inner brain, more emotional. The music is deeper. I do songs with people to connect their world with yours.
I wrote the main ideas all at the same time, but it’s a long process and it made sense to cut the project in half. When I’m writing a fun song, or writing an emo song, my head is definitely in a different space, but I’m not thinking about why. A lot of the times I’m thinking about the artist [with whom I collaborate]. I have such a colorful palette to work with.
You are always on the move. How do you maintain a sense of reality?
This is my life, man. I don’t know what I’d do if I weren’t doing this. I just love it. Brain cells that “fire together, wire together.” Say you’re a smoker: you wake up and want a cigarette. You have that urge. But you can really create a positive habit in your life as long as you’re consistent. If you are a writer, and you have writer’s block—you have to get back into the flow. If you’re in a flow, don’t fucking stop what you are doing, stay in it. I think a lot of creative people are always in that process.
What is your WILD Wish?
I’m going to stick with the concept of Neon Future. We’re going at a pace—it’s called the Law of Accelerating Returns—where things aren’t in a linear trajectory, it’s in an exponential one. We’ll eventually get to a place where we will be able to live indefinitely, until that proverbial bus comes and runs us over. As long as we keep using technological progress to take away the things that are degenerating us. I’d like to see that in my lifetime. We will be able to reinvent our faces and bodies to the point where we always look like we’re twenty-five. Our organs will be healthy… or we won’t have organs by then. Our hearts are one of the most temperamental organs in the whole body—if that goes, you’re dead. Imagine if you didn’t have to worry about that.
What about overpopulation? What about natural resources going bye-bye? We’ll get to that stage when we can. I don’t just think about myself; I think about all the people that I love. I think about all the people that everyone else loves too. If your mother was on her deathbed, but she’d survive because she got a new liver, you would do that. Give me a fucking new liver and save my mom. Even if she’s ninety-five years old and it’s time for her to go. Maybe it’s not time anymore; maybe that issue of time is irrelevant. Perhaps death is a disease that we can eventually cure.
Photos by César Segarra
Styling by Ana Menendez
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