Published Jan 24, 2017Many Canadians suffer from seasonal affective disorder during our country's colder months, but it was something else that was getting Eric San (more commonly known as turntablist/artist Kid Koala) down during the winter of 2009.
He was finishing the storyboards for his second graphic novel, Space Cadet, and had moved on to the scratchboards for each panel when he started to calculate the amount of work ahead: He realized it would take him seven months to complete.
"And all of a sudden I got depressed," he says over the phone from Montreal, bursting into uncomfortable laughter seconds later.
Figuring that other artists in his city were feeling similarly isolated, he decided to rent a room, charge five dollar cover (to pay for the rental costs and some hot cocoa), and spin a few of his favourite records, the ones that helped him stay focused on his art (Sparklehorse's It's a Wonderful Life is a personal favourite). He thought maybe five or six of his friends would show up. Instead, close to 250 people arrived on the first night; that amount more than doubled two weeks later.
His latest album, Music to Draw To: Satellite (out now via Arts & Crafts) is inspired, in part, by those initial community events. A 72-minute long ambient album featuring Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini, whose lyrics, co-written by San, help flesh out the album's story about a pair of star-crossed lovers separated by a one-way mission to Mars, is sure to become a late-night favourite for students and artists alike, and that's entirely the point.
"I wish them many hours of productivity listening to the record," he says.
Here are four things you need to know about Music to Draw To: Satellite and its intimate and interactive companion concert series that debuts in Toronto on January 26.
1. It's an album that was made — and meant to be listened to — during the winter months.
The pieces for Music to Draw To: Satellite were created over three winters in Montreal.
"The second the snow melted, I would just stop working on it, but the second it started getting cold again I'd be like, 'Let's go in, add a few layers and tune it up a bit," he says.
Because of that, he doesn't see it getting much play during the summer: "I can't imagine getting on a skateboard and rocking out to this record."
2. He knew he wanted to work with Emilíana Torrini before he even heard her sing.
San first discovered the Icelandic-Italian artist, best known for her 1999 album Love in the Time of Science and work with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, while listening to her talk on a panel at a Belgian music festival.
"I heard this speaking voice and I was super intrigued by it. I was like, 'That girl's accent is crazy. I don't even know what's going on there, but it sounds amazing,'" he says.
He bought her album and became a huge fan. The pair exchanged emails over the years, but a collaboration never materialized until San began work on Canadian-American filmmaker Jason Reitman's 2014 movie Men, Women & Children.
"Jason was like, 'Hey, I really like this track "Nightfall" you sent me. I'm going to put it in my film, and I want to reprise it in the credit roll and I want vocals on it. Is there someone you'd like to sing on it?' And I was like, wow, this is actually an opportunity to get Emilíana to sing on something," he remembers. "So I have to give him the credit for giving me the confidence to cold call her."
3. San developed the skills needed to make the album while working on movie soundtracks.
Known primarily for his DJ skills, Music to Draw To: Satellite is a massive departure for the artist (it's his first non-sample-based record, although he does layer his scratching in subtle ways on the album). He credits working on scores with giving him the skills needed for the transition.
"A lot of film companies were like, 'No samples. Whatever you submit to us, nothing.' And I started to accumulate more tools in the studio because of that," he says.
San plays all the instruments on Music to Draw To: Satellite, and even pressed his instrumentals with a personal vinyl cutter in his studio so he could manipulate them on the turntable. ("It's tedious, but I have fun," he laughs).
4. His shows are actually getting smaller.
In the early '00s, Kid Koala was recruited to tour with Radiohead as the band began to play more stadiums around the world.
"I have only the fondest memories of doing those tours, like playing Madison Square Garden with Radiohead, but at the same time, some of my most cherished concerts, as far as attending, one of my favourite rooms in the world is the Preservation Hall in New Orleans. And that room fits maybe 80 people — there's not even amplifiers and microphones. It's just what's in the air. The connectivity you feel as just an audience member, in that room, is really powerful for me."
His upcoming string of shows, set to take place over multiple nights in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, may be his smallest and most intimate yet. To play the album, San has connected with boutique effects pedal company EarthQuaker Devices to create a custom dual envelope filter soldered to a turntable and speaker at a personal station for each attendee. Only 50 participants will be able to take part in each performance as part of San's "turntable orchestra," where he'll conduct the crowd using colour-coded vinyl to help him play the record in full.
"I guess this is more like the 'Woody Allen movie' of live concerts," he says. "It's not going to break the box office, but the people that are there are going to be really into it."