Outcast turned electro musician, Steve Aoki, makes nonconformity cool
As a young boy growing up in Newport Beach, Steve Aoki stuck out like a sore thumb. He was too small to fit in with the jocks, he had a traditional Japanese home wherein no English was spoken, he loved rock music, and his father, a former Japanese Olympic wrestler and the founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, was an estranged figure living on the east coast.
“The status quo is very conservative, one-sided, with not much character,” Aoki says of Newport. “You’re either in, or you’re very out.”
When he couldn’t break into the athletic circle as a teenager, Aoki was welcomed with open arms into the punk community—a niche that the now-electro house musician credits as his inspiration in song and in life.
“The punk rock scene in Newport Beach was thriving—it’s very much like Revenge of the Nerds,” says Aoki, who began making music at 16. “Before I was introduced to electronica, I was a live rock guy, recording tracks in my bedroom; that became my life.”
Today, Aoki’s eclectic musical influences are ever-present in his rave-ready tracks—high energy techno remixes of songs by a myriad of artists from all genres including Drake, Robin Thicke, Bloc Party, Snoop Dogg and Duran Duran.
“It’s the same kind of musical ethos I grew up with,” says Aoki. “It’s the evolution of an ideology that started when I was 13—the punk spirit. As I became more educated, I was able to make it more sophisticated.”
A graduate of UC Santa Barbara—he has a B.A. in Women’s Studies and another in Sociology—Aoki has come a long way since producing underground concerts at the Santa Barbara Student Housing Cooperative in Isla Vista and churning out DIY records.
On average, Aoki says, he’s on tour 250 days of the year; he’s the head of Dim Mak record label, named after his childhood hero Bruce Lee; and this summer he’s releasing his second album and launching a full range fashion line, which he’s been prepping for years.
Asked how he feels to be one of the biggest names in dance music, Aoki says, “Tired. I was doing more touring earlier in my career, but I needed to bring myself back and create a more meaningful show for people.”
His stop by the Civic Auditorium tonight, is one of many on his nationwide tour to promote his upcoming album, a labor of love, which has taken three years to complete.
“It’s one of those projects that you think is never going to be finished—things are constantly evolving and changing over time,” laughs Aoki. “I did two tracks with Travis Barker and the rest are more non-rock with will.i.am, Kid Cudi, LMFAO and others.”
To the untrained ear, the untz-untz backbeat, turntable scratching and heavy reverb might scream “club record,” but he insists that his songs aren’t created for that purpose.
“It’s more about the art of writing a song,” says Aoki. “When I write a song, it has more steps, often with a singer in mind. When I write a club record like ‘Wake Up Call,’ I can sometimes do it in two hours—some of my album records took six months to make. I just want people to have fun.”
To expose the world to his self-proclaimed “loud, sometimes very noisy, sometimes aggressive” tracks, Aoki says he has relied on his punk roots.
“Punk is about figuring out how to do something yourself and being active in your community,” he says. “[That ideology] is why my label was able to survive through grassroots marketing, before viral was even a word. You can use the punk philosophy in all aspects of life.”
Steve Aoki plays at 8 p.m., Thursday, June 2, at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $44.50. 420-5260. Can’t make it? See him perform at Identity, the first touring electronic-only music festival, on September 3 at Shoreline Amphitheatre.