Steve Aoki Is Building a Neon Future

Steve Aoki
© Catie Laffoon/Red Bull

Ahead of his huge US tour, the cake-tossing Dim Mak boss describes his manic life on the road.

Steve Aoki is about to head out on his biggest headlining tour of the United States: 33 dates (so far) from October 4 to the end of November, numerous supporting acts and guests, including Borgore, Wacka Flocka Flame and Pharrell for four dates. (You can follow the tour at the Aokify America website.) Having recently played a packed festival season and released his song 'Boneless,' Aoki, at the age of 35, is having his biggest year yet. We were lucky to grab a few minutes with the producer and DJ just before he packed his bags.

You're definitly not known for being passive on stage: You like to throw cakes, stage dive in small canoes, things of that nature. What do you have coming this fall that’s different from what you have ever done? 

Well, this tour is based around the idea of the future -- the future of technology, artificial intelligence with technology. I call it the Neon Future. I’m fusing different tech gear to my body: different elements of LED lighting and CO2 to my body in the form of a suit. My team is literally handmaking this stuff. You can’t find it on the market. It’s not as engaging to the crowd as the cakes, or the stage-diving raft. This is more of a spectacle.

Well, you have had a residence in Las Vegas for the past year, and it sounds like that really influenced you.

Yes, definitely. Working with Hakkasan and MGM really gave me creative agency to be myself and test these things out in their club. I just wrote a song at the beginning of the year called 'Singularity.' It’s about the idea that we will eventually be able to live forever by fusing together computers and our physical biology. It’s a very real concept, and there are a lot of people out there working on it, and I’m a big supporter of it. In the end for me, I have just been really working on combining my music and stage show with all of this knowledge I’ve been accumulating.

It’s interesting because I think a lot of people carry the stereotype that electronic music is all about mindless dancing and not dealing in much substance. You do come from a philosophical background, and I think it’s cool that you are working this very relevant subject matter into your music. Do you see other’s in the industry following your lead, creating more lyrical power in their music?

Yes, I think that at this point the producers in the electronic dance world, if they want to cross over, have to put more energy into creating unique experiences with their music and not just obsess about changing the sound design for each song.

I’m straight edge, I don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t drink or do drugs and that is definitely one of the things that keep me going, keep me sane.

Staying on top of the sound of your kicks, or which bass patches you use will always be relevant, but it needs to be fused with proper songwriting. This is what will take the community to the next level. Artists like Avicii and Skrillex, you hear that proper songwriting when they release a tune. I might not even like a song that I hear on the radio, but I can tell if it’s written well. It’s all about taking the listener on an emotional journey. The most powerful thing for me is when people tell me that a song of mine took them from a negative mind space to a positive one. When I hear about it from fans, or see it in the crowd, that’s what really excites me, when you can help peoples lives through the reach of your music.

As electronic music gains relevance, the music evolves, but the live aspect has mainly stayed consistent through the years, where a DJ stands in front of an audience and plays tracks. Some have challenged that convention, yourself, Major Lazer, but most still haven’t. Do you ever think people will get bored at watching just a DJ spin records?

No, no, I think from an outside perspective, from people not at the festivals, not going to shows, just taking a peek into this EDM world, they might be like, “Wow, this guy is just standing there, he hasn’t even left the console." And then the next guy walks up and does the same. But the truth is the crowd hasn’t left, and the scene keeps growing, more and more festivals each year. DJ culture I don’t think will ever change in that respect. The status quo will always stay the same because that’s what it essentially is about. The DJ at a show, as far as what an audience member is experiencing is only a small percentage of the show.

When you go to a festival and see Tiesto standing there, you're feeling the music first of all, which is the highest quality, the best sound technology can manufacture. Then you have the infectious energy of the people around you, the lights and lasers from the stage. It’s very much an experiential art form, the DJ is just one component of it. It’s not so much about the showmanship on stage, but about how the DJ brings you in with his song selection and how a story is told through their set.

I can honestly say I played over 300 shows around the world last year. And this year I feel like I’m going to top it.

Some DJs will only play their own music, so when you go to see Deadmau5, you’re seeing the total Deadmau5 experience. And some DJs will tell a story through playing the hits. Like DJ AM was the best at that, telling his story through pop music, through the history of pop music. He wasn’t throwing himself on the ground, but he was one of the absolute best DJs I’ve ever seen in my life. And when it comes to DJs that don’t move at all, two of the best, they are not even DJs, more like gods, will raise their hands once or twice during their sets, nod their heads in this slow swag, are Daft Punk. I come from a rock background, and love engaging with the crowd. I couldn’t stand still if I wanted to, but I’m just a weird guy. In the end, DJs will always be relevant just standing there, because the music will always be relevant.

The Interwebs tremored the other day when it was widely reported that you had made a statement that you were not an actual DJ, but instead were acting as a performance artist the last 17 years. It has since come out to be a hoax, you didn't actually say that but I think it leads to a really relevant question. What is an “actual” DJ nowadays? Because you can admit that in the industry it's widely known that many producers come out, press play on their Ableton Live set up that’s pre-mixed, label themselves DJs and make five or six figures per show.

That’s a good question, because if you're not selecting your songs live and mixing them, and you're just pre-mixing through Abelton, the art of mixing is gone, but that doesn’t mean that you're not a DJ. Tractor is a program that you don’t mix at all, it just mixes songs for you. And I know excellent DJs who are amazing mixers and turntabilist who use Tractor because they don’t have to worry about beat matching and can just focus on cutting and scratching. It’s one of those blurred lines on what’s technically considered a DJ.

Life is short, it can go away in an instance. I’m 35 now and don’t want to miss out on anything.

Well, a DJ is technically a disc jockey, someone who plays records. And in the realm of DJing you have different grades. You have a selectah, who is known for their song selection and the overall story of how they play their tunes. You have the turntabilist, who scratches, cuts and plays the turntable like an instrument. There’s different grades.

Yeah, if you want to break it down on my own credit, when I first started, pre Serrato, like 2003-2004, I called myself a DJ, but I could barely beat match. I was fucking horrible, and people could say I wasn’t a DJ back then. But I was playing parties, playing records and learning through it all. But I think you’re right; your answer is the best one. In the end you're playing music, a selection of music that is showcasing your persona and your sensibilities. And that to me is a DJ, plain and simple.

Touring, as a whole, is an invigorating experience for most performers, getting to play night after night, seeing the world, making money on their art. But touring as you do, is seemingly inhuman, how many dates did you do last year?

I don’t have an exact number, sometimes I would play several shows in one day, but I can honestly say I played over 300 shows around the world last year. And this year I feel like I’m going to top it, as I did more shows this summer than I did last summer. With efficient planning, having your own jet for instance in Europe will allow you to do two or three shows in different countries in a day. I feel so lucky to be in a position where I’m even that much in demand. I’ve worked so fucking hard to get here that I can’t even imagine saying no. If the opportunity comes up for me to play, I’m just so appreciative for the opportunity. Let’s just say I’m not jaded and never will be. I could be working a 9-to-5, or delivering food like I was in college. Life is short, it can go away in an instance. I’m 35 now and don’t want to miss out on anything.

How do you find yourself being able to center your mind and not let that life style kind of spin you out of control?

I think once you’re always on tour, the center goes with you, as long as you are balanced. For me when you’re touring a lot and then you have to come home, that is more difficult for me. But when you’re on the road, there are levels of routine which keep you balanced and can also push you to be a healthier and better human being. For me I’m straight edge, I don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t drink or do drugs and that is definitely one of the things that keep me going, keep me sane.

One of the things that I do miss out on a lot is sleep. I wish I could change that, because it’s just not healthy, sleeping three hours a day for two weeks. But you have to make sacrifices to do this type of shit.

When I was younger I used to always get drunk during my sets, no tour manager, just me having to take care of everything, I don’t know how I survived. If we did this interview back then I would tell you I don’t know how the fuck I’m surviving. Now I have a good solid crew that I travel with, we have workout contests at the hotels, always seek out the healthiest places to eat, at the same time exploring and seeking out new cultures. And that inspires me, too, because I see outside the shows.

For the most part, traveling musicians get to a city, get to their hotel, and then you play the show and then the next day you move on, and that’s a routine you can easily fall into. But if you push yourself then you can go out and see Seoul, Korea, and all the crazy shit they have there, if you have it scheduled properly. I travel with a videographer and photographer. So wherever I go, if I don’t travel to cool places and see shit, then that’s my dime. If I don’t push myself to see the best things in a city, then that’s me losing out, paying these guys. In a way for me it’s my own private initiator, like we have to do this, photograph some crazy shit, eat some crazy food and make the most out of that city.

Well, that’s awesome, as an unfortunate part of traveling as an entertainer is you do miss out many times on the cities you are traveling through, so it’s great you make an extreme effort not too.

One of the things that I do miss out on a lot is sleep. I wish I could change that, because it’s just not healthy, sleeping three hours a day for two weeks. But you have to make sacrifices to do this type of shit. But you need good work ethic and determination. Like I never used to produce on the road, only when I got home, but now I’m always on the road so I had to switch that up. I read this book called 'Re-Wire Your Brain,' and I recommend everyone to read it. It helps you get out of your bad habits by teaching you to put yourself under enough stress where your uncomfortable enough to re-wire your neurons to be OK and comfortable with something new.

As you get older you get more stubborn, and I don’t want to get stubborn. I want to stay open. As a DJ, artist on tour, it’s actually really easy to get comfortable, become a spoiled fucking brat. If you turn into that then you become lost, become a fat drunk, lose your focus. But if you keep training your body and brain to do more you can surpass that. It’s a constant work ethic, it never ends, but if you focus on keeping that balance you can come out of tour even stronger and more powerful than when you began.

Follow Jeremiah Alexis and Red Bull on Twitter for more updates.