It's not every day you meet a DJ as well-versed as Steve Aoki. He books the biggest venues and headlines the top music festivals, he signs the most infectious artists to his label, Dim Mak, and somehow he still manages to produce a new spring collection for his clothing line and plan the launch of his second restaurant for June. We got a chance to catch up with the DJ to chat about some of his recent endeavors, what it's like to remix the king of pop and how he gets geared up to play Electric Zoo 2010. Read on to see what DJ Steve Aoki had to say.
How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard it before?
When I’m playing in the club, I play club records, like hard, kind of stomping dance music. But the music that I produce is very diverse. The album I’m producing, which should be dropping this year, features a variety of stuff from actual song writing to fun, dancey jams. But in the club, I’m playing the really big, stomping bangers.
What qualities of your music or your performances separate you from the rest of the DJs out there?
I sing on a few tracks and I do some vocals when I’m performing live, so that’s really a different element altogether. Also, I play punk songs in my set, and that in itself is already completely different; it breaks the formula of your ordinary DJ. The punk songs I’m playing are actually from my band. During my DJ sets I perform the songs, like I sing over the songs live, and some people hate that because it’s like rapid-fire beats underneath screaming hardcore.
Can you tell us a little more about your band?
I started the band with Bob Rifo from The Bloody Beetroots and it’s called “Rifoki” which is a combination of our last names put together. It started as an idea for a project when we did the track “Warp” together in Italy last year. We were in this small town, in the studio for five days straight, and we recorded five songs in five days. We integrate it both in my set and in The Bloody Beetroots’ set; Bob sings it live as well. We just released the record, so people can buy it now on iTunes.
You’ve been around and have maintained success for quite a while now, which requires some evolution – especially in electronic music where the trends change so quickly. How has your sound or technique evolved since you started out and do you see it going in any particular direction now?
There’s definitely an evolution, for sure. For one thing, my background wasn’t always in electronic music; it was in hardcore punk. When I got into DJing, I didn’t really know anything about DJing or DJ culture. I didn’t really have DJ heroes at the time; my heroes were rock bands. I evolved from that world, but still kept traces of my roots in the style that I play, so that kept the sound unique to me. The sound is aggressive, you either love it or you hate it. If you listen to Roger Sanchez, you probably won’t like my style.
Who are the ones that do like your style?
I think my music is more geared towards kids, because the kids are the ones that want to get into it, the ones getting sweaty, dancing hard. Then there are the bottle-poppers and the “champagne people,” the people that spend money. Somehow I’ve been able to speak their language as well. In the beginning, those people hated the music I played because it didn’t let them get groovy with their Ed Hardy t-shirts, but now I’m seeing that they’re getting into it. I’m also not trying to pigeon-hole my sound. I’m just trying to speak a certain language and if you can get it and you can vibe on that same level, then it’s meant for you. I’m definitely not trying to exclude anyone. If you want to get into it, then get into it. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing Christian Audigier or Coogi.
What are your favorite club tracks at the moment? Are there any songs you throw on during your set that just really get the crowd going?
I’m playing 90% my own material, songs that I’ve produced or remixed. There are a lot of tracks that I’ve collaborated on that have a different sound because they’re done with different producers. A track I did with Laidback Luke is going to be different than a track I did with Afrojack or a track I did with Armand Van Helden. Some songs are hard and aggressive and some songs build into that, so I’ll play them all in my set, but I’ll try to mix them according to the style, so it’s not chaotic.
It’s important to stay fresh and current and ahead of the game with your set. You want to play brand new joints. Felix Cartal is an amazing producer. We just signed him on Dim Mak and his album just came out, so I’ve been playing his tracks. The Bloody Beetroots’ new single “Domino” is a monster track, it really feels like a journey. "Told Ya" by Sandro Silva is a really buzzed-about DJ track. A lot of DJs have been hitting me up asking me to give them that track. It’s got this like Brazilian vocal on a Dutch beat – very simple, very bare-boned, but right to the point. Mustard Pimp has a new track called “Paper” off their EP, which I really like. There’s a new track I did with Afrojack called “No Beef” – that’s like a working title, we might change the name – but I’ve been playing that one a lot. Also, there's a track I did with Laidback Luke and Lil Jon called “Turbulance.” I debuted that at WMC, that’s a really fun track to play.
You’ve just been announced as one of the performers at this summer’s Electric Zoo festival. How does playing a show like this differ from playing in a nightclub? Do you do anything different when preparing?
It’s different because you’re playing to a really diverse audience where a lot of people might not have even heard of you before. They might have just passed your tent and heard music and maybe knew your name but would never come to your show – we get a lot of those people at festivals. In clubs, you play tracks that you like, that you’re having fun with, all kinds of songs, regardless of whether they’re your tracks or not. At festivals you kind of want to showcase your sound and your production to the world, and to a new audience. That’s the point. You’re not playing to a club where you’re trying to please everyone, you’re really trying to perform and play a signature sound. When I started playing lots of festivals, I started playing more of my own material and actually writing specifically for a festival audience. So when I’m playing club tracks in the studio I start thinking, “How is this going to sound at a festival?” And then sometimes I’ll go in the studio and write like a big studio banger that’s not meant for an album, but meant for a festival.
So the festival songs differ from the club songs, what do you change up about your actual performance?
There’s always that element of surprise that makes people more excited to see a festival performance. At Coachella, I pulled out four inflatable boats and sent like seven dancers in the boats and they kind of floated around over the crowd. But some of the most typical things you would see during a DJ set, like the light show, are really the most important parts at a festival. When you see a Tiesto show at a festival, you don’t really get to see Tiesto because all you see is fucking crazy lights around him… and that’s what makes that show crazy. With the lights and the music going together, you’re no longer looking at the DJ, you’re tranced out in a different world. It’s hard to do that during a daytime show because because you don’t really get to use your environment as much.
Can you tell us a bit about the newer collaborations or remixes you’ve done with Lenny Kravitz, The Faint, and particularly Michael Jackson? I mean, what is it like to remix the work of such an incredibly iconic artist?
When Motown called me to do the Michael Jackson remix, I pretty much fell on the floor. I mean, my first concert was Michael Jackson. Everyone knows Michael Jackson, everyone loves Michael Jackson and when I first started DJing, I was playing Michael Jackson. I learned how to beat match on “Billy Jean” because you have that intro with just the kick and the snare. So, yeah, it was just amazing. First of all, I got to pick the track that I wanted, so I picked “Dancing Machine.” I got to hear the original sessions with the engineer and the band and the drums being recorded with like two mikes and it still sounded so fucking good. Certain things like that, all those organic elements, are really exciting when you are able to rework a track 25 years later.
Is there an artist you haven’t worked with before that you would like to collaborate with in the future?
Jay-Z would be fucking amazing to work with or working with someone in a completely different world, like a classical composer. I’d like to see what would come out of something like that. Rihanna or Madonna, bigger names are harder to come by, so working with them would be great. I’ve been able to put some people I’ve been a fan of for a long time on the tracks I’ve been putting together for my first solo album. I got to work with people like Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Kele from Bloc Party, Sky Ferreria who’s like a new female pop singer, Super Blaq – amazing producer and vocalist – Travis Barker, Lil Jon, Kid Cudi, Taio Cruz, Blaqstarr… so it’s kind of a mix of different vocals that I’ve got on this album.
Besides music, you also have a clothing line, Dim Mak Collection, which debuted some pretty trippy designs for spring 2010, including one t-shirt which blatantly reads “The Kids Want Acid.” What was the inspiration behind the new collection?
That collection was our psychedelic festival collection. I think when we put that collection together we were listening to MGMT and The Bloody Beetroots a lot, so it’s somewhere in that world, we used that palette of colors and we kind of put that collection together with our designers. “The Kids Want Acid” was an idea that I came up with, those trippy kind of like you’re on acid letters and the logo was the skull with the Indian headdress, that’s part of that world. In general it’s always the music that helps to frame the collection, but really it’s a number of things, it’s not just the music. The music is one element, one major element, but we also have to change the color palettes and the themes for every season so when we get together and kind of brainstorm what we’re going to change, everyone kind of throws in their ideas. We have one collection coming out for next year that’s more punk-driven so it’s more minimal colors. We’re only using like three different colors.
Besides music and fashion, what else are you up to?
I opened a restaurant last year, a Korean BBQ restaurant called “Shin” and I’m opening another restaurant in June that’s close to my house. It’s all about locally grown foods, organic foods, and the menu is more of what I would eat so I’m really excited about that. In general, my life in the last three-and-a-half years has been on the road. I’ve been away from home so much that it just makes me miss being here, so I’m looking forward to just doing more LA activities.
If you're in New York City this weekend, you can catch Steve Aoki live this Friday night with Benny Benassi at Pacha NYC. Doors open at 11 p.m. and presale tickets are still available at pachanyc.com.