Steve Aoki talks albums vs. singles, performing on TV and dance music in America
It may not be accurate to call Steve Aoki the face of the new electronic music movement in America. But he certainly has the face to be the face.
With his lanky frame, drowsy eyes and long streams of wispy black hair, Aoki is one of the few DJs in the country as instantly identifiable as the bespectacled Skrillex or the masked, grinning caricature known as deadmau5. Perhaps that’s why Aoki, founder of the influential and successful electronic-music label Dim Mak, has become one of the country’s top touring DJs, spinning for tens of thousands of fans at massive festivals and on TV at the mtvU Woodie Awards.
With his glossy synthesizers and seductive electro beats, Aoki, 34, bridges the gap between Top 40 pop and indie-club cred. And in January, he released his first proper album, Wonderland, featuring collaborations with LMFAO, Kid Cudi and Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo.
On May 16, Aoki will return to Tampa for the first time since last summer’s Identity Festival for a show at the Ritz Ybor (tickets are $25-$35; click here). We caught up with him by phone to chat about the state of dance music in America.
Last summer at the Identity Festival, I was walking around, and I saw you come out on this little Mongoose bike and start taking pictures with fans. Do you take that bike everywhere on tour?
On a bus tour, I can do that, because we have a semi truck that carries all our stuff. I’ll just mess around and explore. It brings out the little kid inside of me. But flying around, I can’t really do that.
What’s the biggest difference that you’ve noticed between performing live in 2012 and, say, 2009?
In America, it’s just blown up. And it’s not just the amount of people. It’s the energy. The excitement. The enthusiasm. The passion. All of that is just incredible. You play a festival show, say, Ultra, and you can see 50,000 people in front of you, if you’re playing the main stage. But not only do you see that many people, you see at least half of them, like 20,000, jumping in unison. It’s incredible to be able to have that kind of energy and connection with the audience.
When something takes off like a wave, like dance music has in America the last couple of years, do you lose control of what you do? Do you find yourself pulled in directions you don’t want to go?
The way I see myself as an artist is always based on my music. So it pushes me to get the music out there more often. I’ve been in the studio a lot more, focusing on crafting my songs better, and (becoming) more connected to what I’m excited about right now. That kind of music is global. It translates across languages and cultures. And on tour, I see it. Some of these places I’ve played, they might not understand my English, but they understand the songs.
Given how successful Dim Mak has become, has part of you considered stopping touring altogether?
Well, before I was even an artist, I was always doing Dim Mak. Just in the last three or four years have I really taken myself seriously as an artist. I was just excited to see where this was going, and get my album out. I’m just glad that Dim Mak has grown. When I first started the label, it was just me. And now we have 18 people working full time for the company. So even if I was to take a break and work in the office with everyone, I have such a dedicated staff that handles so much of the different projects and the different compartmentalization of this business. These guys are running the day-to-day in a very efficient, effective way. I’m happy with what they’re doing. So we’ll see.
There are a couple of Dim Mak artists coming to Tampa in the next few weeks — Datsik, Mustard Pimp, Dirtyphonics. Anybody on the label that you’re particularly excited about?
We’re releasing Infected Mushroom’s new album. Alvin Risk’s new EP came out; it’s his first real record on the market. I’m really a big supporter of his productions and he’s a good guy. He’s part of the Skrillex camp as well. Obviously Datsik’s album’s doing really well for us. We’re very supportive of his career. And Felix Cartel. We have a very wide range of artists, and we have the facility and the infrastructure to support them, which is what’s important.
A lot of DJs aren’t even releasing albums. They’re just doing singles, remixes, mixtapes, whatever. Why was it important to you to release an album?
I come from a world of rock 'n’ roll, where albums defined artists. It wasn’t the EP that defined you, it was the album. It wasn’t a particular song. Like Weezer’s Pinkerton album is what’s defining of Weezer to me, not El Scorcho. Or Propagandhi’s Less Talk, More Rock — that entire album was the centerpiece of the punk time in my life. Or Gorilla Biscuits’ Start Today. Or the Prodigy’s first album. So for me, I’m still in that space. I want to put out an album that’s defining of my sound in 2012.
And I agree with you — it’s the singles that define DJs. And some of the top 10 DJs in the world don’t release albums at all — Afrojack, Laidback Luke, Avicii. They don’t have albums, but they’re considered literally the top DJs in the world, and they have every right, because these songs are global hits that transcend culture and language.
I imagine everyone in pop music wants to find their own David Guetta or Calvin Harris, somebody they can pair with to score that crossover hit. Was it easy for you to find collaborators for this album?
It’s not easy, man. It’s one thing to talk to someone about doing a record, and it’s another thing to actually do the record. And then you have to deal with the label, you have to deal with making sure that it makes sense for their career to do it, the timing — there’s so many different steps behind the scenes that have to take place. This album, I was able to get it all done because I really took it upon myself to reach out to all the different artists. All of them, I know on a personal basis. It’s like, I can’t reach out to, like, Garth Brooks, you know what I mean? I have to know someone that actually respects and likes my music.
How do you know Garth Brooks doesn’t like your music?
Yeah, I mean, who knows? But I know will.i.am personally; he’s been coming to Dim Mak parties in L.A. for years, supporting dance music. We already did a record together. So working with him was very natural and organic. I’ve known Kanye forever. I’ve known Travis Barker for a long time. These are people that I look to as my party partners in crime. I hit up these people because I know them personally, they know where I’m coming from, what my take on the dance world is.
On Earthquakey People, was there a lot of back-and-forth between you and Rivers Cuomo?
I love Rivers, man. Before I even started working with him, he was a god to me. I’m a huge Weezer fan. A couple of years ago, Interscope asked me to remix a Weezer song, and I just was floored. I did it, and, Rivers hit me back, like, 'This is the best Weezer remix in our history to date.” That floored me, too. We started talking, played shows together, and then one thing led to another, and I asked him to do a song on the album, and he was down. Such a good guy. Such a really good human being.
You performed at the mtvU Woodie Awards. Is there any part of you that’s uncomfortable performing on TV? I know some DJs, like Skrillex, won’t do it. The energy of a rave, you just can’t get that through TV.
It’s true, man. You’re absolutely right about that. It is kind of uncomfortable. Even for the Woodies, they had to break up each of the songs, so after every song, I had to fade out and then start up again. There was this awkwardness to it. But I was happy to be part of the Woodie Awards, because the award itself is all about honoring the underground culture of music.
How did you feel after the fact? Did you feel like it went okay when you saw the video?
Honestly, I didn’t really watch it. When someone takes a picture with me, I don’t like looking at the photo. Sometimes I just don’t like looking at something like that, that I’m involved in. I’ll criticize it too much.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*