Steve Aoki on writing and what he learned from being in bands
The renowned DJ/producer lets us in on his writing process and how DIY hardcore-punk bands have helped shape his music-making.
Image: Sam Neill
Steve Aoki started his musical career playing in hardcore-punk bands in his teens, before founding DIY record label Dim Mak Records from his college dorm in 1996. Both Aoki and Dim Mak have grown and evolved exponentially since then. Aoki is now a superstar DJ performing over 200 shows a year while the label has become a huge force in EDM, backing The Chainsmokers, The Bloody Beetroots, Bloc Party and MSTRKRFT.
We catch up with the world’s most-travelled DJ/producer about his approach to writing, what he learned from being in a band and what kind of producer he is.
For Aoki, his role as a producer is defined by his writing process. Considering how much time he spends on the road – he’s set to perform over 200 shows this year alone – it’s no surprise to hear that the nucleus of a song idea will often be something that he hums into his phone, while on tour.
“I have a bunch of different melodies and ideas saved in my phone from when I’m touring,” he tells us. “That’s an accessible way for me to make tangible something that’s fleeting in my head. As I travel, I’m always around new sounds, new cultures and different artists and that actually informs my music becoming more global.”
And all that time on the road means Aoki has time to develop ideas. “I bring my computer with me, and I use Ableton Live as I go. I have basic rudimentary ideas that I produce on the road, but when using headphones, I can only go so far. I bring them back to my studio – the Neon Future Cave in Las Vegas – and that’s when the real experimentation happens.”
The Neon Future Cave, which Aoki describes as his “lab”, is where he filters out his best ideas. “If there’s an idea that works, that’s when I start building out the drums and synths. I add all the different instrumentation that can develop the basic skeletal structure of a song or a track,” he explains.
Once these elements are in place, it’s often the case that Steve starts thinking about potential collaborators who would be a good fit for that track. Whether they’re singers, rappers or other musicians, Aoki’s hard work as a promoter and a label owner has translated into some serious connections.
Even so, Aoki tells us: “I only end up getting 25 per cent of the collaborations that I want. I reach out to many, many artists and I constantly do it over and over again, because I love working in many genres. It’s hard work to get some of these songs made with some of these artists I work with. It takes time and it takes effort on both parts, but that list is very long of who I want to work with.
“I start sending those ideas off to them or inviting them into the studio to start tracking vocals or to record the different collaborators on the track. Generally, that’s the process of building out a song,” he says.
Some projects will see melodies turned in by songwriters or other musicians, he tells us, but there’s no hard and fast rule. “Each song is case-by-case and has a different process altogether,” he says. “I am overall more directorial with the process, and I’m hands-on with the composition and the sound,” he says when asked what kind of producer he is.
Aoki immersed himself as a teenager in the DIY hardcore-punk scene in Santa Barbara, where he attended university. It was a formative time in terms of his approach to making music, as he explains: “The main thing I learned from being in these DIY bands is you get together with your friends and you make music and you riff off each other. I learned a lot in that process of working as a team to get to a certain goal.”
But shifting roles from being in a band to becoming the producer requires a different mentality. “Instead of having to rely on other people’s ideas or be democratic about your approach, you’re self-reliant. You learn to have less self-doubt,” says Aoki. “You can really just rely on yourself to get the result you’re looking for. The more I relied on myself and the more independence I found and confidence I found in myself, I just became better at making music. I actually like that approach much better and I like having that control.
“The DIY spirit is through and through still a trademark of my process,” says Aoki. For him, it doesn’t matter whether the music is punk or EDM. It’s the same approach, whether you’re in a band with “a couple riffs you want to show to your mates, or coming up with a certain idea, you’re doing the same thing in a studio, working on a song. You’re coming up with those ideas. You’re bringing them to the table and you’re seeing what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.
In the cave
Collaboration is fundamental to the design of Aoki’s new Las Vegas studio, the Neon Future Cave. It was made to be an inspiring space that can easily accommodate several collaborators. At its core is a three-screen Slate Raven system.
“The Slate Raven is known for its touch-screen capabilities. I tried it out and it’s not something I ended up using,” admits Aoki. “A lot of people like that, but for me, it’s just a matter of opinion. I don’t use its touch-screen capability.” Aoki is still taken with the system, though: “I love it for the aesthetic of my studio. I want my studio to look futuristic.”
As well as looks, it’s also about ergonomics. “I love that the studio itself allows for multiple producers to be sitting there because the Slate Raven is also built into this unique studio desk. With the three screens, I have one set up with a non-production computer, so I have everything compartmentalised there, and then the main screen is my production computer setup, and then the third screen is set up for other collaborators, other producers or engineers that can come in and work on different sessions. So it allows for that kind of space to be able to work. It’s a multi-workstation,” he tells us.
Check out Steve’s official website for tour dates and info on new releases.