Mention Steve Aoki in a crowded room and watch the reactions; some will cross themselves in reverence, most will nod their recognition at the name, and the rest will know him only as "a DJ." But Steve Aoki has never been just a DJ; he's a modern auteur with his finger rammed in the proverbial sphincter of music and culture. Aoki got his start as the singer of a hardcore screamo band, but he's made a name for himself in indie, electro, EDM, pop and every musical mutation between. He started his own label, Dim Mak Records, in 1996, and he's broken artists from Bloc Party to the Bloody Beetroots. He's got more A&R skill in him than an army of big label drones. He's producing, opening a couple of nightclubs, touring the world, and this month he put out his first good and proper studio album, Wonderland. The kicker is, Aoki doesn't have to do any of this. The fact that he's the heir to the Benihana fortune barely merits a dependent clause in the larger Aoki narrative.
Wonderland has gotten mixed reviews -- mostly owing to the fact that it is an album of singles, by Aoki's own admission -- but the range is incredible: Rivers Cuomo, LMFAO, Kid Cudi and Lil Jon on the same disc as Nervo, Die Kreuzen and Blaqstarr. Aoki and Dim Mak have gone through so many about-faces in the past decade, the guy should probably consider a run for political office. For Aoki though, it's not flip-flopping to go from hardcore to indie to electro house. It's observing the ebbs and flows of popular music and predicting when and where the tidal wave will hit. Make no mistake, Steve Aoki understands music on a subatomic level.
We caught up with him in Salt Lake City to talk about Wonderland, band albums versus DJ albums, the great EDM schism of '07, Hipster Runoff, and what it was like to crack the Top 10 iTunes charts. Catch him on Wednesday with Datsik at the Pageant (6161 Delmar Boulevard, 314-726-6161)
How's the tour going?
It's been really awesome. Every show on this tour has pretty much sold out, except for Phoenix, which has some massive venues. Datsik brings all the bassheads out, Dirtyphonics are really heavy bass-y music as well. My set is a special set because I'm playing all my own stuff; I'm not playing any other music. I have a brand new live production that's totally unique to this particular tour, which I don't think I'll be playing ever again.
It's the same construction, but all the visuals changed. I changed all the visuals from the Identity fest that I did, I re-adapted the live show. Newer content and a better show. I spent Spent a lot of time and money on it. We have 2 buses, one semi truck coming on this tour. It's like, a hefty production.
Is it true you're dumping salad on people on this tour?
[laughter in the background] Man, news travels fucking fast.
Can you describe what happened the night Wonderland hit the internet?
It's my biggest accomplishment so far. To me, it's bigger than an album. It's the culmination of all the different influences that have created my sound in the last three to four years. I've been holding all these songs hostage for so long, I'm so happy to unleash it all at once. When it came out, I was following the iTunes charts, and I was so happy that I hit the dance charts. I was like, oh sweet, I cracked top 10 of Dance. Right when the album dropped, like thirty minutes in, an hour in, and then like two hours later it was at six and then four, and then eventually beat David Guetta, which is crazy for me, that I actually beat David Guetta. I cracked Skrillex's album sales from last album. Then I was number two, and I was like, 'Holy shit this is crazy.' And then like two days later I cracked top 10 of iTunes overall charts. That means that not just dance music people are buying it. Normal people are buying it. To be on the same top 10 list as Adele and Drake and Skrillex. Even Van Halen was up there for a bit, Coldplay, it was cool just to be up there. Two dance artists on the top 10 was actually a big accomplishment for EDM.
This album plays like you were creating a map of your personal influences all the way back from This Machine Kills to now. Were you worried about putting the Exploited and Die Kreuzen on the same album as LMFAO?
No, because this album is not about being P.C. Let me explain this in a bit, let me get inside the hotel....That's actually a really good question because most people that are buying my album probably have no idea who the Exploited are. They definitely have no idea what my old band This Machine Kills did, my hardcore background. For me, to represent all the different sounds and influences in my life, I needed to do a song--I was going to do a punk song anyways, I was going to do a hardcore song regardless. But to enlist the guitarist from the Exploited, the drummer from Die Kreuzen on the track, for me was just fucking incredible. When I look at having both those songs, the track with LMFAO and the track with the Exploited, I'm looking at it more like, these are different stages of my life. I look at this album as a culmination of all the different sounds and influences. I'm really isolating that track specifically because I want to do a banging ass record with two legends that I love. By the same token, when I'm in the studio with LMFAO, I'm not necessarily thinking about "The Kids Will Have Their Say." I'm thinking about how can I write? Pop music is important to me too. I love all kinds of music, and I wanted to write a pop song. I wanted to do it with LMFAO because those guys are my friends, and they're really good at creating that bridge between dance music and pop music. The end goal for that song is to write the best pop song that my sound and his sound can do together.
To clarify this even better, as a DJ, when DJs produce songs, it's different than a band producing a song. As a band--because I've been in bands--our goals are definitely to make albums and release EPs. Releasing a single from a band's point of view doesn't make any sense. A band wants to release multiple songs, you want to release albums of material that will define your career. For DJ's, what defines our career is songs. This is my first studio album. I've been touring successfully around the world based on my songs. That speaks to why there are so many differences in this album, because when I look at it, I look at it song by song. I'm doing a different music video for every song on that album. I'm spending a lot of money doing it, because it's important to me to accentuate the differences, every song on that album is a single to me, this whole presentation of the Wonderland.
Are you the type to obsess over reviews, especially since this is your big coming out, album-wise, or do you just ignore them?
I can't ignore album reviews. Especially from really important magazines. I've been running my label Dim Mak for fifteen years, just like on the basis of having my own label, I'm always looking at reviews for all the artists on my label, and focusing on the ones people care about to highlight why people should buy an album or EP on Dim Mak. I'm very keen, I'm very educated on that level, at least with the magazines I think are very important.
Which ones do you deem important?
Well, I guess things have changed now, since magazines are not really in business any more. There's only a few of them. I think blogs are crucial. Before back in the day, it's like an evolution, you follow magazines based on the genre of music. When I was putting out punk records, Punk Planet, Maximum Rock and Roll, Heart Attack, Skyscraper magazine, those magazines meant the world to me. Nowadays, obviously we try to get our artists in the bigger magazines. It's not like I need to talk about Rolling Stone or Spin, they're obviously important. The blogs, if Hipster Runoff writes something about one of our artists or my album or something, it's good. Blogs kind of bring together something outside of music. It's like music and the lifestyle of the artist. Not just about the music itself, it's about like, what's the cool factor of this artist. Does he or she have something outside the music that draws people into them. Hipster Runoff has turned his blog into a Lana Del Rey, or whatever her name is, website. She only has a few songs out, so it's not about the music, it's about something else. You hope that people can be bigger than their music, that people will follow the artist kind of blindly, that song will be a base for that next song.
How important are Facebook likes in gauging an artist's influence? Are they legit?
I think it's pretty big because the reach is there. You're reaching out to your people, that like you. I live off of that. In the social media space, that's the way I communicate. If you really want to know what's really going on, what I'm trying to promote, what song I'm about to come out with, what video I'm about to post, it's all on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Those are the three most important tools to communicate with what I have to say.
How has the EDM landscape changed since you put out your first electronic record?
Okay, so, 2005, I release a Bloc Party remix that I did, in that space, I was more of an indie electro--at that time, you could even call me a hipster. Of course, by definition a hipster would never call themselves a hipster, but I guess in retrospect you can call yourself whatever you want. At this point in my life, I'm definitely not a hipster. In that world I was listening to indie, we signed Bloc Party, they were killing it, we sold 350,000 albums with Vice, it was a big year for Dim Mak, and that was the start of my DJ-ing career. It was a completely different place, I didn't know about Tiësto, I didn't know anything about David Guetta; so many things have changed.
One of the interesting points of EDM, back then there was a complete separation of genres within EDM. If you're a trance artist, you're only listening to trance. Trance, you can't really be down with dubstep. WithTiësto, you're not a Justice fan, it's like two polar opposites. This is like '07, when Justice came out, it made an uproar. It was the birth of electro, and electro was the punk rock of rock and roll, by definition it rebelled against dance music. When that happened, the separation was loud and clear. Like, "We are with Justice. This is our world, we are cutting ourselves apart from the dance community, this is our own sound."
That's so true.
That was a very defining moment of that sound, embracing that punk ideology. I loved that. When that came out, I was like, 'This is me.' This is the hybrid between punk, which I'd been raised by, and dance music with it's aggressive tone, which is a sound that I was trying to create. That punk introduction started branching out, and that kind of division started blurring, and it made a statement. We're fucking here, we don't care if you notice us, but everyone did. But now, from that period to 2010, a lot of bridges started being created. We're here and we're starting to take a huge part of this marketplace. Now the big heads of dance music were like "this sound is fucking awesome. I'm going to leave my traditional sounds and embrace this new sound, which to me is electro house. Electro house is the new bridge between trance and electro. If you hear a lot of trance guys now, they're playing electro house. Laidback Luke, Swedish House Mafia, these guys. I just played with some trance DJ, and he opened up with Knife Party song, and I was like, what the fuck. Tiësto just jumped over, and he's like, 'Fans follow me,' and they did. They went with him.
It's an interesting time now, for me to collab with Tiësto, that would have never happened four years ago. That would have been unheard of, and people would have hated on it, but now people embrace it, and all the haters are tired and jaded and old. It's an interesting moment. I'm more about the embracing myself, I like to embrace and open up new ideas, and bring about change constantly. I think that's why Dim Mak has survived the many different ice ages of the music industry. We've done things where the status quo of our following would not necessarily understand our change until it happened. This year, 2012, we just signed Infected Mushroom, the biggest psytrance artist in the world, to an electro label. I'm fucking excited about doing this album because I wanted to do something unique and new and different with an artist that has such pull and reach. Working with them, signing them was a big deal for us. I always want to throw curveballs at people, and then show them later how we can keep progressing with sound and make new sound from things you would never imagine. We also signed Datsik, which the first dubstep artist on our label. In your mind, what is the future? Is it--ugh--punkstep? Is it the intersection of dubstep and something else? What is happening?
All I can say is from the Dim Mak standpoint, we always want something new to arise, and we're always behind adapting and evolving with change and sound. Who knows. Skrillex came out and within one year, he's completely changed the sound of dubstep. Worldwide, he just completely restructured the whole sound. Of course, the traditional sound of dubstep will always be there. It's like that time when things are changing so fucking fast, you can't really say what's next. All I can do as an artist is continue to produce music that I'm influenced by at the time, and from the Dim Mak side of things, continue to put out artists that will be the next pioneers of a particular genre that we're being a part of.
Between the superhuman feats of running a label, touring, opening a club, making hits and everything else you do, how do you find the time? Are you ever not working on something?
Never. I'm always working on something. Maybe it's a disorder. I have a problem. I've always been busy. I've always been constantly planning, prepping, brainstorming. Life is short man, you only live 60 or 70 years. That's your life man, that's it. Might as well make the most of it.
Besides music and Malcolm X, what inspires you to create?
I love that you do your research! It's so cool. That's why I'm trying to give you in-depth answers, because you know some of the shit I've been through.
I appreciate the in-depth responses, thank you. So when you're down in the dumps, where do you go for inspiration?
When I'm down in the dumps, I don't want to sound redundant, but, uh, music. I know it sounds weird, it sounds totally obvious and predictable. It's everything. It's been my life since the moment I picked up my first hardcore mixtape.
What are your favorite hardcore bands?
They're all old bands, because I don't keep up with the new ones. Tragedy is one of my favorite political thrash bands, whatever you want to call them. Born Against is one of my all time favorite hardcore bands, that kind of Virginia hardcore sound. I like a lot of straight edge hardcore too, I'm into more of the political hardcore stuff. When you read into the lyrics, it has depth, it's not about being young and being straight edge, it's about doing something, educating yourself on certain things. As you know, I'm a Malcolm X fanatic. Anyone that has that self determination, that can speak with that kind of power, regardless, if a singer can do that. Like Zack de la Rocha, one of my favorite singers of all time. It's not because of his voice.
If the world ends December 21, what will you be doing December 20?
Fucking writing a song. About the end of the world. [laughs]
What can you tell us about the club you're opening in Hollywood?
I'm opening a couple of clubs, one of them is Dim Mak Studios, and there are a couple others. I can't really discuss them yet, I really wish I could because it's such big news for me, but when I can, you should call me back and I'll tell you more about it. Where are you calling from? What's this interview for?
St. Louis, the Riverfront Times.
You should be a writer for fucking Spin! Do something big with this interview, I'm giving you some crazy shit. As happy as I am that St. Louis people are going to be reading this, you should try to get this thing somewhere bigger.
What are you listening to that we aren't right now?
Missouri, Missouri. Where's Kalamazoo? I'm trying to find some hardcore bands from Missouri that I like. I've started listening to Cap'n Jazz and Ordination of Aaron. Ordination of Aaron is from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I can guarantee if you hear it you will absolutely not like it.
Really? I'm into some of the harder stuff, though the hardest stuff I like is mostly noise.
Oh, you will not like it. This is like screamo emo, this is not like Warped Tour. Poorly recorded bands. Noise like what, like John Wiese?
Yeah! He's from St. Louis.
I put out a John Wiese record on Dim Mak.
Yeah, it's a seven inch. He remixed my whole This Machine Kills album in two songs, and put that out. It's under Sissy Spacek.
Oh, yeah, totally.
Shit, how old are you? I feel like you have to be older to listen to this kind of noisy shit.
26. It just gets me for some reason.
That's so strange. Do you like Lightning Bolt? Brian Chippendale, the drummer, he's one of my favorite drummers ever. I used to open my set up with a Lightning Bolt song. No one ever got it. No one ever said "That Lightning Bolt song was great!" Never, not one person! I never told anyone about that because I eventually wanted someone to figure it out, but no one got it.
Does that frustrate you at all, about your fans, that they can sometimes be limited to EDM?
No, because I'm in their world. I want to create the best 90 minutes of their life when I'm with them. I want to fucking make them feel really good. You don't need drugs when you come to my show.