Kid Koala interview

The Independent

Eric San, AKA Kid Koala, is something of a pop culture polymath. During a career spanning the best part of two decades, the 33 year-old has written books, illustrated comics and helped create computer games, not to mention producing and performing some of the most original music to be found on the already innovative Ninja Tune record label.

For his latest project he’s taken on blues music, rendering it through revered hip-hop drum machine and sampler, the E-mu SP-1200. It was a machine he hankered after as a kid, listening to some of the great albums produced using it, but a hefty initial price tag meant his paper round never stretched far enough. When I got San on the phone from Toronto last week, I decided to go back to the beginning and see where his musical skill and turntable dexterity came from.

“My parents read somewhere that learning the piano helped you in math, so I started when I was four years old and my first eight years of musical experience was strictly classical, which was quite terrifying for a young child; a very conservative style of training with everything just in preparations for recitals and competitions. That being said, I didn’t leave without benefit, as it trains your ear and helps hand independence. My father’s a geneticist and mother’s an accountant, so they don’t have a musical bone between them, however they do love music and they would always play a lot of vocal jazz and classical stuff in the house when I was growing up, so I think that probably got into the blood stream at some point.”

He grew up in Vancouver, before graduating high school in Maryland and going on to study at McGill University in Montreal. But it was back on the west coast of Canada where San first fell in love with scratch music.

“The first time I heard scratching was just in a record store with my sister in Vancouver, she was buying Depeche Mode albums or something and I was just her little punk brother tagging along. I heard this sound over the speakers, and it was a human voice, but it was being chopped up, with certain syllables being stuttered and making new rhythms. I was just like ‘how are they doing that, is that with tape machines?’ but I could tell from listening to piano performances that this was live, it wasn’t some computer randomly chopping sounds, somebody had practiced to make this sentence into a whole new thing, and it completely blew my mind. I remember immediately running up to the clerk and asking what was playing, so it was kind of love at first note.”

Fast forward a few years and a teenage San had picked up the nickname Kid Koala from his mother’s habit of serving guests a supposedly Australian beverage called Koala Soda. He was starting to make music and DJ locally, but his big break came when a friend was involved in bringing Ninja Tune founders Coldcut and DJ Food over for the Canadian leg of a North American tour. Contrary to popular belief he wasn’t ballsy enough to plant his mixtape on the duo, instead it was a rather serendipitous situation on the way back from the airport.

“I’d been listening to Coldcut’s ‘Journeys By a DJ’ and took my cassette along for the ride, so I was this really wet-behind-the-ears kid playing them their own mix, jabbering on about everything in the recording while they’re super jet-lagged. Then the tape finished, flipped over and started playing some very rough versions of stuff I’d been working on, and I’m horrified, like ‘oh no, they can’t hear this yet, these are my idols’. Had I been in the front seat I would have hit eject within the first two bars, but fortunately for me I was in the back blushing like crazy. Then I guess at one point Patrick Carpenter AKA DJ Food said ‘what’s this playing right now?’ and I told him it’s just a really rough thing I put on tape so I could listen to it on my Walkman, and they’re like ‘turn it up!’. So there was just silence for a while, I’ve never been that nervous in my life, but I guess they just liked the whole flow of that Scratchcratchratchatch recording. Kev said I had to make a copy before they left, so while they were on tour I polished up the tape, I gave them a copy and they left. I didn’t think anything would happen, I thought they were just being British and polite, but oddly enough six months later I got a call from Ninja Tune headquarters saying ‘your tape’s been circulating round the office and everyone’s really excited about it, we’d like to sign you’. I couldn’t believe it, I almost dropped the phone.”

Three albums and countless gigs later, San finds himself in Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato’s studio being told that SP-1200s can now be obtained for a few hundred bucks and he’d be the prefect man to resurrect the machine.

“Mario said they’re cheap now, people are practically giving them away because they’ve only got 10 seconds of sample time, the converter on it isn’t up to today’s standards, it saves on floppy disk, and it’s horribly difficult to use for this generation; but it dirties things up really nicely and you’re the man to master it. So when I got back from L.A. I found one on Craigslist, very excited about seeing what it would do, and the first thing I made was what would end up being ‘1 bit Blues’. I was having so much fun just punching these big typewriter-style buttons on it, so I decided to play the whole skeleton of the track live in one take; there’s something about that which is very immediate and potent and enjoyable. What’s great about the sampler is that it’s a 12-Bit sampler which saves to 8-Bit, and by today’s standards that’s way less than CD quality, but there’s something dusty and smoky sounding; it has this real texture. I figured so many great hip hop records were already made on this machine, there’s no point in making another one, so I tried to do a little bluesy thing instead.”

With the album done and dusted, it was now time to think about how to play it live. With Kid Koala through this is no small undertaking thouh, as previous tours have seen multiple turntables, full live bands, incredible AV experiences and even bingo games; so instead he decided to try and reflect the stripped back simplicity of the blues.

“A lot of the equipment I made it on is older than me, stuff that I found in flea markets, vintage synths, weird oil can tape delays, things I just wanted to squeeze one last performance out of before they disintegrate. With the live show it’s the same thing, I wanted it just as low-tech as the studio process. We named it Vinyl Vaudeville, and it’s going to be performances of these songs with full choreography by dancing girls, while puppets illustrate the narrative of the vocal pieces. I wanted it to still be really fun and playful, without a crazy technological setup.”

The other thing to expect is giant cardboard gramophones, to match the make-your-own gramophone kit that comes inside the album. Of course this isn’t the first creative thing he’s attempted alongside his music, with previous LPs including novels, comics and drawing exhibitions. Turns out, while other artists and DJs are tweeting about delays and terrible food, San will be doodling away on his next big scheme.

“I’m so privileged to play music for these small audiences I’ve found in all these cities, but the joke is that as much as I love my job, I hate the commute. Sometimes I’ll spend 40 hours in the air and 10 hours in the city, so when you look at this record, a lot of it is motivated by that hectic travelling schedule. I think that was a tradition with the blues, there’s always quite a lot of travelogue-type songs, so I made ‘1 bit Blues (10,000 Miles)’ and ‘8 bit Blues (Chicago to New York to LA)’ whilst ravelling back and forth. During those dead times, when you’re just waiting at the gate or on a train, I’ll be drawing and thinking up little fun things to happen. As for the gramophone thing, I can’t take any credit; that’s Edison’s genius. For me it’s still magical that you can have all that sound and so much detail, stored in one groove picked up by one needle. I remember having a similar kit in my childhood, and it was my first experience with actually touching sound, being able to pull it backward and slow it down; it just opened up this whole audio world for me. So when it came to designing the packaging for the album I thought we could do this little cardboard gramophone like I had when I was a kid; I’m glad Ninja support my ridiculous ideas!”

Before I let him go, I had to ask about the joyous news that he, Dan Automator and Del the Funky Homosapien were collaborating again as Deltron 3030 after more than a decade apart.

“We just mastered the album last month and we’re sorting out distribution with the hope of releasing it later this fall. We’ve already done shows with the new material this summer, we were on tour with a full orchestra and choir because a lot of the songs have those elements in the arrangements, so we decided to do a big show and we’ll be taking that our on the road again once it’s released.”