From Daft Punk’s pyramid to Skrillex’s spaceship and Krewella’s volcano, massive stage productions have become as essential to the live EDM show as the right mix. So not surprisingly superstar DJ Steve Aoki has his own large-scale setup out on his current trek, building up to his Neon Future II collection, out in May.
For Aoki, the genre’s leading party DJ based on his trademark throwing cake at members of his audience and rafts surfing over the crowd, this new show isn’t just about good times. As he’s become increasingly interested in the future, something that started for him with Ray Kurzwell’s Singularity, that has become the theme of both his music and his current stage show.
We met with Aoki backstage to discuss the rig at a very cold and wet Rose Bowl recently as he closed out Shaun White’s Air & Style festival. Then he had to go and host his guests that night, like MGK and Walk Off The Earth, so we caught up with him again two days later as he was on the way to a gun range in Salt Lake City. And in between, Playboy spoke to one of the world’s biggest DJs about keeping the party going, his visions for tomorrow and why he is trying to do something no other DJ has ever done.
You’ve established yourself as one of the reigning DJs in the world. How do you keep that crowd energy up on a nightly basis?
I will do the same exact set on this tour, but to a completely new crowd that’s so hungry and so excited. So I’m really looking for those people in the crowd and focusing on them cause the rest I don’t really care about. The rest of the people; they’re yawning, talking to their friend, bored or whatever. I’m not looking at them. I’m looking at the people that are just like crying or fucking screaming or singing every single lyric. This is the reason I’m doing all this shit.
Take us through this rig for this tour.
This particular setup is meant for like Madison Square Garden and bigger stages. And a lot of the places we’re playing we have to modulate them cause the stages are different sizes in different venues. So that’s one great thing about this particular setup is that it’s not fixed, we can modulate it and make it smaller. This is a much more manageable show and as big as it is, it’s a bigger show than the last show, it’s faster build and take down because it’s modular. On this tour I’ve been more hands-on with how I want all the visuals to look — to the extent and detail of the exact colors and the patterns of colors being used, because each song has a different vibe. The way I see it is like this: songs are essentially driving your emotions, that’s essentially what music does. We have these visuals that are constantly changing and moving. We have robots that are highly evolved from the last tour; they’re cooler looking and way sleeker. There is symbolism behind it, that many people might not see, but I definitely feel like it carries through when you look at the grand scheme of what the show is like.
Did the way your visual team interpreted the songs give you new insights into the songs themselves?
The most important thing at these festivals and these shows is it’s not just a song experience, it’s a sensory experience. The visual has to bring you there and the lighting has to take you there. The music’s already getting you there, but the visuals can illustrate and add color and guide these people into this world. That’s the goal cause I want people leaving going, “Fuck yeah, I’m down with Neon Future, that shit sounds and looks amazing and I want to know more about it.”
When did the tour kick off?
A week ago, we did seven shows, been sold out so far, which is a really big deal for me. I’m really excited about just having the fact that we’ve been successful in selling out each date. It’s an important tour for me.
In what respect?
The Neon Future is such a huge component of everything. Like the Aokify tour was about having fun, turning up – Waka Flocka, Borgore, strippers on things, going crazy. Neon Future is something that is about my music, about all the stuff I’ve been talking about for a couple of years now. So it’s setting up for this final tour. I want to continue the Neon Future idea for as long as I am. There might be a possibility for a Neon Future III.
Have you considered a Neon Future film or musical?
Absolutely. I really feel like the concept of Neon Future has so many different legs that it can live in so many worlds. And it has significance; it’s not just like my album Wonderland, which I named cause it was the street I was living on. Neon Future is about the future and everybody wants to think about the future in one respect, whether it’s positive or negative. I just want to keep building awareness on all the amazing people that are doing crazy shit, meeting them personally.
What’s the appeal of hitting a firing range?
I’ve done it like twice in my life. It’s kind of crazy having a gun and blasting away I guess. It’s like something else. We’re driving to go shoot some guns, get some gun shooting going on, good American gun shooting.
What is prompting the shooting now?
I have a friend who hit me up. He’s like, “Yo, you’re going to Salt Lake, my boys are out there. He wants to take you to his gun range and have you shoot some of his guns.” I love being on the road because you hit up all the diverse cross culture of America and I want to hit up everything that I can.
So what are some of the favorite diversions in other cities?
It’s also seasonal and I like doing extreme activities, so we’re going into the snow and if we arrive at a decent time I’ll try to get in some snowboarding. We’re going to Denver tomorrow, I’ll try to get that in. The easiest thing to do is eat the culture. First thing I think of in Chicago is pizza, getting into that pizza. Sometimes when I think of a city I think of punk heritage, so when I’m in DC I want to go to this court house. Portland is another capital of punk in America, San Francisco as well. Austin is one of the music capitals of America because of South By Southwest and it’s such a hit bed where everyone comes to Austin to try to break. So it’s always fun there.
Who would be your dream three people to cake?
I’ve thought about this before, it’s always friends. I think I would have to cake comedians, people that don’t mind poking fun at themselves. So Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor and Bobby Lee. Bobby Lee would be pretty funny. I gotta cake an Asian guy, keep it real.
Are there catalog songs that have changed as you incorporate the new visuals on this tour?
As I was putting together this set of course there are certain songs I need to keep, like “Turbulence” and “No Beef,” specifically “Turbulence.” What I’ll do is I’ll make a Neon Future 2015 update, so I made an edit with a different drop, but I kept a familiar part where people freak out, they recognize what the song is and what it means to them. But when it gets to the drop it’s something new, something different. And one song I haven’t put into the set that I’m trying to find a way to do it is obviously the song that started the idea for me, “Singularity.” I wrote the song between Wonderland and Neon Future and I kind of retired the song because it didn’t really do what it was meant to do, it didn’t perform at the pace of other records. So I gotta figure out how to work that into the set because the content is dead on with Neon Future.
When people leave this show at the end of the night what do you want them to take from it?
The goal is to give something completely different than what any other DJ is doing out there. I have a purpose with the production. It’s all based around this Neon Future concept of embracing technology, embracing the future and intersecting these ideas of robotics with the visuals interpreting space and time travel and science fiction as well. At the same time balancing that with I want people to remember that girl that got caked, those are the things people always love to remember – the people getting caked or the friend riding over on a raft across the crowd while robots are shooting CO2 in the air. It’s a blitz of a lot of action – all kinds of it, future, present, fun and sophisticated all in one.
Steve Baltin is a Los Angeles based music journalist who has seen everybody and interviewed almost everyone (still waiting on the Springsteen one, though). When not at concerts he can be found playing basketball by the beach, eating sushi, or hanging with his dog.