Steve Aoki

LIVING FOR THE MUSIC, WORKING FOR THE NEON FUTURE

IF YOU GREW UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA IN THE ‘90s AND WERE AT ALL CONNECTED TO SKATE CULTURE, ODDS ARE YOU WERE ALSO A SERIOUS HARDCORE PUNK ROCKER. THERE’S A DEEP CONNECTION—SOME ANARCHIC, DIY MADNESS—THAT SEEMS TO RUN BETWEEN THE TWO, FLOUTING CONVENTION AND DARING TO TAKE THE VERY CHANCES THAT THE COOKIE-CUTTER CONFORMITY OF SUBURBAN LIVING DEEMS DANGEROUS. LIKE GRABBING INSTRUMENTS LYING AROUND A FRIEND’S HOUSE AND STARTING TO TURN THE NOISE YOU MADE INTO MUSIC, THE WAY STEVE AOKI DID.

“I picked up a guitar,” says Aoki, “I started singing in bands. I picked up a bass, I started playing drums. I picked up a four-track recorder. I started recording my own music. I started putting on shows in living rooms. This was all in my teenage years. So it gave me the empowerment to find tools in front of me and be able to make noise and call it music. That’s kind of how it started. There was no classical training, no teachers. It was just friends getting together and picking up instruments and finding a pocket of rhythm and actually embracing our feelings, like ‘let’s just thrash around until we find an arrangement that we can all fit into and start developing songs.’”

That’s where it starts for so many musicians—with the urge to find a voice and an outlet to express what’s happening in your life. “The guitar, the bass, the drums, the turntables,” Aoki says, “they’re all tools of expression. Even if you’re not professionally trained, you can still pick them up and find your voice in those instruments. That’s the power of finding your own space, instead of having to go into someone else’s space. You make your own space with your friends, you bang out some noise and have fun and figure out how to turn that noise into music where people can absorb it and be a part of it.” But going from playing in hardcore bands like This Machine Kills and The Fire Next Time to being one of the leading DJs and producers on the scene isn’t the usual route. In order to create his current success, Aoki had to step away from the band and start a record label, Dim Mak, named after the legendary death punch perfected by kung fu legend Bruce Lee. “I started throwing parties revolving around Dim Mak to establish the brand in Los Angeles,” says Aoki. “Essentially, when I [threw] a party, I had to become the DJ because I didn’t have the money to hire someone else. So that was really the start. It was less of, ‘I want to be this big DJ.’ It was more of, ‘I want to make a really fun party, and create a culture in Los Angeles around my label, Dim Mak records.’ From that point on, the next step for me as a DJ was to start actually producing. In 2005, I teamed up with another producer and we formed a group and started remixing.”

Aoki spent two years remixing different artists and developing a deep understanding of modern production tools, eventually coming to the realization that creating new music was where he was destined to be. “From 2005 to 2007, that was like my training wheels—my training period. The remixes that we were pumping out, [they were] all for fun. There was nothing serious about it. I was just having fun with [learning]. When it started hitting me that the music would actually be the reason why I would become successful, then I started actually honing down on the production and becoming a better producer.”

That focus on becoming a better producer began to lead to club hits with remixes, and then with his own music. But the garage band beginnings were never a huge distance away. “When I was jamming out with my friends in my friend’s mom’s house in the garage, it’s always like you get inspired by things that you see in front of you—like all the shows that I was going to. You see the energy that the bands are creating from the crowd. When [you’re] stage diving over the singer, grabbing the mic and singing their lyrics, and then floating on top of the crowd, and then 10 others are toppling all over you, you live for that experience, that moment. When you’re in the garage and you’re writing music, you want to write music that’s going to have that same intensity, that same energy, that same feeling—that’s the driving force between all of that. The same goes for when you’re in the studio. When I’m in the studio writing a song specifically for the club, I want to make people lose their minds. I want to make people push their head through different ceilings. I want them to be jumping, I want them to be expressing themselves and completely throwing their pretenses out the window and living for the music.”

Through it all, the connection between the music and his fans is a big part of what keeps it exciting and sustains long studio days and constant touring. “It’s always about this connection with the audience,” he says. “It’s not just the audience in the crowd, it’s the audience that are listening in their bedrooms, dancing on their beds, driving their cars. This is all about connecting with people. I love to see it firsthand, that’s why I love playing shows. I’m addicted to that feeling of constantly being connected. There [have] been some moving, moving times where I like to hear the story from my fans—who they are, what they are, where the music comes into their lives. How [it] inspires them or helps them. I remember meeting a fan [who] was dealing with cancer. She said that my music was the one thing that could keep her head up when she was dealing with all of her treatments. It made me realize how important music is in elevating people’s spirits and bringing people to a more positive place—to a place where you can actually escape from all the hardships in your life, whether it’s your horrible job, or in this case, cancer. It brings you back. It brings you back and it makes you realize that music is power, and it’s got a powerful feeling that you can’t quantify, you can’t put a value to. There’s no monetary value to that. That’s why it’s such a beautiful, spiritual experience. That’s why I’m addicted to it.”

When it all comes down to it, Aoki believes that if you want to do it, you need that blend of unabashed love for the music combined with the discipline to put in the work necessary for mastery. “Making music, playing music, it’s a constant love affair that keeps growing, and it’s all-encompassing. It’s what keeps you going. It’s something that’s … ingrained in you. You want to get up, and it’s not a chore to start working on a song or going out and DJing, or picking up a guitar and writing a song. All of these things—you find something incredible in being able to create something.”

His new album, Neon Future, required adopting a whole new creative strategy compared to Wonderland, his previous release. It was also created almost exclusively on his laptop, using Ableton Live and a versatile collection of plug-ins. “Wonderland was more a collection of singles rather than, underneath, one conceptual album,” Aoki says. “With [both volumes of] Neon Future, the majority of the concepts—the riffs, the melodies and the sound design—were all [written] and finessed in a matter of months. When I was producing Neon Future, I was obsessed and fascinated with future technology and began to be educated by the futurists of today talking about the exciting world of tomorrow and beyond.”

Aoki is very clear about how the future touches his music. “It’s a completely different process and, going into the evolution of music technology, it’s easy to state the obvious, which is you don’t need the big studios anymore,” he says. “The bedroom producers are coming up the ranks and showing their talent, which opens the pool of diversity for the mere fact that it doesn’t cost money necessarily to produce music. It’s enough to just get a computer and decent set of headphones. You can probably get to where you want to go and be as young as a tween [or] as old as a grandfather. Technology in music has created a lot more access. There’s a plug-in for practically anything to help you get to where you want to go—if you don’t know music theory, there’s a plug-in in Ableton that can help you find the right key in a minor or major scale or whatever scale you’re looking for. There’s a lot of things like this, and it’s all about how to find those tools to help you to get to where you want to go. That’s the point in music technology, that it’s going to get a lot easier for us to be able to speak this language and to keep advancing our music, and advancing our sounds and, at the same time, expanding our creativity.”

In that spirit, Aoki’s involvement in Guitar Center’s “Your Next Record” promotion is aimed at helping bring the excitement of creation and performing to the next generation, precisely because he remembers what it was like, working for that first break. “I still feel like being there was just yesterday for me,” he says. “I remember all those feelings of being young and being clueless and not knowing where to go, how to do this, how to do that. It was always the different people in my life that kept me in the game, that kept my head down, focused on my craft and to get better at that. To be able to work with young producers, and to work hand-in-hand with them, and work on something brand new [will] be really exciting. Artists like myself need to step away from the stage and step away from the studio, and give back to the community, because we were definitely there at one point.”

When asked about what he’d tell the next generation of DJs, Aoki is unequivocal. “The one advice I can give to all the young producers is that, first of all, you have to do it for the right reasons,” he says. “It’s not about the fame and the glory and the big crowds. You have to really love writing music, producing music. You have to really love what you’re doing first. Don’t think about [anything] else. Don’t think about jumping on that stage. Focus on yourself, and see if this is really the right place for you.”

Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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