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Steve Aoki Creates Connection During COVID-19 on Neon Future IV

The DJ is producing so much in isolation that he's crafting a new alter ego

What’s it like to release an album that celebrates collaboration in the quiet of COVID-19? If you’re an eternal optimist like Steve Aoki, the isolation of quarantine is an opportunity to reconnect not just with family and fans, but with the creative spirit.

The long-haired producer, DJ and entrepreneur can’t stand still and his recently-released Neon Future IV is a testament to bustling brain cells. The 27-track album is packed with nearly 40 features representing more than a dozen countries and a dizzying array of genres. Who else would put Maluma, Sting, Backstreet Boys, Desiigner and Zooey Deschanel on the same album – then add historian and Sapiens author Yuval Harari because he can?

Aoki is stuck inside, but he’s hardly stopped moving. He’s even crafting a new alter ego to under which to release increasingly experimental sounds. SPIN squeezed into his busy schedule to hear how Aoki’s Neon Future continues to glow.

How are you handling quarantine madness? Are you safe at your home in Vegas?

Yeah, and I’m very lucky I have such a great house for quarantine. I spent years building this complex of activity. I’m making tons of music right now. There’s no deadlines anymore, no rush to get things done. We’re all at a global halt, but for some odd reason, I’m in this flux of motivation and flow.

There is always a silver lining. I never used Zoom before, and I’m Zooming all day, taking chess lessons or iTalking with family, loved ones, friends. I’m more hands-on with all my other businesses than I’ve ever been. [The second silver lining] is the planet is healing itself. There’s a lot that we can take from this time post-COVID, and hopefully move forward with some of the lessons.

How did you celebrate the release of Neon Future IV? I’m sure it was a strange, new kind of album release day for you.

I remember when we had to pull off the Neon Future IV bus tour just a few weeks ago, it was like “Wait, I think we could fly back and do Chicago still. There’s like 5,000 tickets sold out, we have to do it.” I did not even think about what I’m thinking about right now, where I don’t want to see someone going out that isn’t COVID tested.

The realization came in waves for everyone.

We got pulled off that tour and back to my house. I’m like “What the hell do I do now?” I have such a great team of people that work with me on all things Steve Aoki. We planned out the days, filled up the time. I need to have a schedule. I can’t go through a day just watching Netflix and laying on the couch. We were like, “It’ll be 15 days until Neon Future, and there’s 15 unreleased songs on the album. We’re gonna do a 15-day workout boot camp.” It made it fun. Every single day, I was dropping a brand new unreleased song, getting some of the artists to livestream with me. It was just great to see the feedback. When I dropped the Zooey Deschanel song, I was so impressed. It got over 750,000 views on IG, over a 1,000 comments. People were excited about the song after I played it live. When [the album] did come out, it felt natural.

The Neon Future albums are really about the spirit of collaboration and bringing people from different styles – not even musicians all the time – into the new configurations with you as the glue. How interesting to drop a project about collaboration in a time of isolation.

Music is just a tool to connect with people, and because it’s a tool to connect, there is no reason not to work with any one musician or non-musician. Getting my mom in the studio to say “Moshi Moshi” on a song was a big moment. Getting Yuval Harari who wrote my favorite book on the planet, Sapiens, on a song was just as big as getting Sting on a song. You don’t have to be this incredible vocalist. I just want to be inspired.

Is there a key to a great collaboration?

No doubt a friendship will produce an incredible song or creative project. Why is someone going to carve out time in their busy schedule to work with someone they don’t know unless they’re incredibly inspired by them? “I’m going to pay this person to work with me” seems inauthentic. The crux of it is feeling something special about that person or group, whatever it might be, but there’s plenty of instances when I never met the person. I never met Sting. In the case of that collaboration, I knew the music would speak for itself. I’m just going to aim as high as possible, even to people that might not know who I am, and let the music speak for itself.

With Yuval, he never heard the music. It was more my undying love for him. I’m his biggest groupie fanboy. You’ve got to read Sapiens, and Homo Deus is the second chapter of humankind’s evolution into the future. “Homo Deus” means the human species turning into gods, essentially. It’s kind of dark, not really Neon Future-esque, but I’m not always going to put people on the album that align with the principles. That’s where the creative spirit is. What he wants to say, I want him to say it unscathed and uncensored.

Neon Future IV is a behemoth. It’s 27 tracks, and you’re working with such a wide breadth of artists. Did you feel yourself growing?

As I started working with more global artists, it became an obsession. If I’m in Italy, Brazil, Australia, Japan, I find myself a studio and I start working with artists in those countries. I tour around the world at a pace not many people have the opportunity to. I would be filled with regret if I missed out. I have a name certain artists would want to work with. I’m here, I’m available, now it’s up to you. You can virtually work on music, which is what I’ve done with a lot of the songs, but I want to get to know people, too. I want to hear their ideas. I want to hear what’s poppin’.

It’s not just artists that inspire me. The Uber driver in South Africa, he’s playing something on radio and I’m like, “yo, put on your Spotify playlist of your favorite records. I want to know about it. I want to hear it.” Those are the moments that really change the game for me. Those are the times when I’m like, “fuck, this percussion section, the way this person is singing the melody. Who is this? How do I reach them?”

Were there tracks on this album that came together in a special way?

“Cut You Loose” with Matthew Koma. The production is from 2019, but we first started that idea seven years ago. In my hard drive, I have so many songs that are just sitting there. I love resurrecting older top lines or melodies because if it still sounds fresh five years later, it’ll sound fresh five years from now. The goal for any producer is to make that timeless song. The “Pursuit of Happiness” remix I made in 2009 still makes people go crazy 11 years later. You want to have songs like that.

With Zooey, it had to be born out of a friendship. We met at a Cory Booker event in LA. I was like, “I’m such a big fan, I’d love to get a photo.” She’s so sweet and so nice. We started chatting about stuff and music. I was like, “this is a crazy idea, but I would love to do a song with you.” I don’t know if she was just being nice, but she gave me the green light. I had this idea of a song that a couple of amazing songwriters worked on with me. I sent it to Zooey, and she cut the record in L.A. at my studio. When she sings, you just see her singing it. She’s got that whole personality, vibe and charisma.

This being the fourth in the Neon Future series, what does it represent?

This is like the Iliad. This is an entire book. One, two and three are chapters. It’s also very dynamic. It’s not necessarily about these musical collaborations from across genres, which has always been my thing. It’s also for the culture. There’s pure electronic bangers in here that live and thrive at festivals and live events. Those are the songs I have with Timmy Trumpet, Alok and Slushii. I have these musical collaborations that really test the boundaries of genres. Also, the glue to the whole series is the sci-fi songs. I don’t play them live, but they meld with science and technology and watching sci-fi films. I want you to travel into that headspace when you listen to “Homo Deus,” “Closer to God,” “Terra Incognita” with Bryan Johnson, or the last song “Eeos Atik foes ireht.”

What does that mean?

I’m going to let the fans decode that. There is a purposeful message. We are code and this one you have to decode. I got to add some Easter eggs in this album.

What does your Neon Future look like now?

The music coming out of my studio right now, I don’t know if it’s the next chapter or next book. Some of it is very experimental. I’m working on a whole new alter ego that I’m developing while I’m making Steve Aoki music. The hard part is holding it back because I just want to share it right away. You have to do it justice.

Neon Future is out now on Ultra Records. Listen to it below.

Tags: Q&A, Steve Aoki