Steve Aoki has been going hard at it as a DJ for many years now so it’s not a stretch to think he’s seen and done everything. But 20-something years into his storied music career, which has had more highlights than the hair of boy bands like BTS and Backstreet Boys, Aoki still loves it more than ever as he preps for an anticipated appearance at Australia’s new music festival, Festival X, in November.
Aoki’s relentless drive is arguably second to none and it’s resulted in an incredibly prolific discography, the latest of which is a collaboration with the Backstreet Boys, the EDM banger titled ‘Let It Be Me.’
Ahead of his appearance at Festival X, I chatted to Aoki about the origins of ‘Let It Be Me,’ Aoki says the song was born out of a “human connection” rather than the usual “I’m a fan of you and vice versa so let’s do something together!”
“Me and Nick Carter, we hit it off pretty good. We were talking for a while and then he came to one of my shows and jumped up onstage with me to do ‘Backstreet’s Back’,” says Aoki, “and we had this really strong energy onstage and we followed that energy into the studio.”
“We really gravitated to the bare bones of what ‘Let It Be Me’ was, and they loved the lyrics.”
But perhaps the most powerful thing about ‘Let It Be Me’ was the music video, which features several diverse couples and individuals talking about their personal struggles.
“The lyrics were so emotional that [the video] should be about these couples and these individual stories of how they had to deal with very personal hardships,” says Aoki, “and in the end, you see how love overcame these hardships and these difficult times.”
Working with a group as “great” and “humble” as the Backstreet Boys was an experience for Aoki but the thing that surprised him the most wasn’t their professionalism and work ethic. Rather, it was their childlike enthusiasm for the foam pit he has in his house.
“I have a foam pit and trampoline installed in my house and all of them were doing flips and stuff like little kids,” laughs Aoki, “that honestly was where the energy [for the song] sparked and we used that to go into the studio.”
Some people have paintings or meditation for inspiration, Aoki has a frigging awesome foam pit.
As Aoki showered the Backstreet Boys with praise for their work ethic, I asked about his own relentless drive to keep working year in year out and he tells me that it’s all about momentum and gratitude.
“The gratitude in my heart has to be the number one purpose and meaning in what I’m doing,” says Aoki, “it helps me find discipline in doing the things I love and the things I don’t need in my life.”
Since we both come from Asian backgrounds – he’s Japanese, I’m Chinese – I pondered whether our respective upbringings in which hard work is drilled into us at a young age had something to do with that need to keep working hard and pushing forward.
“100 percent. I don’t know if it’s evolution or culture, but growing up under a very, very tough love father who drove work ethic into me at the earliest age I can remember,” says Aoki, “it’s like, ‘work is not’ fun, that’s how he said it.”
“What I do is incredibly fun [laughs] but in reality, half have to work a s**t job so they can survive to do things that are fun, that’s how he laid it out for me and he says ‘that’s how it is and you have to learn to deal with that’. It’s very much an Asian thing.”
At this point, I simply had to get Aoki’s thoughts on the whole “Flume eats a woman’s arse onstage at Burning Man” incident given how he’s seen a bunch of stuff go down during his career as a DJ, and after explaining what went down to him, he had nothing but respect for Flume’s little brown-nosing incident.
“Wow, that’s bold, I think that’s badass,” exclaims Aoki, “I think it’s cool when people do something that’s outside their comfort zone.”
When I asked what the craziest thing he’s done onstage and Aoki laughs and tells me “Flume wins” by a mile.
“Oh god, Flume wins! Flume wins! Give him the trophy, mic drop, I can’t get anywhere near that,” says Aoki, “that is something that’ll go down in the history books for all DJs, I don’t think anyone can top that!”
At the end of our chat, it’s clear that Steve Aoki remains just as driven today as he was on day one and he plans chugging along, whether it’s doing more collaborations, writing memoirs, performing at festivals like Festival X and continuing to release new music (he says his sixth album Neon Future IV will be released in 2020).
Just don’t expect him to do what Flume did at Burning Man any time soon though.