Published Jan 27, 2017In a recent interview for Exclaim!, Eric San (a.k.a. Montreal-based turntable maestro Kid Koala) talked about the potential pitfalls of touring his new album, the 72-minute ambient epic Music to Draw To: Satellite (out now via Arts & Crafts).
"I wouldn't want, personally, to be standing in a room and watching somebody barely turn a knob or add subtle layers for eight minutes. It would just be the most boring show of all time."
Then, he had a brainwave.
"I've broken down how this record was made, and in some cases I would layer eight turntables just to create the harmonies in certain parts of the music. So it was like, 'What if we make that task the audience's?'"
So, he put his show in the hands of fans — literally. Walking into The Rivoli on Thursday night (January 26), you couldn't help but feel like you'd won a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. And in a way, you had; while Kid Koala booked six shows each in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, only a select number of people were able to score seats (roughly 50 to 60 people are allowed to enter each show).
On each table was a wooden case containing a mini turntable, speaker, slots for records, some sort of smart LED bulb (controlled by a crew onstage) and, best of all, an Interstellar Orbiter, a dual resonant filter made by boutique effects pedal company Earthquaker Devices. It kind of felt like dying and going to gear heaven.
A nervous energy hung over the sold-out crowd as each member found a seat at a table. Few were drinking. Most were quiet. Shit got real once the production team started handing out sets of colour-coded records.
"Everyone remembers their first time," San joked from the stage. This would be the project's first real live performance with a crowd since being tested out at Toronto's Luminato a couple of years ago. The show didn't exactly fly without a hitch the first time around. Now it was more complicated. Mistakes were going to be made.
The premise was simple enough: Each slab of wax had a colour on either side. When the turntable's built-in light changed colour, it was time to play the corresponding record. Knob twiddling and amateur scratching would ensue. But things didn't go exactly as planned for the first few songs. Certain people couldn't figure out the setup. Some were simply lost in the possibilities before them, trying to summon otherworldly, earth-shattering sounds from the purposefully peaceful records.
Then there was the "chemical puppeteer" on stage, a woman with aquariums and slides who would drip and drop compounds into the watery abyss, stirring up formations resembling land, sea and space using chemical reactions projected live in the shape of a satellite behind her.
Truthfully, with everything that was going on, it was a little stressful to take part in. My hand shook uncontrollably anytime I had to swap records and reset the needle, even though I've done it a million times before at home, and ended up missing a few cues. But then the vibe changed.
As the crowd seemed to get the swing of things, strangers took turns manipulating the effects; the cues became easier to recognize and react to. It allowed more time to take in the moment, reflect on the feeling of sitting in a room with people, young and old, who, like me, wanted to make a lot of noise with one of their favourite artists.
It also allowed more space to focus on the story San had created with the album's singer and co-lyricist Emilíana Torrini (who, sadly, couldn't be there because of a pre-scheduled tour) about a pair of star-crossed lovers separated by a one-way mission to Mars. In between breaks from DJing, or sliding magnetic strips containing fragments of Torrini's vocals through a machine, he'd type lyrics and the story on a circular screen at the centre of the stage, adding visual weight to the already heavy words.
When the show began, San asked everyone to refrain from playing a blue-sided disc; that one was supposed to be saved for last. Before the main set ended, he opened up about one of the album's tracks, "The Darkest Day" — a nine-minute song inspired by the passing of one of his family members, a fellow artist who "decided to check out early" and clearly left a gap in his life. Holding back tears, the often-affable San described trying to get in the headspace of someone who can't take it anymore.
Everyone's lights blasted blue and the song took hold at its climax, with most of the audience finally finding the full limits of the pedal before them, cranking each of its nine knobs as far as they could go.
The past few months on this planet have proved that anything is possible, in good and bad (mostly bad) ways. Watching and performing with Kid Koala was a reminder that we all have a part to play in getting through our darkest days. That shouldn't ever seem like a scary proposition; it's liberating. Because really, the sky's the limit — and it always has been.