During the summer of 2011, I caught up with Aoki backstage at the Palladium in the heart of Hollywood for the IDentity Tour. I got there as Nevro was wrapping up to a pretty dismal crowd, but by the time Aoki came on things outside on Hollywood BLVD were packed. I caught the first couple of minutes of his show from the stage. Cobrasnake was up there taking photos. I was sandwiched between Rivers Cuomo on my left and Aoki’s mom and sisters to my right. Aoki was perched atop a massive set up with huge AOKI letters lighting up in sync with every song in his set. In between tunes he’d run down and spray the crowd with Champagne. Good times.
If I went to see a kid and he was doing that and was playing music I didn’t like, I would leave. I wouldn’t care.
For most of his set I was in the middle of the dancefloor in front of the stage, taking in the momentum he creates in a dance-frenzied crowd ranging from neon-clad teen ravers to scenesters and girls in sparkly spandex ensembles awaiting their Cobrasnake debut. I caught up with Aoki post show, after he finished with admirers, pushed off his publicist and “people” for a bit, we ducked into his tour bus.
What’s the big difference for you when you play in front of a crowd like this at ID compared to say, gigs like Cabo San Lucas in a tiny bar with a 100 kids?
I played 1.5-hours of dubstep in Cabo San Lucas. When I play in front of more people my set because more fixed—I want to give the crowd as much of a Dim Mak/Steve Aoki experience as possible. So I really procure a set that is as many of my tracks and fill in the others with Dim Mak records. With a club, the smaller the venue the more freestyle I can get. It’s not that important for me to showcase my sound.
How do you keep it both fresh for the crowd and interesting for you?
That’s the constant question. You play for some of the kids three to four times and they know your songs. They probably know your set from before. Of course I always have to update the sets with new productions. That’s what keeps the kids interested. I keep building my set, but the fact remains if I don’t play “Warp” or some of these older records I don’t feel like I’m giving the kids what they want. I give the songs that they know and I also have the new ones. The work ethic has to be there. You constantly write new records and not just new ones, but records that are meaningful. Records that they want to hear. Constantly.
It’s like multiracial couples having multiracial babies and the multiracial babies marrying someone of another ethnic background and having more children.
Do you think stage diving has played into your success, helped you get recognized faster?
I don’t want that to be the case. I want people to come to hear really great music. At the end of the day, if you don’t have the music people want to hear no one will care. Nowadays, 2011, there are DJs that are doing the same thing. I don’t want to say that the stage diving, spraying Champagne and all that stuff is the reason why people go to the show. That’s not a great reason to go. You should go because you love the music. That’s gotta be the number one reason. If I went to see a kid and he was doing that and was playing music I didn’t like, I would leave. I wouldn’t care. That stuff to me is like a bonus on top of the show. It makes it more fun. If you enjoy the music—and I’m enjoying the music because, well, I’m playing it—and I’m doing something like that, whatever it might be; it’s all part of the music. I really don’t’ think that the stage diving is the reason… it might play into it. I’m not going to be completely ignorant here, but without the music I don’t think I would have the fans the way I do.
Where do you see EDM as a genre going in the US?
The evolution of dance music compared to when I first started? For me, specially coming in as an outsider, being a punk kid I feel like it’s constantly branching off into new hybrid strains. It’s like multiracial couples having multiracial babies and the multiracial babies marrying someone of another ethnic background and having more children. It’s more and more diverse, and yet accepted with greater ease. In the past EDM was a purist thing, but that has relaxed a bit. There’re still out there, though; those purist out there that want to keep it separated from everything else.
That stigma isn’t there as much as it was, though.
Yea I guess it takes a few people, certain types of people that can bare the harsh opinions to make those moves. The Tiësto and Diplo collaboration was a big deal for two different worlds to combine like that. I think it’s incredible to see a positive reaction where a lot of people were supportive of that.
Do you see the EDM world getting bigger or staying where it is right now?
Here’s the thing, radio doesn’t dictate what’s big anymore. And that’s an exciting time. With radio you’re at the mercy of a few of the elite in that world. Only the Rihanna’s and Brittany Spears can survive—whereas with EDM it’s really dictated by the people. The music kids like. YouTube has changed everything. For one thing it’s definitely not getting smaller. It’s not a trend that’s going to die. Or it’s not like there won’t be anymore dance festivals. It’s a huge biz that’ll continue to grow. But as far what’s popular on radio or with the commercial consciousness, that’ll constantly change anyways. Dance will also be a part of it. But it’s not always going to be the forefront, but it’ll always be apart of the consciousness.
EDM vs. Pop Culture Slash Value & Aesthetic
I’m with him on that. I know what he means. When I look around and think about what’s happened over the last three or so years… Electric Daisy Carnival pulling in more people than Coachella, Swedish House Mafia selling out Madison Square Garden in 10 minutes, David Guetta approaching 27 million Facebook friends, Major Lazer producing Beyoncé, Kaskade causing a flash mob on Hollywood BLVD, deadmau5 selling out four consecutive nights at the Palladium, Skrillex and deadmau5 nabbing major Grammy nominations. EDM is here to stay—our place in pop culture has been solidified. For the first time ever it’s not one genre in electronic music’s world making inroads, the entire spectrum is crossing over to the mainstream world. Whether or not it’s this intertwined with pop culture in another 10 years is another story. For now, it’s only getting bigger. Hell, Jan 2nd is officially “deadmau5 Day” in Las Vegas. Yet more proof that electronic music is officially the new pop. How times have changed.
Before IDentity I followed Aoki to the spectacular fantasy world that is Las Vegas. It was the same weekend Weezer was there finishing up their “Memories” tour where they performed their Blue and Pinkerton albums in full. It was also on the same night as Aoki’s residency at Surrender. I flew in solo for one night, in and out. Aoki was there with Brian Linares and Jacob Lee from Dim Mak. Before Aoki’s gig we all caught dinner at Stratta, a restaurant inside the hotel and close to the club. There were a few other people at the dinner table too, a poker friend of his, a couple that drove out from Los Angeles for the Weezer show, Ronn Nicolli director of marketing for the hotel and manager of the club, who midway through dinner gave Steve enough tickets for all of us for the Weezer show. We had some time to kill before Steve was due to get on at XS. After dinner while walking back to the hotel room to get a few things before we bounce to the Weezer show a random guy asking for an autograph stops Steve. Once at the Weezer show Aoki disappeared backstage for most of it as Brian, Jacob and I catch the show like normal folk—not backstage. After the Weezer show we hop in a cab from the HardRock back to Wynn hotel and on our way back up to the room Steve gets stopped again—this time by a hotel worker saying that he’s looking forward to getting off work at going to the club. Brian uses the guy’s cell phone to take a photo of Aoki and his fan.
aoki vegas cobra
Not long ago Las Vegas clubs were all about hip-hop. Now it’s the quintessential big-room clubbing destination in the US with DJs like Aoki, Kaskade, Avicii, Fatboy Slim, Dadalife, Tiësto, Diplo entertaining dancefloors week after week. After week.
When we get back to Steve’s room we started talking about the college years, his memories and the birth of Dim Mak. We have a few hours before his gig and he opens up his computer and starts going through some music. He’s putting the final touches on what he’s going to play tonight. While he’s doing that, I’m thinking how much easier life is when you can travel with a laptop, a USB key or CDs vs. lugging vinyl around across the globe. I’ve seen his record collection. It’s pretty huge, so I ask…
How did your record collection first start coming together?
The friends I met in college had good collections. You know… you hang around with people, and have friends that are into the same things and stuff. So I had friends that had the sickest record collections and I eventually acquired two-full collections. They just gave me their entire collections. By the time I was a sophomore in college they were graduating, and they didn’t know what the fuck to do with the three to four thousand records. And I was like, ‘oh man, I’ll would fucking die to hold them, to hang on to them—you don’t even have to give them to me.’ And eventually they just became mine because they never asked for them back. I have both of their entire collections. I still have them. I made a space in my garage; I spent like a couple of grand making a nice space for my vinyl collection. One thing I’ll never get rid of are my vinyl records, they’ll stay with me to the day I die.
Do you have a favorite?
No, not really. It was more about the record labels. You wanted to get everything your favorite label put out. It didn’t really matter if you liked it, or not. You needed it. If you were into hardcore you had to have a sick vinyl collection. It’s important; it’s part of the whole thing. You have to be able to play some instruments or do a fanzine. You have to be somewhat into the scene—being a collector is being part of it. It’s just like collecting comic books. You want every number. It’s like a timepiece. If you valued the label, you wanted to get everything from them.
Five vital records to listen to in order to get Dim Mak aesthetic and sound:
It’s the longest running Dim Mak artist on the label. We’ve put out like four albums with them. To me it’s one of the most epic albums I’ve ever released on the label. They’re an instrumental band from SF that never got the shine they should have because they didn’t tour as much as they should have—like Godspeed, Black Emperor, Mogwai; but to me they’re the best out of all those guys.
This is the album that broke Dim Mak into the rock world. We partner up with Vice. Our Dim Mak logo is on over 350K albums in the US. It’s a really important album that helped shape the label.
This was one of the fist signing we did in ‘07 that got us immersed into dance music. It also helped pioneer and shape this particular sound. The Dim Mak sound that people know of us now. I mean we are a changing and evolving brand of music but the Bloodysound was a very specific and aggressive mix of rock and electro.
This new album is their comeback album from the mid ‘90s. A band that also pioneered and created their own sound and was very aggressive. It’s great to create that bridge between something like that. Something that had its own time and place and its own sound and community—a bit like a cult. And bring that to kids nowadays. Dance kids. Rock kids that can understand it now.
It’s something I’ve been working on for so long, it’s going to be one of the big defining moments of my artist career.