Kid Koala

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

I have to admit that, years ago when I first heard about the notion of a DJ packing a room full of ecstatic dancers and such an individual being called a genius, I was sceptical. I mean, they’re just pushing pre-recorded music right? How difficult could it be to string together a bunch of songs, make a playlist and make it sound good? Oh, how woefully under-educated I was. What DJs do isn’t so simple as just slapping a series of songs together, there is an art to the acts of cutting, pasting, mixing and performing sets the way a DJ does that goes well beyond the understanding of the kid that first learned to make music sitting at a piano; these men are attempting – as Fluxus art pioneer Al Hansen did – to take existing material and make something totally new from it in any way they can; by using little more than a few turntables and a galaxy of vinyl, DJs make their music in a way totally unlike anything previously explored in the context of musical creation.

Few musicians have had so difficult a time achieving acceptance for their art as DJs have though. I wasn't alone in my childhood theory about the nature of DJing; virtually from the moment rap caught on in the 1980s, detractors came out of the woodwork to say that what emcees and DJs were making couldn’t possibly be called music because “all they were doing was talking over pre-recorded tracks.” There were no conventional instruments involved, so how could what these young men were doing be considered anything other than derivative given that they relied upon the work of others to have any sound to work with in the first place? It’s been a tremendous uphill battle, but through persistence and a fan base that has grown significantly larger with the passage of time, rap and hip hop have overcome the obstacles presented by the music’s critics and DJs as well as producers have broken through to illustrate that, while what they do might not be the standard, time-honored definition of a conventional musical art form, it is an art form nonetheless.

Like any art form, for example, there are members of the DJ community interested in pushing the envelope and the limitations of their instrument and Eric “Kid Koala” San is one of the frontrunners of that movement. When Ground Control spoke with him, the conversation regularly revolved around innovating the public’s perception of his musical idiom as well as new ideas for performances, approaches and releases that he’s working on. Over time, he has fine-tuned his manipulation of a turntable to the point that it is its’ own instrument – sometimes sustaining a single trumpet or other instrumental note and pitch-shifting it to compose unique and original melodic structures.

Of course, like any musician, San is always looking forward and percolating new ideas but, unlike most musicians, he’s only too happy to talk about them before they’re done and get initial impressions from other about what they think. First and foremost is a project called The Slew which promises to blow more than a couple of minds as San and collaborator Dynomite D totally re-contextualize the turntable's place in a rock band. Here, San graciously walks me through what he does, he also explained some of what he’s planning on doing next.

Bill Adams vs. Eric San aka Kid Koala

ES: Hello?

BA: Hello, may I speak to Eric please?

ES: Yup, you’ve got him.

BA: Ah, I see, you were screening calls [laughing]…

ES: [laughing] Nope, no I wasn’t. We’ve got a baby in the other room though so sometimes we don’t make it to the phone on time.

BA: Oh you have a baby?

ES: Yup – seven weeks old.

BA: Really? That’s wild, congratulations. So how’re you keeping? Obviously you’re at home….

ES: I’m at home, I’ve actually been keeping the touring to a minimum over the last little while because of the baby and doing a lot more studio stuff and trying to get a couple of things rolling on that.

BA: Oh really?

ES: Yeah. Actually, because of the new napping schedule that everybody has to be a part of [chuckling] your time gets chopped up and you find that you have to make decisions a lot quicker. In a way, that has been really helpful.

BA: Yeah, I’ve heard that before. A friend of mine that lives in Toronto has his recording studio in his home and he has to balance productive time on that front with his little boy’s nap schedule a lot of the time.

ES: Yup, I’m starting to discover that.

BA: Okay, so you said you’re working on new stuff, are you doing production work for other people? Or is this work on a new record of your own?

ES: It’s a little bit of everything actually, the one project actually got started after my daughter was born, but I’ve also been wrapping up this project called The Slew which is a kind of a turntable rock record…

BA: Okay, like Limp Bizkit used to have turntable rock records?

ES: [chuckling] No, not like that, kind of like a Black Sabbath album but done via the tools of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad or something.

BA: That’s cool!

ES: So basically we sourced everything from records, but then we sort of re-assembled it by hand off of vinyl into this new monstrosity [laughing]. It’s in the vein of that era of records, but slightly updated because of the tools we’re using. Just because it’s off of a turntable, you’ll be able to pick up a scratch on the drums and realize that it isn’t really a drummer you know? That’s a project that I started with my friend Dylan – who records under the name Dynomite D. We had recorded some tracks together for Bombay The Hard Way; this sort of Bollywood remixing project that Motel Records did a few years ago. I was introduced to Dylan back in 1998 on the Beastie Boys tour – he’s a friend of theirs and Money Mark’s – and we really hit it off so we’ve been working together off and on once in a while on different, one-off track projects. We got the idea that we should do a whole record together and had to figure out where to start [laughing], but he had all these old – not so much Sabbath records, but we’ll say records inspired by Sabbath – and obscure bluesy records and rock records that he wanted to hook up . He brought a lot of the drums to the table out of the main riffs and my responsibility has been to take care of the top; the harmonicas and guitar layers and vocals and things. There were three test tracks on Your Mom’s Favourite DJ called “Slew Test 1,” “…2” and “…3” and that’s sort of where it turned into a heavier rock vein which people were surprised to hear from me. Those were just tests for the album though, and the full-length record should be out next year. I think it’s going to be ten tracks of stuff like that. We’re putting the wrap on that right now.

BA: So ostensibly what you’re envisioning is a far cry from what Girl Talk has done as far as there actually being song structures and it being more rock than pop.

ES: Right. Basically we wanted to do a Sabbath-style record but have everything sourced off of turntables and have the vocals and top end stuff come off of really obscure sources too. Like, you might catch some harmonica bit from some old classical record or some old spoken word record that might just have a little lick of harmonica at the end but it happens to be in a blues scale and I’ll cut it up and play it back into the track. We wanted it to feel like it all came from one band so, for me, it’s not about matching elements that are obviously not supposed to be together; I think when people hear the Slew stuff, they actually feel that it was all from once source. I played it not that long ago for Mike Patton and he asked me where we got the band and who was playing this instrument and that instrument, so I think we were successful in what we wanted to do. We did everything by hand too; we did a sequence for it and cut it into vinyl, and then I had to go back and reassemble it, do the loops by hand and scratch it the vocal bits by hand. It was really inspired by that Public Enemy wall of sound thing, but the actual “Genre” of it would be, I guess, “Blues rock” [laughing]. We were pretty happy with it, we got to go down to LA to mix it with Mario Caldotto who did Check Your Head, Paul`s Boutique and Ill Communication and he worked his magic on it. It was a lot of fun to make and Ninja Tune`s got their hands on it now and they`re in the process of clearing stuff and getting ready for the release.

BA: That`s cool, it must have taken an eternity to get everything put together….

ES: Yeah, that`s the thing you know? With a drummer, we probably could have knocked it out in a week [chuckling] but it’s now been a project for us, on and off, for the last three years or so. We finally wrapped it and I’ve taken the vinyl we cut to try it out live at shows and learning my rotations on those records so I can find different way to flip them.

BA: That’s cool, is this upcoming show in Guelph part of a tour?

ES: When we do decide to tour, it’ll probably be next year and I’ll probably design a different show involving an ensemble of people on stage . Right now, we’re looking at possibly getting four to six turntables and then possibly a drummer too. For the show I’m doing now though, it’s more in the realm of my DJ sets; but I do have to test out a lot of the dub plates that I have and I’ll start learning the rotations and getting familiar with the records so I can actually improvise off of them. Depending on how excited the label is about financing a more involved tour, it might be up to four or five people.

BA: It’ll look like a full-size band….

ES: Yeah – the whole idea is to try and keep it in that realm so the real preliminary idea for doing a Slew show has been to go out with Marshall stacks and have the turntables plugged into those. We actually have turntables that play vertically now – they’re spring-loaded – so you can run around the stage with them. It’ll really open up the idea I think and we could keep it a little looser than being trapped to a grid or trapped to something that’s already pre-cut on a record, telling you when all the changes are. We might actually bring a couple of guys along so one guy can do bass turntable parts and one guy can handle rhythm guitar or lead guitar and another guy doing vocal.

BA: That’d be wild. I’ve been to a couple of shows that sound really cool but aren’t visually stimulating; you’ll have a few guys at turntables and they’re getting great shit out, but they’re not moving very much because they’re not able to. The odd man out in that regard is Girl Talk – he gets around, but he pulls samples from CD. He tends to run around a lot, occasionally he loses clothing and things like that.

ES: [laughing] That’s cool,, but I think my clothes will stay on for this tour, but that’s just how I am. We’ve done some things – like the tour in 2003 – where we wanted to set it up like a band so it was eight turntables on stage but really, while people recognize that there’s a lot of fine motor control involved in doing it, it’s really typically only a bunch of wrists moving around and people can’t tell which sound is coming from where so we set the stage up to resemble how a typical band would; two in back where the drummer would be, two stage left and stage right for guitars and bass, and then a set up front where the mic would be so any kind of party calls or vocal moments would be done from there and one of us would have to run up with the record, throw it on that turntable and do it. Some people got it and I think that set-up was the light bulb that sort of demystified it for them. We’re also in the R&D stages for putting together a roller-rink show – we are so totally getting off-topic because we’re not even talking about the show that I’ll be doing when I get to town there [laughing] – because a lot of the roller rinks are closing and, when I was a kid, that’s where the all-ages culture would go to check stuff out. They’d actually service the DJs that played the roller rinks with new stuff to spin and test out; not at the clubs, but on the afternoon roller rink crowd. So we had this idea that, because we’ve been visiting these places that are still active – there aren’t many and those that are still around only run it a couple of days a week and the rest of the time it’s a bingo hall or something – and they’ve been interested in letting us do shows. So now we’ve got a list of rinks around North America that we’re going to put these shows on at now. The good thing about them is that they’ve already got the sound systems in place and the cheesy lights so we figure that if we can run all the cables down and have a stage in the middle of the floor, it’ll be a pretty cool thing. We did figure too that, even if everybody’s got rollerskates on, they’ll still be standing still and watching us and not skating so we’d have to do some things to get them involved. We’ve developed these pods; they’re the turntables set up on chairs with rubber castors on them with the tables being powered by car batteries. Like I told you, the tables are spring-loaded so they totally ruin your records, but they don’t skip and we’d wirelessly transmit the signals to a base station in the middle that’ll let them be pushed around the rink with the crowd. We want to do all those cheesy things like conga lines and having people all skate backwards for one song or ‘couples only’ and whatever else.

BA: [laughing] That’d be such a trip. Okay, but like you said, that’s not going to be what happens when you’re in town soon though right? You’re still promoting Your Mom’s Favourite DJ right?

ES: That’s right.

BA: I assume that it has grown in that time….

ES: It has, I never really stop “touring” and there are always gigs when things get developed. My live set as a DJ is a mix of stuff off previous records performed live mixed with records that I like but no one will play for whatever reason or I just got in the mail or something. So the sets are, in their own way, pretty organic as far as things older things appearing in the sets, new stuff, and just records that I think are really cool all arced in a nice, fun short-attention-span kind of way. I’ve reached the point where, as I go, I might be mixing something and, to keep it interesting, I’ll drop something in and that moment in and of itself will end up being a highlight. It’s really a matter of what I think the audience can handle or how I’m feeling or how the equipment is reacting. You learn to have a rapport with the records as far as their qualities on an individual level. For example, if this record came from the fifties, the grooves are going to be cut shallower and if I’m having trouble with needles jumping, I probably won’t throw that on. When I do DJ sets, it’s really a matter mainly of learning the rotations of a record and getting it down so that you can remember of rotations to get to the next part I want to use – that’s how you put together a melody or a structure out of the source material. As complicated as that might sound, when you do it and get used to it, after a while it becomes second nature; like, if you’re playing a guitar, you stop looking at your frets after a while. With the records I’m using right now, I know them so well that even if it skips, I’ll know where to recover to. A lot of that is just familiarizing yourself with the records and, in my case, I can pull a record, look at the centre label and remember the parts that I need and the rotations they’re on. The funny thing is, with the records that I just got, it’s still a bit of winging it.

BA: Just in case, do you tape your shows to go back and check later?

ES: I don’t, but I usually remember and it has happened where I’ll skip and then have to freestyle to get back to where I need to be and it’ll actually correlate better with what I was intending on doing in the first place. Sometimes when that happens, I’ll just keep doing it because I really like it. Other things you just leave to the magic of the night it happened [laughing] but it’s the same in the studio; you’ll know what you wanted to do walking in, but you realize that there are centrifugal forces working against you [laughing]. There are all kinds of things like bass, feedback, skipping and all kinds of other things that, when you decide to balance your show on three tiny, little record styluses, you might have to roll with. For me, that’s part of the excitement – I’ve played in bands where you throw something out and it comes back at you so you work off of each other’s energy. When you’re DJing by yourself, you’re dealing with the energy of the crowd, but then sometimes the instrument will put you in a position that you have to really work and be methodical to get out of. I used to get really freaked out in my competition days about it – where I’d hit a skip and it’d be this huge meltdown – and now if it skips, it’s like a puzzle that it’s a challenge to solve. That’s all the fun for me and it keeps me from getting bored.

BA: That makes sense – you’re on it and it fucks up and the challenge becomes making it sound like it didn’t fuck up.

ES: Exactly! There are times too though, when you just embrace that the whole thing is melting down – sometimes the audience likes that too. It’s not like I go out there and deliberately try to mess up, but sometimes I’ll nail a flawless show that people will tell me they thought was cool but, conversely, I’ll have a day where the records are actually melting under the heat of the lights above me and it’s jumping and I’ll have to keep compensating for those things. It’ll be stressful and I won’t think it’ll have gone well, but people who have seen me seven times will tell me it was the best show they’ve ever seen me do. I think that urgency – the possibility that everything might fall apart at any moment – can be what really draws people in sometimes.



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