Steve Aoki | Time Out Tokyo

Interview: Steve Aoki

The Japanese-American DJ on what makes Tokyo great, life lessons and how amazing Japanese cakes are

Written by
Kirsty Bouwers

Steve Aoki has become more than just a household name over the past few years: the energetic DJ has managed to break multiple world records for his sheer show stamina and touring miles accrued, and has cemented a place for himself in the fickle world of EDM, no matter what the critics may say.

We caught up with Steve by phone, right during a rare moment of downtime (sorry about that) at home in Las Vegas in between a 24-shows-in-a-month marathon, and chatted about what makes Tokyo great, life lessons and how amazing Japanese cakes are.

You're always bouncing back and forth between destinations, so when do you ever sleep?
Well, I’m back home now actually, so I do get some downtime – it differs a lot from being in Europe where you’re in a different city every day. I was in the studio last night, working on my new album which should be out this time next year, and then played a show here in Vegas and could just go home for a bit after that.

I’ve been on the road mostly for the past few years now and sleep whenever I can find a moment. I don’t get the opportunity that often so when I do it’s the best sleep ever.

You've spent quite some time in Tokyo before, performing, working on your Dim Mak collection and more. Do you have any favourite places in Tokyo?
I’m always excited about the Japanese design and fashion culture; I have a few Japanese designer friends such as Hiroshi Fujiwara, and I like stores such as Harajuku’s GR8. Also just wandering around Shinjuku and checking out all the little shops. And then you gotta get that ramen going obviously – there’s a sweet little spot in Roppongi that I like. Tons of shopping going down, that’s for sure.

I love Tokyu Hands, it’s so cool. It’s the perfect source for the ‘weird’, on the fringe Japan stuff, costumes, gadgets. I like to check out Parco Plaza too, I used to work with them on a fashion show, so I go there quite often. Japan is all about the speciality and specialisation of food, so if you want yakitori, you’ll go to this one place that does just that. You just gotta walk around and suss it out.

Is there anything you don’t like about being in Japan?
I don’t like that I can’t speak Japanese. That’s probably one of the big regrets in my life. I should’ve picked it up when I was younger, when I had the opportunity, but I just didn’t. I mean I can understand some things, but I can’t hold a conversation that well. And that kinda sucks, because I’m Japanese. 100 percent, through and through. But I can’t really have a conversation. That’s probably the worst thing about it.

In relation to that – how do you actually pronounce your last name?
[Laughs] I’m caught between two cultures. Actually, three. The American culture, which is 'Ay-o-ki', which I have to identify myself with living out here, especially performing at festivals and stuff where they say 'Ay-o-ki'. When I’m in Japan, I say ‘Steve Aoki’, the Japanese way. When I’m in Europe, I say ‘Steve Aoki’. Because in Europe they actually say it correctly. The Spanish say ‘Aoki’. The Italians say ‘Aoki’. The Portuguese say 'Aoki'. The French say 'Aoki'. The Germans say 'Aoki'... so yeah.

You used to not really talk about your personal life, until the Netflix documentary (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) came out. Then things seemed to change. 
Yeah, it’s… things changed, it’s almost like I’m not that person anymore. Justin Krook pretty much directed and sculpted the narrative of the film. A lot of things that are in the doc were things that I didn’t really premeditate. I didn’t really want to set out to talk about my family issues, or my background, or my personal drive, and the relationship with my father [Benihana restaurant chain founder Rocky Aoki].

But I’m glad he did that. The sessions I did with [Krook] were almost like therapy, doing those interviews – there’s lots of vulnerability there. One thing I’ve learnt is that I'm really proud of what my father has accomplished, and I’m really glad that he got to experience that.

Just the general idea of this young Japanese man who came to America and managed to accomplish what he did, despite all the struggles and the racism, and all the other stuff he had to deal with. He made a dent on American culture in a way that opened the door for a lot of other Japanese.

When I think about this film now, I think that what you’ll take away and what connects the people is that at the end of the day we might all come from different backgrounds or have very different stories, but there is something that we can relate to when it comes to the relationships we have with our parents and how that has an impact on our lives. People might see it and feel like ‘oh I want to hug my mum or call my dad’; I like hearing when that happens.

Is there any life lesson that you learnt from your father, or one from your mother?
More than a life lesson, my father really influenced how I see things and what’s important to me. So it’s not really about the restaurant business for example, but more about giving people an experience, and wanting that to be something that they cherish – that they’ll leave with a memory they’ll always remember.

Like Benihana – it’s a very tangible memory for many people. That’s what I try to do too: I’m giving them an experience. I always want to think about the moments I can help create, or feelings that I can connect with people – something unique, memorable.

The point of living is to share and connect with people, and we use music to do that, food to do that, entertainment… so it’s not about the business of making money, but more about optimising your connection and making that shareable, and making that sellable, essentially. That’s how I see all the things I do.

With my mom, she’s basically my anchor. I look at her and she inspires me to be more generous, more caring, more forgiving. Just the basic human qualities that you sometimes forget about in the hustle and bustle of life.

It's your first time at Ultra Japan. How does it feel to play in Japan, as opposed to any other place?
Japan has one of the most attentive crowds in the world. They really want to understand, they want to listen to what you have to say. So when the music stops and you speak, they’re completely silent.

They give you complete respect and respect what you want to say, they want to hear everything, they love it. So when you look out at the crowd, you’re not looking at people on drugs, who are high or drunk or whatever.

I’m sure there are people like that, but you really don’t have that feeling. They’re there for the music, what you have to say, they really care about music and how it’s presented, and that’s actually a very cultural thing.

Japanese people care about the presentation, and how to treat and greet you, and that’s just traditionally how they are. You see that in the show and the reception. Doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 10,000 people, they’re all conveying some kind of respect. It’s incredible.

Your performances are rather energetic, but how does that translate to such a ‘respectful’ place like Japan, with you throwing cakes and whatnot? 
They 100 percent react – in a respectful way. In the sense that they see me not giving a fuck, I’m basically telling them, 'you shouldn’t give a fuck either – you should be freaking your shit'.

You should be sweating your face off, you should be spinning around and dancing and raving. That’s what I’m doing: I’m basically saying 'fuck the rules'. So you can feel free in this moment. And out of respect, they do the same thing. And I love that.

You know, they leave their fucking crazy-ass, busy-ass jobs. They come here, and I want them to not think about that for a moment. Just go fucking apeshit and have fun, lose themselves in the music and moment.

And that’s why I like the cake, because it’s a perfect moment to really go ‘it all doesn’t matter’. Japanese love their cake, too. I mean, the Japanese pastry… these cakes, they’re my favourite cakes in the world. They’re the best cakes in the world, I’m not kidding. They just taste so good.

So do you have a specific type or flavour of cake you like to throw in that case?
Well yeah, let’s just say we have six pages of the rider dedicated to the cake. So yeah, I’ll just leave it there. There’s a lot of respect for the cake.

Last but not least: will you ever retire?
Ehm… I don't know [laughs]. I mean, who knows what will happen. I’m just trying to live in the moment, go from there.

Catch Steve at Ultra Japan on September 18

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