Steve Aoki: King of the Collaboration

July 20, 2012

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 collaborations occur?

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.

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