Steve Aoki: The Making Of A DJ. The Hollywood Years. The Bumps Along The Way
[fivecol_three_last][quote]”I’m out on the road and taking in all these new influences. If I were in the studio I wouldn’t be getting that…like the way dubstep moves people when you see it. Or the way new sounds are coming in and what sounds old already.”[/quote][/fivecol_three_last]
Getting interview time with Aoki isn’t easy. For this conversation, I caught up with Steve while he was in a Tokyo hotel room the morning before a gig. I was sitting in my Los Angeles office watching the sun slowing fade away. It’s the crack of dawn for him. We were scheduled to talk the day before but plans changed when his flights did. I check in on him via Twitter. Guy does like his connectivity with the people. He’s on it more than anyone else I’ve seen. I’m not obsessed wit’ Twitter, but I do imagine that it’s a great tool if you love reading what people are saying, but don’t necessarily want anyone calling you. Aoki’s most recent Tweet: “Tell me people, what is the craziest and weirdest shit I can get.” Which is pretty loft considering dirty girl panties can be procured via a vending machine.
When our Skype conversation finally connects I can hear music at a low level in the background and Steve carrying on multiple conversations. He’s whispering to someone that he wants tea and I get the impression he’s looking at the hotel menu while he talks on the phone at the same time. Somehow I knew when I heard, “Hey buddy, hold on a second” that it was directed towards me. I felt like a fly on his hotel room wall while I listened in for a few minutes as he ordered breakfast and went through a checklist with Bryan Linares, back at Dim Mak’s HQ. They were talking about tour dates, release schedules and flight times. He was getting some “shit” done. “I have a few more hours to communicate back to the Los Angeles world and I’m trying to give everyone the time,” he says when he jumps back on our Skype call.
Prior to Tokyo he was spinning his way through Europe with 18 shows in 17 days—11 of which were back-to-back. That’s pretty hardcore. His world seems a bit hectic at the moment, but he’s the first to admit that life is great. Tokyo for three days mucking around town with his girlfriend, Tiernan Cowling and a video camera sounds, well, like a good time. He usually has a videographer with him as much as possible, but this Asia tour was quick, so he brought his own camera and turned into the photographer and video guy. “It’s so fun,” he says. “Things like that are what make these trips extra fun and memorable.” And I imagine he’s right. I mean, the shows are great and awesome and at the end of the day the reason why he’s traveling the world. But he’s in Japan after all, he just ordered breakfast, his gig isn’t until tonight—and he’s there with his girlfriend.
What are you going to do today?
I’m going to go shopping. To me Japan is the country with the best fashion designers in the world.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
I love Rick Owens.
Any Japanese brands / designers stand out?
Nobuhiko Kitamura from Hysteric Glamour. Hiroshi Fujiwara. Those two I like. I just bought a bunch of clothes from this other designer called Julius. I’m meeting up with a designer today from Diet Butcher Slim Skin. They’re an amazing Japanese brand.
You’ve been traveling a lot. Are there any countries or spots around the globe you feel are hotter than others?
Pound for pound, I’d say Belgium is one of the most potent countries in Europe for dance music. It’s small, not a very big country, but they have these massive festivals that are popping up that are probably totaling over 100K people per festival through all the days. Polcopop. Door. Culturally dance music is the status quo out there, it’s incredible.
Spain is always insane too. One interesting festival I played was Monegros Desert Festival. It’s this festival in the middle of the desert that takes hours and hours to drive out to. I played one of the final closing sets from 10:30 am to 12. 16 hours after the festival started I’m playing—when I look out from the main stage to what seemed like 30-40K people.
Do you ever work on music while traveling; you’re on the road so much?
At the end of the day I try and do music on the road but it’s so hard. Before I would do these remixes on the road and I would never play them out. In the beginning I almost didn’t care about the production. I would just put out stuff that came out naturally. But now, I’m really trying to fine-tune every song. Every song is a single—at least for me. If I can’t play it out it’s not worth it.
Does the road help or hinder your creative process?
It’s good. I’m out on the road and taking in all these new influences. If I were in the studio I wouldn’t be getting that. I’m constantly getting a bunch of new music; I’m hearing a lot of DJs, bringing in a lot of new life experiences that really change the direction of my sound. If I weren’t on the road, I probably wouldn’t have so much access to so much stuff; like the way dubstep moves people when you see it. Or the way new sounds are coming in and what sounds old already. When you’re in the studio you can get locked up and forget what’s out there. So that, in itself, is what helps me stay current; however, it’s frustrating when I’m on a roll in the studio and I have to bounce out.
[quote]“My dad wouldn’t be happy. He would tell us as kids, ‘don’t be like a dog and sleep whenever you want to sleep. You have a scheduled time to sleep and one to wake up.’ I am like a dog, I sleep whenever I can.”[/quote]
A Productive Snowball
When Aoki is at home in Los Angeles he’s pretty much in work mode. During the day it’s meetings and nights are spent in the studio. His home studio is usually the last room he’s in before he goes to sleep. “My dad wouldn’t be happy,” he says with a little laugh. “He would tell us as kids, ‘don’t be like a dog and sleep whenever you want to sleep. You have a scheduled time to sleep and one to wake up.’ I am like a dog, I sleep whenever I can. If I’m at home I want to be productive. I want to be efficient with my time and it’s important that I’m in the studio as much as I can be.” He fits in studio time between his 300 or so flights per year. Whether or not Aoki’s maximalist take on DJing fits with you ideology, the man has put in the hours as a creator and entertainer.
And things show no signs of slowing down. Aoki career has been in snowball mode ever since releasing The Kills’ “Black Rooster” EP in 2002—number 36 in Dim Mak’s catalog. And it marked a turning point for him, the first time the mainstream industry started to pay attention to what he and Dim Mak were doing. It was the year he moved from Santa Barbara to Hollywood—a decision that has certainly paid off. Before he knew it, people were calling him, such as Matador Records owner Chris Lombardi, Suroosh Alvi from Vice magazine, Franz Flishlee from Universal, Laurel Stearns from Capitol Records—the first person to from a major to approach him.
“I’ll never forget about Laurel Stearns hitting me up,” he recalls. “She calls me up and says, ‘Man, I would love to take you to dinner.’ Free dinner!”
After releasing The Kills’ record Aoki was brought on as their road manager and toured through the US with the band a number of times. “As I toured with them I started to listen to rock and roll. Whatever they listened to, I listened to. Whatever they loved became the things I loved. We listened to Captain Beefheart a million times. And they loved everything about Velvet Underground and Edie Sedgwick. Whenever we were in NY they stayed at the Chelsea hotel. Alison always stayed in room 105 or whatever it is, the room Edie always stayed in. And while they were touring I met a bunch of rock bands. I met Soledad Brothers and put out their live album. I put out Pearlene, which is a full-on rock and roll band from Kentucky.”
You can basically connect Dim Mak’s sound and how it evolved over time to the different stages of Aoki’s life: the hardcore years, the emo, indie, post punk, no-wave and rock and roll moments and of course, electronic music.
Dim Mak’s first dance record was Dance Disaster Movement. “I remember when I met Justice for the first time, they were like, ‘Man you put out this Dance Movement? That was something we always played out in 2006,’” he says about his foray into dance. “I put out their first LP in 2003 and that record translated all the way to France. Dim Mak was a rock label and to say we put out a dance record in 2002 is interesting.”
If you’re not evolving with life you can expect to get left behind. That’s typically how the cards fall. So I ask…
How did you first get into DJing?
Cali DeWitt from True Love Records is the guy that got me into DJing. He was my first LA friend. Without Cali I wouldn’t even be a DJ. He was the bartender at the 3 Of Clubs and he knew I had this crazy record collection. He knew because he used to come to the Pickle Patch. He knew about my old bands, Esperraza and This Machine Kills. He loved the fact that I was a hardcore kid. So when I moved to LA he was like, “Yo man, come hang out… actually come by 3 Of Clubs and you can DJ. You can play whatever the fuck you want.” I told him I didn’t know how to DJ. I have one turntable. I don’t even call it a turntable; it’s a record player. What the hell is a turntable? He was like, “It’s easy I’ll show you—sit down and it’ll take me like two minutes.” People were looking at me confusedly… After I was done I was told not play any of that screaming stuff anymore. I got excited about the whole aspect of DJing in front of people.
Do you remember when you hired your first employee, got an office?
Benji and Joel Madden came in and invested in Dim Mak. They took me from my apartment and gave me enough money to put a down payment and six months rent into an office space on Cahuenga Blvd. It was right by Amoeba. Time-wise it was, I think, around the backend of 2004. I called Cobransnake up at the time and asked him to move in and take half the space with me. It was interns galore at the office. I accepted every internship from around the world. I had people flying in from all over that summer and I had no idea how to organize. It ended up being comedy. One guy would be the cook and he’d go pick up stuff on the bike. A bunch of people standing around in a small room and no one knew what to do.
Any other funny bumps along the way?
I signed, and put a contract together and gave it to Nathan and Beth from The Gossip. They were going to start this new band. It was going to just be them two. And they kinda ripped me off. I sent them a contract for a two-album deal and they said that they needed like 4K to buy a car. He was going to give me the album for buying the car. And I had it and gave them the money right away. I was like, “I’m fucking in love with The Gossip. I love Beth and I love Nathan. And they’re going to start this new thing and I can sign it? They were already signed to Kill Rockstars, so the only thing I could release from the Gossip was a live record. But I wanted to release an album. They never signed the contract and they used my money. I still love them; I don’t blame them. I was an idiot because I didn’t follow up. I’m not the best business guy. They never started the band. I never brought it up again. They used that money and I have never once, until now, brought it up to this day. Again, it was my own stupidity.
Steve is quick to credit much of his success to the loyal team standing behind him on a daily basis. He calls Matt Colon and Michael Thean “pillars” in his life. “Matt Colon has been there since day one—from the cover of BPM to now. We started Deckstar together with DJ AM. He helps with a lot of Dim Mak event business. He’s my day-to-day guy, my guy for decisions, advice on the future. He’s crucial.” Michael Thean helps Aoki with all things European. “Without him I wouldn’t have a career over there.” Strangely enough pre-Aoki, these two guys weren’t really managers. They were, more or less, Aoki’s friends… another irony of it is they both worked at music magazines. Matt was the marketing director at BPM and Michael was the head of sales at DJ magazine. They both quit their jobs to manage Aoki full time.
Brian Linares, Jacob Lee, Luke Mulderink, Ian Cross—everyone at Dim Mak is committed and down for the cause—their Dim Mak tattoos prove it. Yes. Real. Tattoos. All these guys were interns. All of them with zero experience. They came in with the same trademark concept and drive Aoki has. “Dim Mak is the kind of business that isn’t really about how much profit we’re going to yield at the end of the year. It’s about how much new music are we going to be releasing that will hopefully change the landscape of the current state of music and become part of culture,” he says and continues, “We want to create something meaningful in music—something that will culturally stand the test of time.”
No doubt Aoki’s debut album Wonderland will mark yet another milestone in an already impressive career. His evolution as an artist to this point has been a long road, filled with obvious innovation and earnest ambition. I get the feeling this is only the beginning. He’s built a business based on his passions and vision, and for any creative professional that is the very definition of success. As far as the glitz, glamour and buzz of being a superstar DJ, well, that’s simply the leather that lines the interior.