Steve Aoki goes deep on what he thinks the future holds (humans won’t have organs), the new collabs on Neon Future II, and which is harder—the restaurant business or the music industry.
Steve Aoki at the Dim Mak Miami House on March 25.
Steve Aoki travels 300 days out of the year. This particular week, the Grammy-nominated artist finds himself in Miami for Winter Music Conference. “I was just in Japan putting the finishes touches on my fashion collection,” says the producer/DJ who’s also a fashion designer and restaurateur. Although born into the restaurant industry (his father is the late Benihana creator Rocky Aoki), he wanted to take a different route—one fueled by his passion, which we learned isn’t limited to a single project at a time.
A fan of comic books, science fiction, and the unknown, Aoki has boldly dove into a world of possibilities last year with his second album, Neon Future I. From humans who live forever as spiritual beings to an introduction by Google engineer and author of The Age of the Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil, the 10-track album is transcendent from beginning to end.
“I love to geek out,” Aoki says just 10 minutes after taking off his shirt, climbing the roof of a mansion on Miami Beach, and getting into a Buddha pose. It’s how he prepares for WMC, and during our interview on Wednesday, March 25 at his label Dim Mak's Miami house, we learned just how extraordinary Aoki and his thought process are.
Shall we start with what you have planned for WMC?
STEVE AOKI: [On Tuesday] we had our Steve Aoki & Friends party at LIV. It was awesome. A lot of homies came out—Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Cedric Gervais, Alesso, and then a lot of other Dim Mak homies. And [Thursday] we have the Dim Mak Pool Party [at Nikki Beach] and Saturday at Ultra.
People know your dad is Rocky Aoki, the man behind Benihana. But less know that your brother Kevin started up Doraku in Miami. Do you go when you’re in town?
SA: Yes, I was there last night. I also stopped by his new restaurant Aoki.
What do you always have?
SA: I like the octopus carpaccio and this cooked mushroom dish—I forget what it’s called.
Would you ever follow in the family footsteps and open your own restaurant?
SA: I actually have four restaurants myself [three in LA and one in New York]. New York is called Dudleys and will have been around for three years in June. It’s a very cute little neighborhood spot that has a revolving menu of seasonal [ingredients] from local farms and it’s crushing it. In LA the best one—the one that’s like the flagship for me—is Eveleigh, and part of the success is that we never did any promo on it. There’s no sign, trees covering the restaurant, and you don’t even know it's there. Kind of a secret spot that’s not LA at all but the food is amazing.
You were vegan as a teenager. Are you still vegan?
SA: No but I quit eating red meat and animals I can’t kill myself. I’m trying to be humane about it in my own mind.
What would you say is harder—the restaurant business or music industry?
SA: The thing with the restaurant business is that I’m completely detached except me risking my money. I have some input but I’m not the operator and I don’t want to be. No chance.
Any particular reason?
SA: That’s not my forte. I know where I’ve mastered my skills and that’s in music and fashion. Those are the two things I put all my attention into as far as the detail and the whole process of developing a fashion collection or developing an album and writing music. The thing with music is that it takes so much time and you don’t know if you’re going to make any money from it. It’s a complete sacrifice because you love to do it. You don’t know if your music is going to sell and nowadays it's not about if music sells; it's just an extension of your personality and who you are at that given moment in time.
Aoki with Martin Garrix and Alesso.
Is that what you’ve done with your latest album?
SA: Yes. Neon Future I and II represent what has inspired me and the creative spirit of Steve Aoki from 2013-2015. Music is not a business for me; it’s my creative outlet for who I am at that given moment in time. That’s how I see it. My first album Wonderland was from 2008-2012. It took four years to finish that album. Neon Future I took over two years to finish.
What’s something that the restaurant industry taught you that music didn’t?
SA: One thing I’ve learned is to invest in people, not concepts. I invested in this one guy and opened three restaurants, all of which are doing great. I invested in this other guy and a diner called Kitchen 24 and haven’t gotten paid because these guys are sharks. I’ve put money in years and years ago, and every time I go in it's packed but I still haven’t gotten paid. So the most important thing I’ve realized is the people you invest in when you do business deals. I’m still very much learning on the business side of things in that regard.
What about fashion?
SA: Fashion is all about your team and all the different people 'cause there are so many moving parts and you have to move pretty quickly. We just launched our collection in Japan. It’s very much a full collection, about 50 pieces—hoodies, skirts, tops that are futuristic with different materials, parkas. It took over a year to develop.
Neon Future II is out May 12 and is being described as darker and more emotional. What does that mean?
SA: Well, first of all, it’s two different things. With Neon Future I I’m really touching on life extension, expansion, nanotechnology, living forever, and I have huge experts in that world. And for Neon Future II, I have Kip Thorne who’s the executive producer of Interstellar and also huge in astrophysics, as well as Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, so it’s all about exploring the unexplored, space travel, space. So, like a different realm of Neon Futures. I have a song called “Light Years” and a song called “Time Capsule” and wrote this whole monologue about traveling through space in that one.
So you believe in time travel?
SA: I believe this whole bending of time can happen if we get to that point of course. Time is not linear.
You’ve collaborated with some pretty big names throughout your career and even more in Neon Future I. What can we expect from Neon Future II?
SA: The collaboration on there has a lot more big vocal records. That’s why when I say it’s deeper and more emotional, it’s 'cause there are singers and vocalists on there pouring their hearts out. It’s not like turn-up central with Waka Flocka, which is the big record of Neon Future I. But Neon Future II's big records are with Walk off the Earth, Moxie, Linkin Park, and Matthew Koma and Nervo where they’re just pouring their hearts out. I still have turn-up records on there to balance out that heavy emotional vibe though.
Aoki on the roof of the Dim Mak Miami House.
In addition to the album, there’s Neon Future Sessions where you play the interviewer instead of the interviewee and pick the brains of people like Stan Lee who’ve inspired you in one way or another. What’s that role reversal like for you?
SA: I’m the inquisitive person now, which is so exciting and makes me so giddy 'cause at the end of the day the basis of what makes me me and why I do all these different things is based on passion. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of all these things that I do...I’m still a fan of the people I work with even if they are my best friends and even if I’m talking to someone I’ve never met but I’ve read their books or comics. I’m geeking out and now I have the opportunity to be sitting in a room and ask a bunch of questions that I’ve always wanted to ask.
Who’s on your wish list that you haven’t gotten to yet?
SA: Elon Musk is on the top. There’s a lot, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Malcolm Gladwell.
And to borrow the question you asked Stan Lee, what do you think the future holds?
SA: I’ll talk about one thing that’s really exciting: Once we are able to reverse engineer the human brain and really understand the components of how it really works, I believe we’ll be able to upload the brain outside, so you can literally live in a hard drive. I guess it won't be a hard drive later on but the body itself that ends up dying off and decomposing and degenerating will be obsolete, so we’ll literally be able to download ourselves into robotic bodies down to the wish list that we want to look like and be like and things like food that are about nourishment won’t be about nourishment anymore. It will be about taste—or any of these diseases won’t matter anymore 'cause we won’t have organs. Anything temperamental that will kill you like the heart won’t exist 'cause we won’t need it. That’s stuff I’m really excited about.
Do you ever get tired of throwing cake at people?
SA: Hell no. Eight-thousand cake faces later and I’m still excited.
Then why did you decide to retire the baked goods from festivals?
SA: Eventually I’ll explain that story. Maybe in my book, but for now I just really want the attention on Steve Aoki fans.
What’s your biggest vice?
SA: Not using my earplugs when I’m DJing. I’m going deaf, so have to start doing that.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA SERGI ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES (TOP PHOTO); FACEBOOK.COM/STEVE.AOKI; CARLA TORRES (AOKI ON ROOF)