The last time inthemix spoke to Steve Aoki, the burning question was: Who the fuck is Steve Aoki? Less than a year down the track, there’s little confusion about just who the Dim Mak head-honcho is. As well as being the founder of one of the most prominent dance music labels around; he’s a DJ, producer, LA scenester and even a fashion designer. Now, with the release of his first full-length studio album Wonderland imminent, Steve Aoki is on the verge of adding another very-shiny notch to his belt. In the lead-up to the big release, we took a few moments out with the man to discuss why the dance industry is becoming self-sufficient, “fuckin’ hair gel” and not necessarily being a hipster.
Hi Steve. So your album is about to drop, what can we expect from it?
This album has a lot of different defining bits for me, personally. You know, I spent 3-4 years building this project so to me it’s not just an album; it’s a collection of work I’ve been working on for some time. And I’m just so happy it’s all out now, because I’ve been saving all these tracks. In the meantime, I’ve been putting out these club singles that kind of define me as an artist in one space, in the club world. So to put out these records as diverse as they are, and working with all these artists – vocalists, rappers, and making a funky record, a dubstep record, a progressive record, a hardcore/electro record – I really wanted to go across the spectrum of music that influenced me.
Yeah, because I was going to ask – even though you’ve been in the game for over ten years now, this is your first full studio album – why did you wait so long to put it out?
Well, in the beginning there was no deadlines for me, I didn’t really have a goal in mind. As a DJ, you don’t really need to put out an album to survive. You can tour off singles and people will still care about coming to see your live show or being excited by your music, if you put out a single that mixes things up a bit. So I thought I’d put out a couple of singles here and there on the sideline and saved them for this project, this album. And at the end of 2010 I was like “that’s it, I have come to a point where I need to finish this thing”, so every day that I was home in Los Angeles, because I was away a lot doing gigs, so every day I was home I would be working in the studio. I did like 100 days in the studio to finalise all these tracks and get them done, and here it is.
There’s lots of big name collabs on the album. Which was your favourite to record?
There was no real favourite, in all honesty, because they’re all unique and everyone I worked with was amazing. There are unique stories: like working with Redfoo from LMFAO, in the six hours that we worked together to do his vocals we talked music together the whole time, like music theory and just had a great time. He’s just fast; he’s intuitive, like with a song – an instrumental – he can write to it really quickly.
It seems as though the music scene in LA has quite a social aspect to it, I get the impression that a lot of people come to collaborate because they’re friends already. Was that true for you?
Yeah, it’s a very convenient place for me to have my studio and for me to get my album done. The album’s called Wonderland because I live on Wonderland Ave, and that’s where my studio is, so it is a really great place for music. Some people live here – like for example Travis Barker, will.i.am is here, Kid Cudi is here, Rivers Cuomo lives in LA. LMFAO is from LA, I’ve known those guys forever. And a lot of people come to LA, so it made things a lot easier.
Do you feel like DJing has changed between now and when you first started, because of advances in technology or how big dance music is at the moment?
I think there’s all kinds of reasons and they’re all coming together to make this explosion happen. I think one of the most important ones is the way in which people have access to music – that’s totally changed. In the past, the radio and TV dictated what people listened to, it was what created popular culture. It was why Lady Gaga and Rihanna got big, that’s what you would assume. Now, the way in which kids care about music is that they’re bypassing TV and radio altogether, they don’t care so much about that. If they want to hear a Skrillex song, they go on YouTube. And you can see yourself from how Skrillex was the best new artist in the Grammy’s: that’s not because of radio and TV, that’s because people are discovering it for themselves on YouTube and Facebook and all that kind of stuff.
So it’s a really incredible time now for independent artists to be able to hold the power themselves. They don’t need major labels to get their music out there, they’ve just got to make great music. I think that’s why dance music has become so big; once again, this is the underground music. There’s only a few guys out there in the dance world that have made it to that radio, which speaks volumes about how we’re still underground – but we have a really big, massive underground. David Guetta’s on the radio, Afrojack’s sometimes on the radio – besides that can you think of anyone else? Maybe Avicii. People are finding music without popular culture.
Do you think that’s a good thing?
Oh, it’s amazing! It means we don’t need popular culture, or big money industry to dictate if we’re going to have fans, if we’re going be able to tour, if we’re going to be able to produce music that people are going to care about: we’re going to be a self-sufficient industry. It’s almost like anarchist, we’ve got a system with no government, whatever we want to dictate, we dictate.
So you’ve got your own headphones, fashion range and magazine among other ventures – do DJs have to be a brand rather than just staying behind the decks to be successful?
I think that people should do whatever they believe in. If you really believe in something, you should do it. That’s the power, the concept of DIY lifestyle, the punk thing: if I have the tools to get from point A, to point B, and I want to get to point B, then I would strive for that.
It’s not like everyone needs to be a brand, or everyone should have their own headphones, everyone should have their own socks, everyone should have their own underwear and fuckin’ hair gel. It’s like, if you love hair gel and that’s what you want to put your time and money into, then you should do it! If you love lamps and everything about lamps then fuck man, make your own lamp! Make it totally cool and distinctive and so if people look at that lamp they’ll go “fuck man, that’s interesting and unique” and “that guy knows everything about lamps”. So it’s just – you have to do it for the right reasons. If people are just doing things ‘cause they can, it’s sad and it’s unfortunate that that happens. Because authenticity means everything, at least to me. If I buy from a certain person, I’ve got to believe in what they’re saying.
You’ve shrugged off suggestions of being a hipster before – is that a label you want to avoid?
No, I mean. I just think that it’s funny because a hipster will never say they’re a hipster if they are a hipster. Don’t you agree? It’s like, you can’t call yourself a hipster if you really are a hipster (laughing) – it’s such a fucking strange concept! I’m like, I’m many things, I’m not necessarily a hipster, I could say I have hipster traits, characteristics, I’ll admit that. But at the end of the day, I’m so many other things that mean so much more to me that I’d rather be defined by, things other than being a hipster. Because there’s so many important things happening in the world that have nothing to do with hipster-isms, ha!
Wonderland is out in Australia through Liberator on Friday 3 February.