Published Feb 08, 2019It's the week leading up the release of Kid Koala's new album Music To Draw To: Io, and the artist born Eric San is hibernating.
"I think everybody here has a gear changed yearly from kind of the end of November, sometimes to May," San wonders to Exclaim! in an interview over the phone from his Montreal hometown. "The traffic sounds different. Because there's snow everywhere, there's less reverberation and stuff. Even in the urban areas there's a bit of tranquility to it."
Though he's been a Montreal resident for more than 20 years, San's latest two full-lengths of snowy drone landscapes and glacial pop floes — 2017's Music To Draw To: Satellite and the freshly released Music To Draw To: Io — are perhaps the opposite of what you'd expect from an artist routinely found minding an arsenal of vinyl decks suited up in a fuzzy, floppy-eared koala onesie. And indeed, they mark a departure from the excited scratch turntablism that pervades catalogue entries as broad as the deconstructed blues of 2012's 12-Bit Blues or the breakdance-minded propulsion of last year's Floor Kids videogame soundtrack. But the Music To Draw To albums are just the latest gestures toward a congregation of focus and expression that Kid Koala's been fostering for the last decade.
Alongside the release of Io, San is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Music To Draw To the event, a roving anti-social social DJ event that discourages dancing while inviting guests to draw or paint or knit along to quiet time music — a sort of pop-up shared work space for creatives. Throw in a three-record deal from Arts & Crafts, and the Music To Draw To albums appear a well-executed expansion of that project's brand, but San plainly insists the music came about more naturally.
"It just didn't seem like middle of January was a time I should be trying to make club bangers or anything like that. So everything from sometimes a piano or a guitar or even a drum machine, I'm already like, okay, let's dial this down to 60 BPM and start from there. In a way it's just like synchronizing with the actual tempo of the city at this time, you know?"
That was essentially the M.O. for Satellite, composed on guitar, bass and synthesizer, spare traces of his scratched vinyl sounds only employed as textural device while Icelandic guest vocalist Emilíana Torrini features sporadically throughout. But on Io, San's doubled down on the experiment and reduced his composer's toolbox to an array of synthesizers, here including some chilling vocal features from Belgian performer Trixie Whitley (pictured above).
Named for one of the Galilean moons of Jupiter and the character in Greek mythology of the same name, the record draws upon the story of Io, a mortal woman who rejected advances from Zeus but nevertheless endured his harassment and subsequent rape.
"It's by no means an audio companion to that myth," San clarifies. Instead, Io mines the story to provide an ancient analogue for the contemporary instances of sexual assault, abused power and victim blaming we've only begun to reckon with on a cultural level with movements like #MeToo and Time's Up.
"In the versions that we had studied, it actually took several decades before [Io] was able to kind of get her life back or get back to a place where she felt empowered again. For whatever reason, Trixie could just get into this character."
The album reaches its dramatic climax on "Hera's Song," a track that pairs Whitley's vocal with San's scorching rumble and an allusion to the vengeful wrath Io has to endure at the hand of Hera — one of Zeus's wives — when the goddess learns of her husband's adultery.
"To me it sounds like she's sharpening her knives throughout the whole song — so full of rage in her singing, but in a kind of understated, straight-faced way," San reflects. "I was like, okay, now I have to almost go back and rework stuff to live up to what she brought to it."
After recording Whitley's vocal sessions in Montreal, San visited Calgary for a Music To Draw To event and squeezed in some extra days at the National Music Centre to record amongst its vast collection of synthesizers.
"There's a room at the NMC that probably has about 80 boards all set up that you can just plug into and kind of start tracking with, and my goal in the three days was just to learn something about each one and just try to get through the room," San explains. "It was just one of those situations where I'd plug it in and see what kind of tones I could wrangle out of it, and then say, 'Ah, actually this would be perfect for this moment in that track,' and so I'd pull up that session and add that there."
"It wasn't like 12 Bit Blues or something where the whole record kind of poured out goofing around on one machine," San qualifies, distancing its process from the 2012 album he recorded and built mainly on a long-coveted E-mu SP-1200 sampler. "This was a little bit more like watercolours in a way, just to see how they all blended in together in the end."
But if you ask San, it's all in keeping with a time-tested process.
"I think what I have is a kind of microscopic way of listening to things, so I really enjoy the nuance, the subtleties. Even if you think about scratching — I probably spent 10 years just scratching one split second piece of record and trying to bend it into a bunch of other tones, you know?"
Music To Draw To: Io is out now via Arts & Crafts.