There was a time when artists were just artists, celebrities hung out in Studio 54 and records were strictly vinyl. In this day and age, when the line between artist and celebrity are blurred, it’s easy to question whether the old school passion for music has warped into a steroid pulsing, hyped-up Pauly D-version of its old self.
Despite the manic fist pumping that follows the very first beat of the Lion King remix—which reverberates from LA to Japan alike—it’s become clear there’s nothing old school about Steve Aoki.
Producer, notorious DJ, clothing line entrepreneur and an Orange County native, he’s re-mixed the very look and feel of popular culture, music and the party scene.
In light of his show tomorrow night at Stages (not to mention his sold-out tour schedule), Steve Aoki talks to the Journal about the future of music, the endeavor of dreams and the struggle to find himself in the midst of North American culture.
You’re coming to Kingston tomorrow for a show and you’ve come several other times in the past—what keeps you coming back?
I love Kingston—I think this is my third show in Kingston. I don’t know what it is about Kingston but it’s a memorable place. I always have great memorable shows, the crowd is very energetic, they’re crazy and I find myself always dropping new songs and I’m playing a lot of new music and I’ll drop a few new tracks from the album coming out this year.
What’s your nightlife like—local bars, after-parties?
Not really, I don’t drink. So the bar life for me is kind of obsolete; but I’ll go to socialize with friends in L.A., but I don’t really do after-parties. After the show I just want to go home to sleep or just relax. Every time I go to an after-party in general it’s more of a problem because I can’t really hang, you know? Everyone wants to take photos and I’m not really able to hang out, it’s not like I have friends there; it’s crazy drunk people.
You played with Chiddy Bang at the Pacific Festival, how was that?
That was great. They’re on my album so the boys came out and it was the first time we performed our songs together live. The crowd loved it.
What do you think is the current state of music quality in our generation?
The access to music has changed dramatically and people can get all kinds of music from the internet, on their computers, from technology. And also just the access to producing music has also changed.
Do you think that lowers music standards?
It’s give and take. You can say it lowers music standards but you can also say that because of the fact that there’s an abundance of music out there, if you’re looking for a gem, you’ll find them more often because there’s more produced.
The bar has been lowered for sure, I agree with you, but it allows for more music so that way you can have a range or a different scene or different scenes can come out of that … it doesn’t matter that there’s a million DJs—there’s a million singers, there’s a million plumbers. It’s a fun job and you know, I don’t blame people for getting into it. It’s a fun job that pays the bills if you get booked and it’s a big amount of money and now there’s programs like Tractor where you don’t really have to work and so even more people do it.
It’s just human nature: people just want to explore it, they’re bringing entertainment and it’s fun. So when you’re at the house party it’s fun to be the DJ on the iPod. Like hey, I want to play Arcade Fire, okay now I want to play MIA, Jay Z then I’m going to go back to Bloc Party. It’s fun to be that guy.
How does a kid from suburban Orange County—aside from Ryan Atwood—become an icon of hipster culture?
It’s a really long story. I guess I’m a byproduct of conservative white upper-class suburban Southern California’s lifestyle and I was trying to find my own identity … and I found hardcore and punk and it was my safe haven in that really close minded community, and that really was the start of it. I got into straight edge hardcore and the whole politics of it, like the DIY lifestyle and getting involved in music that way.
It’s like this: it’s like I’m a kid and I—the only two fights I’ve been in growing up were racially motivated, like white kids making fun of me because I was Asian—I didn’t really fit in. I tried to fit in but I just couldn’t … so the kind of people who accepted me were these skaters that were all straight edge and they became my group of friends.
…The thing about punk and hardcore is that it’s not just the music, but there’s this whole lifestyle that developed inside the community so the concept of DIY … trying to figure things out, and making your own zines.
That’s what I did when I was 16. I started my own zines, I interviewed bands, I learned how to play guitar, drums, bass, keyboards, without any traditional training at all. I started bands, I was in bands playing music, I was doing my own shows by the time I was 17, and it’s not an issue of money, it’s not like you need money. Me and my friends would go to Kinko’s and were practically robbing the copy place for all the paper and then just staying up late and fucking doing it ourselves.
I took that philosophy with me to college and intellectualized it when I was in college and that’s when Dim Mak records was founded; and Dim Mak records is really more of a direct link of who I am today. I’ve been doing the label for almost 15 years, I’ve put out over 190 records from the label, we’ve signed Bloc Party, the Kills, the hardcore bands, emo bands, indie bands, the Bloody Beetroots, MSTKRFT and that all started with that concept, that lifestyle, that philosophy, from the hardcore punk ethics that I was raised in.
And that’s a by-product of me being in a Neoconservative, white upper, class suburban area. If I lived in a very welcoming community, I mean who knows, I’d probably end up being a hippy. It’s a nice neighbourhood, it’s beautiful, the beaches, trust me—but the people.
… I’m 32 years old, and I look back and I don’t have problem with them now, but when I was 14, 15 even younger, 10, 11, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t fit in, why I wasn’t making friends, why I was picked on, why I was ashamed of being Asian. I couldn’t understand all those things, and later in life I understood it and as I was finding my identity growing up as a kid living in that world I learned how to rebel.
I didn’t really understand rebellion but I learned that that’s what made me feel more independent, more of myself and I was able to intellectualize rebellion when in college and make sense of it and do the right things from it.
Is that what you hope your music will help do with your audience?
To me it’s like, the most important and basic thing is that you want to focus all your energy on the things that you love. You have to be willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to do the things that you love, to do the things you want to produce or be a part of something that speaks your language. If it’s fucking dogs, and you want to save dogs, you do your thing to save dogs. If it’s cancer, you fight for that. If you want to fight for the empowerment of the people that relate to you, fight for that—it can be anything.
Do you see yourself ever settling down, becoming an accountant?
Wear suits? I like wearing suits. I don’t mind wearing suits. But yeah, eventually, sure; who knows, life is filled with change. Five years ago I couldn’t predict where I’d be now. Ten years ago there’s no possible way in hell I’d even think I’m where I am today. And even 12 years ago I thought I was going to be a professor at some college writing books and doing that sort of thing; I didn’t see myself following a career path of music. But either way life is filled with things you never know. I may not even be alive or I may live until I’m 90 on an island with a big white beard and I’m just fishing for my dinner.
Wow. Okay. Moving on, you majored in women’s studies, any alternate career paths you considered before DJing?
Yeah, DJing was never even a discussion. At that time I never knew a DJ, I wasn’t a DJ. I started DJing when I was 23, to give you some kind of time frame. DJing was nowhere near what I was planning on becoming.
It was kind of a strange thing to do, you become a DJ when you’re in high school, but for me music at that time was entirely a recreational thing, there’s no way that you could make money off of music, that’s what I thought. When I’m in a band and I’m selling out shows in Japan and I come off tour and I make only about a couple hundred. So think about it, even when I’m selling out shows in Japan, after we split it up between everyone, we’re leaving with a couple hundred dollars, it’s incredible.
The music, the label, that was all for the love of music. I really was planning on staying in academia, getting my PhD, writing books doing research on the things I was interested in. Teaching was not really my thing; I’m not really meant to be on a stage talking, lecturing, but of course I would have to do that eventually. But that’s really what I was going for, so when I majored in sociology and women’s studies I was gearing myself to that world. Sometimes even now it’s strange that I’m a DJ, it wasn’t supposed to happen; it wasn’t supposed to be.
What’s the legacy you’re creating?
I want to be remembered for the music. It always speaks for itself; you don’t need to explain anything, you don’t need to talk about anything. When you hear a song that you like, you feel something you can’t really explain, and that’s what I want people to remember about the music I produced and was a part of. And before I was even producing music I was supporting artists and being associated with those artists; that was very crucial in my life.
Ever thought of doing an autobiography? Kind of Kurt Kobain’s diaries meets Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk?
No—but I think our plan is, we’re going to do a Dim Mak book. I don’t want to say any dates because I don’t know how long this will take—but there’s just so much context in the Dim Mak world with all the events that we do, the different festivals, the parties, the labels, the artists we’ve signed and support and there’s a lot of interesting moments from touring like a maniac for the past four years.
Did you ever have one of those dreaded moments—the equipment doesn’t work, speakers’ feedback, computer crashes?
Many times. Many times. I put on a clown’s outfit and just start tap dancing. I say a couple of jokes, spin on my head a few times … no, I’m kidding. It’s very stressful; it’s the one thing that makes me nervous. Once you’re in the swing of things you can do anything, but first you have to get there.
Do you ever get used to that feeling when your computer crashes in the middle of a show—do you ever get comfortable with it?
Never. Never. Probably ‘til the day I die. I’m a pretty nervous guy to begin with, I get nervous all the time.
If you had time for a hobby, what would it be?
I do have a hobby.
What is it?
Instead of after-parties, if you put on a poker game, I will go to that.
I’ll try to set something up.
Yeah, if you put on a serious poker game, that’s something I’ll go to. There’s a function in that.
Are you a bluffer?
Only ten per cent of the time.
Steve Aoki spins a sold-out show tomorrow night at Stages. Doors open at 9 p.m.
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