STORY WRITTEN BY KELLY SKYE FADROSKI
Southern California News Group
Despite flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for several late-night shows and really early morning radio interviews to promote his new, appropriately titled Netflix documentary, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” 38-year-old DJ Steve Aoki was full of energy backstage at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre recently, when he was the surprise guest during the encore of Blink-182’s set.
Aoki said he has mastered the art of the micro nap and can fall asleep on command, a survival skill he’s acquired over the past several years from being on the road nonstop. “It has allowed me to have an abundant amount of productivity with my life, but I’m not saying it’s the healthiest lifestyle,” he said with a laugh during an interview inside his longtime friend and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker’s dressing room.
Somewhere in his busy schedule, Aoki was able to work out a remix version of Blink’s single “Bored to Death,” which he performed live in Irvine as Barker drummed alongside him. Since he grew up in Newport Beach, Aoki said he was happy to at least be a small part of the final concert season at Irvine Meadows, although aside from attending a KROQ Weenie Roast at the beloved outdoor venue, he said the hardcore bands he came up admiring were nowhere near popular enough to grace that particular stage.
“I was always at shows at like the Huntington Beach Library, small warehouse spots with shows or out at the Showcase Theatre in Corona,” he added.
His new documentary, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last spring and became available to a wider audience via Netflix in August, chronicles a bit of Aoki’s upbringing in Orange County, where he was raised by his mother, Chizuru Kobayashi, while his father, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, a Japanese wrestler, pro speed boat driver and founder of the Benihana restaurant chain, resided in New York.
Aoki was an outcast and tried to play sports to fit in with the other kids. His freshman year at Newport Harbor High School, he joined the football team. He wasn’t that good and was only allowed to play in one game. He tried badminton and said that one day he was ridiculed badly by a fellow student who shouted a bunch of racial slurs at him, which is something he recounted in detail while visiting his old high school during the filming of the documentary.
“It’s not always the good memories that hit you when you see some of the familiar stomping grounds, but they’re all important in shaping who I am,” he said. “I mean, I could have grown up in Irvine, surrounded and guarded by fellow Asian people and maybe I wouldn’t have felt the discrimination to the level that I did, but then I would be a different person. I don’t want to sound like I’m grateful for that, but in a way I am because it helped guide me to fight for a voice and to fight to do something that actually means something. At the end of the day, the struggles are as important as the achievements and if you don’t have those struggles then the achievement isn’t nearly as priceless.”
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” shows Aoki’s rise from being a kid in hardcore bands that attended UC Santa Barbara and hosted full-on, raging shows in his dumpy little apartment known as The Pickle Patch in the late ‘90s, to now a world-renowned EDM artist that plays sometimes more than 200 shows a year in cities around the world. That tenacious schedule has landed him numerous times in the top 10 on Forbes Magazine’s World’s Highest-Paid DJ list.
“When we started shooting I thought it would be a typical thing that would just show the process of being out on the road and people would see the pace, the schedule and get a glimpse of what it’s really like,” Aoki said of the documentary, which took just over three years and surrounded the release of his two-part sophomore album, “Neon Future,” which included one album in September 2014 and another in May 2015. It was also heavily focused on Aoki’s first headlining set at Madison Square Garden in New York, which was a milestone that disappointingly never came to fruition because of his album release being pushed back.
“As it all boiled down, it became much more like a therapy session and was really much more like, what was the actual driving force for me. I could have just said something generic, but I really wanted to tell that story and give homage to the people that really paved the road for me which was my father and my mom, and I’m really happy that she got the credit in the end.”
Despite having spent very little time around him, it’s clear in the film that Aoki definitely inherited his tireless work ethic from his successful father. Contrary to popular belief, Aoki said his dad, who died in 2008, did not support his efforts financially, nor did he ever fully agree with his direction. Aoki started his own music label, Dim Mak, in Los Angeles in 1996 when he was just 19 and went on to release albums by artists such as the Kills, Bloc Party, the Gossip, MSTRKRFT and many more. He’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dim Mak this month back in his hometown with a special party at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort Oct. 28.
Following the formation of the label, Aoki began DJing at parties and spinning hardcore and punk rock records and started Dim Mak Tuesdays in Hollywood, which quickly garnered a cult following and attracted an array of celebrities each week. In the documentary, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas said, “It was an amazing scene; since then there hasn’t been anything like it.”
Of course, Aoki brings a lot of his club antics into his now massive worldwide headlining sets, which include not only the lighting and pyrotechnic spectacle of any large-scale rock show, but Aoki stepping out behind the turntables to jump around, stage dive, crowd surf on an inflatable raft and he continues to throw giant sheet cakes into the faces of his adoring fans. They not only like it, they hold up signs begging to be caked by Aoki.
“When I first saw Daft Punk, you were so immersed in everything and the visual experience was huge,” he said. “That’s what got me thinking about what I could do with my show if I had that size of a platform and Coachella was the first place that I could really do that. I thought about that interaction and bringing in something unique that would make a Steve Aoki experience and keep it consistent with the boats and the cakes. Every artist is like, ‘What can we do so people remember this is our show and our experience and keep them wanting to see this kind of thing?’ Well, ya know, I always say that everyone should get caked at least once in their life. There’s nothing like a good cake to the face.”