2017 Grammy Nominees: Steve Aoki Explains His Documentary, New Album and Songwriting Process

In our extended online interview, Steve Aoki speaks about the challenges of documenting his life, producing his upcoming 2017 album, Neon Future III, and his developing songwriting process.
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2017 Grammy Nomination
Category: Best Music Film
Title: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Artist: Steve Aoki
Director: Justin Krook

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In the Netflix documentary I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, we learn how Dim Mak label boss and now superstar DJ Steve Aoki had to work his way tirelessly to the top with little to no support from his wealthy and famous father Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana restaurants. Going from untrained Tuesday-night bar DJ to a globe-trotting, caked-up star in less than 10 years, Aoki hit #5 on the Forbes EDM Cash Kings list again in 2016, playing 198 shows despite getting vocal cord surgery (documented in the film).

The movie succeeds, however, by balancing Aoki's party life with his family life. Unexpectedly emotional, the film peers into Aoki's relationships with his parents and the various pitfalls of his career, which is not all just champagne and roses.

In our extended interview that did not appear in the print magazine, Aoki speaks about the challenges of documenting his life, producing his upcoming 2017 album, Neon Future III, and his developing songwriting process.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead trailer:

Get more scenes from I'll Sleep When I'm Dead here.

EM: How does it feel to have this movie nominated for a Grammy and to be among this group of nominees: the Beatles, Beyoncé, Yo-Yo Ma and the Grand Ole Opry?
Steve Aoki: Oh, I was blown away. It hit me sideways. I had to step back and think about what was really happening. I didn't have a big single this year. My album didn't come out this year. So I'm like, "What's going on? I'm nominated for exactly what?" So, when I saw the list of who's nominated, I was like, "Oh shit, I'm along side Beyonce and the Beatles and Yo-Yo Ma. Either way, I'm just over the moon about the fact that people liked it. I see the feedback that it gets online, on social media, and that really makes me proud about the doc and how it has connected with people.

EM: The film ended up being more emotional than many people may have expected. Was any part of the process difficult for you to put yourself out there in a vulnerable way?
Steve Aoki: The process in doing this film evolved. It wasn't like, "Okay, we're going to start here and then we're going to end here." It was like, "We're just going to start filming and watch this story unfold." Then as the story was unfolding, Justin, the director, and I became really close. He was always with me. It allowed me to feel free to talk about more intimate stuff, and I don't usually do that. Actually, I always travel with a film crew. I'm always documenting the crazy adventure side of my tour schedule, and I really showcase that side, but I don't showcase anything personal, and I don't know how to approach that.

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So I told him, “You're going to have to QB this whole thing, because I don't know how to do that.” I was like, “Here's the keys to my house. You can unlock any door you want, but I don't want to facilitate anything. You just go ahead."

Once I gave him that access, it was like therapy sessions. We were talking and going through all the harder, darker moments. In many ways, that's why I can't watch this film. It's like watching yourself go through a therapy session. You could do it, once you were comfortable, but do you want to watch yourself go through that again?

EM: Does the process of documenting your life affect the way you approach your performances, or your career in general?
Steve Aoki: I'd have to say, yes, of course it does, because when you say documentation, the first thing that comes to mind is social media. We document this in almost in real time in a way that people can see inside, because in the world of social media, celebrities are becoming more and more transparent. There's more of a dialogue, more communication, people want to know more about the personal side than ever, and they want to see it real time, at the live-stream moment. That has become a big part of the creative process and the shows. They all work as an intricate machine. They all work together.

EM: In the movie you said that at 35, you felt like you were just getting started. Now at 39, do you have big plans for 2017?
Steve Aoki: Oh, yeah. I've been working all year on my next album, Neon Future III, and I went through a lot of really new personal explorations this year, and it's honestly opened up my creative process in a completely new way, a transformative way. All these new songs that I've been working on, that I've been holding in this vault, I've been playing a few of them out and I've been slicing them off. It's a different process than just releasing an album and then putting out singles. I'm slicing off singles from the album far, far in advance, not thinking about the album in itself, but just putting out records at the right time. I put out “Can't Go Home,” “Back 2 U,” “How Else,” and just recently I just put out “Just Hold On” with Louis Tomlinson.

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A lot of these songs are different kinds of craftsmanship, different ways of producing than on the previous albums. Obviously with every artist, there's an evolution. I'm really excited about the music that's coming out, and that's really the main focus: all this new music. I think it's going to redefine my brand, redefine my identity.

EM: When you talk about different ways of producing your music, can you elaborate on that, because we’re always really interested in the artistic process.
Steve Aoki: Well, for one, I think the theory behind when I go into the studio and work on a song has changed.

There are two main ways for me to really understand the foundation before I get into a creative state of mind. One: How is it going to be effective at my shows? In the EDM sphere, can this song fit in my set? Will this be a big song that will compliment my other songs? Hopefully it'll be the next “Delirious (Boneless),” it'll be the next “No Beef,” it'll be the next “Pursuit of Happiness” remix. There are those songs that are really important time stamps that define a Steve Aoki sound for this period of time in an EDM space, in the festival space. I used to think about that all the time.

The second main thing is now, when I started working on albums, and I started collaborating with a lot of different artists, and when I work on albums, the way I think about music is different than a single. I'm thinking about a concept: Neon Future. Then I think about, "What are the bookends of Neon Future?" I think about, "Okay, well, it's futuristic, so I think about adding scientists, like Ray Kurzweil, and ambassadors in science fiction, like J. J. Abrams, to compliment this concept. In that regard, I'm reaching out to a very diverse spectrum of artists and different genres, whether it's Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy to Snoop Dogg and whoever I can work with at the time. When I do that, I'm not necessarily thinking about how it's going to work in the club setting. I'm just thinking about how it's going to be flowing in that particular album.

I was reading this book Mastery by Robert Greene, and it's about the more time and attention you put into something, your creative flow becomes easier, and you have more clarity when you focus on something so much.

Since I've always been focusing on these two things, either one or the other, now the next transformative progression in that creative process is not just having these concepts that I'm trying to focus on to build, but just writing the best song I can write with those artists and not necessarily particularly for one medium — not just the festivals, just the big shows. “Can't Go Home” was definitely a first step in that direction working with Adam Lambert and Felix Jaehn. “Back 2 U” is 100% following in the same trajectory, and “Just Hold On” with and Louis Tomlinson is like: “we got there.” We were able to get to that place where we are connecting with people, because what I've realized more than ever is that music is a tool to connect with people.

For me as an artist, I'm lucky, because I get to see it first-hand at my shows. I get to witness and be a part of that experience of how my music connects with people. There's a lot of producers who don't tour and don't DJ, and they don't get that incredible experience of being able to see their music connecting with people. I've been lucky, because I have been able to connect with people in all different cultures in so many different countries.

Finally — digression here — with “Just Hold On,” I got to really see that this song of mine was able to connect with people far wider than just the club and live space and touch people in a way where it emotionally connects with people on the most human side, not just makes you want to go party. This song is about what everyone will go through or has to go through when they hit a dark moment in life, and they need to just move forward. This is a song of inspiration. Being able to see that on so many different levels is, at the end of the day, what this whole ride has been going towards. This transformative experience is seeking and yearning to create music that will connect with people in the most human way possible.