Words by Luke LaBenne
Some musicians dedicate themselves to one instrument and perfect the art of playing it while others excel in a wide range of sounds, styles and instruments. Canadian musician Eric San a.k.a. Kid Koala is somehow both at the same time, having dedicated decades to perfecting his ability with the turntable yet using that as a vehicle to expand into a vast array of exciting and surprising soundscapes.
You may have heard his track on Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver soundtrack or as part of the trio Deltron 3030 with Dan the Automator and Del The Funk Homosapien. You might not realize that you heard his turntable work on the first Gorillaz album or maybe you were lucky enough to see him share the stage with titans like Radiohead, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and DJ Shadow. His list of accomplishments is as prolific as his discography. He’s had a career that is so unique and dynamic, all driven simply by someone who loves making music and art of many varieties.
A Kid Koala album is not just an auditory experience he always pairs companion creations. On his new album Creatures of the Late Afternoon he’s taken it to the next level, the record’s sleeve serves as the game board for the companion board game (for which Eric also designed the art). Whether it’s through the music itself or the accompanying art and accessories Eric always finds a way to do something innovative and exciting that’s unlike anything you’ve witnessed before.
Off Shelf: My favorite radio station in high school was CBC Radio One Windsor, that’s how I heard your song “Fender Bender” back in the early aughts. Did people start to take notice of your music on your first album or did it take some time for word to spread?
Kid Koala: Wow, thank you for listening all of this time! With regards to where and when people take notice of my music, I don’t really know. I guess I’ve just been meeting new audiences over the years. Invited on different tours and getting to play for new audiences! I think some people have been tuned in since day 1! Nowadays, people say they saw the Fender Bender video, or saw me on tour with Radiohead, maybe they heard the Music To Draw To stuff, or learned about my music through a film score or video game soundtrack.
OS: You did the turntable work on the first Gorillaz album. What was that experience like and did you have any idea how big of a deal that project would end up becoming?
KK: Nah! I was in the studio for a day just hanging out and doing some cuts! Happy that found an audience though! Sometimes on the Deltron 3030 tour, we’ll play Clint Eastwood from the Gorillaz album, and it’s one of those situations where everyone in the crowd knows every word of the lyrics. Crazy!
OS: You also provided a song for the Baby Driver soundtrack and that film was groundbreaking in the way that Edgar Wright incorporated music. What was it like to be a part of such a unique and iconic soundtrack?
KK: Yes, Edgar is a genius and a super music head. He’s always so great to work with. I’ve contributed music to some of his other films Shaun of the Dead, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. For Baby Driver, he asked me to make a track that the character, Baby, would make. That character is a getaway car driver who made music in his free time in his home studio using stuff he bought from pawn shops or perhaps found in the trunk of some cars! So it was fun to make that track feel kind of naive and lo-fi!
OS: You went from an artist who makes video game references in his music to an artist who actually makes music for video games and even made his own breakdance video game called “Floor Kids”. How did you end up venturing into this new medium and did you ever imagine that would happen?
KK: Floor Kids happened when I met this amazing animator named Jon Ng aka JonJon here in Montreal. He is a b-boy/breakdancer/animator/visual artist and could draw all of his characters doing the moves with the funk and accuracy that only someone who dances and draws could do. It’s really wild. We became instant friends and decided it would be fun to work on something together. My good friend and manager Ryhna Thompson said it would be fun to do something interactive with the characters and we talked about an app or a video game. So I reached out to the universe, literally just asking if there were any game developers in Montreal that wanted to work on an indie game with us. That’s when we met the kids at Hololabs and we started prototyping the game. We had an early version of the game to test at one of the video game conferences. That’s when we crossed paths with Nintendo. They liked what they saw and told us they were about to launch their new Switch console and they wanted us to launch Floor Kids as one of their first featured Nindie titles right when the Switch was released. Exciting times!
OS: As someone who has been making music for over two decades, how have you seen the music world change and how have you had to adapt over the years to the shifting landscape?
KK: I think the function of music has pretty much remained the same for decades. People still want to go to shows and hear music live. They want to party to it, work out to it, relax to it, cook to it…
With regards to the music makers. I think the people who are passionate about making music will always be, that’s all I want to do, just keep making music and art and take it on the road and share it with people!
OS: Creatures Of The Late Afternoon still has your signature turntable sound but also takes that style to new heights and explores new sonic territory. How did you go about making this your best record yet?
KK: The main motivator was to have fun and try new things in the studio. I had the idea of a group of creatures who all played different instruments and would band together and write tunes in different styles! Like if I had my version of The Muppet Show only the characters had access to SP1200s and turntables as well as the more traditional instruments!
OS: You played a staggering 26 instruments on this album. Did you learn to play new instruments while making this album?
KK: I found this instrument called a Tremeloa which I did play on the album. It has a very unique sound indeed!
OS: What would you say was your favorite instrument to play or the most unique?
KK: The turntable is still one of my favorite instruments to practice. But depending on my mood, I also love playing piano because that was my very first instrument. Both Piano and Turntable are kind of chameleons. You can play them loud and raucous or quiet and melancholy and everything in-between. There’s just so many moods you can create with them!
OS: Do you feel like you could eventually move on to making compositions without the turntable or is it too integral to your creation process?
KK: I have! Some of the film score work I’ve done is just on piano. But Creatures was always going to be a turntable record. I wanted to see where I could take it musically! I have a record cutting machine, so I could cut the different instrument stems I had recorded in the studio onto vinyl, then I could scratch it all together to give it that extra turntable push/pull funk!
OS: Not only does your new record come with a board game but the album’s sleeve itself serves as the game board. It’s such a cool idea and it turned out awesome! How did this concept come to fruition?
KK: My first two albums included comic books. 12 bit Blues was packaged with a cardboard gramophone kit and Flexi-disc vinyl. For the Creatures album, I wanted to see if I could take that interactivity even further. I recorded and cut some game-specific tracks onto each side of the vinyl near the center sticker. So after the album tracks on each side, there are some bonus board game tracks that are used as timers and soundtracks for certain points in the game! Think of it like a Jeopardy timer only way funkier.
OS: You also designed the artwork for the board game. What was your process of creating that artwork?
KK: I worked with my wife, Corinne Merrell to make the album packaging and game. She has had a hand in creating all the album and book packages since my third album. For this one, I painted all the creatures, instruments, and game board cards on canvases. Then she designed the card layout, instruction sheets, game pieces and folding dice and made sure everything could fit on the inserts that accompany the record.
OS: What can fans expect from a Kid Koala live show?
KK: This year I have a few active tours happening kind of simultaneously.
The Storyville Mosquito – a live multimedia show where a team of 14 performers and I create a film live using 8 cameras, 20 miniature sets, 75 puppets, a string trio and myself on piano, percussion, and turntable. Everything is performed, filmed, projected on a screen above the stage, scored and foleyed in one take on the stage at each performance. It’s a funny and emotional show that’s designed for all generations. It’s a complex show to pull off, but very exciting from a performance perspective and equally fun for the audience too!
Satellite Turntable Orchestra – in this show, everyone in the audience is seated at their own turntable station equipped with color coded harmony tone records. Each station has a light that changes color which cues different sections of the audience to play the different sides of the records to create the harmonies. The visuals are provided by my friend Karina Bleau, who creates the space-y visuals live by mixing different ingredients in water tanks under cameras. Some of her creations looks like miniature star fields, galaxies or surfaces of extra-terrestrial planets! It’s a perfect fit for the space themed album. It’s very interactive show and suitable for everyone! Even people who have never played a turntable before!
And last but not least, my friend Lealani and I have been doing a new duo show on tour as Kid Koala x Lealani. She is the one shouting the lyrics on the track “Things Are Gonna Change” from the Creatures album. We’re doing these hybrid party sets with me on turntables and her on vocals, guitar and MPC. It rocks and is also very fun!
OS: What do you hope listeners take away from Creatures of the Late Afternoon?
KK: I hope they enjoy playing the album AND the game!