Steve Aoki, the globe-trotting DJ and founder of Los Angeles-based record label Dim Mak is busier than ever, zipping around the world from music festivals to club openings and coolly acting like he’s not exhausted.
Last month, the 34-year-old released his debut studio album, “Wonderland,” and embarked on a North American tour with dubstep producer Datsik. Covering 45 cities in 58 days is a standard itinerary for Aoki who, in dance music circles, is party emperor: He’s known for soaking his audiences in champagne, collaborating onstage with everyone from Lil Jon to Travis Barker and crowd surfing in inflatable rafts. With Aoki performing at the Fillmore Silver Spring on Saturday, we met up with him to discuss his new album, his love for Dischord Records and why he thinks dance music is still very much underground.
Do you ever sleep?
I take what I call “disco naps.” They’re little naps throughout the day or before a gig. They really work, actually. I just took one.
2011 was your busiest year yet. If you rewound ten years, did you see the explosion of electronic dance music coming?
Ten years ago, I didn’t even know what “EDM” meant. I was in a different world, I was more of a hipster. Five years ago, I might have seen it coming. That was when electro started showing up with groups like Justice, Boys Noize and MSTRKRFT. Once they started doing remixes, everything took off.
So how did EDM get this big?
It was an interesting revolution. Before 2006, there were complete separations between dance music and everything else. It was very underground, very insular. People who loved dance music didn’t share it with the world. But collaborations — like when Diplo and Tiesto did ”C'Mon” in 2010 — changed everything. They were bridges that brought people together. Plus, the way people access music has changed. Ten years ago, everyone got their music from MTV and the radio. Well, MTV is gone and the radio plays the same 20 songs, so you’re forced to discover music yourself. Kids love the underdog. No one wants to say, “I’m a huge fan of Lady Gaga!” Now, you want to say, “I’m into this guy Skrillex.” He was the underdog and, you know, now look at him.
You've been in the business for almost 20 years. Why did you decide to release your first album now?
Honestly, the explosion of EDM has allowed me to do it. This live production tour we’re doing is costing me almost a million dollars. Me, personally. I couldn't do this tour without this recent phenomenon because it’s a huge risk. If I book a venue that caps at 4,000 people and only 200 show up, I’m in big trouble. But right now, DJ shows are selling out left and right so it’s a solid investment. More than anything, this album allowed me to evolve as an artist and take my music and my shows to new levels, and that's always the goal.
What do you do on this album that you've never done before?
A ton. “Wonderland” sums up who I am as an artist in that it’s totally broad. I have tracks with Rivers Cuomo, Travis Barker, Kid Cudi, LMFAO, and even the guitarist from the Exploited on a political track that’s in the hardcore spirit. This album shows a different side of my production. Sure, I do the lose-your-mind club bangers, but I also enjoy songwriting. On this album, I got to write hooks and melodies and collaborate with singers. That's ground I hadn't covered before.
How did you pick the artists you collaborated with?
Really, they’re all friends of mine. It’s hard to work with artists you don’t know. They’re busy people! Kid Cudi is, like, impossible to get a hold of. But if you know them, you know, they call you back.
You and Datsik have pretty different sounds. Why did you choose Datsik as a tour partner?
For starters, I just signed him to Dim Mak a few days ago. We toured together during Identity Festival and just bro’ed down and became good friends. But more than that, touring with him will get the most reach among dance music fans. If I’m going to tour with someone, I want to tour with an artist that has a completely different fan base. Otherwise, I'm not reaching anyone new in the audience. Datsik is a bass guy so the bass-heads are going to come out for him. They may know my name but wouldn't necessarily buy tickets to my show. As a pair, we’re swimming in a much bigger pool.
Who are you listening to right now?
I’m seriously obsessed with Propagandhi. The new Justice album is really well done. And Fugazi, always Fugazi. I love the Dischord bands, I’ll never get sick of them.
How do you see the future EDM?
What a lot of people don't realize is that dance music is still so far from the mainstream. Sure, a few guys have crossed over and you hear them on the radio, and there’s nothing wrong with that because there’s room for everyone. But the lion’s share of dance music is still very underground. It’s getting a lot of shine right now, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. We’ve just scratched the surface.