Kid Koala Starting From Scratch
Published Oct 24, 2011If you watch five episodes of The Muppet Show, followed by five episodes of Kids in the Hall, then you read The Little Prince, then watch two Charlie Chaplin movies, and then check out any of my albums or books, they'll make complete sense to you," jokes Eric San, the Canadian mastermind behind internationally acclaimed turntablist sensation Kid Koala. And though he's laughing as he says this, it's a pretty accurate depiction of the mindset within one of the most unique talents in Canadian music. Discovered by accident in the mid-'90s, a very young Kid Koala came to international attention on the back of a 500-copy limited edition cassette just as turntablism was gaining traction as a major art form. Since then, he has recorded four Kid Koala albums – two of which are universally celebrated as genre classics – and branched out in a number of directions in bands such as Bullfrog and the Slew, as well as collaborations with Dan the Automator, Money Mark, Martin Tétreault and others. And though the scratch-DJ movement that launched heralded careers for the likes of DJ Shadow, Invizibl Skratch Picklz, Money Mark, Mix Master Mike, Cut Chemist, and numerous others has since splintered and the technology behind the genre is now beginning to give way to new technology, a decade and a half later Kid Koala is pushing the boundaries of turntablism into unrecognizable territory with his latest work, Space Cadet, a soundtrack and graphic novel all in one.
1974 to 1991
In 1974, Eric San is born in Vancouver, BC, the second of three children. The son of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Canada in the '60s, his father is a cancer researcher and his mother an accountant. "When I was four, I started playing piano, but that was quite a frustrating experience for me. It was all write memories, preparing for exams, and recitals. In hindsight, I'm happy to have gone through that, it's paramount to anything musical I do, but at the time I would've rather been playing in a sandbox. I stuck with it until I was 12 or 13. At the end of that, they started realizing that my heart wasn't really in it. DJing was quite the opposite. It encouraged improvisation and possibilities in music, and provided all these opportunities for expression that I was looking for."
At the age of 12, San discovers scratch DJing at a Vancouver record store. "I heard scratching for the first time, and it was an instant fascination. It was mix by Mr. Mix, from Miami, that was playing in the shop. It was literally by accident. Had I showed an hour later, I might be doing something else right now. It was one of those moments. I could tell by the feel that someone had practiced to do this. He was cutting a sentence of words, changing the whole rhythm on it and repeating certain words, and making this new permutation of that sentence in this track. I could sense that there was this live manipulation going on. The clerk showed me some Run DMC records, some Jazzy Jeff. I remember, that day, I immediately went home and tried to scratch on my sister's turntable. I never spoke to that guy again, but he changed my life.
He showed me a picture of what they were using, and there were two record players and this mysterious box in the middle. I took the picture to Radio Shack and asked the guy there was that box was. He said, 'Oh, that's a mixer.' I slowly assembled a ramshackle set-up from that picture. My first slip mat was an A&W hamburger wrapper."
Because of his father's work, the budding turntablist moves to Rockville, MD, near Washington DC. There, San attends high school and begins to explore hip-hop and scratch DJing in his spare time. "In high school, I started to play parties of like 20 people, and that's how I cut my teeth playing records out. I started to buy tracks that were more party-oriented. I started with one turntable, a mixer, and hi-fi stereo for recording on tape deck. And eventually I moved up to a four-track."
He inherits the name Kid Koala from his friends, who name him the Koala Kid based on the Koala Springs beverages his mom would always have at their house. In high school, San also cultivates a second passion that would grow over the years. "I was also doing a lot of animation in high school. That was where all my spare time was going, scratching and drawing. I even applied to film school at NYU because of that, and got it. But it didn't make sense to go that way in the end, because living in New York was too expensive. I was 17, and I wasn't that convinced that I was going to be an animator."
1992 to 1995
With high school finished and his New York animation prospects behind him, San moves to Montreal in 1992, where he enrols at McGill University in the Early Childhood Education program. "My dream job has always been to work on The Muppet Show. It still is, in many ways. But my mother, who was quite pragmatic, sat me down, and said, 'Listen, if Jim Henson doesn't call you on the phone, is there something you could do that you would enjoy to make a living?' And I did enjoy teaching. When I taught first grade and sixth grade for a little bit, I realized that you're always looking for new ways to keep the kids interested to learn, even though they can't always see the connection immediately. Even now, I still think it's harder to hold the attention of 30 five-and six-year olds over thousands of adults."
Back in Canada, San's creativity thrives. "Montreal was a very nurturing environment for me. Plus, some of the best record stores in the world were here then. There were a few shops in town where all the DJs would hang out. You'd go there and check out all the new hip-hop records. When I was at McGill, I would sometimes play at Gert's, the campus pub. I would actually carry my four crates of records on a hand truck, and I would walk all the way from the residence, all the way down a hill to the bar. And at the end of the night, I would push them all the way back up.
I started working at the Savoy, which is the small upstairs lounge at the Metropolis, at a night they had called Squeeze. In the Savoy, they had beats and hip-hop, as well as musicians. I became the resident there. I would play beats all night, and then there would be two or three sets where horn players or a guitarist would come up and jam. At the Savoy, they actually encouraged more performance from the turntables, as opposed to just rocking the party. That where I first met Mark from Bullfrog."
In 1995, San lands his first real live gig as a scratch DJ, opening for Bootsy Collins at the 2500-person capacity Metropolis as DJ Eric S. In these years, he cultivates a set of carefully edited bank of samples out of his record collection with which he can deliver a dependable live performance. Soon after, he begins slowly assembling a painstakingly detailed demo tape.
Near the end of his university studies, San learns that Victor, the man who books him at the Savoy is also involved with local promotion company Channel Productions, who are just then working on bringing DJ Food and the duo Coldcut from the legendary UK turntablism label Ninja Tune over to North America for the time for a tour. "I was super stoked. He gave me a flyer with this green glass ninja on it, and I remember tacking it in front of my turntable. At the time I had this four-track that I was using to record my turntable experiments, and that show became my deadline. By the time they get here, I want to have this tape finished. I didn't. I had maybe one side done, and then half of another side. I was making these dummy mixes and putting them on cassette, just listening to them on my Walkman to see how they flowed. I was going to have something ready for them by the end of the tour, but they heard it way before it was ready, completely by accident. I went to pick [Coldcut, Funki Porcini, and DJ Food] up from the airport with Victor [the booker]. And in the van, they say to Victor, have you heard Journeys by DJ [the classic Coldcut mix]? And Victor said no, but there was no CD player in the van for them to play. So I said, 'I have it on cassette!' I was fanning out on them like crazy, and they were jetlagged and probably wondering, "Who is this kid? Why'd you bring him?'
So the tape played all through Journeys by DJ, and throughout I wouldn't leave them alone about it. I kept asking, 'How'd you do that?' or 'Is that live?' I was in the back row of the van, Victor was driving, and between us there was John Moore from Coldcut, Funki Porcini, and the two guys from DJ Food, Strictly Kev and Patrick Carpenter. And at one point the tape flipped over, and there was this really early version of my demo that wasn't for Ninja, but one of these things I had on tape for my Walkman. I just went cold. These were my mentors, and here was this bad version of my demo on. Luckily it wasn't on loud and they were in their own conversations, but at one point Patrick, who was just staring out the window, said 'Hey, what's this playing right now?' And Victor said, "Yeah, what is this?' And I had to tell them it was stuff I was working on but that it wasn't ready. I'll get you a tape of it later. But they were like, 'No, turn it up.' And even with the bad balance of the levels, they got into it. And they asked me for a tape by the end of the tour."
The tape San eventually completes is called Scratchscratchscratch, and in 1996 he independently produces 500 cassette copies that he distributes to local record stores around Montreal. The tape makes an unexpectedly wide impression and becomes highly collectible. Eight months after his chance meeting with the Ninja Tune artists in the back of a van, he receives a call from the label's London offices. They offer him a record contract. "At the time they only had UK artists. I thought it was a rule. So it wasn't even a pipe dream for me, I just thought 'They're a UK label.'
"Behind the scenes, that was an exciting but trying time for me. Right as I was graduating, my mother was like, 'I know somebody at the Ministry of Education, and you should go do an interview right now. But I was doing all this music that she wasn't really aware of. It got to the point where we had a family meeting, where my parents sat me down and said you've gotta be smart about this. We had this deal. After graduation, they said, 'We won't harass you about getting a teaching job for one year. But if nothing happens in one year, you promise me you're going to look for a teaching job.' Luckily, all the Ninja Tune stuff happened within eight months."
Within the year after graduating from McGill, a 22-year-old Kid Koala signs a deal with Ninja Tune, and the label reissues the incredibly popular Scratchscratchscratch as the 10-inch record called Scratchhappyland, to global acclaim. Round that time, the '90s turntablism revival is peaking. Kid Koala tours the world with Ninja Tune for the first time. All the while, expectations grow for his highly anticipated but as-yet-nonexistent debut album.
1997 to 2000
Having spent a lifetime perfecting the beats and samples that appeared on his tape and consequent 20-minute live set, between Ninja Tune's long legacy and his lack of experience, San runs into trouble defining just what it is he should be doing. "I got my advance, bought some studio equipment, and began thinking about what those album was going to be, and that's where it got really confusing for me. All of a sudden I have this task of doing a record, and I don't have a starting point."
Weighed down by the immensity of the task before, San spends the next few years consumed with figuring out just what Kid Koala ought to sound like. "For a time in 20s, I would wake up every morning and listen to ten records that day, which is literally ten hours of listening. I'd catalogue and try to find bits, experiment. I have tons and tons of books with my notes on these records, what could work and what I thought, all coming down in real time. I probably listening to over 2,000 records, over years. The more information I had, the less I knew how to deal with it."
In between the marathon listening sessions, San tours the world, growing more popular with each event and raising stakes for the album rumoured to be in the making. In 1998, he releases an independent EP, Bullfrog Theme, as part of Bullfrog, the Montreal jam band he's performed with since his McGill days.
While on the road, he befriends like-minded DJs such as Dan the Automator, the mastermind behind Deltron 3030, Lovage, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Gorillaz and Dr. Octagon. "I met Dan the Automator in New York at one of my first shows there, probably 1997. He's become a father figure in the industry to me." San also befriends and collaborates with Money Mark, who ends up taking him on arena tours as part of Money Mark's band, opening for the Beastie Boys.
But mostly, he tries to narrow his focus for the impending album into something workable. "At its core, I just wanted to make something I hadn't heard before. What turned out was this almost comedy, almost 'radio play'-style record that was not dance floor-oriented at all, which was mainly because of the records I had and because of the equipment."
The record that finally emerges in 2000, after the lustre of the turntablism revival had begun to fade and the '90s are over, is called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and though its enormously different than the party-line scratch DJ manoeuvring audiences have come to expect from his live shows, the debut is nevertheless a critical success. Accessible, inventive, and deeply personal, many listeners welcome it as a seminal turntablist-era album, albeit a late one.
This period proves to be one of the most arduous but character-defining in Kid Koala's life and career. "Everyone has their struggles, and for me Carpal was the most difficult album I've ever had to make. I couldn't let the label down, I couldn't let my parent down, I couldn't let my DJ friends down. For years, I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I almost quit and gave the advance back. I was doing photo shoots for an album that had maybe three minutes recorded. Luckily that all disappeared the day it came out."
2001 to 2003
Following on the heels of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, in 2000 and 2001 a slew of side-projects with previous live collaborators begin to see the light of day. There are more EPs and a debut album from Bullfrog, and a handful of EPs with Dan the Automator in groups Deltron 3030 (featuring rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien) and Lovage (featuring Faith No More singer Mike Patton).
With the success of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome under his belt and a new lease on creativity, in 2001 Kid Koala tours with numerous major acts, among them Radiohead, and sets his sights on his next album, Some of My Best Friends Are DJs. "That one was way more relaxed. I started in 2002. It was really just a further exploration of Carpal." The exception is lead single "Basin Street Blues," which takes six months to complete as he builds an entire New Orleans jazz band on turntables. "Things were just happening at an insane pace. All of a sudden I'm playing at Madison Square Garden."
In 2001, after Carpal's release, CBC's The National features Kid Koala, an interview that is broadcast nationwide and is seen by, among others, ECW publisher Robert Lecker, who approaches San with the idea for a book. Lecker offers San a book contract. "He said you have to write 100 pages, about 10,000 words. Then I had another one of those Carpal moments, where I didn't know at all how I was going to do this. So I just went to default, which for me was drawing. I started drawing and this robot character emerged, who ended up being the main character in Nufonia Must Fall. Instead of 10,000 words in 100 pages, I ended up with 300 pages and no words. But when they saw it, ECW really liked it."
Published in 2003, Nufonia Must Fall is an early example of the graphic novel, which at that time is still very much a new and unexplored genre. It brings San's lifelong interest in animation to public attention. The book comes with a 17-minute soundtrack CD, a hybrid format that Kid Koala will reprise again later. "I look at it now and I'm embarrassed by how hack the drawing is. But the soundtrack part was an ear-opener for me, because it was the first time I returned to the piano as a source of inspiration for the characters."
That same year, Ninja Tune releases Kid Koala's second album, Some of My Best Friends Are DJs, an equally meticulous assembly of samples in the style of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that is spearheaded by the awesome New Orleans jazz re-imagining of single "Basin Street Blues." Defined by its journey-like narrative, its intimate tone, and broad range of samples from across the spectrum of vinyl history, the album confirms Kid Koala's reputation as more than just a scratch DJ. The results reveal a massively skilled DJ who uses his unique imagination, instead of his skills, as his guiding force for his music, in the process developing turntablism as a freestanding and multi-dimensional art form in its own right, as opposed to simply a cult subset of hip-hop performance.
2004 to 2006
Some of My Best Friends Are DJs gives Eric San another critical success, and he decides that the time is ripe for a unique form of headlining tour that will balance out the intimacy of his studio work with the dexterous audacity that holds down his live shows. He embarks on a series of dinner-theatre concerts called The Short Attention Span Audio Theatre Tour, performed in a cabaret style for seated audiences.
A lot of it was trying to find context for My Best Friends. The record is all over the place. It didn't make sense to have people standing up and watching this show. I wanted to showcase how the record was made at some points, so we did 'Shanky Panky' on eight turntables, with all eight layers, live, with three DJs. If you had to break down how that record was made, it was eight layers of me. But I can't do all that live, so I had to recruit P-Love and Jester to come help me out, so we could actually do it."
In 2005, Ninja Tune releases Live from the Short Attention Span Audio Theater Tour!!, an EP/DVD from the tour, featuring five live tracks, some live performance footage, and four music videos. With the tour wrapped up and a renewed creative appreciation for his live capabilities still fresh in mind, Kid Koala approaches his creation of his third album, Your Mom's Favourite DJ, as a much simpler affair, more in line with his mixtape roots than the complex assembly of his two previous albums.
Your Mom's felt to me like the most fluid version of that kind of recording I'd been doing since Carpal. I did on multi-track analog tape, like I did Scratchscratchscratch. So I decided to go back to this idea of 'I start here, and from there I keep recorded what comes next. That's why there's only two start ID's on that record, because there are only two reels of tape." Released in late 2006, Your Mom's Favourite DJ is the end of a creative cycle for Kid Koala.
2007 to 2010
With a trilogy of narrative-based turntablism albums to his name, 2007 marks something of a fresh start in the now decade-old career of Eric San. Trying out new avenues on the turntables, he collaborates with avant-garde Quebecois turntablist Martin Tétreault at the Victoriaville Festival, a performance that appears on record in 2007. Beyond that, after a decade of complex arrangements and meticulous sampling, Eric San is ready for the opposite. "There were new doors being opened, like the rock stuff I was doing with the Slew."
Originally formed in 2005, the Slew is a more rock-oriented project and features Kid Koala alongside American DJ Dynomite D and two former members of the Australian band Wolfmother, Chris Ross and Myles Heskett. "The work I was doing with Dynomite D in Seattle appeared on Your Mom's Favourite DJ, but it also appeared in my live sets. So I was starting to test out some of this material live, and that would usher in the next era."
From the beginning, the Slew are different. "That was loud group. We wanted to make a record our skater friends would like. So the idea was to make this heavy-hitting record that people could cut loose to. That tour, we had a ball. We had mosh pits and people were stage-diving. You wouldn't expect that. With turntables, you're always worried if someone's going to bump the decks and throw the needle off."
The Slew's 100%, released in 2009, is explicitly extroverted compared to the insularity of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. "There's no cerebral narrative behind it. I had so much fun with that. It reminded me of those Beastie Boys records I listened to in high school, like Check Your Head or Ill Communication. We wanted Mario C, who mixed those albums, to mix 100% just to get that sound. But after that, I wanted to do something quiet again."
This fall, Kid Koala returns with first proper solo album in five years. Space Cadet continues in the tradition of 2003's Nufonia Must Fall, in that it presents a full-length piano album as soundtrack to an accompanying graphic novel drawn by San. In more than one way, it showcases Kid Koala looking to his roots for inspiration.
"It's a piano record, but there's scratching on every track. It's just very stealth," he explains. "A lot of it was about the concept of scoring and underscoring scenes, and not conflicting with the visuals. Not everything has to have some really apparent turntable solo on it. There are seven-part string harmonies there, but they're all scratched off turntables. So if you watch me do it live, it's probably the most mental scratch routine you'll ever see, but I didn't want it to feel that way while you were listening to it. I wanted it to have more of an emotive effect."
Much of the album's piano sound has to do with another major development in San's life: fatherhood. "Most of the album was recorded between zero and six months, mostly on my watch. So piano was about the only instrument I could play without waking her up. The story is also very much about parenthood. I was trying to channel all those feelings into the images, but also into the music too."
To promote Space Cadet, Kid Koala in embarking on another concept tour meant to showcase his skills with the record's delicate design. The Space Cadet Headphone Tour provides headphones to audience members and asks them to relax in inflatable 'space pods' while watching live light installations and animated graphics from the book. "I think of it as ambient scratching. It's always there, but you don't have to hear it." At 37, Eric San is bold enough to take on one of the riskiest propositions of his long career thus far. He's burying the scratching techniques that made his name.
Essential Kid Koala
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (2000)
This long-awaited debut took more than three years and thousands of records to assemble, as Kid Koala worked through the pressures of early international success to uncover a creative voice all his own.
Some of My Best Friends Are DJs (2003)
Featuring "Basin Street Blues," one of the creative peaks in Koala's arsenal of turntable trickery, this sophomore album builds on the critical success of his debut. Here, San is clearly in the groove, building tracks confidently in the method he so painstakingly developed for Carpal.
Space Cadet (2011)
After five years without a Kid Koala record, Space Cadet marks the beginning of a new phase. A piano-based soundtrack to the accompanying graphic novel of the same name, Space Cadet showcases San's abilities with stealth turntablism, scratching that doesn't draw attention to itself. You hardly notice his nimble fingers at work.