by Stephen Fortner
FROM HIS COLLEGE DAYS THROWING UNDERGROUND PARTIES through
founding influential label Dim Mak in 1996, Steve Aoki always had one foot
in electronica, the other in rock, and a third in hip-hop—producing artists as
different from one another as Teddybears, Snoop Dogg, and Bloc Party. His
musical breadth and collaborative spirit reaches a new apex on his album length
project Wonderland. With vocals by Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, the
soaring opener “Earthquakey People” could well be this year’s anthem of
summer. “Control Freak” veers into retro-funk territory, and “Livin’ My Love”
layers eight-bit Mario-like sounds with hilariously irreverent rap from LMFAO
and Nervo. Throughout, solid pop song structures make the album accessible
enough to be called crossover, while get-stuck-in-your-head melodies played
on positively huge synth sounds make sure you can’t reduce it to that.
Let’s talk about some of the tracks on Wonderland.
Over what span of time did these
It started in ’07. One of the first tracks I wrote
was “Dead Meat,” which is now “Come With Me
(Deadmeat).” I finished at the end of last year, but
that was kind of the genesis of everything. Th ere
are so many ideas, so many different loops, and so
many different riff s on my computer, and that was
one I knew I was going to use. From all the different
ideas you have on the computer, it’s about
organizing it all and finding the right singers and vocalists for each track. But I’d say the formulation
of the album itself was in the past two years, when
I was goal-oriented to get an album done.
Your stamp is on every tune, but there’s so
much diversity that even somebody who
doesn’t like electronic dance music will find
things to like. How did you achieve that?
I think it sounds so eclectic because it wasn’t all
done in a three-month period. What defines a
DJ is normally not albums, it’s songs. Some of
the biggest DJs in the world don’t have albums out—Avicii, Laidback Luke, Afrojack. For a
band, it’s different—you need to release albums.
I come from the rock world, so doing an album
was really important to me. Plus, I’ve been doing
Dim Mak for 15 years and we’re an album-centric
label. I’m between two worlds.
Do you prefer hardware or software synths?
I have a Juno-106, Korg Triton, Nord Lead 2,
and a Korg MS2000, but for the most part everything
is “in the box.” It makes everything
easier. Plus, I’m not as geeky as some producers
who seem to know every circuit and line
of code in their systems. I wanted to showcase
my songwriting abilities, so that’s where the
main focus was—the diversity of the songs
rather than just having “club bangers” the
whole time. I stick with Logic, Ableton Live,
and I’m mainly on [Native Instruments] Massive
and Razor. I used Razor on “Earthquakey
People (The Sequel)” and “Ladi Dadi (Part
II)” for the more dubstep sounds. That’s the
beauty of being in the box—you can produce
most of your sound anywhere and then you go
back to your studio and mix it.
How did “Earthquakey People” come together?
With that track, I came up with the idea after I
met Rivers Cuomo. I wanted to write more of a
rockier electro record that I could imagine his
vocals floating over. I was able to finish the majority
of the track—at least the basic melodies for
the verse and the chorus structures—enough to
send it to Rivers. Then I just added all of the bells
and whistles and lead synths later on. The main
bass hook was the core idea—something repetitive
that had that jagged energy. It’s patterns like
that that I always find the most difficult to write.
So when I was able to finalize that pattern, I
knew I could get halfway done with the track.
What was the inspiration for “Control
Freak,” which includes Blaqstarr’s vocals
and ’80s-style funk bass?
That was a different process altogether. I wrote
a standard beat and played the loop while
Blaqstarr was in the vocal booth singing ideas. I
recorded the whole thing and then cut out loops
that sounded really good. He’d come back and
be like, “I really like this section—let’s sample
that.” Th en I came up with the key signature and wrote around it. I wanted to do a funky
record, so we dropped it down to 118bpm. For
a good year it was just Blaqstarr on it—a different
arrangement but the basic idea was there.
Th en I wanted to get some female vocalists on
it to spice it up, so that’s when I called in Kay.
She really knows how to add that pop flavor to
take it over. I’m really happy that I did that kind
of song on this album to really diversify the
sounds and the influences.
I also like the little arpeggios on “Control
Freak” that descend during the break.
Arpeggiators are my favorite go-to when I’m
stuck. If I feel like a track isn’t moving properly
or the hi-hats aren’t helping the way they need
to, then arpeggiators always come through. Every
time you hear an arpeggiator, it’s because I felt
something else wasn’t there.
What was your gateway into producing?
I’ve been in studios since I was 16, recording my
own punk and hardcore bands. My first real dabble
into the electronic world was the release that
I put out on my label in 2002. I wrote the song in Reason. It’s horrible, by the way. [Laughs.] I
did all the vocals and all the production with no
experience—just three to six months of figuring
stuff out in Reason. I never got back into it until
I started DJing. Then I tried some remixes, and I
got into the studio in ’04 and released a track in
’05—a remix for Bloc Party, one of the bands on
my label. That’s the beauty of having your own
label: You can release your own music even if no
one else wants to! [Laughs.]
Now that you can work in a large studio
with whatever gear you want, does analog
or vintage gear come into the picture, say
for recording vocals or instruments?
Not yet. I’m sure I will, because working with [Blink
182 drummer] Travis Barker has gotten me out
of my very digital space. I’m constantly learning
as a producer, so whenever I work with live musicians,
my ears and eyes are wide open. Speaking of
which, after this album’s out, I hope to do another
interview with you to discuss this new project that
I can’t really talk about yet, but it’s something really
exciting and it’s going to incorporate live instruments.
It’s an exciting cast of characters.