"Really you should just be grateful to be alive." Two days in London with Steve Aoki
His live shows are already regarded as out of this world, but we ain’t seen nothing yet: superstar DJ Steve Aoki has ambitions that go way beyond the confines of Earth. We spent two days with a legend of the industry
- By Max Williams -
Steve Aoki wants to DJ on the moon.
It’s a bold ambition but then the 39-year-old left ‘plausible’ behind long ago. Aoki is the fifth-highest paid DJ in the world, according to Forbes – earning a cool $23.5m last year from spinning the decks. His Dim Mak label spans both music and fashion – one week putting out the latest Chainsmokers single, the next debuting a new collection on the New York catwalk. His sneakers collection alone is worth more than $100,000. If anybody plays the moon in the coming decades, bet the house on it being Aoki. He’s that kind of superstar.
Even if the lunar logistics aren’t feasible for another century, don’t rule the man out. He’s already paid $220,000 for his body to be preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Program, so he can quite literally chill out until science has found a way to circumvent the whole mortality gig. Which makes one wonder: is he investing through love of life or fear of death?
“Maybe a bit of both,” he confesses. “To be alive is the most extraordinary phenomenon that I can understand, right? To not exist – I just don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
We’re speaking in a sparsely elegant hotel room in Covent Garden, the rush of St Martin’s Lane outside the window nicely contrasting to the calm within. It’s just me and Mike, Aoki’s international manager, listening to the star expound on his theories of the great beyond.View on Instagram
“It’s not like I don’t believe in an afterlife,” he insists. “I just don’t know. I understand the idea of faith, I understand the idea of imagination, and I know that human civilisation, we live in our imagination. The imagination is an incredible thing, because with the imagination we’re able to progress into technology, and to progress forward and to advance our species. And also, imagination allows us to conjure up all kinds of interesting ideas that may not exist.”
He cites Greek mythology and belief in witchcraft as examples, before clarifying, “I’m not saying that all religions are hoaxes; I’m just saying that we have a history of imagining things; and imagining them to become such a real thing that we’re going to change our entire lives around the idea.
“What I understand now – at 39, in 2017 – is going to be different from what I’m gonna understand at 40 in 2018. And it’s definitely different from what I understood in 2010. You know what I mean? We’re constantly evolving and changing and transforming; I’m always going to have a completely wide-open doorway. Is there a god, is there not a god? I don’t know those answers. Does it make me feel a certain way? Yes, of course. Do I want to go to heaven? Yeah. That would be pretty cool. Do I want to go to hell? No! That would suck! Do I want to live life? Yes. I know that. This at least is something I know to be real.”
What else is real for Steve Aoki in the year 2017? Primarily, the inside of a private jet: a legendary work ethic sees Aoki traversing the globe like a 21st-century Flying Dutchman, engaged on an everlasting world tour.
He plays hundreds of shows every year – surely the lifestyle must get tiring?
“Of course. The naps are the most disorientating. I’ll take a nap at like 2pm until 6pm or whatever time I can, and I wake up and I’m truly, ‘where the hell am I?’ I don’t even know if it’s the morning, I don’t know if it’s afternoon, and I definitely don’t know where the hell I am. I’m like, shit, my brain’s not working at all any more. But we travel so fast – I remember last summer we did five shows in 40 hours. Five countries. I was literally just napping wherever I could.”
Then there is the exertion of the actual shows, which would surely be enough to kill anyone who isn’t named Steve Aoki. His performances operate on a policy of shock and awe. A major Aoki concert is nothing less than a carnival of smoke, noise and light, one that requires a stage the size of a small castle for Aoki to cavort on before thousands of screaming disciples, a sweat-drenched dervish of a showman. Spectacle is everywhere: most notoriously in the ritual ‘caking’ of a willing member of the congregation, Aoki hurling a large gateau into the face of his ecstatic target. YouTube compilations abound.
The pyrotechnics are a legacy of his rocker days. “I was in bands for years, since I was in high school. And the bands that I looked up to then were the bands that were doing the most fucked-up and craziest shit.”
And so fucked-up, crazy shit became Aoki’s modus operandi. A 2016 Netflix documentary – appositely entitled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – captured a moment of bitter disappointment for Aoki: his long-cherished ambition to play Madison Square Garden fell through after a delay to the album. Head bowed, eyes screwed shut, Aoki is distraught; the viewer is suddenly an intruder on a moment of private grief.
Every failure,” Aoki later tells me, “is progress – as long as we make sure we use that progress. Do not drown in that failure.”
Yet Aoki isn’t a man to mope about. With the Garden now impossible for the album launch party, Aoki enlisted the help of Mayor Eric Garcetti and roped off a section of downtown LA to play a free street concert christened LAoki instead.
“Every failure,” Aoki later tells me, “is progress – as long as we make sure we use that progress. Do not drown in that failure.”
Considering the subject, it seemed only right to book out the exclusive Chinawhite nightclub in Fitzrovia. (Aoki has played there in the past. He thinks.) It’s early June, so naturally it’s drizzling; welcome to London, Steve. As a native Californian, you must feel right at home.
Aoki and his team arrive mid-afternoon. He’s slim and sleek, a quiet presence who you would barely register were it not for the hair, flowing blackly over his shoulders, and the fact that the gravity of the room entirely revolves around him. The team are young, male, and have a pleasingly Entourage-ish buzz about them – I don’t think that anybody was called Turtle but I couldn’t be certain.
The plan is to do the photoshoot first, interview after – get the crucial front cover shot in the bag. However, the shoot overruns – as photoshoots always do – and Aoki can’t hang around; he’s attending the Glamour Awards straight afterwards.
Here’s the thing about Aoki: his schedule isn’t just packed, it’s bursting at the seams. A week of engagements shoehorned into an afternoon. Time must constantly be manipulated; turn 3pm into 3.30pm, stretch this hour as far as 60 minutes will allow, then try to cram two meetings into its space. The night is just another working day.
Yet Aoki is nothing if not accommodating. The interview is pushed back to the following day – provided, of course, we can find the time.
Next afternoon – almost a sunny one – I meet Aoki and his team at a TV studio in central London. He’s due to appear on Trending Live!, a daily afternoon show on 4Music.
How was the Glamour Awards?
It takes him a moment to realise what I’m referring to. “Oh yeah, man. Pretty cool.”
The green room has a little lightbulb sign bearing the name ‘Steve Aoki’, showbiz style. He chuckles, then flings himself onto a sofa.
A TV is showing Trending Live! – the presenters are sampling weird food pairings: fish fingers and custard, etc. Aoki watches with detached interest, perhaps curious to see just what it is that he’s let himself in for.
Somebody with a clipboard enters the room and lays down the rules. “We don’t do swearing, and we don’t do politics because of the election tomorrow.”
“I don’t know about the election,” says Steve Aoki, disappointing any viewers who had possibly been hoping to hear his opinion on the recent Corbyn surge.
The show goes well. He’s a brilliant guest: engaged, eloquent, possessing zero self-importance. During the first ad break, the presenters ask if Aoki might participate in their daily attempt to break an obscure world record – today it’s running around a chair three times while wearing a blindfold. Not only does Aoki join in, he gives a very good impression of a man fully invested in breaking the world record for running blindfolded three times around a chair.
“It’s always good to do fun stuff, right?” he says to me when I ask him where the enthusiasm comes from.
I was the only Asian in the whole school… So when I sucked, I not only sucked but I also sucked for being who I am
We have time for a quick chat between segments; Steve speaks eloquently about the legacy of his father, Rocky Aoki; his childhood in California; and his regret at not learning Japanese as a child. “Then you grow up and you’re like, damn – I should’ve done that.” A regret shared by erstwhile French GCSE students across the nation.
A word on Rocky Aoki. The man was himself a phenomenon: a Japanese-born wrestler who moved to America and founded the restaurant chain Benihana (currently 116 outlets around the globe). Rocky became a theatrical presence in American life, charming chat shows, racing powerboats (he once crashed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge), and launching a pornographic magazine. His private life proved no less hectic; Rocky managed three marriages and seven children before his death in 2008.
The influence of Rocky – and that of Steve’s mother, Chizuru – forms the central strand of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Suffice to say, if you’re wondering where Steve Aoki attained his near superhuman energy and zeal for life, simply move up the family tree.
After ten minutes, Steve is whisked back to the green room to record further skits in which he discusses the infamous caking segment of his act, and muses on what kind of noise the rapper Flo Rida might make when working out. He seems to be having fun.
After the studio, we take a taxi across town to Aoki’s hotel, where he’s offered to finish our interview; time, once again, has sold us short. In the cab, he asks Mike (the manager) to arrange a meeting with someone who sounds like an eminent industry figure. They can do 6:30pm? OK, but be quick because Steve has another meeting at 7pm.
It’s currently 5:55pm.
As soon as Aoki leaves the taxi, somebody asks for a photo. He obliges. Then another. Passing heads start to turn. For a suffocating moment I glimpse what it must be like to be really, properly famous – not a city in the world where they don’t know you. Although, the hair can’t help in terms of staying incognito. [Interview continues below the video]
If nobody has yet bought the rights to Steve Aoki: The Movie then Hollywood is really slacking: all the ingredients are definitely there for a proper feel-good gem.
Act One would be set in Newport Beach, California. Our young hero is lost, lonely and oppressed: the only Asian kid in a predominantly white area, he’s an easy target for bullying and racial abuse. “I grew up in a neighbourhood that was conservative and a large part white, so there was no checking on that racism. They didn’t even understand what racism really meant.”
Insulting Steve would guarantee the laughter of your peers; racial slurs were flung at him on a daily basis. “Group mentality name-calling is the worst,” says Aoki with feeling. “I mean, they’re all bad but when you have one person that’s name-calling and six other guys laughing and cheering them on. That was dominant; that’s something that I faced all the time when I was younger.”
Desperate to fit in, Steve decides to seek refuge in sports. However, his need for acceptance is betrayed by his lack of skill. “I was always the benchwarmer, I was always the guy that got picked last.”
Failure on the field only makes matters worse. “I was the only Asian in the whole school… So when I sucked, I not only sucked but I also sucked for being who I am.”
He’s never forgotten the feeling of isolation, never lost empathy with the millions of lonely souls around the world who once included him. At the hotel I ask what lessons he would like to impart to his fans. He proceeds to deliver a four-minute monologue which sees him bouncing around on the hotel sofa like he’s warming up for a DJ set. It’s an astonishing performance; part sermon, part philosophical diatribe, a call-to-arms for the outcasts and misfits, its passion surely fuelled by the memory of unhappier times. Frankly it’s wasted on the audience of two in the hotel room; he needs a stage, or a pulpit.
“[…] When you’re in that position of the little guy, and you’re the guy that always second-guesses yourself, because whenever you open your mouth, whenever you do something nobody listens to you, or when you say something and it doesn’t really come out right, or when you’re physically active and perform at a lower tier level – that was me for a long period of time.
“[…] You have to find people that will support you regardless of your skills or how well you can charm someone or whatever it might be. You have to find people that will value you just because you’re a human being, just because you exist. The value of someone is not based on their beauty, on their voice, their talent; the value of the human being is based on the fact that they exist, that they’re alive.
“[…] A lot of people base their value on their talent or their lack of – whatever they’re missing. And they drown themselves in that misery or they drown themselves in their own ego. And when that’s gone, you live this rollercoaster life of emptiness and feeling amazing, emptiness and feeling amazing, when really you should just be grateful to be alive.”
There is a moment of silence once Aoki is finished – how could there not be? Mike breaks it:“I want to say that to my kids!” He laughs.
“I want to hear that again!”
Act Two is where the Aoki movie raises the spirits. A teenage Steve discovers the hardcore community, a group of spiky adolescents thrown together by social rejection, then bonded by a love of music. “They’re all kind of a band of misfits and outsiders and rejects; whether you’re too overweight, you have too many pimples on your face, or you’re Asian. It was just a bunch of weirdos that were like, ‘well, we can skate everyday, hang out with each other and go to shows.’
“And then the next step is, ‘well, we can also start a band and play really bad music together and play in front of our friends.’ And then that lead to the idea – the most important thing is the idea to create. The power to create through friends and having fun.”
It may have started out as fun, but for Aoki music quickly became a serious business. “I started a band, I wanted to learn every instrument, I recorded my first demo, I played every instrument by the time I was 16. I was just constantly like, ‘I got to create, I got to do more, I got to do more.’ And that lead me to start the label, and then later on become a DJ.”
“The label” is Dim Mak Records, founded when a 19-year-old Aoki was still in college. He lived in an apartment called ‘The Pickle Patch’, which subsequently became the venue for a number of underground concerts.
“The Pickle Patch was a whole building of just punks. So we could do whatever the fuck we wanted to do, and thank god we’re in this community of students where they’re having parties and keg stands, and we’re having hardcore shows. So they’re making noise in their own way, and we were making noise of our own, and we kind of co-existed.”
A bunch of young tyros electrifying the Californian music scene with no plan and no playbook. Many extremely successful people have cited the period before their success as actually being more enjoyable than the success itself. Is that true of Aoki?
“No, I’m fine.” He smiles. “I’m good. It was a moment in time that was very important in my development, but I try not to dwell on the past; I try to think ahead.”
In that case we’ll race through Act Three: The Superstar Years – in which Dim Mak Records sign the likes of Bloc Party, The Kills, Klaxons, Mystery Jets. Aoki’s reputation as a DJ grows, and he releases his debut mixtape in 2008, then his first studio album Wonderland in 2012, which is nominated for a Grammy. He hits the road and never really stops, his relentless tour schedule bringing further name recognition, and by 2013 he’s closing Tomorrowland, a hugely influential EDM extravaganza which Aoki still sees as “the most important festival for electronic music.”
I realise that a lot of fans, a lot of people, have no idea what I do. ‘You just push a few buttons and you jump around.
Reaching the top brings its own problems. Aoki has attracted a fair amount of backlash over the years, the vitriol rising in proportion to his fame. (Funny that.) “Negative feedback and just plain trolling,” as he describes it. The online hate mob will protest their issue is with his music, as if that somehow justifies the abuse. “I have matters of taste,” notes Aoki. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to go out there and call someone a piece of shit.
“You talk to someone like a human being. Just because you don’t like their T-shirt, doesn’t mean, like ‘your shirt is so ugly it makes you ugly.’ ‘I hate your shirt, that means I hate you.’ That’s what happens. I don’t like your shoes – you’re a horrible person inside.
“It’s sad that people actually go to that length. I think it’s important even to tell myself: you are not ugly inside, you are not shit inside, just because someone doesn’t like the fact that I throw a cake at someone.”
It’s an unsettling experience, hearing someone so famous, and also so amiable, so clearly one of the good guys, recount the cruelty that humanity has in the locker. Somehow, online abuse is now the accepted price of success – hey, you can’t have everything in life. Achieve your wildest dreams or not become a hate figure to millions of strangers: your choice, bub.
Does he ever experience racial abuse now?
“I mean, I’m 39. If someone’s gonna call me a nip or gook there’s probably something wrong in their head. They’re probably a bit deranged or have dementia or something. That’s not going to happen often.”
Talking about deranged, how does he rate the Trump administration?
“I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel about the current state of affairs. No doubt about it at all, we’re regressing, which is just so sad because we’ve made such progress. Now we’re taking major steps back…”
As often with Aoki, the answer quickly evolves; first into a paean to the power of protest and how “you don’t have to necessarily be a lobbyist to change the system because the people that protested for civil rights, the people that protested for women’s rights in the streets, they did create change”, then a reflection on 21st-century human existence.
“At the end of the day, you’ve gotta think, what are we all trying to do? We’re all trying to look out for each other, we’re all trying to live happy, healthy lives, we want to take care of the people who have got shit on and pick those people and help them up.”
His passion is striking. Would Aoki ever think about going into politics?
“No,” he says immediately.
Really? He certainly has the vision.
“No, no, no. Music’s my platform, and I can speak my mind this way without having to get involved politically. I do believe that with the right people in politics that you can make a major difference, of course. I feel like Obama really did bring about serious change for the United States in terms of progression on so many different levels.”
When you think about your eulogy, you don’t think, ‘He signed this band.’ Who cares?
That reminds me – over the course of the past two days we’ve barely touched upon the subject of music at all. So. DJing. What’s the biggest misconception?
“There’s a lot of misconceptions,” says Aoki with air of someone who’s encountered most of them. “People don’t really understand what’s going on up there.
“I realise that a lot of fans, a lot of people, have no idea what I do. ‘You just push a few buttons and you jump around.’ Now, I don’t take offence to that. Because I’ve heard it so many times, they really don’t know what the hell’s going on. In the beginning I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about? Of course I’m mixing, I’m doing all this live shit!’”
How should we become better informed?
“Go ahead and try it. And you’ll see for yourself what you have to do. And then you realise that it’s not the actual technical skill of mixing songs, which actually requires not that much skill, I’ll be honest. Mixing and matching beats – that just takes time and you’ll figure it out. This is something everyone could do. It’s how you decide to tell the story in your set is what defines you as a DJ from someone that’s watching. You are the one conducting and putting together that particular musical narrative, and how you present each song – that’s up to you. That’s clearly up to you. And I’m presenting it in my own way.”
By now we have inevitably overrun; the Eminent Industry Figure is waiting downstairs. Aoki shifts on the sofa, eager to get moving but too polite to cut the interview off. Last couple of questions then. How does the great innovator see the future of music?
“It’s getting smaller and smaller, the way in which we create and record music is getting more mobile. Maybe it will get so mobile and small that we can literally just think it and it comes out. That would be pretty cool.
“There’s so many ideas I have in my head, like I can’t create this sound with any tools of the trade that I have in front of me. I cannot put what is in my mind into my computer. And eventually we’ll be able to do that.”
So there you have it. Perhaps in 2117, Steve Aoki will be raised from the dead to play a show on the moon, the setlist transmitted directly from his mind. If not, he is very clear on the subject of his legacy.
“I don’t want to say, ‘oh yeah, when I got the Grammy nomination…’. Those things are great moments when you’re alive, but legacy? It all really boils down to the people who are around you, your loved ones. I want to spend more time with my family.
“When you think about your eulogy, you don’t think, ‘He signed this band.’ Who cares? When you’re on your deathbed you think about the people that you love, the people around you. Those are the most important things.”
Steve Aoki Presents Kolony Is Out Now steveaoki.is/Kolony
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