Byline: Nandini D’Souza
NEW YORK — Scratching, beating, juggling. Sound like a twisted circus act? They’re actually words in the lexicon of a dj, and, more to the point, Kid Koala’s method of attack. He’s one of the music industry’s best-kept secrets, a vinyl-wielding wunderkind who samples quirky spoken words with anything from traditional Chinese instrumentals and Fifties’ theme songs to classic Louis Armstrong, all over a steady rhythm and groove beat.
“I take records and freak ’em,” Koala says. Certainly, he’s not the traditional club dj who seams one song into the next for an overall dance experience. Kid Koala is a turntablist (an elitist label he, like most other good turntablists, tries to avoid), creating a new sound from existing music by manipulating and layering two records simultaneously.
Currently, he’s on tour with Bullfrog, the pop/funk band he’s played with for nearly a decade. (Bullfrog plays the Mercury Lounge tomorrow night to plug its recent self-titled release). Though he’s gained recognition for his solo efforts, he’s proudest of his work with the band. “It’s not a pen-pal relationship,” he says. “I’m in the band.” His five bandmates keep him grounded and, after over 1,100 performances together, on his toes on stage. “They’re the tightest show I’ve ever been involved with,” he adds.
Still, for what he calls “a side project,” his solo Kid Koala gig is certainly high profile. His resume includes opening for Radiohead’s much-touted American tour last year, contributing to the Gorillaz’ eponymous debut album and also to super-producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura’s Deltron 3030 release a few years back.
There’s little of the expected super-cool bravado in his modest banter. Preferring to use his real name, Eric San, he laughs easily, his conversations measured in giggles-per-minute.
San was born in Vancouver and got his musical start early, learning the piano at age four. “I was too short to play basketball, so all I had was piano lessons,” he explains. It wasn’t until he was 13, while record shopping with his older sister, that he inadvertently discovered scratching when the store played Mr. Mixx, a Miami dj at the time.
“I could tell that it was a live performance, and it really intrigued me that someone had practiced to make these noises and was quite proficient in it,” he says. San started sneaking into his sister’s room to practice on her hi-fi system with flexidisc records (the Time/Life kind that came packaged with magazines in the Eighties).
Still, one might not think of Canada as the ideal training ground for a fledgling turntablist. After all, this is the home of pop princess Celine and frat rocker Bryan Adams. But for San, now based in Montreal, being able to discover things on his own was a blessing. “I didn’t have a turntable mentor, so to speak,” he says. “No one was telling me how or how not to do it.”
During high school, San’s friends nicknamed him Kid Koala, but not because he’s cute and cuddly looking, although he does have a cherubic face and, at 27, still gets carded everywhere. Rather, a drink called Koala Springs inspired it. His mother bought the sparkling fruit concoction in bulk, he says, and the empty cans lined the walls of his jam room.
These days, people send him newspaper clippings about the animal. “Koalas sleep a lot,” he informs, based on his mail reading. “And they’re high on eucalyptus all day.” He adds that many are dying of syphilis right now. “They’ve been ‘active.”‘
San started out playing Bar Mitzvahs, barbecues, basement parties and dances. But he claims he can’t dance. “You still wanted to go to the dance, still wanted to be a part of it,” he explains. “I couldn’t really cut a rug very well, so I’d go cut a record instead.”
San insists that although he can play in front of thousands of people at a time, it’s still a loner existence. “Very Camus,” he muses. “You’re facilitating the party, but you’re up in some corner booth watching it all.”
He calls it “an anthropological thing,” and finds that those voyeuristic situations provide a wealth of inspiration. In fact, the antics of the inebriated lonely hearts he’s often observed at the end of his sets inspired two tracks on his first full-length album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, released in 2000. For those, he appropriated bits of pick-up lines culled from several dating “how-to” records. “Don’t be afraid to use adjectives when you talk to women,” informs one clinical female; “I like your style,” growls a tough-sounding man, and a Latin lover oozes, “Are you beginning to feel the rhythm now? Do you feel the rhythm coursing through your veins, setting your blood on fire?”
San won’t vouch for the effectiveness of such lines, however. “They haven’t been tested,” he jokes. “I imagine they wouldn’t work, but it could just be the delivery.”
He uncovers all sorts of material while digging in used record shops for “the kind that some kid ordered from the back of a comic book.” He’s big on the educational types — “Listen to this and grow taller” or “How to groom yourself” — that were sold decades ago. “I find them really funny,” he says, especially since people took them so seriously then, and because there’s a parallel to today’s infomercials. (But don’t expect Tae Bo or George Foreman sampling any time soon.) “You kind of feel like you’re in the Fifties and some kid’s all excited because he’s going to learn what to say to a girl’s parents.”
Anything on vinyl is fair game. “That’s the thing with records — you can throw them all into the mix.” And throw he does when on stage, pulling an average of 50 records per half-hour set onto the turntables and just as quickly discarding them Frisbee-like around him. “It’s one of the job hazards,” he shrugs.
San’s next project revisits his childhood roots on the piano. He plans to publish an illustrated book with an accompanying soundtrack. Scratching will be backup to the piano and to the story that he’s writing himself — a romantic tragedy about a robot. “I’m all about the loot bag,” he says of the book-and-cd package.
For San, his work is all about humor. His “short-attention-span” approach is more likely to induce chuckles than trance dancing. And while other djs and musicians have a signature trick or style, his is the huge grin he flashes from start to finish. “I always have fun,” he says with child-like enthusiasm. “I love my job.”
Deejaying for Dummies
Spinning is a science of its own and for the uninformed, its technicalities can sound like a foreign language. Here, a glossary of terms.
Turntablist: A scratch dj who creates new melodies from preexisting music; performance- and instrumental-oriented.
Freakin’: Taking a record and twisting it through sampling, scratching and juggling.
Decks: Dj-style setup of turntables; record players.
Sample: Snippet of preexisting music or recorded works.
Scratching: Rubbing a record back and forth while cutting the sound in and out for different pitches.
Juggling: Cross-fading two records to make different melodies and beats.
Cross-fading: Dropping the volume on one turntable while simultaneously bringing up the other.