Ookay talks haters, rehearsing for 12 hours, and new single, ‘Bad Habits’ [Q&A]
Wow! Cool Album! is more than just a project title — it’s Ookay‘s whole personality. Hailing from Chula Vista, Abraham “Abe” Laguna is not the average producer. Beyond his warm and friendly personality that exudes positive energy, a rarity in the music sphere, he’s also one who puts his vulnerability on full display in multiple facets of his life. One such bit of himself he’s exposed is his stylistic evolution, in which he’s been documenting his transition from heavy trap, house, and big room into more mainstream, pop-friendly sounds.
Exploding on the dance music scene with his 2016 single, “Thief,” Ookay has since continued to perfect his craft as a singer, songwriter, DJ, producer, and performer. Dancing Astronaut caught up with Ookay ahead of his sold-out show at The Fonda in Hollywood.
For those who don’t know, who is ‘Ookay,’ and where does he fit in the realm of dance music?
Ookay is a little Mexican boy from San Diego, who makes music in his bedroom. Gets to play for pretty much the world. I’ve been DJing for about four or five years. I recently started doing a live show with my new album, which is something we’re debuting for the first time. A little bit of the new album I’m working on currently, and the stuff people know and love already.
My sound little bit of everything: trap, future, pop, dance elements — there’s dubstep, even. To be able to do all these different types of things like singing, songwriting, producing, and performing, I’m pretty much a one-man band.
How has your sound evolved over the years?
When I was making this album, it came to a point when I was playing shows and DJing where I wasn’t able to play the songs I was making anymore. It just wasn’t fitting what I was playing prior because of the songs that people knew me for. I needed to take a second approach to what I do and how I perform my music.
Why did you feel it wasn’t a fit for you to perform?
Just because of my background and what I have already created a fan base doing. It’s more like put your hands up, rave, drops, buildups, and all that. To go a new direction was something that I had to teach myself. I had to project to people in a way that ended up being a live show. For me, I didn’t really have a choice almost. I had so much good music, but no way of playing it — properly, in the right setting. I couldn’t go from a heavy super Excision dubstep track and then play “Fight 4 U” or “Loved or Lost.” What I did was I took some time off to focus on finishing the album and work on this live set, which took a lot of my life span.
Wow! Cool Album! is your first album. How long did it take you?
It took me three years. It’s a collection of all the music I’ve made in three years, that I was unable to play. Being able to finally do this was great.
At what point did you realize it was good to go?
We didn’t. What happened was I got a booking for an Ookay live show before I even created it. I started to panic and thought, ‘Well now I have to figure this out!’ [laughs] I was kind of put on the hot seat and the spotlight, but it gave me the motivation I needed. The pressure really helped me finally put this together. Being able to sing, practice all the instruments, play everything and perform on stage, it was something I had to practice every day for 10 to 12 hours. Even yesterday, I rehearsed for 10 to 12 hours. That’s just how long it takes.
“Thief” has more than nine million views on YouTube. Did you foresee it blowing up like this?
No way! I made that song probably a year or two before it even released. I was always really nervous. I remember the first time I played it was with GRiZ on New Year’s Eve. The only reason was because I knew he played saxophone in his set. I was like, ‘Oh, I think the crowd would enjoy a song with saxophone.’ That was my first time ever playing that song, and I closed with it. I remember thinking, ‘I really hope this goes well.’
I had to stop all the music because at that point, that song didn’t fit in my set. That was my whole problem, I was making music that I couldn’t play. To be able to end on that song was my first step to seeing the potential it had. People really liked it and they were talking about it on the internet. I remember my first supporter on that song was actually Mija. She was the first person to ever play it live, that wasn’t me. She gave me the push to actually put it out. I didn’t think it would turn into what it is now, but I’m glad it has. It’s given me a platform to make a lot more amazing music and reach a bigger fan base.
What do you say to people who call you one-hit wonder?
I don’t see it. I don’t even hear that. I think it shows with how much work I’m putting in. I think “COOL” is an amazing success. Wow! Cool Album! has been great. “Lighthouse” has done really well and to me, is a fan favorite. All the new music I’m working on now that I’m not even performing yet, is some of the best stuff I’ve done. So when I hear things like that, I’m glad people feel that way because it shows a little bit of either jealousy or anger. If you don’t like me, it means you’re thinking about me, and I’ll take that as a compliment.
Talk about your upcoming remix with Portugal. The Man.
“Tidalwave.” I’ll be performing that one tonight. It’s one that I was really excited because I actually got to see them during this festival season, before I even got the offer to do the remix.
I think it was Coachella, actually. I was able to go as just a fan. I didn’t even get to play. I just went to go see people and get inspired. Coachella was one of the first places where I realized a live show would be amazing. To be able to do something on that platform would really help me as an artist and as a creative. It would challenge me. With their music and what I’ve seen them do with just rock and becoming one of the biggest artists in the world, to be given the opportunity to remix one of the songs on the album, I took it. I was like ‘absolutely.’ I already loved the song originally, but to be able to give my own twist on it… I kept a lot of the elements that were very important in the original song, but also made it very Ookay.
How did you guys link up?
One day, I just woke up and it was in my email. I played it at Osheaga in Montreal. They reposted, retweeted, and hit me up saying it was amazing. I was like, ‘I know, it’s an official one!’ [laughs] Because they hadn’t heard it. They heard me working on it, but never heard the finished product being played for thousands of people.
What’s been your favorite collaboration thus far?
There’s so many good ones. The one with Fox Stevenson was incredible. Working with Sara Skinner on “Time Warp” was a really cool experience. It was cool to work with other songwriters because for me personally, I’ve been writing everything myself. That was something new for me. Oh, and “Chasing Colors.” Working with Noah Cyrus was amazing, and Mello and I are just like best friends. We were just hanging out one day. I was playing him a demo I had in my car, just on SoundCloud. He was showing me stuff he was working on and vice versa. I was like, ‘Oh, I have this thing just sitting here, let me know what you think.’ It was just the baseline and intro. He was like, ‘I love this! Can you send it to me?’ Eventually, we finished the instrumental and added Noah later on. It just made the song complete. It felt right. To be able to work with good friends on top of make good music, is one of the most rewarding things.
We noticed your tattoo that says “keep your circle small.” How has fame been treating you?
Fame is good. I guess I’m pretty popular. I’m here at The Fonda, hello? [laughs]
Keeping my circle small doesn’t mean keep people out of my life, which is nice. I try to be as inviting and kind to everyone, whether it’s to someone who doesn’t like me to someone I’ve never met before to someone I’ve known for a long time. I just keep people I find very dear and important to me. People who know my best interests as not just Ookay, but Abraham, the guy who performs as Ookay. Even the people I work with are some of my best friends. To have that circle is important. To keep it close is even more important, because what you input is your output. When I feed into my circle and do what I can, whether it be my family, best friends, or people I work with, it all comes back around.
Do you prefer playing clubs or festivals?
I haven’t done a club in a long time, so it’s really biased for me to say festivals. This is the first venue show I’ve done in a while.
What does it mean to perform at The Fonda in your hometown?
I remember I came here for JAUZ about two years ago. I’d never been to the venue prior. This is a really cool place, and I haven’t been able to come back since. I really hoped I’d get the opportunity to either come back to see a show or perform. Now, that’s exactly what’s happening. To be able to do it in LA is important. My first headlining show was in LA.
What venue was that?
It was at Los Globos, in a small room. Again, full circle. I’m back and able to do it all over again. It was one of my first moments where I realized I had fans. It was crazy.
Best encounter you had with a fan?
It was at this past EDC. I brought out Kenny G. I was really stressing because it was the first time I was doing a live show at EDC. I was up all morning doing soundcheck. As a DJ, you have the ability to show up, plug in and play. It’s so awesome. But then I realized, ‘Oh my god! I totally forgot to buy an outfit.’ I had nothing to wear at EDC.
I walked out of my hotel already exhausted, and it was hot outside. I went to Urban Outfitters, wanting to just get something and walk back. This guy was wearing an Ookay shirt and had Ookay bracelets. He was like, ‘I came here just for you, and you’re just walking in the streets?!’ We ended up taking the same cab. I got dropped off first and paid for his cab. He was like, ‘This is the best day of my life!’ Out of all my exhaustion, I was still able to touch someone’s life.
Three things you need in the studio?
Really cool lighting, good headphones, and snacks, so you don’t have to leave as much.
Who’s the most-played artist on your phone?
That’s a good question. I’m going to say D’Angelo. I actually named my dog after him.
I’d really love to do stuff with ODESZA. I love everything Illenium is doing, and San Holo. If I could have a dream collab with any human being, definitely Prince. Maybe not even collab. I would love to pick his brain, and ask him, ‘What’s your direction in your mind when you’re working on music?’