We can’t in good conscious recommend spending 36 hours in a row with Steve Aoki. Unless you’re not a fan of things like sitting, or REM sleep. The life of a superstar DJ isn’t for the faint of heart. Or even a normal human being with a functioning immune system. It will break you.
If his name isn’t familiar, it will be soon enough. Aoki is in such demand that he averages 300 shows a year, and Forbes named him as one of the highest-paid DJs in the world, earning an estimated $14 million last year. But he’s just getting warmed up. Aoki is poised to have one of the biggest summers of his career. His hotly anticipated new album, Neon Future 1—the follow-up to his 2012 Grammy-nominated debut, Wonderland—arrives in mid-August. If there’s an EDM festival happening over the next few months, he’s probably on the bill. He’ll be at Tomorrowland (Belgium), Isle of Dreams (Israel), Volt (Hungary), Big Slap (Sweden), Creamfields (U.K.), Cubik (Switzerland), Tik Tak (Netherlands), and Palmesus (Norway), to name just a few. On August 16th, he takes his cake throwing, crowd-surfing show to Madison Square Garden, making him one of the few EDM acts to headline at the 18,200-seat venue. He’s already beloved by dance music fans, but after this summer, Aoki could become the biggest DJ success story of 2014.
We got just a taste of the madness and mayhem. In our two day tag-along, we traveled almost 3000 miles—by limo, plane, and rental car—survived two concerts attended by a combined 22,000 fans, and clocked approximately two(ish) hours of sleep. We followed him from the mixing console of his favorite Las Vegas studio, to the vodka-soaked pools of the Wet Republic “ultra pool”—part of his residency at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Vegas—to the muddy hills and fluorescent stages of the Mysteryland EDM festival in upstate New York. We watched as he consumed staggering amounts of green tea (his drug of choice), and signed autographs for an endless stream of giddy fans, some old enough to be his parents. (One woman in her 60s approached him at the Vegas airport, pointed a finger at him and declared, “You’re famous somehow!”) We also witnessed him in the rare moments when he wasn’t dancing or trying to make other people dance—like on a red-eye flight from Vegas to New York, when he finally closed his eyes for a few hours. But even then, his legs were still kicking, his head still nodding to some epic rave in his dreams.
Even when he sleeps, Steve Aoki is the hardest working DJ in the world.
Steve Aoki is downstairs at WM Studios—a Las Vegas recording studio just 20 minutes from the Strip, and a short drive from Aoki’s home—where he’s tinkering with the background vocals on a new track, “Delirious (Boneless).” He sits at the console, his manager Matt Colon (left) by his side, and listens intently as the song plays at an oppressively-loud volume.
“I have no idea how his ears don’t bleed,” laughs producer Wade Martin, who’s collaborated with everyone from Britney Spears to the Rolling Stones. Martin attributes Aoki’s success to his staggering work ethic. “I have personally never come across anyone as focused and driven in almost twenty years of being in this business,” he says of Aoki. “I’ll come down here at 3am, and he’ll still be going at it.”
Aoki plays a song with the (as yet unconfirmed) title “Horizons,” a collaboration with Linkin Park for his upcoming album. It’s been a work-in-progress since 2012, which he admits is obsessive even for him. He pulls up the original mix on his laptop and plays it over the house speakers. They might as well be different songs.”I threw out the drop because it didn’t fit,” he says. “And Mike (Shinoda, Linkin Park’s lead singer) rewrote the lyrics because he was like, ‘They’re too happy.’ He wanted to make it darker.”
Asked if the two versions have anything in common, Aoki thinks for a moment and then says “They’re both in the same key.”
In the studio’s living room—it’s also Wade Martin’s home—Aoki takes a conference call with Team Aoki, his ever-expanding crew of project managers, branding consultants, and marketing directors. The main order of business is the upcoming Madison Square Garden show, which Aoki is determined to sell out.
“That’s my number one priority,” he says tersely into the phone. “I want daily accounts, so it’ll keep motivating us to sell more tickets. I’d rather sell out Madison Square Garden than have a song on the top 40 charts.”
They discuss how to market the show to his fan base now that colleges are out for the summer. “We could do some advertising in the Hamptons,” his manager suggests.
“Naw,” Aoki says, shaking his head. “That’s not my crowd.”
Aoki drives from the studio to the MGM Grand for his afternoon show at Wet Republic. His fiancée, Tiernan Cowling, and assistant, Jacob, are sitting in the back, shouting directions.
“Right,” Jacob blurts out. “No, your other right.”
“It’s costing a fortune,” he says of the Madison Square Garden show. “$200,000 just for the pre-production. But I’ll bring it out on the road. Well, most of it. It might be too big for a bus tour.”
“You missed your turn,” Cowling shouts.
“It’s like a futuristic space-age live show,” he says. “Within reason of cost. I could’ve developed a super-crazy show, like a Kanye show where the stage moves over the crowd. I don’t know how much that shit costs. Probably more than a couple hundred grand. I’d rather not be paying off this show for the rest of my life.”
“Babe,” Cowling interrupts. “You were supposed to turn left back there.”
Aoki nearly drives over a median. “No one is telling me where to go!” he protests.
“I said turn left three times!”
Aoki just laughs. “I’m not the best driver. And I’m really bad at taking directions.”
Aoki and Cowling, an Australian model, have been engaged since 2010, but they already seem like an old married couple. When they bicker, it’s always with affection, and usually completely ridiculous, like they’re vying to become EDM’s Hepburn and Grant.
“Our longest running fight is about how to pronounce aluminum,” Aoki says during lunch at Wolfgang Puck in the MGM Grand.
“It’s aluminium,” Cowling says with mock indignation.
“We’re going to have to agree to disagree.”
Cowling is also an employee of Team Aoki. According to Colon, his manager, she “oversees the fashion and merch business for both the Aoki brand and Dim Mak.” After so many years together, she’s rarely interested in seeing him perform anymore. “She’s seen my set a million times,” Aoki says. “Usually before a show she’s like, ‘This is the perfect time for me to sleep.’ And then she gets up early the next morning and she’s like, ‘Let’s go exploring!'”
They’re joined for lunch by Mim and Liv, Australian-born twin sisters and Grammy-winning songwriters better known as the EDM duo NERVO. The four friends don’t discuss music even in passing. Instead, topics of conversation range from Game of Thrones to gossip about ex-lovers—one of whom may have a deal-breaking sexual fetish—to Aoki’s desire to build a 16-foot deep swimming pool, deep enough for second-story jumps.
That last subject becomes a heated debate, especially given the medical history of the parties involved. Back in 2012, Aoki was hospitalized in Puerto Rico after jumping from his DJ table onto a trampoline, and then ricocheting against the side of the stage. He survived with only a sprained neck. (Ironically, he was wearing a “Protect Your Neck” t-shirt at the time.) Last summer, Liv jumped off a cliff in Ibiza and suffered what she described as a “squished vertebrae.”
“That takes real balls,” Aoki says about Liv’s cliff-diving mishap.
“You did it too,” Liv counters.
“I don’t mean the jump,” he says. “I mean doing it with your eyes closed.”
Sitting at a blackjack table in MGM Grand, Aoki jokes that he’s “giving the casino back some of the money they paid me for the gig.”
He’s only half-joking. He’s not doing very well today—he loses about a grand in twenty minutes—but overall, he’s beating the house. He shows off a gambling app, which tracks his winnings and losings. In his lifetime of gambling, he’s up $176,000. “I’m happy with small profit margins,” he says. “It’s not like I need to win every time. I’m just enjoying the action.”
He was first introduced to gambling a few years ago by Dan Bilzerian, the professional poker player. “I went to check out (City Center president) Bobby Baldwin’s private poker game,” says Aoki. “Dan gave up his seat for me—I’d never played before—and I ended up winning $55,000 in like two hours.” Since then, he’s been hooked.
A waitress asks if he wants something to drink, and he orders green tea. It’s his fifth cup of the day (that I’ve witnessed). Aoki drinks it hot, frozen, in any form he can get it. He consumes it voraciously, in alarming amounts. His only other addiction, he says, is something called Mr. Pink. “It’s a ginseng drink,” he says. “It’s like my Adderall.” He claims he’s managed to avoid actual narcotics. “If I was on drugs, I would be fucked,” he says. “I would overdose and die.”
Aoki plays the part of a carefree playboy with money to burn—he barely glances at bills he’s asked to sign—but money hasn’t always come easy to him. He may be the son of the late Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the former pro wrestler and restauranteur—his Japanese steakhouse chain, Benihana, netted him an estimated $40 million—but none of that lavish wealth was shared with Steve or his model sister, Devon. When Aoki and two friends started the record label Dim Mak in 1996, when he was just 19, his father —who passed away in 2008—declined to offer any financial assistance. Aoki invested $400 of his own money and turned Dim Mak into a hugely successful company, with 500 album releases as of this year, and launching acts like Bloc Party and The Kills.
When Aoki discusses his upcoming tour, he sounds more like a self-made entrepreneur than an artist oblivious to the bottom line. “Merch doesn’t sell,” he says. “You end up losing money. People come to club shows already dressed up. They don’t want to buy a fucking merch t-shirt.” Rock bands make most of their money from merch sales, he says, but not DJs. “For us, all the money comes from ticket sales. There aren’t any DJs making big money on t-shirts.”
Before the show, Aoki and his crew hang out at a lavish MGM hotel room with panoramic views of the Strip. His pre-show jitters are starting to show. He wonders if he should take a shower, taking a poll of every woman in the room if his hair looks too greasy. (“You’re going to get cake all over it,” Cowling laughs. “Why does it matter?”) He gravitates between three laptops, looking for the right audio files for his show. He disrobes and tries on a new pair of shorts, jumping up and down to make sure they won’t suddenly fall off during his typically frenetic performance. “I hate belts,” he says. “I don’t want to wear a belt.”
While talking about his future in the music business—he has no firm plans, other than “living in the now”—he casually mentions his desire to be cryogenically frozen someday. In fact, he’s already paid for the procedure. “They’re going to vitrify my body and my brain,” he says. “Eventually, when there’s technology, they can… whatever.”
Somebody mentions that he needs to be onstage in about ten minutes. He’s ushered out of the room and towards the elevator.
“We have to move,” his assistant, Jacob, tells him.
“Flava Flav called,” Aoki says, looking at his cellphone. “I love that guy!”
Aoki arrives by limo to the Wet Republic, which is packed with writhing, near-naked, immensely-intoxicated bodies. He burrows through the crowd, into the DJ booth, and they scream at the sight of him like Beatles-era teenagers. He delivers an aural blitzkrieg, leading them through 30 minutes of hits—”Rage the Night Away,” “Turbulence”—that causes a near riot.
It feels like anything-goes chaos, but there’s a structure to his performance. He’s on top of the console, throwing “Aoki’s Playhouse” tank-tops at the crowd. Then he’s spitting champagne at them. Then throwing a cake. Then throwing more tank-tops. More champagne spitting. More cake. And so on. It’s like clockwork; shirts, champagne, cake, shirts, champagne, cake. By the time it’s all over, six cakes, ten bottles of champagne, and who knows how much Aoki spit has covered the crowd. And they’re still shrieking for more.
Aoki’s other stage prop, an inflatable raft, is brought out at various intervals. But Aoki doesn’t partake. Instead, bikini-clad girls climb inside and are carried into the pit.
“I have a bird’s eye view of the pool,” he explains later. “There are a lot of dudes in there. It doesn’t look all that hygienic. How many gallons of urine do you think are in there?” He shudders. “I bet a lot.”
The only thing Aoki does more than drink green tea is sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. Walking through the MGM casino, he’s stopped every few yards with another request. Trying to have a late dinner at the Vegas airport, on his way to New York, he’s approached by at least a dozen fans. A teenage boy asks his mother to take a cellphone picture of him and Aoki, and when she’s can’t figure out the buttons, he yells at her. “Never be mean to your mom,” Aoki scolds the boy. “Moms are doing the best they can.
When he arrives at the Mysteryland grounds in Bethel, New York—almost ten hours before he’s scheduled to take the stage—he ventures from photo opp to photo opp, like he’s a politician running for office. Marc Wilson, an A&R Manager at Warner/Chappell Music, attributes much of Aoki’s success to “the level of fan interaction and the amount of access he gives to fans. He is easily one of the most accessible DJ’s out there today.”
The U.S. incarnation of Mysteryland—the 20 year-old festival is originally from the Netherlands—is being hosted by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which also happens to be the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival. The Center has several exhibits at their main building, including “America Meets the Beatles,” and Aoki wants to check it out. But the museum’s closed.
As it turns out, they forgot to lock the front door. So Aoki and his crew sneak inside, flip on the lights, and give themselves a free tour.
Aoki is transfixed by a photo of Beatles protestors in New York, one of them carrying a sign that reads “Beatles are Starving the Barbers.” “I know it’s probably a joke,” he says. “But I can relate to it. It’s like when people complain about me throwing cake. They can get so upset about the silliest things. Especially other DJs.” One of those DJs is Seth Troxler, who has repeatedly slammed Aoki in the press. “Anyone who throws cake in anyone’s face and calls it music doesn’t have a page in my book,” Troxler griped during a panel at the International Music Summit in Ibiza, Spain this past May. “He personally offends me.”
Aoki cracks a smile when reminded of Troxler’s numerous attacks. “If you really want to break down the intellectuality of a cake in the face, knock yourself out,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be intellectual. It’s just fun. But whatever. You can’t please everybody.”
He takes a selfie next to a cardboard cutout of the Beatles. “Wow, they had terrible teeth,” Aoki says. “Did they not know about gum disease?”
Wade Lawrence, the museum’s director, shows up and offers to give Aoki a private tour. He takes them inside the Woodstock museum, which is empty save for a cleaning lady pushing a vacuum.
One of the rooms has a Volkswagen bus, painted in psychedelic colors. Aoki climbs onto the hood (at Lawrence’s bequest) and has his photographer shoot him jumping off. They lie on beanbag chairs and watch a panoramic documentary about the 1969 festival. Aoki has a revelation. “The Candy Ravers were the hippies of the 60s,” he says. “They’re basically the same. You don’t realize stuff like that until you go back in history.”
On their way out, one of the museum employees introduces Aoki to his girlfriend. She’s holding a full garbage bag, and she doesn’t let go of it even when posing for a cellphone picture with her favorite DJ. As Aoki and his crew wander off, the guy shouts, “Hey Steve you gonna cake some chicks tonight?”
There are still hours to go before Aoki heads towards the mainstage, but his nerves are showing. “Once I’m in the zone, and I feel like I’ve connected with the audience, it’s easy,” he says, while killing time in his trailer. “If I worry about anything, it’s the technical stuff I can’t control.”
One of Aoki’s production managers mentions that his Serato box will have to be switched out quickly after Nicky Romero, the DJ performing just before him, finishes his set. Aoki considers this, and mutters “Holy fucking shit.”
“We can prep the box and do it fast,” another crew member offers. “I’ll help them.”
“Dude, dude, you should fix it now while you can,” Aoki says, his temper rising. “That shit should have been handled way before. This is why I have two of you here, for these things not to happen.” He begins pacing, looking visibly agitated. “That switch-out is clumsy when you’re under pressure. And then a cable is not plugged in all the way, and the sound isn’t coming out the left side, and I have to fix it myself. All the cameras are on me, all the people are looking at me. That first impression counts! That fucks me up inside! I can’t really get into the flow! The flow has been interrupted!”
He distracts himself with his laptop, reviewing his setlist of sound files for tonight. “The switch needs to happen before I go on,” he growls under his breathe. “Handle this.”
Any anxiety disappears when Aoki takes the stage, to the thundering cheers of an ecstatic audience. The Serato box is waiting for him. The flow is not interrupted.
Aoki, and many EDM artists, are often criticized for essentially pushing buttons during their shows. But Aoki says there’s much more creativity involved. “Sometimes I’ll pick a song seconds before I decide to mix it in,” he says. “And then the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ starts happening. What you originally thought was going to work has to change entirely. You pick a song that wasn’t in your template, and that leads you somewhere else. Every song has a different personality and feeling.”
For Mysteryland, unlike yesterday’s Wet Republic show, he picks songs “that no one’s ever heard. I’m not playing the big hits. For this crowd, it’s about giving them the Steve Aoki experience.” With every show, he says, his only goal is to make them “lose their minds and have fun and smile and laugh and be happy. But every crowd is different, and you have to use different tricks to get them to that happy place.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 27, 2014 issue of Billboard Magazine. All photos by the awesome Jessica Chou..)