Kid Koala
Photo: Corinne Merrell / Girlie Action Media

Once Upon a Time in the Northeast with Kid Koala

The beloved Canadian turntablist Kid Koala knows the secret to success: always push for the new and unexpected. No wonder his new album comes with a board game.

Creatures of the Late Afternoon
Kid Koala
14 April 2023

Critters bustle through horns. They skitter and swerve in tuba tubes and trumpet valves, or at least that’s how it sounds. Their movements determine the sounds. Listeners hear a squawk and think, tuba, maybe trombone, but the tone is spotted, ruffled, and dashed. Something sounds off. Vibrations flee bells with critters afloat, a friendly swarm fussing atop sound waves, prodding with pinchers, claws, and antennae. Chords pass through the air as cluttered clouds. Some listeners try to untangle them. They reach for a clean G, but the note slips pitch and slicks from the fingers. What’s more, here come the drums, followed by the drummers, sketchbook scribbles of dogs and cats, and amorphous animals in Crayola flux. A chorus of bugs whistle from the pavement below, their collective racket rising to a modest harmonic mist subsumed by the tangle of percussion and brass and incoming keyboard crackle.

This is sort of what the new Kid Koala song, “Jump & Shuffle (live at the Hardware Store)”, sounds like, appearing on the heralded DJ’s latest record, Creatures of the Late Afternoon.

For those who don’t know, Kid Koala is a turntablist, which means he makes music by manipulating vinyl records. His real name is Eric San. Throughout his career, which spans three decades, he has released several albums, contributed to film scores, toured six continents, published graphic novels, and produced video game music. Creatures of the Late Afternoon is probably his busiest album to date, a maximalist marathon showcasing his cartoonish and intricate turntablism style and a touching ode to his parents.

“I like pushing where the turntable can go,” San says. “It’s a very versatile sonic tool. I thought that of the turntable when I was 12 years old and still do to this day. It can be high energy, percussive, even cacophonous, but also delicate, harmonic, emotive, and sometimes even completely non-musical if you choose to approach it from a frame of sound design as I might do for a science fiction film score or a video game.”

“Jump and Shuffle” is a tour de force of turntable dexterity, the product of years of wrist work and hours of close attention to detail. According to Kid Koala’s YouTube channel, the track was created from 1135 scratches, and the accompanying music video was made using 1038 of San’s drawings.

The term “hand-made” is an apt way to describe San’s sonic and visual aesthetic. “Jump and Shuffle” is a complex audio patchwork stitched together with transform scratches, chirp scratches, and some expertly timed baby-scratch pitch alterations. His hands get busy. The video animation matches the song’s squiggly textures as well as its cheery mood. Frenetic and fun, “Jump and Shuffle” crashes through the room without falling apart. San’s scratching lends each instrument a sense of fluidity, blurring the edges of sounds and sometimes misshaping them altogether. However, like the images altering shape onscreen, they retain their form as sounds coming from musical instruments, albeit bent at angles, all of it impossible without turntable trickery.

“It’s kind of like animation,” San says of scratching records. “The surreality, the ability to stretch what you’re looking at. I enjoy that you’re able to bend an instrumental line further than the range of an actual acoustic instrument. It adds a surreal sonic feeling to it every now and then, catches my attention a little in an interesting way. If you look at an Escher drawing, at one point, your perspective gets turned around. I enjoy trying to create that kind of surrealness in the music for those who are really paying attention.”

Listen to “Basin Street Blues” from his adorably titled 2003 album Some of My Best Friends are DJs for another example of the surreal sound worlds he creates. From the opening plucks of the double bass to the right channel horn squawk to the band conductor stage chatter, every sound is unstable, subject to the wow and flutter of San’s decks or the brush of his fingers against the turntable’s aluminum platter, or cuts from his crossfader. With the precision of a hip-hop battle DJ, he warps, slices, and mangles strings and horns likely culled from big-band records of the fifties and sixties. (The man has been known to remix “Moon River” live on the decks for festival crowds while wearing a full-body koala costume.) Imagine Grandmaster Flash catching wreck to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Imagine the Invisibl Skratch Piklz reassembling Louis Armstrong live on wax to a mob of beanie-rocking head-boppers. You’re still not there.

It’s no overstatement to say the track is timeless. Until you’ve heard it, it’s like nothing you’ve heard before.

San walks into a room where nearly every surface, from the walls to the overhead pipes and exposed wiring, is coated in white paint, save beige streaks of unfinished drywall. The space resembles a modest manufacturing warehouse. This is his rehearsal workshop, located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where San currently lives with his wife and two daughters and where he first gained traction as a scratch DJ in the mid-1990s.

The room is crammed with stage necessities for current and upcoming tours. There is a DJ setup with three turntables and a mixer; aluminum stage trusses; a cardboard likeness of a studio mixing booth constructed for press photos advertising the new album; a stage prop Akai MPC the size of a big screen TV, with pads as large as dessert plates; a lineup of effects boxes spilling a tangle of cords over the edge of the tour cases they rest on; what appear to be tiny tube televisions; a vintage wooden library card catalog filing drawer table; a massive number of cardboard shipping boxes containing vinyl copies of Creatures of the Late Afternoon; two arcade video game consoles, one purple, one blue, for a game called Floor Kids, in which cartoon b-boys and b-girls perform breakdance battles to rugged scratch tracks produced by Kid Koala.

There are creatures, too. Standing against the wall is a line of humanoids with massive googly eyes and full-body hair resembling dried strings of impossibly woven spaghetti noodles, respectively colored mauve, flaxen, teal, and rouge. There are two penguins with torsos in the shape of a shipping container. These were designed for the Vinyl Vaudeville tour, which also features drum machine-playing ostriches, dancing robots, and a kazoo battle.

“The giant penguins are made of foam and fabric,” San says. “The smaller, more technical puppets used in the theatre/cinema productions like Nufonia Must Fall and The Storyville Mosquito are made of metal and resin, more along the lines of a stop motion armature. Ultimately, it all depends on what the creature needs to do on stage or in the show. Some have to crawl over the audience, like our 20-foot-tall Vinyl Vaudeville spider. Some have to emote differently and in a more nuanced movement and pick up and play musical instruments, like the mosquito in The Storyville Mosquito.”

San passes the creatures and stops at his record cutter, also known as a disc-cutting lathe. The machine resembles a basic turntable with a tonearm, platter, and pitch control and has the utilitarian design of factory equipment. A complex arrangement of wires, metal bars, a lamp, and a spray bottle surrounds it. Resting on a black shelf-table set between a studio rack and what looks like a sci-fi spaceship control board, the record cutter resembles a chemistry lab station in a high school classroom.

It’s an integral part of San’s process of constructing songs. After recording a series of instrumental parts for each track, San uses the record cutter to transfer the audio signals onto blank vinyl records. He then gets behind the decks and manipulates the sounds on the records, constructing each track by reassembling and reinterpreting his music. Think of it this way: he makes the songs, takes them apart, and puts them back together again, but weirder.

“Finding that unknown thing in the studio and surprising myself has always been the muse for me. Every instrument has its own intricacies that can give the piece a different feel. For instance, I can play a five-note melody on piano staccato or legato, and it would feel very different. Similarly, I can rephrase a five-note melody on a turntable in a different way than I could on a piano. I can add funky little pickup scratches, full ‘real silences’, or echoed tails that are very unique to the turntable. Sometimes that’s just the spice I’m looking for in the track.”

San’s musical approach to turntablism is partly owed to a childhood spent practicing piano scales. “I started on classical piano when I was four years old,” he says. “It was a strict conservatory-style musical education with a lot of practicing for piano competitions and exams. It wasn’t a style of music I was all that interested in at the time.

“Now I enjoy playing piano and turntables equally. And things have come full circle now, in a way. Those scales I had to practice on the piano are what I mostly practice on turntables now. Just learning how to bend notes into the melodies I’m hearing in my head.”

San’s approach to recording harkens back to hip-hop DJs constructing intricate megamixes spliced from choice selections from their vinyl stacks. Funnily enough, his first experience with one of these mixes came from a 2 Live Crew record. “I found out about what was happening in the turntable scratch scene and hip-hop around the time I was 12 years old. I was immediately captivated by it and would spend every waking moment scratching and learning.

“I remember tagging along with my older sister one day, and she took me to a record store. She bought albums by the Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode, and bands like that. When we were in the shop, I heard this track playing with a whole song done in scratches, verses, choruses, and bridges, all cut by hand. I could tell from playing piano that this wasn’t a sequenced or programmed performance. It was being performed live and was being performed by hand. I ran up to the clerk at the record store and asked what was playing and where I could hear more of it. The track was called “Mr. Mixx on the Mixx from DJ Mr. Mixx from Miami”.

“Mr. Mixx on the Mixx” can be found at the tail end of 2 Live Is What We Are, the group’s debut album from 1986. This was back when 2 Live records were still distributed by Luke Skyywalker, years before the group was forced to pay George Lucas $300,00 over a trademark infringement lawsuit. This was also years before the group won an obscenity case over a record anchored by a loop of Mass Production rhythm guitar and sex sounds from a Richard Pryor movie, and still more years before the Supreme Court ruled their Roy Orbison gag fair use.

“Mr. Mixx on the Mixx” cuts up an electro campaign against television, augments the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” break with 808 snares, and pairs an AC/DC axe stab against Parliament’s low-end bass squirt before cruising two minutes of easily-mixable 808 percussion into the Miami sunset. “I’ll admit what drew me to [turntablism] first was how futuristic the sounds were,” San says. “The more out-there the sounds, the more alien-sounding, the better!”

As he delved further into hip-hop, he gravitated towards the genre’s more maximalist, sample-laden productions. “I would say the three records that really set me on track to try to save up money for a turntable and mixer were Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and Coldcut’s What’s That Noise? The DJs that really influenced me at the time were DJ Jazzy Jeff, Jam Master Jay, Richie Rich, and of course, Grandmaster Flash!

“My paper route income would enable me to buy one or two records a week. I would spend the entire week just practicing on those records, learning each drop and rotation, and figuring out different ways to use them in a scratch set. I remember one of the first records I bought to scratch was Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” 12-inch single. Also, Coldcut’s “Beats and Pieces” 12-inch. Those records were always in my crate! I even used them in my earliest DJ battles back in the day.”

Inspiration from these records fueled San’s nascent bedroom mixtapes. “It took me a year and a half of delivering newspapers before school and mowing lawns to save up for one turntable and one mixer. I was already experimenting with making tapes with this phono/tape/radio hi-fi system that my sister had. It was a terrible belt-driven turntable with a molded plastic counterweight. It would skip all the time! I would use wax paper hamburger wrappers as my first slip mats that my friend got from his job at A&W.

“One neat thing about that little hi-fi system was that the erase head didn’t fully work properly. So I could add layers of sound, and you could still hear the previous track underneath it. It was a very primitive way to achieve multitrack recordings. There was no DJ mixer in it. It would switch from tape to radio to phono [the turntable input]. So to cut the sound off, I would use the switch between the radio and the turntable. I would tune the radio to some quiet static between stations and cut back and forth using the input selector knob. That was my first transform switch. I did that for a year and a half while I was saving up to buy a real mixer.”

San released his first tape as Kid Koala, Scratchcratchratchatch, on cassette in 1995. The mixtape is a turntablist classic, crammed with thirty minutes of samples from his record collection and overdubbed using an analog four-track cassette recorder. Even from this early juncture, the signature Kid Koala humor is on display. The tape’s highlight comes when he mixes horns from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail soundtrack, complete with clomping horse hooves, with scratched-in doubles of the breakbeat from “Amen Brother”. The mix was eventually picked up and distributed by Ninja Tune, landing San his first recording contract.

“As time went on, I started playing with bands like Bullfrog or touring with musicians like Money Mark. Mark sent for me to join him and his band in LA to play on his Push the Button tour. I was a huge fan of his album Mark’s Keyboard Repair, as well as his work with the Beastie Boys. Playing turntables in a band taught me a lot of things. Sometimes the songs didn’t require a scratch solo per se, so I would try to find something that would support certain moments in the song. Maybe a melody line in the bridge or a backup harmony in the chorus. It taught me to approach the turntable in a way to play it as a support instrument for slower, ballad-type songs.

“One of my favorite tunes in Money Mark’s set was called ‘Cry’. That song would take the audience’s breath away every night. He sang and played a Hammond organ over a simple drum machine beat and asked if there was a way I could play the descending bassline on turntables somehow. I figured out a way to do it, and it became a neat live version of the track with turntable bass.”

Kid Koala is a consummate collaborator, having worked with the Gorillaz, Lovage, and Deltron 3030 (the latter two being hip-hop supergroups featuring production from Dan the Automator), as well as the Slew and the Afiara String Quartet. Creatures of the Late Afternoon features several collaborations. One of them is with the Pomona-based musician Lealani, a master of live finger-drumming on pad controllers who has also released surf-rock records under the Pezheds moniker. She shouts vocals on “Things Are Gonna Change”, an uptempo banger searing with distortion.

“[‘Things Are Gonna Change’] started with a beat,” San says. “A lot of the tracks on this record did. Incidentally, as well as being an album unto itself, all the tracks on this album are music cues for a forthcoming stage production that we’re doing, and that’s kind of in the style of an action movie. In this scene, [“Things are Gonna Change”] is sort of a jump-up, call-to-action track for the characters.

“I had the idea that it had to be this really high energy, really fast beat, and kind of distorted. I was listening to a lot of Beastie Boys at the time, especially Check Your Head. Somewhere at that intersection between the punk stuff and the hip-hop and turntable stuff. I was saying, ‘It’d be fun to do that, but really really uptempo.’

“When I heard Lealani’s voice, I said, ‘She’d be perfect. She’s got that energy that this track needs.'”

“I’ve been a fan of San’s since I was like 12,” Lealani says.

“You were 12?” San says. “C’mon, that doesn’t make sense in math!”

“Or 14,” Lealani says. “My dad is a big Kid Koala fan and brought me to see Nufonia Must Fall. I was like, wow, this guy’s doing animation and making puppets and playing music at the same time. It was super inspiring. When Eric reached out to me and said he wanted me to sing on this track, I like totally freaked out and was like, ‘It’s Kid Koala!’ I told my dad, and he was like, ‘That’s so cool!'”

San drove to Lealani’s studio in Pomona, which was really just a bedroom stuffed with gear. “The vocal booth is just my closet,” Lealani says. “I was shouting into the clothes. Eric was at my tiny desk on a laptop.”

“At first, I felt like we needed the song to be a little more unhinged,” San says. “So I said, ‘Hey, just jump around and get free. Don’t strictly stay on axis, ’cause I don’t care.’ So then she did a couple of takes where she was jumping off her desk and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the one.'”

The record’s collaborations extend past the music itself. For Creatures of the Late Afternoon, San and longtime collaborator Corinne Merrell decided to design a board game to accompany the vinyl release. Merrell had previously worked with San as a set designer for live productions such as Space Cadet Headphone ConcertVinyl Vaudeville, and Satellite Turntable Orchestra.

“Working with Eric is always surprising, creative, and different,” she says. “Eric will talk about an idea and play with character designs or musical sketches for a long time, often many years before production is even started.

“For example, we began experimenting with making miniature sets for The Storyville Mosquito story nearly 20 years ago just for fun. I remember at that time, he was already talking about a concept he had called Creatures of the Late Afternoon. The root of an idea was already there, and it slowly evolved and came into focus over time. Often one project will provide clues and ideas for the development of the next one. Each project is the opening of a world, a world that has a certain style, both visually and musically.”

Designing an album-themed board game, however, was a new experience for Merrell. “I have never had the opportunity to design a board game before, but I enjoy playing them, and I love to figure out new things! We started with rough ideas about gameplay and drew many different game boards and game pieces using scraps of paper. Characters began to emerge and populate this world that Eric was developing. Once we had something working on paper, Eric began painting all the parts of the game on big canvases. This artwork then became the source of graphics for the game. I brought these into the layout and added hand-cut graphics to create the look of the cards and game pieces.

“Similar to the music, the album, and game artwork is built through a process of layering analog assets using both analog and digital tools. Although the result is very different from anything we’ve done before, the process of creating the work is very much aligned with other Kid Koala projects.”

Despite the album’s collaborative nature, Creatures of the Late Afternoon is a personal record for San, inspired in part by his parent’s relationship.

Before San was born, his parents were separated for two years, his father was in Canada, and his mother in Hong Kong. During this time, they wrote each other two letters a week, sometimes without waiting for a response to arrive in the mail. San’s father would record love songs (what San dubs “teenbeat songs” and “jukebox tunes”) on reel-to-reel tape, then transcribe the lyrics and mail them to his mother across the ocean. According to San, these jukebox tunes of the 1950s and 1960s directly influenced the sounds he wanted to use to make the album.

More specifically, the lyrics to “‘When U Say Love”, which features vocals from Crayfish, were inspired by his parents connecting through love songs sent by mail. “I wanted the song to speak to that story from a turntable song perspective,” San says.

Clocking in at three-and-a-half minutes, the track is classic doo-wop with a twist. The vocals from Crayfish are delivered in thick girl-group harmony but veiled by drums, tambourine, xylophone, and a Fender Rhodes pre-piano from the 1920s. The melodies are as syrupy sweet as the lyrics, which follow the assured trajectory of ditties by groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes.

“I saw you standing there / You saw me standing too / Right by the jukebox thinking if I was meant for you … And when you say you love me / And tell me you’ll be mine / I will stand by your side until the end of time.”

These lyrics are scratched in with scribbles, chirps, flares, and other flicks of the wrist and fader generally reserved for hardcore hip-hop diss tracks and DJ battles. The effect is odd but never distracting. The melody is never lost, only augmented by the unsettling tonal dynamics that scratching lends to the track. There are no show-stopping scratch solos interrupting the song’s narrative momentum. “When U Say Love” is a conventional love song delivered in a conventional way but contorted just enough in a manner that has probably never been done before, which adds to its poignancy.

This is turntablism at its most emotive, an achievement that, despite all of Eric San’s creative achievements, is still the triumph of his career.