When you’re Steve Aoki — one of the planet’s highest-paid, hardest-working DJs — life is understandably quite busy. But unlike many other workaholic musicians, it’s not because of a “life is too short to waste time” mentality. Actually, Aoki thinks it’s possible he’ll live forever.
While chatting with Billboard from a balcony in Ibiza, where he’s currently finishing work on the second album in his Neon Future project, Aoki tells us about the futurist concepts that inspired his new album, from doctors working to end aging to society nearing the so-called technological singularity.
Aoki also tells us about working with Fall Out Boy for Neon Future I, out Sept. 30, teaming up with Guitar Center for its Greatest Feeling on Earth campaign, and creating music videos for all 16 proper songs on his Neon Future project.
Where are you on Neon Future — you’ve finished the first one, right?
I finished Neon Future part 1 here in Ibiza, and now I’m working on part 2, which is a whole ‘nother complex project that needs a lot of tidying up.
Is Neon Future II very different from I, or is it more a continuation?
It is a continuation, but when you hear both bodies of work, they’re very different musically and emotionally. On I, there’s a lot more party songs, club records — I is introducing people into this world, inviting them into it. On II, you’re deeper in the psyche of what Neon Future is. So I put songs that have more emotional content and deeper context in part 2. There are party songs on part 2 as well — the song I do with Tinie Tempah is really upbeat — but the rest of it is a little bit darker.
What does the phrase “Neon Future” mean?
Neon Future is, in short, a positive outlook on human progress and technology, looking forward to a bright, colorful utopia. It’s embracing the future, and looking toward the future in a more optimistic way. I like looking at a future where we’re expanding our creativity and brightening our lives. I believe that eventually we’ll get to a point where we’ll be able to live indefinitely through our technology. That concept of futurism is underlying the full process of the album.
Do you believe we’ll reach the point of living indefinitely within our lifetimes?
I’ve read books [that say so] and luckily I got to interview Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is the man pushing the concept of [technological] singularity. He believes that we’ll reach it in our lifetime. He actually introduces the album. The first track is called “Transcendence.” I interviewed him, took one of the voice bites from our interview and I wrote a bed of music underneath him talking about Neon Future. The man that closes part 1 of the album is Aubrey de Grey, who believes dying is a disease we can cure eventually. Those are two leaders in my scope of futurism. I thought it was important to get some real, legit voices on Neon Future that aren’t just artistic symbols, but are people doing true research. Of course, it’s an album, so there’s music and artistry and symbolism.
Following in the footsteps of Metallica’s James Hetfield and the Roots’ Questlove, you recently became the latest ambassador of Guitar Center’s Greatest Feeling on Earth campaign. What made you decide to link up with them?
They showed me the slogan, “the greatest feeling on earth,” and I just love what they’re pushing. Being a musician since I was a teen, Guitar Center is the staple. You need anything to create, it’s there. You need a Guitar Center. You gotta give it homage. It’s a tool shed, and without the tool shed it’s hard to create.
You work with a lot of collaborators Neon Future, from Fall Out Boy to Waka Flocka to MGK. How do they play into the concept of the project?
When I work with artists, I give them a general guideline of what my vision is. Then they’re going to speak their minds on how they view it, too. The song that defines Neon Future the best is the title track. I wrote that with Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun. It’s through his words. We had an amazing songwriting session together, connecting. For vocalists, I’ll play them a bunch of material and see which one speaks to them the best. Then I can subtract, add, change, modify and update after I get the vocals.
With Fall Out Boy, I personally worked with Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump. They wrote their lyrics in the studio and sang the vocals. Then later, in a separate studio, the band worked on their live instrumentation, so you get to hear the bass, guitar and drums mixed into a dance record. They were one of my favorite rock collaborations. With the rock, there’s the instrumental element. The mixing process is a bit more complex. It’s a bigger beast. But I learned a lot from working with Linkin Park. It took us six months to get “A Light That Never Comes” into a place that fits comfortable within both of our catalogs. It was worth it.
Working with Machine Gun Kelly was similar. We both have a lot of energy, we both have a punk element, so we were drawn together to do a song. It took us a lot of different sessions. He came over many times, and I’m glad we weren’t satisfied with the material until we came upon this particular song. Sometimes you know that you’re pushing a square through a circle. So we really worked hard on the song and put a lot of time into making sure it worked.
How do you know when you get the song right?
Music is like that feeling of love — you can’t really define it, but it can move nations. It can give purpose in life. Music has the same effect. It’s based on love. It’s a powerful, indefinable and almost irrational feeling. When I’m in the studio I’m thinking about how it affects me being human. Does it authentically grab me by the soul? I want to feel that before I get to the point where I can share it. A lot of artists say that — they want the music to make them feel something, then hopefully make others feel it. It’s also an addictive experience. It’s like a drug. You have this overwhelming feeling and you want to relive it over and over. Some songs you write work, some go over people’s heads. But as long as my hairs raise and my spine is tingling, that’s what matters.
When can we expect Neon Future II?
Early 2015 — I don’t think it will be too far away. I’m trying to schedule it for the first quarter. I have all the songs ready, and I am making a music video for every song on both albums. So 16 music videos, all part of the futuristic concept. We shot the “Free the Madness” video with Machine Gun Kelly as a Breaking Bad homage, but even that is bookended by people in the future looking back on it from a museum. It’s very cool.