Steve Aoki has never fit into a mold. From his punk days in L.A. to the early moments of his thriving, 15-year-old record label Dim Mak (which translates to “a touch of death”), Aoki does things his way. The former hard-core straight-edger has incorporated punk-like antics into his sets, making him the most entertaining and interactive DJ to watch live. As music director of Surrender, he brought the trend of booking electronic acts on a weekly basis to the property. His biggest project and first studio album, Wonderland, was released Jan. 10, and the good-time music mogul performs his latest tracks at his monthly residencies at XS, Tryst, Surrender and Encore Beach Club.
Part of why people love experiencing your shows live is they never know what will happen. What inspired your onstage energy?
Hundreds and hundreds of hard-core shows. I was straightedge till I was 22. I was playing in bands when I was 16. My life was going to shows, and you’d see kids moshing and stage-diving every 10 seconds. It’s just part of the culture. In dance music people never really did that because it’s not guitars and rambunctious with people singing along. People want to stage-dive, they want to grab the mic, sing a song and jump into the crowd. That’s what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be the singer, and have lyrics that were so fucking cool that people held on to them. Then I became a singer and that was my dream. If I can have four or five kids jumping and singing along to my songs, then that’s my dream coming true.
What made you stop being straightedge?
Well that’s a long story, but when I was 22 I graduated from the craziest party school in the world, UC Santa Barbara, but I never drank in my entire college experience.
Were you just not attracted to it while were you straightedge?
Because I was a punk and putting on shows, I was politically active—the school, my band, my academia; it was all linked with the way I was living. So it was all part of this mini culture. I kind of separated myself from all the party people and made my own cool little thing and grew that, and Dim Mak is part of that. So if I was a crazy, partying frat guy, I wouldn’t have started Dim Mak. I wouldn’t be in a band. I wouldn’t be a DJ. So that was my drive.
So do you still ever take breaks from your crazy touring and party lifestyle?
Well, I don’t drink; I’m back to the edge. I’m not straightedge like listening to hard-core bands and going to punk shows, but I just try to go for the long run because it’s all a game of stamina at this point. If I’m gonna be doing 220, 250 shows a year and being drunk all the time, it’s really hard.
Before you reached the level you’re at now, did you get in trouble for your punk antics like champagne sprays and crowd-surfing?
Yeah, of course. All the time. The last time I played at LIV [in Miami] I was like, “Yo, where’s my champagne,” and they wouldn’t give it to me, so that was the last time. It doesn’t make sense for me to play somewhere if I have to tone it down.
You’re a pioneer of bringing electro to the mainstream. Did you have a creative vision?
No, there was no real vision. The lowest common denominator is like Lou Pearlman; he creates boy bands, and he just knows they’re going to blow up. He manufactures them and develops them. But with this, you can’t predict any of this. For me I just love this music, so I’m just here to support this music that I love. And back in ’05, ’06, when electro was kind of in the womb, that sound, that culture, it was definitely like we were the punks in the rock world. It was like we were doing our punk thing, making it real and cool and authentic and genuine. Then it just grew.
At the end of the day, what’s the most important thing?
People coming to hear my music; everything else is a bonus. So I’m hoping that even if I was crippled and in a wheelchair, I could still DJ and people would still come to hear my music. That’s my hope. Everything else is fun. I like to have fun. My music makes me feel crazy and do crazy shit. I’m already neurotic. I already do that shit to begin with. If they’re like, “Yo, you could jump off this rail into the ocean,” I’d just be like “Yes!”
Did you ever think electro would get to this level?
The thing with the term electro is it’s splintered off into so many categories; it’s hard to really define what it is anymore. It’s like a lifestyle, a community. There’s so many different subcategories or categories of that term. You could say Laidback Luke is electro, Justice and even Zedd and Skrillex; but there are all these different kind of takes on it and they make it their own. And that’s what’s exciting. There are no barriers anymore. You could do what you want with the music, however you want. It’s literally anarchy in the purest form, but it works. An anarchist government is actually the best form of government if in theory it works. So this music, that’s where it’s at right now.
Your father founded the Benihana restaurant chain. Because of that some people assume you’re a rich kid from L.A., and that’s how you were able to start all this.
I never actually took any money from my dad. I actually wish he did invest at the time because we could’ve used it. But my mom helped me. She would help pay for the first three of four record pressings, which were vinyl, so I’d ask her for $1,000 or something. But as far as real financial commitments, it was nothing more than that. And eventually we got to the point with the company where we’d make enough money just to make more records and CDs, and that’s how it grew. It grew really organically and really slow.