DJ Steve Aoki is today’s guest. He discusses his early days growing up as one of the only Japanese kids in his neighborhood, and how music helped set him free and gave him a place not to be self conscious. There were plenty of months in his early days that he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to pay the rent, but he followed his passions. Fast forward to today where Steve is juggling love, work, and his philanthropy with the Steve Aoki foundation. He’s curious, kind and a genuine example of where persistence can take you, and for him that can be up to 250 shows a year. Enjoy!
Listen to the episode here:
- Father and Son [00:04:23]
- Fighting for the Dream [00:12:23]
- The Creative Side and The Business Side of Things [00:15:09]
- All for Passion [00:17:18]
- A Mix of Cultures and Beliefs [00:24:34]
- Into a Pit of Emotional Darkness [00:37:23]
- On Alcohol [00:43:43]
- Human Connection [00:47:07]
- Stories from Around the World [00:49:18]
- Best Hack: Self-Care [00:50:50]
- Family [00:53:18]
- The Ultimate Dream [01:01:00]
Steve Aoki – Finding an Escape Through Music
My guest is Steve Aoki. You know Steve as the famed DJ who is traveling all around the world for over ten years and doing up to 250 shows a year. We talk about it all, we talk about his famous dad, Rocky, who created Benihana, incredibly successful, and complex. We talk about his days growing up in Newport Beach and how being one of the only Japanese kids in the hood and in his school, the challenges of that, and what music brought to him, his deep love of music and passion for music and the freedom that he has found in music.
He talks about his days of promoting other acts, Dim Mak Records, and even throwing shows for 30 or 40 people when he went to Santa Barbara after high school in his Pickle Patch days. This is somebody who’s been on all sides of the music business and has had to work for every single thing he has. Because his first DJ name was Kid Millionaire, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
His father made it clear that if you wanted to do this, you had to do this on your own. I know there were plenty of months that Steve wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to pay his rent. Like all of us, he’s trying to juggle his work life and his personal life and where he’s at now and where he hopes to be in the future. I hope you enjoy the show.
Steve, how are you doing?
Are your windows blacked out?
Yeah, they’re blacked out.
Is that for recording or is that because you’ve been filming and interviewing people in your wellness week and all of that?
It looks futuristic a little bit because it’s got the light coming through the side. If I have it up, I can’t even see the screen.
I’m going to go right into it. It’s funny because I listened to Blue. We have the book. There are a lot of different things. For me, the whole conversation I always want to have is you’re somebody who’s pursued a lot of things from music, promotion, and all of these things. A lot of people think, “You’re a DJ.”
When you listen to your journey of having done so many different facets of your business, even the idea that you’re an artist who people work with and for, you spent a lot of your time being excited about and promoting other artists. Maybe it gives you a different perspective. You’re excited about the art and other people’s art.
What kept coming up for me is how you’re oriented towards looking at the positive. You have people like yourself who have these crazy big worlds and platforms but then how do you take all those lessons and your functioning greater in your real life? I want to talk about that. I first want to get into your family. A lot of people probably know that your mom is fully Japanese and your dad was pretty notorious. Honestly, if you look at a photo of your dad, you want to hang out with that guy. I joke that if you go look at your dad, you think that’s a get-it-done guy.
Laird and I talk about this a lot. I know that you have several siblings. You have six other siblings. You didn’t necessarily live with your dad. I want to where how you created your own real estate. He created the Benihana restaurants and it wasn’t just that, there’s a vibration there that he was larger than life, offshore racing, and the whole thing. You’re not the oldest so maybe that makes it easier on you in a different way.
I’m sure that has something to do with it unconsciously too. Also, I wasn’t raised by him.
A lot of people go through that, they’ll go, “Your dad is a CEO or an athlete. Are you going to be like your dad? Are you going to do what your dad does?” I know your brothers took that hit a little more than you going into the family business. What is it inside of you that has the confidence to say, “I admire all that goes in that and that hard work,” which you clearly have but to forge your own way? Being in music, it took you a minute to go beyond paying your bills, how do you have that thing inside of you that you go, “I love my tradition, my family, and my dad but I can do it differently and be myself.”
There are a lot of different layers there, for sure, but one of the ones that stand out is that my dad didn’t financially spoil me. He never even left me a lifeline, like, “If you need help, I’m here.” There wasn’t even an opportunity for that. He was very much a tough-skinned, tough love, like, “If you don’t make it, you’re truly on your own.”
[bctt tweet=”My addiction is the constant exchange, the constant connection, the fans, and the shows.”]
I’ll give this example. This is, by the way, not what he said. This is my feeling as a kid growing up. I don’t want to say that this is how I felt but he’s the dad that would be like, “All my kids go and sail across to the other side of the river. Whoever wins, I’m going to give you a big hug.” We’re competing against each other because we’re always competing against each other for dad’s attention and love.
As we’re sailing, he gets his sniper rifle out and shoots a bullet into the sail of each of our sails. Things aren’t supposed to go right. We fix that and then he shoots a little hole. If the guy or the girl is ahead, he shoots two holes in the boat. We then have to patch that up and he shoots another hole. He makes it a hard time to get across. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it.
I have three kids so I’m always curious even about parenting because both Laird and I had a difficult childhood. I don’t want to say we almost went the other way but in certain ways, you overcompensate and you want to create a different situation or a different environment for your kids. We all have childhood trauma of sorts but even though you had to fight that feeling of, “Could my dad make it easier or be a little more loving or say, ‘Good job, son.’” Somehow, if they don’t drown when he’s shooting at the boat, look at you, does that pressure and stress produce strong and resourceful people?
There’s this whole aspect of him being tough love and not financially being there. The thing is that he is the Benihana guy and everyone knew. If you knew me and you knew my dad, it’s like, “He’s rich. Steve is loaded, he gets whatever he wants.” It’s an assumption that it’s easy to believe. I would probably think that too.
The thing is that he didn’t do that. I also had this complex like, “People think I’m making it through life so easy.” I had to overcompensate on that part. Secondly, the fact that he wasn’t around was maybe beneficial for me, I don’t know. It might have been better that I had to figure this out without his guidance. He was more of an aspiration. It was more like something to look forward to trying to become.
I don’t want to talk about the Benihana guy if you will. You say a lot about trying to cover your rent and you’re going at 19 and flying to Japan with college mates to play a few tours, unknown and known, and your mom is going to have to pay for your ticket. You worked and had lots of situations of making it. I read one where it’s like, “Spend $200 to make $100 for your passion.”
What I’m interested in is do you think you were born with this. Plenty of people have to try to figure out how to survive but you not only figured out how to survive but you were diverse, you did all many corners of your business. You have A large level of success. What is it in you? you never sound angry. in your book where you’re open and honest, I never get that you sound angry and that somehow, it’s like, “This is an observation.”
I got frustrated, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a major amount of frustration, especially when you’re in a state where you’re not sure if you’re going to make it out no matter what you do. The time when I was living in LA, I left college, I was in my apartment with my girlfriend, and I was seemingly doing well with my business, with my record label. We signed some big acts. I was touring and people thought we were crushing it. It’s another perspective issue that wasn’t happening.
I looked at the books and I was like, “I’m in debt, there’s no way out, and there’s no lifeline for my dad.” There was no way he would give me money because he was already against the fact that I was even doing this. He thought it was a mistake. If I was to explain to him I was that much in debt, he would’ve been, “I told you so. I told you to get a job. It’s boring. Life is supposed to be boring. You’re supposed to work in a cubicle. That’s how it is.”
Out of the safety of being a parent, I can understand being like, “Don’t tread to the part where you have 5% success.” You’re like, “Why are you going to this area where it’s difficult to succeed when you could get a job and make sure everything is taken care of, and then you have time for hobbies?” When I was putting my whole life into this space and with no business acumen, I had so much passion bleeding into it.
I was a mess, organizationally, with the business side. When I found that out, when I was in that in that state of mind, I’m like, “This is going to suck because I might have to stop doing what I’m doing but I’m crushing it.” All the major labels and these managers want to work with Dim Mak. I’m getting all these great bands assigned to us and we’re sitting under a huge hole of money that couldn’t climb out of.
You say crushing it, it feels like everything you’ve done, which is the excitement of it, the art of it, and making a change of it. Going back even when you were young, for you, that was a success. It’s like art and commerce, now you’re dealing with the commerce part. A few people can bridge those things.
The business side is a completely different beast. The creative side and the business side, if you can get someone to handle both, that’s a lot of computation out of the brain, that’s a lot of brain cycles, it’s a lot. When you’re a startup or when you’re just you, you have to do it all. You can’t rely on anybody else, you have to learn everything. Those were difficult lessons in my life that I had to face myself. The fact that I wasn’t going to get a lifeline no matter what was one of the key mental moments for me to think for myself and not be like, “It’s all good. Dad is going to cover. The debt is going to be covered.”
If I had that, I wouldn’t have learned how to do what I had to do, which was DJ and make money. That was a turning point when I think about it. Who knows if I would’ve pursued DJing with such persistence? I was like, “I need to make money,” but I was having fun too so it was great. I need to do more gigs. I need to make the extra $200 here and there. Back then, that’s the money I was making.
What was the one gig where you were getting into Djing and somebody got you a gig? It was probably a corporate gig for $5,000 or something crazy like that. Why didn’t you give up on the art? What in you said, “Okay.” There are a lot of years from being at school. I couldn’t even believe that you were a critic writing about music and then doing Pickle Patch and putting on shows and doing all this for passion and not like, “This is going to lead to something.” What’s in it in you that you go, “Yes.” Were there days when you’re like, “This is not going to.” Was it the thing inside you?
One of the other things that stayed with me since I was a kid, the straight hardcore scene I was part of and the philosophy and ethos of that scene, is all about contribution. You get your cool points by contributing to your culture. It’s like being a small religion in a way where every single person has to contribute. It’s like living in a cooperative, a co-op. If you want to live here, you have to contribute.
It’s not like you contribute to get a room, you contribute to get respect. All I care about was respect for my peers. When you’re a kid, that’s all you care about. You don’t have money when you’re a kid but all you care about is getting your friends to like you, the girl or guy to like you, or whatever it might be. That always stayed with me, the idea of contribution to a community where there’s no exchange. It’s not about getting paid for that contribution.
You care so much about it, like, “I got to write a zine.” I remember I was 16 and my friends were like, “I got to write a zine too. I could do it as well.” Go to Kinko’s and get a typewriter out and type out the interviews and go to the shows, “I could put out shows too.” We found this abandoned warehouse and we put on the show here.
Also, it’s the ability to do anything that’s in front of you, like, “This person is in a band. I want to start a band with my friends and we’ll be shitty but we’ll do that.” We’re contributing. We’re starting a band, learning how to play instruments, doing a zine, putting on the shows, and then taking that element to college, doing the same thing there, advancing, and learning more about community building. The whole time, there was no money exchanged, it was more about the goodwill of all of us working together.
I’ve taken that philosophy to all the different businesses. If you want to build a brand, you have to contribute, and you have to be of service. If you are truly of service, people will work with you or whatever it might be. The same with DJing, I was DJing for free. I was excited to even get a gig. I’m DJing for free again because of COVID. I’m playing many virtual sets and enjoying it because that’s the best I could do.
When I spent time with you and Laird at your house, you were excited to share this incredible information about how to heal your body and do so much more with your body and learn about the body through the sauna, cold plunge, and the pool. I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life. If you give off that feeling, it’s a game changer.
Both Laird and I are not so dissimilar and dissimilar from you. We always grew up feeling a little bit like outsiders. I’m tall, 6’3” at 15. Laird grew up Caucasian in Hawaii and loved Hawaiian Polynesian culture. A lot of his big wave surfing was like, “Now, are you going to respect me?” For you, growing up in Newport, a Japanese, there’s something obvious about feeling like, “I’m on the outside.” I started thinking about that further.
I feel that what we don’t understand, at that moment, most likely, even the people who appear to be the popular ones or what have you, is that when you’re in adolescence, it’s like this hell cocoon of discomfort. If you embrace what’s different about you, you turn into your butterfly. When I was reading about it, I can only imagine how that has played a part. You have this old culture that you’re adhering to and then you’re in Newport, which is surf and skate. You wouldn’t be you right now without that pain inside.
There’s no doubt if I lived fifteen minutes away from where I lived in Irvine with all Asians, I would be a completely different person. Different people of color live in different people of color’s communities to have that comfort, the understanding of the culture, and not deal with racism or whatnot. In Newport Beach, there’s a statistic when I was there, it was 96% white. You’re a kid, it’s unfiltered. Kids say what they’re going to say.
Blatant racism was something I was dealing with at younger ages. As you get older, it’s more subliminal. Things like that happen. Feeling like I couldn’t fit in or I couldn’t fit in with certain friends and the difficulty socializing, this yearning to belong was so strong. When I found that music was that space for me, I was like, “I’m devoting my life to you like you’re Jesus Christ.” If I’m a Christian, I am devoting my being to this thing because you’ve given me a space to feel belonging where I can say something where it’s not going to be ridiculed or feel self-hatred.
Another thing too when you grow up like that, there’s a lot of self-hatred because you’re different and you feel alone too. When you feel alone, self-hatred is even harder. I’d bleach my hair blonde. I was a punk too, a punk who bleaches his hair. I didn’t like myself being Asian, I didn’t like my eyes, and I didn’t like not fitting in. When I found this reclamation of myself and my identity through music, it was like, “I’m giving my being to you.” It’s not about an exchange of money or whatever we’re talking about later on but it’s about, what contribution can I give to this world because this world has changed my life?
It felt like your voice could come out so you can sing your song loud and you could move freely in these environments. We all feel restrained by rules anyway. If you add certain cultures, which is like, “Don’t make a scene. Follow the rules. Don’t stand out.” It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I’m glad you mentioned that because that is the Japanese cultural paradigm if you will that you don’t stick out. A traditional Japanese way of life is don’t stick your head up, stay down, and don’t cause a scene. Whenever some things hit the fan when I was a kid, I get in a fight because some kid was being stupid and racist or whatever. Even my best friend, at the time, would turn on me and call me all kinds of names. He told me that he couldn’t hang out with me anymore and we got into a fight.
My mom would be rushing to apologize, “Sorry. We won’t cause any problems. Steve, come over here. Don’t cause problems.” You’re confused, like, “Mom, they were throwing things at me and calling me all these bad things.” It’s like, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t want to have any problems in our household.” She’s spoken English and she’s like, “We don’t have any a good friend network to support us.” I get it now from her side but as a kid, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s an interesting idea though where, yes, you inherited your family’s culture but you also grew up as an American. In a way, it’s like, “I want to be heard and I want to move about freely with abandonment and not be self-conscious.” It’s an interesting thing to see when people can bring those things together. It’s hard to do it, it’s usually one or the other. You’ve managed to meld these two things and bring them together.
Maybe you could talk a little bit when you were younger. I found it interesting that you decided when you were young. One time, you and a friend jointly bought acid but you were the only one who consumed it. After that e experience, you said, “I’m off that.” You didn’t question that? There wasn’t weird curiosity? Later, there was some other stuff. I wasn’t particularly hardwired to investigate things. I have three daughters and they’re all different and some are like, “What’s that?” I have others that are like, “No, thank you.” You made this almost like a religious path.
That acid trip at that 13-year-old brain is still developing. The things that I’m afraid of were things that was taught to me in Catholic school. Burning in a lake of fire and the devil are the most fearful things. On top of that, the video games I was playing and the heavy metal I was listening to that was scary. All of that coming at you in a visual side as a kid, I thought I was messed up for life. It’s a long trip.
Acid is 7 to 8 hours and every second is like a minute and you can’t sleep. I’m laying in bed and I’m like, “I’m screwed. I’m going to go to a mental institution. This is like, I am done. I can’t get out of this horrible feeling.” At that time, I was going to school for Christian schools and stuff. It’s like, “If you get me out of this, God, I will do whatever. I will believe you. Please, save me. I’ll never touch drugs ever again.”
I came out of that fizzled out of it, the fizzling was gone, and then I was like, “I am a born-again Christian.” I was a hardcore Christian and then I found the straight edge and then the music aligned with the straight edge philosophy that I was living by from this trauma. The timing was important too because I was already passionate about music too.
Does that come together though? Certain people I meet, a boxer or something, they’re the most mellow people on the planet because they’re getting it all out. How does that work when you have this punk communication and you’re straight edge? How does that work? Usually, people think, “I’m angry. I’m self-destructive.” It’s different.
[bctt tweet=”If you are truly of service, people will work with you or whatever it might be.”]
There’s punk, which is they talk about problems, punk is all about problems. It’s like, “Screw the world. Everything has gone to crap. Anarchy.” It’s not necessarily in a good way, it causes mayhem. There’s hardcore, which was a subset of punk, which talked about solutions. There’s a problem but then here are the solutions. That’s the music that I was more into, the hardcore music. A lot of it was boys moshing together so there’s a lot of brotherhood. It’s like, “We’re in this together. We’re brothers forever.” It’s like unity.
There’s also the hardcore philosophy like, “There are problems in the world and we need to make it better by doing this.” It’s almost like a cool boy scout in a way. Once I was in this world, my mom was happy. She’s like, “He’s not doing drugs. He’s this weird boy scout behavior versus bizarre at 16 or 17.” I’m still skating and having to run from the cops from skating in certain areas.
Are there girls?
I didn’t have any girlfriends or anything like that. Being the only Asian friend out of my whole crew or skate friends, it wasn’t going to happen in Newport Beach. If a girl was to like me in Newport Beach and I’m Asian, it would be like, “That’s weird.” It sounds weird saying it.
It could be exotic.
My first girlfriend was not popular. She was not a cheerleader. She was not part of the traditional popular squad. She was artsy and weird. She loved The Smiths, Morrisey, and The Smashing Pumpkins. She lit candles and she had all this Jesus Christ and Mary stuff all over her walls but she wasn’t religious. She was not at the center. She liked me and I was like, “What? This is weird. It’s totally bizarre.” That was my first kiss and all that stuff. That was when I was 16. When you’re in that world, you accept that you’re the last in the line for those things to happen. I skated my nights away. I would skate and do music, that was my thing. The boy scout thing is funny when I think about it.
Do you feel inside when you’re there and you’re doing that, you’re like, “It’s going to work out for me. I’m going to be in love and I’m going to have intimacy and I’m going to experience all that.” Does it feel like the unknown?
It’s completely unknown. There are also no Asian role models to look up to. Especially, if we’re talking about the romantic side of things, there are no Asian male role models in media that exist as love interests. I didn’t have a community that would talk about that. You go to Irvine, Asians date Asians and it’s normal. Since I grew up in Newport Beach, I was always interested in white girls because that’s all I saw, that’s my culture. I didn’t see many Asian girls. There was an Asian girl down the street but there was never chemistry between us.
People want to get the journey from high school to LA, it’s all in your book, Blue. I want to move through and get to monumental moments. You talked about when your mom bought you the TASCAM four-track recorder, going towards Santa Barbara, the whole record label, Pickle Patch, and all that. All of these things shaped you.
In your life, when your dad was sick, it sounded like it was almost like the first time you got nudged into an internal darkness. Even though pay the rent and try to figure out the whole social construct of growing up and doing all these things, I get the sense that it’s always like, “I can do this. This is hard but we got it.” You had your own experience in emotional darkness when your dad was sick.
That was heavy. That was a different kind of darkness. It has a lot of parallels to even being in that darkness that acid brought me into because it’s like a black hole. When I thought about when I was on acid, nothing else mattered except for what was going on in my head. It wasn’t about my finances, heartbreak, or whatever might happen in your life that you can heal from. When you have like this darkness in your head, you feel like you’re in a pit that you can’t get out of. It’s a horrible feeling.
Do you think coming from a brave culture, in a way, sometimes it is about always being up by your bootstraps and showing up? When these emotional moments, maybe the acid peeled away all of that and then maybe again with the importance of the relationship of your dad and him being sick, it was a time for you to understand all the way in, to indulge. Different cultures say, “Let that out or express it.” You can be like, “I feel this and I feel that.” Sometimes with certain cultures, it’s like, “No, hold that down.” In some ways, it probably could hit you in a harder or more dramatic fashion because it’s like, “Wait a second.”
Maybe that is a Japanese culture, it feels like it is, to hold it down, keep a smiling face, deal with it, move on, and it’ll subside. Post my dad dying, I went to therapy. I learned that this is not the healthiest approach in life. Being able to confront that is difficult, it’s difficult because you don’t want to go back down to the pit. When you’re in the pit, you feel like you can’t get out.
Over time, one thing I’ve learned is that I will go back to that pit again. When things happen, I’m going to go down in that pit but I know I’m going to come out of that pit. When you’re young, you don’t know if you’re ever going to come out of that pit. As you get older in life, you realize the pit is going to happen, we have to accept that and know that we’re going to get out. We can’t get out unless we confront it.
Do you think it also gets easier when we can start to address the feelings? Maybe the pit doesn’t have to be so deep. Maybe the pit we have to fall into is a little more shallow because we’ve maybe spoken up a little sooner, like, “It makes me sad,” or, “I feel afraid.” Do you feel like maybe because you’ve got new skillsets through your dad passing, relationships, and your friend passing that your pit is different?
I agree that the pit doesn’t go so deep but sometimes it does. Sometimes you can’t stop the depth of the pit and it’s like, “It shouldn’t be so deep because I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing.” You fall in there and you’re stuck down there for a minute and you have to be like, “I’m here. Let’s deal with it. Let’s not hide from it. Let’s not hide in the corner and put our heads down. Let’s stand up in the pit and deal with it.” It’s hard man. My best friend passed away and he was my manager too. He was close to me and I was down in that pit again. It’s hard to lose someone. It was hard for me to deal with the loss of Michael.
Is Michael the one when you said you’re not good at getting back to people and dealing with things and he said he was going to help you?
Do you mean in the book?
This is when you started getting to focus on being a DJ and you had the support.
That might be Michael or that might be Matt because I have two managers. Both of these guys have been with me since day one. I’m loyal to my team. Since 2005, I’ve been with Matt. For 2008, I’ve been with Michael. We’re lifelong.
Was he ill or was it something unexpected?
He had a heart attack. We found out more about it and it was a plain heart attack. He was walking his dogs. He’s 45 years old, so young. I never even had a contract with him. I was planning to work with them for the rest of my life. Trust me, we’re like best friends so, of course, we’re going to fight. We’re both passionate people. When we fight, it’s like two bulls hitting heads, it’s pretty crazy.
I could never leave him. I’ve foreseen my life with him. It was as if we were married. I could foresee my life with Michael till I die doing everything together. It’s crazy when something tragic happens like that. One phone call, it’s like, “What?” That was hard, it’s still hard. The more I talk about it, the more I’m going to probably start crying so I’m going to stop.
The thing is that we all experience that and those are also the things we’re afraid of. We walk around going like, “I don’t want to lose something or anyone.” For so many people, that’s one of the most important things we’re afraid of. because it’s that risk you take when you love people and they’re important to you, that’s the tough one. Do we wall up and say, “I don’t want to get close to anyone,” or we go, “I’m going to go for it and there’s a price for that.” that was the only time that you got into alcohol and things like that. What jolted you to go, “That’s not going to work.” That’s a hard one.
Alcohol was becoming a major occupational hazard.
Let’s say life and sadness and then that crazy schedule, do you think it was also that part of it getting into your life?
There’s no doubt that death and all those things are going to lead you to find ways to cope and alcohol has got to be one of the easiest, it’s right there, and it’s going to fix a solution right then and there. Also, it’s acceptable to a certain degree. Doing hard drugs is not acceptable. If you find that that’s your thing, you do it secretly. With alcohol, it’s especially acceptable when you’re out and about.
Every time I DJ’ed, it was my shtick, I would drink, It was part of my show, which was dangerous because I had to make sure I lived it up. I had to do it every show. I had to be downing vodka during my set. That punk rock, I-don’t-care attitude, like, “Let’s go crazy.” Everyone there goes wild and crazy and you’re like, “This works.” Luckily I found cake throwing instead of drinking, that’s my shtick.
In 2009, my close friend, at the time, DJ AM, passed away. I was in Sweden when I found the news. I’m not sure if it was that night or the day after but I was like, “That was it. I am done with this stupid lifestyle trick of drinking, semi-coping with all this stuff.” Also, it’s part of my show. Honestly, I hated drinking. I liked the feeling of being drunk.
Getting there, I would rather get drunk, that was how I thought about it. the feeling after it, the hangovers, and all that stuff, the wear and tear in your body. I was younger so I could deal with drinking every show. Doing 300 shows, you’re drinking every night, you’re an alcoholic. I did a cold stop on it. I don’t remember any withdrawals. I don’t remember me wanting to drink. I never had that. I feel blessed for this.
Laird had his own version of that and he said he got tired of not being truthful with himself, like, “I’m in charge of this.” I remember witnessing it. I was with him for at least ten years before. It was interesting to watch someone make a pivot. I met you in a healthful environment. You have pivoted. It appears that you seem to do things all the way.
You pivoted now not only for your own life but even thinking about your dad, “How can we take better care of ourselves?” What’s exciting is you have access. I was reading about Dr. de Gray and things like that. Maybe you could say how that journey has been for you and also how has that supported you. You’re on the road. How many shows on average do you do? 2018 and ‘19?
I’ve been touring 200 shows minimum consecutively every single year. I cap out about 250 but it’s 200 or 250 shows a year. Because of COVID, I’m not touring. I can’t imagine not doing that. I can’t imagine not doing less. If I did less than 200, I would feel hurt. I’d be like, “What’s wrong?”
You’re not connecting with humans, you’re not being productive enough, and you’re not getting to have this exchange. What is it?
My addiction is the constant exchange, the constant connection, the fans, and the shows. Here’s the thing, to break it down, from a bird’s eye perspective, you see someone on stage and you see a big crowd cheering and jumping up and down, and you’re like, “Eventually, that would get old or maybe not.” When you see the big crowds, it might feel the same to different shows but you see the fans inside those crowds and they’re making it worthwhile for you, they’re the ones that are singing the song, pulling their hair out, screaming, some crying, or whatever it is.
They’re emotionally expressive to the song that you made and that’s what I’m looking for. When I see that, I’m like, “That’s why I’m here on the stage right now.” If I don’t see that, if I don’t feel I have this connection, I don’t know if I would be doing it this as much. It’s those die-hard people, the fans, that tell the story and the way they sing it back to you and how meaningful it is to them.
When you go to different countries, are they telling you different stories? Is each song told to you in a different way in their interpretation?
Yes, because fan reactions are different for each country. In Latin America, all of South America, and Central America, the fans are passionate. I never thought I would have a Justin Bieber moment where I’d be running from a hundred fans. We made content with them. I’m like, “This is crazy.” I do the meet and greets and stuff and I get to meet some of these fans.
During those times, it’s special because sometimes you get a kid rolling in a wheelchair and him telling his story of how he was going through some hard times and he’s still jamming to my music. Also, a girl was dealing with cancer and you could tell she was fighting to survive, she was there, and we were hugging each other crying almost. There are times like that when it’s all worth it. The power of music is incredible. When you hear something, it can lift you up, it can change your whole mentality, and everything.
[bctt tweet=”Because of what’s going on, I’m learning a lot about self-care, and I’m being way more consistent.”]
It circles back to the exact thing you’re talking about when you were younger, it’s the gift that music gave to you and then you’ve dedicated your life and now you’re participating in that gift. What are some of your best practices or hacks when you’re on the road? You’re in Spain and you’re starting at 3:00 AM. What are some of your tricks?
Because of what’s going on, I’m learning a lot about self-care, and I’m being way more consistent. I’ve always had this interest. You talked about Aubrey de Gray, these are scientists that I’ve talked to years ago. Ray Kurzweil, I was with him in his apartment in San Francisco, I met with him, and he’s on a song of mine too. I’ve always had this interest in anti-aging and different methods and practices to apply to my crazy life. The problem is it’s hard to be consistent.
Now, I’m practicing that consistency and creating the habit where I can do it. I do breath work every single day so that’s easy, that takes fifteen minutes of my time, and you can go longer. I meditate for five minutes. I do the sauna at least four days a week with my mom, I bring my mom in there. I have the cold plunge, I do it only twice a week. I have it on a schedule, I put it on my schedule every day, which is important.
One thing I’m going to try to plan out. Once I have the mental habit of being wired, if I do it enough times, it becomes wired in my head. Once I have that, I’m going to start scheduling them on the road like I’m scheduling in my calendar. This call with you was scheduled. Also, reading a book for 30 minutes is scheduled too. Doing the sauna is scheduled. Doing all these different things is scheduled. When people do schedules, they only put their work there. It’s like, “I got to do this from 1:00 to 2:00.” I got to schedule even time for my girlfriend. I’m like, “I got to put you on the schedule. Don’t get mad at me.”
That’s the thing too, people who have such big and busy lives as you, your personal life, it’s almost like they have to say, “For this period of time, I’m going to rotate around you because you have a lot of moving parts.” I don’t know how else it would work. I see a lot of artists and part of what people don’t realize is it’s glamorous and a lot of people who come to see you and it looks fun and all these things. I know you’ve brought a lot of your family to live around you in Vegas so that’s good. Also, you’re sacrificing elements of your personal life to do this much stuff. That’ll have to be the next book.
It’s true. The book, Blue, doesn’t talk too much about the last several years.
Was there a lesson you learned in being married and not married? Did you take something away and think, “When I go the next time, I get that I’m going to rejigger that a little different.”
Love is one of those locks, you can jiggle it all you want. That’s a tough one. Of course, you have to learn from your mistakes, you have to learn from the problems that you caused and how you could do better. The first thing to think about is, what are the big problems that I instigated or perpetuated because of my bad behavior, anger, my ego, or all these things? You boil it down. It’s great to learn these things through life because it’s a relationship like how we have a relationship with our family, our parents, our siblings, or our friends. The basis of a great marriage is a strong relationship. There are so many other doors to unlock in that world that I’m still learning.
It’s funny, sometimes that quiet one-on-one, there are so many elements to it that are competitive and, in some ways, unsexy. It’s like there you are, it’s the two of you. It’s such an interesting contrast to when you’re on the road and there are thousands of people jamming. It’s an interesting thing to navigate. I think that you’re on that quest
You and Laird together are cute. I love the interaction between you guys.
I have a deep respect and love for Laird and I’ve talked about this a lot. We’ve stepped on each other’s feet a lot. It’s like a language that you learn. I was afraid of intimacy and being vulnerable and Laird was certainly braver than myself. You then start going, “This makes me uncomfortable but I want to be with this person so I’ll move out of my comfort zone.” We’re many years in but I joke that even though we have kids, houses, and whatever, we wake up each day and we earn it each day, that’s all you can do. I want to talk a little bit about your brain health fascination because I know that’s important to you.
Outside the foundation, I’m passionate about the human brain. As I was on my quest, my learning journey about anti-aging and health, a lot of it was geared toward my mom like learning about cancer and what killed my dad so it doesn’t kill my mom, nutrition, meditation, and all these things. I want those for myself but I want to protect the people I love and share with them. That’s why I bring my mom to the sauna. I don’t throw her in the cold plunge, she won’t do that anyways.
A lot of it boils down right up to the brain, it all goes up to the brain. Cardiovascular is crucial to stay on top of it. A lot of information and a lot of conversation and dialogue stays on cancer and stays on the body. It doesn’t go into a lot of the brain stuff. When you open that door,there are so many different worlds that you can talk about, which is exciting. One is finding cures for diseases. What are those diseases and what are the different ways that we can find ways to alleviate, cure, lessen, or slow down?
There’s another door that is all about the advancement of the brain. The big question mark is in the brain that we’re trying to figure out. If we can understand that, that opens up another door where Neon Future lives, that’s my album. I have a tattoo of Neon Future on my arm. When you can answer those big question marks, you can answer things that sound crazy like the idea of living forever and a lot of stuff that are very much science fiction right now. In that world, my passion lives right there.
I like to sit in between science fiction and science fact, right in the middle. as people like Elon Musk, Bryan Johnson, or Ray Kurzweil are flying from one side to the other with their ideas, their inventions, and their imagination first to develop into science, I’m jumping on their back and I’m like, “Can you tell me some information before it happens? I want to know about it.” I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to sit with some of these amazing people with these incredible breakthroughs that are happening.
Of course, I’m like anyone else listening to podcasts and reading books and trying to get the latest on Neuralink from Elon Musk or Bryan Johnson, who was on Neon Future IV.Before he announced it, I was lucky, I signed an NDA and everything. I was lucky I got into this box, this room, and put on this brain cap on my head, it showed me on the screen in front of me what I was listening to. It would play a song and then it would tell me, “You’re listening to this song.”
It was reading the songs playing in my head from the brainwaves. It’s not just my brainwaves but it could tell the song I was listening to. That technology is happening in 2020. I agree with Ray Kurzweil on that, we’re moving at this technological curve where it is moving not at a linear rate but exponentially, we’re going faster and faster. There are going to be some incredible things happening in our lifetime that sound crazy.
Us talking in two different states face-to-face, years ago, you’d be like, “Come on.” You were talking about when you got into the music and the whole idea was, could you contribute? Everyone is saying, “Everyone is going to bring something.” It was maybe even talking about the idea of looking at what’s not right and what can we do to contribute to making it better or right. What would be your hope that you’re leaving?
You go to a city, you play for 2 or 3 nights, and you go to the next. What would excite you to know that you were sprinkling and dropping off and reminding people about enjoying their life, connecting, and having fun? Because it is from a positive undertone, what is it that would excite you if you thought, “When they go home that night, they have this little bit of fairy dust that said this to them.”
You’re doing so many different things. What is your ultimate dream of what you’re trying to put out? For someone like you who’s found so much success at doing this specific thing, maybe it’s to do that until you don’t have that connection. You do it fully and wholly and then maybe do something else. when we can show up at that level, the rest is up for interpretation.
I agree with you, I’m of the mindset that when I don’t feel that feeling that I feel every single show, I’m on the cusp of ADD already so I’m going to find something else that entertains me or find that passion that pulls me. I am a person that has a lot of different passion points but there’s nothing stronger and more affecting me, my spirit, and my person than the shows. There’s nothing besides the love you have for your partner and your family.
I was meant to do this, I was meant to be on stage playing music in one form. It could be anything, in this case, in this life, or whatever, it’s DJing. I was meant to entertain people on stage, I know that for a fact. Luckily, I’m a DJ and it’s not the kind of thing where age eventually will not allow you to do it. I could DJ and do this for a long time as long as I’m hearing.
You’re left ear.
I have tinnitus in my left ear.
Steve, I appreciate your time. If people want to read the book, it’s Blue. You give a lot of examples of how Blue shows up in your life. Your name is Bluetree. I appreciate your time. If you and Laird ever want to go into an ice tub together or if you ever want to come back over and try some deep water pool training.
We got to do round two, definitely. I think of you as the same person sometimes but Laird is going to be on Mindfulness Marathon on my YouTube.
We’ll promote it when we do this. I thought that was incredible because you got some amazing people like Dr. Rhonda Patrick and Whim Hoff.
That’s awesome having Laird on there, Whim Hoff, Cesar Milan, and The Sleep Doctor. It’s cool. It’s happening every day this week.
You should bring The Sleep Doctor when you go on the road.
I needed to talk to him. We met a couple of years ago but now, I’m sleeping.
It’s because you’re in COVID.
Who knows what it’ll be like when I’m on the road again? He did say something interesting, he said that you don’t need 7 or 8 hours of sleep.
You might want to sleep at least when it’s dark at some point.
That’s going to be hard when I’m in Spain in the peak time. By the way, people go out to dinner at 1:00 AM.
That’s like our hell. When we go to Europe and they’re like, “What time do you want to go to dinner?” People will go, “11:30 or 12:00.” Laird starts cringing. I know you go on your show at 3:00 in the morning or something.
The peak time is 3:30. We go out to eat between 12:00 and 1:00, digest, check out some of the other acts like other DJs, and then go on until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning.
Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About Steve Aoki
Steve Aoki is a well-known American DJ and record producer of Japanese origin. While in college, he established his own record label, ‘Dim Mak,’ which released music by bands such as ‘The Bloody Beetroots.’ He started his career with remixes, with the Los Angeles-based band called ‘Moving Units.’ His debut mix album, ‘Pillowface and His Airplane Chronicles,’ was featured on ‘Essential Mix,’ which was aired on ‘BBC Radio 1.’ He toured with different artists and put up shows across the US, Canada, China, and Japan, becoming famous for performing acrobatic stunts on stage. His debut solo album, ‘Wonderland,’ was nominated for the ‘Best Dance/Electronica Album’ at the ‘55th Annual Grammy Awards.’ He is married to Tiernan Cowling and runs his own clothing line, ‘The Dim Mak Collection.’ He is the founder of the ‘Steve Aoki Charitable Fund,’ which contributes to humanitarian relief and medical research. Of late, he has announced the release of his EP called ‘5OKI,’ which is a cross-genre project, featuring artists from around the world. He wishes to give back to the world what he has gained from it, and he believes music is one of the ways in which he can do his bit.