36 Hours With Steve Aoki: 'I'm Really Bad At Taking Directions'

Steve Aoki
Jessica Chou

Steve Aoki photographed by Jessica Chou.

The life of a superstar DJ isn’t for the faint of heart. Or a normal human being with a functioning immune system. Thirty-six hours with Steve Aoki? Be prepared to forgo the little things. Like sitting, or sleep.

Aoki is in such demand that he averages 300 shows a year, and as one of the highest-paid DJs in the world, Billboard estimates he earns upwards of $11 million a year. However, he’s just getting warmed up. He’s already beloved by dance music fans, but after this summer, Aoki could become the biggest DJ success story of 2014. 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 during the next few months, he’s probably on the bill, from Tomorrowland in Belgium to the Isle of Dreams Festival in Israel. And on Aug. 16, he takes his cake-throwing, crowd-surfing show to Madison Square Garden in New York.

36 Hours With Steve Aoki: The Photos

In a two day tag-along, "Billboard" traveled almost 3,000 miles, survived two concerts attended by a combined 22,000 fans and clocked approximately two(ish) hours of sleep. On a red-eye flight from Las Vegas to New York, Aoki 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 while he sleeps, Steve Aoki, 36, is the hardest-working DJ in the world.

Friday, 9:43 a.m.

Aoki is in the lab. He’s downstairs at WM Studios — a Las Vegas studio just 20 minutes from the Strip, and a short drive from his home. Aoki plays a song with the (as yet unconfirmed) title “Horizons,” a collaboration with Linkin Park for his upcoming album. It has 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 [Linkin Park rapper] Mike [Shinoda] 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.”

Friday, 10:26 a.m.

In the studio’s living room, 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 No. 1 priority,” he says firmly 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,” suggests his manager Matt Colon.

“Naw,” says Aoki, shaking his head. “That’s not my crowd.”

Friday, 11:47 a.m.

Aoki drives from the studio to the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino for his afternoon show at Wet Republic. His fiancee, Tiernan Cowling, and assistant, Jacob, are sitting in the back, shouting directions.

“Right,” blurts Jacob. “No, your other right.”

“It’s costing a fortune,” says Aoki of the Madison Square Garden show. “It’s $200,000 just for the preproduction. 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,” shouts Cowling.

“It’s like a futuristic space-age live show,” continues Aoki. “Within reason of cost. I could’ve developed a super-crazy show, like a Kanye [West] 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,” interrupts Cowling. “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.”

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Friday, 12:15 p.m.

Aoki and Cowling, an Australian model, have been engaged since 2010. They are joined for lunch by Mim and Liv Nervo, 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 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. In 2012, Aoki was hospitalized in Puerto Rico after jumping from his DJ table onto a trampoline, 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, Spain, and suffered what she described as a “squished vertebrae.”

“That takes real balls,” says Aoki about Liv’s cliff-diving mishap.

“You did it too,” counters Liv.

“I don’t mean the jump,” he says. “I mean doing it with your eyes closed.”

Friday, 1:01 p.m.

Sitting at a blackjack table in the 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 20 minutes — but overall, he’s beating the house. Aoki shows off a gambling app, which tracks his wins and losses. 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.”

A waitress asks if he wants something to drink, and he orders green tea. 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 says he avoids actual narcotics. “If I was on drugs, I would be f—ed,” he says. “I would overdose and die.”

Friday, 1:55 p.m.

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 restaurateur — his Japanese cuisine 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 Dim Mak record label in 1996 when he was just 19, his father — who died in 2008 — declined to offer any financial assistance. Aoki invested $400 of his own money and turned Dim Mak into a huge success, launching acts like Bloc Party and The Kills, and releasing 500 albums as of 2014.

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 f—ing 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.”

Friday, 2:33 p.m.

Before the show, Aoki and his crew hang out at a lavish MGM Grand room with panoramic views of the Strip. His pre-gig jitters are starting to show. He wonders if he should take a shower, asking every woman in the room if his hair looks too greasy. (“You’re going to get cake all over it,” says Cowling with a laugh. “Why does it matter?”) He flitters among three laptops, looking for the right audio files for his show. He tries on a new pair of shorts, jumping up and down to make sure they won’t fall off during his typically frenetic performance. “I hate belts,” he says. “I don’t want to wear a belt.”

Someone mentions that he needs to be onstage in about 10 minutes. He’s ushered out of the room and toward the elevator.

“Flava Flav called,” says Aoki, looking at his cellphone. “I love that guy!”

Friday, 2:44 p.m.

Aoki arrives by limo to 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, 30 minutes of hits — “Rage the Night Away,” “Turbulence” — that cause 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. It’s like clockwork: shirts, Champagne, cake. Shirts, Champagne, cake. By the time it’s over, six cakes, 10 bottles of Champagne and who knows how much Aoki saliva have covered the crowd, which is 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.”

Friday, 10:14 p.m.

Trying to have a late dinner at the Vegas airport, on his way to New York, at least a dozen fans approach Aoki. A teenage boy asks his mother to take a cellphone picture of him and Aoki, and when she can’t figure out the buttons, the boy yells at her. “Never be mean to your mom,” Aoki scolds him. “Moms are doing the best they can.”

When he arrives at the Mysteryland grounds in Bethel, N.Y. (almost 10 hours before he is to take the stage) he ventures from photo opp to photo opp, like 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 DJs out there today.”

Saturday, 5:21 p.m.

The U.S. incarnation of Mysteryland — the 20-year-old festival is originally from Holland — is hosted by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, also the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival. The venue has several exhibits at its main building, including “America Meets The Beatles,” but the museum is closed.

As it turns out, someone 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 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,” griped Troxler during a panel at the International Music Summit in Ibiza in May. “He personally offends me.”

Aoki cracks a smile when reminded of Troxler’s 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 cutout of The Beatles. “Wow, they had terrible teeth,” says Aoki. “Did they not know about gum disease?”

Sunday, 12:33 a.m.

Aoki takes the stage to thundering cheers. Aoki, and many EDM artists, are often criticized for essentially pushing buttons during their shows. But Aoki says there’s much more 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.”  

The article originally appeared in the July 5 issue of Billboard.