Dead Curious caught up with Eric San this past Saturday evening, at Chicago’s famous Double Door. San, best known by his stage name Kid Koala, was sitting at the empty bar, meticulously folding sheets of A4 paper into airplanes. It was a quiet scene, and he continued to fold paper airplanes throughout the entirety of our conversation, every one of them built with the steadfast precision of its predecessor. Even when engaged in conversation, this master craftsman never loses focus of the task at hand.
After a world tour that took him to twenty nine different cities, we sat down a few hours before the last show, and talked about his new album, 12 Bit Blues, about upcoming projects, the nature of his live show, and the fabled koala suit.
Dead Curious: So, let me start off by asking – what was the inspiration behind 12 Bit Blues?
Kid Koala: Well, I think one of the main catalysts, believe or not, was this machine, the SB-1200. It’s a drum sampler, and came out in the 80s. I was in school, had a paper route before class and didn’t have much money. All the money I did have, I would spend on records. But I did find that a lot of my favourite records were made on this machine – and I looked it up, and found out it was like $5000 (laughs). For a kid with a paper route, that’s a lot of money, so I was just like “All right, I’m just going to put that out of my mind forever!”
DC: And that’s with the guys from Wolfmother, right?
KK: When we made the record, it was Dynomite D and myself, and we brought the Wolfmother guys for the live version of it. We got along so well that we decided to record the follow up album with them. Yeah, Chris Ross, and Myles Heskett – they were the original rhythm section for Wolfmother. I met them by accident; well, not by accident. But I went down to see them playing live at a club, and I went to buy my tickets the afternoon of the show (at the venue). They were standing outside, and I said “You guys are in the band! What are you guys doing?” And they asked me if I knew a good place to eat, or a good keyboard store, and I said “Yeah, I got both of those” and showed them around.
At one point Myles asked me if I did music, and I told him I was a DJ. He asked what my stage name was, and I told him, and it turned out he had been to one of my shows in Sydney a few years prior! It was funny – we were on each other’s radar, and just really hit it off, all because they were standing outside the club when I went to buy tickets for the show. Great dudes.
Anyways, when we were mixing that album with Mario C, we wanted those tracks to hit like the classic Beastie Boys tracks, those pivotal recordings of my youth. Mario was playing around with one, was telling me that I needed to get an SB-12, that they were way cheaper now they’re totally obsolete.
DC: Much like the VCR
KK: Exactly. It’s 10 seconds of sample time, and the longest sample it can hold is just over 2 seconds. Very, very limited in what it can do (laughs). But the way it captures sound, the way it spits it back out – it has a very punchy, like aliased, 12 bit sound, and it’s got that grit that old hip hop records have.
So when I finally got to the studio, started tapping around and I realized that I was falling into a real classic blues time signature. The sound of those dusty drums, and that blues sway. Next thing you know, it’s three days later and I’ve got the skeleton for 12 Bit Blues. It took me many more months to build around it, but I remember it was a really inspired week of working on the SB-1200. Luckily, it’s designed very elegantly and intuitively. I didn’t sequence any of it, and playing it real-time for the duration of the tracks, it has a kind of drift to it. Some movement that I personally found was present in a lot of the blues records I liked.
DC: Yeah, I was going to say it has an old “timeless” quality to it – it feels like you’re listening to a live performance of a band. It was reminiscent of a B.B. King concert I went to a few years ago – his band never stopped playing the whole time he was on stage, and it just had this story-like quality to it
KK: Definitely, it has that sway, like those old Charlie Patton records. They were just like, the one-mand band. They sound like eight people! Kick drum the whole time, telling the story and add the layers of guitar, bass. It was very human, and urgent. Potent music just because if they stopped doing anything, then it all stopped (laughs). They could sing the lead vocals, but also call back on their own vocals. How did he do that? It was impressive, and inspired me to try and do that on the turntables. My own call and response, left turntable and right.
DC: And it’s really an album that I feel needs to be listened to on headphones. Really lets you get the depth to it.
KK: Yeah, and when it began taking shape it really felt like a blues record, which informed the rest of the process. I was digging up the most vintage of vintage equipment to record to – I have a record cutter, cutting custom plates, scratching records with old needles and old plates, and using a 1940s Ruben microphone. It was extreme!
DC: You had a craft workshop in there.
KK: Yeah, but at the same time it was a learning experience, and I wanted to capture it all the way it was. You know, using an old Harmony amp from Sears Roebuck from the 1950s, and just overdriving it – you know, it changes your process. It’s like painting, and most of the gear was older than me. It’s kind of fun from an anthropological perspective to put yourself in the shoes of the engineers from back when and see the issues they had with their equipment. The stuff they used changes the sound, in sometimes quite a subtle way. But as you start to add the layers, some of the parts are indescribable. This one on purpose, was a dusty sounding record from the start.
DC: One thing I wanted to ask about, speaking of painting, is that I know you do a lot of the art for your albums. Do you have a background in visual arts?
KK: I have a background in animation, and because of that I think I’m a masochist when it comes to the visual arts. That’s also why my graphic novels take like eight years to come out. There’s something about art, and narratives through visuals, and narratives through sound, that you can do in a surreal environment. With turntables – people don’t really know what they sound like. You can take the sound of a bird chirping, and turn it into a bass line eventually. You take sounds people are familiar with, and bend them into the realms of surreality. And people roll with it, as opposed to if a guitarist took his instrument and bent it four octaves out of place – people would be a bit more confused.
It’s the same thing with comics, and the suspension of reality. People say “yeah, of course that character flies, and this one can eat five thousand steaks! – you know, whatever (laughs). It gives you this odd freedom to have fun with it. The two crafts in my mind are quite related and similar. The idea of paint is similar to recording on multi-track tape. In essence, it’s like painting on canvas. You put something down and you either erased it whole, or dealt with it. Once it’s on the tape, you have to work with it as a “thing”. That process was something I actually enjoyed. It helped me make faster decisions in the studio than I would perhaps have done. It’s about committing, I guess
DC: Would you say the technological limitations force you to be creative?
KK: Yeah! I mean, the SB-12 lets you grab up to 10 seconds of sound. The first ones will be longer, but by the end, you’re just taking fractions of a second – a hi-hat, or sing into it, and it doesn’t even sound like voice. It forced me to have a stripped down palette to work with. Essentially, I was using classic hip-hop tools to make a record. And I can connect in a quantum kind of way with what those hip-hop producers were doing. That’s why those old albums have a weird clicky beat – they threw that in there because it’s the only thing that fit on the pad!
DC: So this tour was 29 different cities. Where did you go?
KK: We started in Europe, did that for about two and a half weeks: Geneva, Brussels, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Paris. Then we did the West Coast first, Los Angeles and all the way up to Vancouver. After a short break, went to the East Coast starting in New York, then Canada, and now Chicago! Which is a Blues town, what do you know.
DC: Fitting place for a finale. Where would you say you had the most receptive crowd? Obviously, anyone who comes to your show is into it, but has any one place stood out?
KK: I’ve been really lucky, and somehow managed to cultivate an audience that is up for an adventure. I’ll go to a city I’ve never been to, and obviously, I guess thanks to the Internet, I show up and people are already in the mentality to be concert goers. I think it would be different if I was just playing some free show, as background entertainment, but they’re a great pocket of the population that’s willing to see something new. I’ve deejayed the whole club scene, and felt like at some point things were getting very Pavlovian – you know what i mean? There has to be more to life than this: drop the beat off, crowd cheers. Bring it back up, they cheer even louder!
The first time I tried something kind of risky was the Nufonia book launch. I couldn’t rock this party, and then send people home to read this book which is essentially a romantic tragedy. So we did a show that felt like the book – a frame to present the music. So, we did a cabaret kind of show, and did one in San Francisco that had a three course meal. And you know, people are eating, so you’re not playing 150 BPM, high decibel kind of music.
More recently with Space Cadet, we took a different direction. So we decided to do a show where everyone is lying down on the floor! We brought in these space pods for everyone to lie down in, and people had individual headphones, for people to listen to what was essentially turntable lullabies I wrote for my daughter (laughs). This all makes sense to me though! There’s an odd kind of logic, albeit a Canadian sense of logic.
DC: (Laughs) It seems to me from the perspective of a fan, and someone who listens to a lot of music, that you are doing things in a pretty novel and interesting manner. We all think of these things, but nobody else seems to be doing it. Most DJs are producing things that are predictive, and yeah, Pavlovian.
KK: Well, not to say that this is a more intellectual experience, but I didn’t come from dance culture. When I started listening DJing, it was more a craft thing,about finding your voice through an instrument – it was headphone based, studio based, narrative based. I listened to as many Monty Python and Muppets recordings as I did to Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul. And Python stuck with me, as anything could happen in that show! That was inspirational.
I think that’s part of it. I don’t come from club or rave culture, and I understand that if you’re on certain substances you need certain types of music to help you through the trip. But I wanted to make a show that was a trip on its own (laughs). But it’s funny… I couldn’t imagine watching this show on hallucinogens – there’s already puppets and dancing girls. I mean, look, look here: we are making a few hundred paper airplanes for every show. The idea of breaking that fourth wall, and putting it on the audience, so it’s not just you stand here and watch this, you’ve gotta get in on the fun and help the whole vibe.
But you know, in no way am I trying to disrespect that style of music, it’s just not where I came from. The confusion is because I play turntables, and it’s such an iconic symbol of that culture. So people might walk in and see my show and either leave a fan… or never see another one of my shows. For my, turntables are a chameleon, and they can be very emotive and melodic. Or, just loud and cacophonous, which I like as much depending on what the project is. But I like to explore the range of what I can do.
DC: So going on that, what are you listening to these days?
KK: Right now, mostly old school jazz – Sidney Bechet… I’m getting in the zone for this project with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I know a lot of the standards, but I want to be ready – these guys will say “We’re going to do Basin Street Blues! In E! Let’s go!” And when you’re hanging with those cats, you better know your stuff well.
What I like about that music is that it’s so spontaneous, and the whole band can move together since everyone knows the songs and the chord changes. If you hear the clarinet has hit the third, and you also hit the third, you might bend up to the fifth to stay out of his way. It’s impressive, and a beautiful thing to hear and behold.
I’ve been listening to a lot of that, and also quieter music when we’re in transit, as this show is big and loud. More downtempo stuff, some ambient music and film scores.
DC: Any film score that has stood out to you?
KK: Yeah, I really like the stuff by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Probably some of the most potent, powerful music. And it’s mostly the way they arranged it. I like Carter Burwell a lot, and he’s mostly known for his work with the Coen brothers. There’s also this kid Helios, from Portland.
KK: Yeah, I like his stuff a lot and it’s very emotive. In the beats realm, I think Nosaj Thing is an amazing talent. Very futuristic, but still maintains strong emotive angle. We’re doing a record together, and he flew up to Montreal to do some work with me, but 2013 looks like a very busy year for everyone. And Deltron is coming out as well.
DC: What’s the timeline for that record?
KK: Oh the record is done! It’s mastered too, I’ve been listening to it for like a month. We did some shows for it this summer, and performed as a 20-piece band. If you want to hear some of the new tracks, you should check out some of the YouTube phone footage. A lot of it has been captured at these live shows. It took us a while to find the right distributor, and we’re going with EMI, but it’s in their hands now, and I imagine it will be out at some point in 2013.
DC: And I know a lot of people are really excited for it.
KK: Yeah, which is funny, because we only did like twelve shows for the original one! (Laughs)
DC: It has really lasted.
KK: I think people are really going to like this new one. It’s kind of… better. I mean, the components are better! Everybody is kind of a few years better – Dan (the Automator) has better beats, Del has better rhymes. We did the Gorillaz stuff in between. Everyone’s just more experienced and seasoned. And whether we will play with the big band, or with a smaller five piece, ultimately rests with EMI. I’m sure the bigger cities will get the large, twenty piece – Chicago definitely will.
DC: Exciting. So, I have to ask. Why the Koala suit?
KK: I lost a bet.
DC: You lost a bet.
KK: Yeah, this has been going on for years. I was talking to the label about the packaging for 12 Bit Blues – I wanted the fancy packaging, with the gramophone and all that. And they said “Sure, you can have that if you can jump rope for 8 straight minutes.” And I was like “I can totally do that!” You know, boxing style. And of course, it’s impossible to do that, unless you’re…
DC: A boxer.
KK: Precisely. And you have to be in such a zone, that eventually you’ll catch a toe and screw up. I kept failing and they said they would give me the packaging if I did one hundred shows wearing the koala suit.
DC: And how many have you done?
KK: I’ve lost track, but it’s in the 90s. At some point I’m going to just receive an email with a hundred YouTube clips, from one hundred shows. And the suit was something my wife made for when I toured with Yo Gabba Gabba! That’s when the suit appeared, and once Ninja Tunes (the label) saw it, they said “oh, we’re going to have fun with this.”
I was on my way to tour with the show, and my wife asked me what I was going to wear. I didn’t have a costume, and didn’t realize that people all dress up in costume when on the show – I mean, Mos Def was dressed up, Jack Black; Money Mark was dressed up like an astronaut! I couldn’t show up without a costume, or we’d have a stadium full of three year olds throwing shit on stage (laughs). It was the night before I was leaving on tour, and she stayed up making the koala suit overnight.
DC: She made it?
KK: Well, she’s a set designer, and in fact, all of the puppets you will see tonight are ones she made. And in the winter time it’s alright to wear, but some of those summertime shows man… you think you’re about to pass out.
DC: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the video for 8 Bit Blues. It’s really something cool.
KK: Yeah, we did it all in one shot, and real time for the duration of the track. We felt that it should be a performance. Essentially, that song is about being on the road all the time, scratching the area codes in, and we wanted a video that felt like being on the road all the time. And it was silly, really fun. Some people asked if we animated it!
DC: Yeah, it looks like stop-motion animation
KK: But it was all done live, in one take. We found these cars that follow a line, and just had fun with it. We just walked through the dollar store and found cool stuff we could put in, like the Etch-a-sketches, and put the area codes in real time. We also shot the video for 5 Bit Blues in real time. It all needed to have that performance aspect, that human factor. That’s kind of the idea behind this entire tour.