It’s hard to catch up with Steve Aoki, but we did it. We chatted with the globe-trotting superstar DJ right after some promotional work in New York City for his documentary I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead and right before he took off for Tel Aviv. Later this week, he’ll perform in Spain, jet back to Vegas to play Hakkasan, skip back to NYC for the Electric Zoo music fest, then come back home to the desert to host the Dim Mak 20th Anniversary Party Vegas edition at Wet Republic on Sunday.
The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is now available on Netflix, is worth watching whether you’re an Aoki fan or not. It’s more than an entertaining look at his wild life; the film carefully constructs his musical development through the years, transitioning from throwing mega house parties and starting a punk-rock label to becoming a household name in the world of electronic dance music. It also explores his complicated relationship with his father, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, a daredevil entrepreneur who founded the hugely successful chain of Benihana restaurants.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead shows the many sides of Steve Aoki’s life, whether he was ready or not.
What were your thoughts when you saw the movie for the first time? It’s a little bit awkward to see myself when I saw it with other people. Doing interviews are one thing, talking about a moment in time, because I get into that place and I can tell a story and I’m not thinking about how people are gonna see this. I’m just trying to explain a process or how I felt. That’s already hard, but to watch yourself saying something that you’re not used to saying, it can be awkward.
The movie definitely shows a different side of your life, and that might be a little unexpected for a viewer who thinks he or she knows you so well. Did the filmmakers always plan to get into the personal side of your story? I’ve traveled with a videographer and photographer everywhere for about the last five years now. I’m always telling the story of, wow, this travel schedule is insane, and we see all these amazing places and experience all these different cultures and see all these incredible fans. You know, here’s what it looks like on the road. That’s a story I can tell very easily and have been doing consistently. But when [director] Justin Krook came on to follow us around, and we brought the guys from Jiro Dreams of Sushi on the road to show them what it’s like, after a few months Justin wanted to see more of the personal side of the story—when things weren’t happening and when things happened, what’s the process. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for it, but I am happy to be able to tell a story about people I really care about and people who had a large influence on me.
What I’m most proud of is the chance to give love and admiration to my father, who really laid serious groundwork not just personally as my dad but as a Japanese-American, someone who came here and did something very unique and interesting. Same thing with DJ AM. I’m happy I got to spotlight AM as an incredible human being outside of being the best DJ on the planet, just an incredible friend. And my mom, of course. She’s really the unsung hero in the film, and I got to give her a lot of credit, which is something she never wants.
Your father was like a superhero, and not just to you because he was your father. He did all these remarkable things. In the film, your motivations are almost purely to prove yourself to him. Do you ever think about how you’ve actually become, by most people’s standards, just as successful and famous or more successful and famous than your father? I don’t necessarily think about it in those terms. Fame is really a delusion. What does it really mean? You try to find out what is important about that, your perception of who you are and what kind of influence you have on people. At the end of the day, it’s the connections you have with people and making that as impactful as possible.
The simplest way to put it is this: I play a bunch of shows across Europe, all over the incredible festival circuit with tons of people. If you look at the grand scale of things, playing in front of all these people doesn’t have the same effect as if you look into the detail of that crowd. Then you see the people that really care and are connected to what you’re doing, the music and the experience you are able to share with them. When you’re able to connect and have that feeling, then you really feel like, this is what’s important to me, this is why I do what I do. I have been really lucky to meet so many incredible people where they tell me their life story, and sometimes it just brings me to tears. I met a girl who was dealing with cancer treatment, so frail and skinny and still going through it, and she was saying how she would just put the headphones on and listen to music and it really brought her to a better place and helped her get through those times. When you meet someone like that, it just blows your mind. Those are the moments that really make you feel like [what you do] is meaningful.
The film also dips into your musical history, the founding of your label Dim Mak—which started with a focus in an entirely different genre—and the beginnings of your DJ career with those legendary Dim Mak and Banana Split parties in the LA underground. That’s another great thing about the film. That whole period of time, I was really happy I got to share. I kind of found myself again with electronic music when I was able incorporate the style and the sound of that time, sampling live guitars and working with bands like Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park and Refused, when electro really came in [for me] at that point in time. It was an exciting period and something I would love people to know more about.
You're based in Las Vegas now, Henderson actually, but I know you’re familiar with what’s going on in Downtown Las Vegas, which has become kind of this bubbling alt-nightlife scene. It’s probably nothing like LA during that period, but do you think it’s possible for some kind of strong underground scene to develop here? I think there’s room for something like that to grow in Downtown Las Vegas or any place, it just needs a lot of TLC. It needs people that really care about nurturing that community. It’s not about the glitz and the glamour and the hot girls and all that sh*t, it’s about the music and the culture and getting back to that culture. That has to come first.
It’s just incredibly difficult. That period of time was really what you would call the underground. Social media was brand new. The only thing was MySpace. To get access to that info and content happening in the club, you had to experience it firsthand. That’s why all the trendsetters were there. I remember Katy Perry coming in, Will.I.Am was at every single show listening and learning and absorbing, Sonny was there before [he was] Skrillex—there were so many artists there embracing the culture. You had to be there to really get it. Lady Gaga performed there. Thomas [Bangalter] from Daft Punk was there DJing without his mask on. That’s not to say it can’t happen this way again, but you can’t do it exactly like before and you don’t want to. It’s about breaking artists, building culture and something fresh and new coming up from the ground up. That’s the basis of doing parties like this. I want to support that by building a community to help fertilize these talented musicians and artists that are out there.
Last time we spoke, you were still working on your house in Henderson. Is it done now? The house is finally done. It didn’t bother me, because I’ve been touring so much and my main focus is always creation of music and delivery of music. I’ve been so busy on that train that it did take some time, but now it’s done and I’m really happy about it. The studio is not 100 percent done, but it is workable and I’ve been using it, working on Neon Future 3. I just finished up a really fun EP with Lil Uzi Vert and I’m working on other projects, too. But the house is awesome, and I’ve been posting some stuff on Instagram. There’s the foam pit room. Now I’m thinking about what can I do to really make it my dream compound.