DJ Steve Aoki Looks to the (Neon) Future

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One of the most popular DJs in the world, Steve Aoki gets conceptual on his most recent albums, Neon Future I and Neon Future II. Filled with cameos, the two albums allow Aoki to show off his incredible range. On “Back to Earth,” a song with emo rockers Fall Out Boy, he delivers ricocheting beats that escalate with the song’s steady tempo. “Born to Get Wild,” a tune featuring rapper, also features terrific pop choruses and refrains along with the kind of drop in tempo that characterizes most contemporary EDM. Aoki recently phoned us from his L.A. studio to talk about the Neon Future projects and his long and storied career. He performs at 9 p.m. on Friday at Liquid.

Talk about your background and how you ending up gravitating toward electronic music and DJ culture.
It’s a long story, but I moved to L.A. after graduating from college and started DJing at small bars and parties. Then, I started remixing artists and then just got better and put out my first original single in 2008. It’s a long story.

In college, you produced do-it-yourself records and ran underground concerts at UC-Santa Barbara. What was that experience like?
That was pre-DJing. I was putting on concerts in my living room. It was bands — it wasn’t DJs. I didn’t know anything about DJs back then. I had more than 400 bands play in my living room. I was in the world of music. It just wasn’t the world of electronic music. I was putting on shows in high school and even in my tween years when I was 14 and 15 I was in bands. I was playing guitar and learning to play instruments and forming bands. When you’re in a hardcore band back then, you had to put on your own shows. You had to put out your own zines. You had to learn to do the DIY thing on a very rudimentary level. No one will support you but you and your friends. It’s the same sort of concept.

College students make for a great audience.
In college, you have a bigger network and things can spread much faster. Everyone is young. When I think about college, that’s my demographic of people who listen to my music. That’s why we always do college tours. Students have time to download my music and stream it on Spotify because it’s not on the radio. The lionshare of people listening to my music are in college.

How’d you end up DJing?
My friend was playing a party, and I have a big vinyl collection. I was playing all kinds of stuff. In the beginning, I wasn’t mixing. I was just playing music at a bar. I would play an entire record, a 10-inch or 12-inch.

You probably had records that other people didn’t have.

In 2012, you released the artist album Wonderland. What was that experience like?
It was kind of a scattered process. I didn’t know what it was like to have a concept. The reason I called it Wonderland is because my house in Laurel Canyon is on Wonderland Avenue. I produced my whole album at my house. It was just a collection of singles. The song “Come With Me” that I did with Deadmeat dated as early as 2007. There were ideas that made the cut and others that I wrote right before I dropped the album. It was an important step. It was Grammy-nominated so for me it was a really big deal.

Can you talk about the first Neon Future project. What did you hope to achieve with the album?
The concept is about this idea of this convergence of technology and our humanity colliding and combining together. It’s why I have [author and scientist] Ray Kurzweil on Neon Future I and why I have [sci-fi director] J.J. Abrams on Neon Future II. I’m mixing science and tech.

And what about Neon Future II?
They were both concocted at the same time. I spent a few months in the studio in 2013 and had 60 to 80 different ideas and amalgamations of songs that would boil down to the 18 different songs. I split them up to different albums. The songs fit together differently. Neon Future I is more of an introduction. There are more party songs. That’s why there’s Fall Out Boy and Waka Flocka Flame and and “Delirious” with Kid Ink. Neon Future II is more meta, and it’s deeper. There are more emotional songs on there. The Linkin Park track is one of the darkest songs I’ve done with them but “I Love It When You Cry” is more of a fun song.

You’re working on another one?
Neon Future III is my next project and it’s coming out next year. It’s with Blink 182 and Wale, and I’m doing a whole EP with this new rapper. That’s not part of Neon Future. We’ll do our own project.

Electronic music is more popular now than ever. Why?
College awareness is a big one. Festival culture growing in America is a big one. The idea that people love to go to festivals and that they’re generally the satellites for this kind of music [has contributed]. We’re not on the radio, so the only way to find out about us is through festivals and word of mouth. Streaming has made it easier to discover music.

Talk about your approach to DJing. You just don’t spin records. It’s really a live performance.
As a DJ you’re controlling a musical narrative and experience that people will have. You want to tell the story in the most dynamic way possible. I want to create a memory. I want to create something that people won’t forget. I love mixing and playing and when I’m playing deep house sets, I focus more on the mix itself. If I’m doing a big concert, I want to connect with people as well as creating this music story. By doing other things in my set, it adds a different kind of element to the show. People have a memory of it. They have something they can go back to and they can say, “I remember that Aoki show from back in the day.”

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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