A new monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
One of the first things that will strike you about scratchmaster general Eric San—on equal footing with his infectious laugh, let’s say—is just how averse he is to operating on auto-pilot. Since the mid-1990s, this affable Vancouver transplant has continually upended expectations, making a name for himself as the inventive turntablist Kid Koala while also breaking out as a DJ, graphic novelist, film composer and bike tour organizer. All of the above, while completing a degree in early childhood education.
When we drop by his expansive loft-slash-home studio, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters, it quickly becomes apparent that the multidisciplinary talent has lost none of that childlike sense of wonder—something he first cultivated as a wee one completely enthralled by storybook records and Jim Henson making-of documentaries. Having collaborated with Gorillaz, toured with Radiohead and signed as the first North American artist to Ninja Tune (back in 1996), San is the kind of guy who’ll eagerly take you through the process of converting the unexpected clicks, echoes and “design flaws” of vintage gear into tiny new sketchpads of sound.
His forthcoming record, Music to Draw To: Satellite, finds Kid Koala breaking away from his proven track record of sampling to embrace writing lyrics (for Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini) and playing an entire gamut of instruments – synths, strings, keys, you name it. The participatory live show, set to go down February 1–4 at the Phi Centre, will invite attendees to sit behind turntable stations, curate records and mess around with effects pedals under the expert guidance of the kid. In the lead-up to this singular creative encounter, we sat down with the man amidst his cherished landfill of gear to chat about his reverence for vintage equipment, the appeal of Montreal winters and the importance in finding a process that works for you.
There doesn’t appear to be any division between your workspace and the rest of your home. Is this gear landfill off-limits to your daughters?
Absolutely not! The second they’re home, they’re in here plugging stuff and repatching things. I welcome their curiosity for music in general.
Have they already taken an active interest in music?
They’re 4 and 8 at the moment. For them, as it was for me at that age, it seems to be more about drawing. But there’s definitely an interest in music. Not dad’s music, but music! There are turntables in every room of the house, and while I might be a professional disc jockey, they run the playlist. That’s the case with anyone who has kids. Right now, we’re listening to the Trolls soundtrack. A few years ago it was Frozen, obviously.
I can only imagine how many musicians would envy the bona fide musical playground you have going on in here. For a long time, you were best known for your turntable wizardry, but you’ve considerably branched out since. Do you relish the process of creating sounds from scratch?
To some, it’s really tedious, but I really enjoy it. I don’t know if this sounds too New Age, but each of these machines has its own design pros and cons, and sometimes you have to wrestle with the gear and have this quantum argument with its designers. That’s when you create something new and surprising. And I’m always searching for that moment in the studio. I mean, some of this stuff is really vintage – older than I am!
Your assortment of drum machines, CardMasters, synths, Ataris and Commodores would undoubtedly make for a great exhibition. What is it that you love most about all this analogue gear?
The fact that it just drifts in and out of tune. When I started on records, I became obsessive about tone, aesthetics and texture. It’s just how you spice things a certain way, or how you would stack five hi-hats to create a super hi-hat. In the last 10 years, doing a lot more film work, where they don’t want you to deal with samples whatsoever, it really became about how to get a certain sound without sampling. So that’s been a recurring challenge of mine in the studio: finding ways to recapture that. A lot of that texture stuff can be obsessive and weird, where your attention to detail borders on the unhealthy, but within that, you can make a lot of really magical things happen.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about your fascination for breaking down sounds, for the minutiae with which you conjure these ghosts in the machine. We live in a time where vintage anything is celebrated, but most people’s engagement with the past is limited to applying a sepia filter to their Instagram posts or a twinkling arpeggio effect to a track, instead of delving into your very comprehensive process.
And I would never slight people for that. They are very busy people with a lot of social networks to deal with that I didn’t when I was a teenager. It was just me, one turntable, one mixer, many records and a 4-track. I just spent all my waking moments trying to figure out how I could turn that into some form of expression. I started on classical piano, but I was never going to be a concert pianist. When I got into DJing, things took off in the scratch world. But what I learned from both worlds is all colliding now, in terms of the theory, harmonies, counterpoints—the stuff that you learn from classical training—coupled with the obsessive, microscopic interest in sound, where you’re literally trying to bend a split second of a record into whatever you feel like. Sometimes, you’ll practice four straight hours on a tiny sliver of sound. It’s like an animator’s attitude to making a film.
You’re currently working alongside animators and developers to produce Floor Kids, a b-boy and b-girl video game for smartphones. Have you picked up on other parallels between your creative process and that of other artists?
I saw this documentary recently where Woody Allen talks about still typing out all his screenplays on this one typewriter. The interviewer was saying, “you know, there are word processors now, you can cut, paste and highlight.” But he was like, “oh no, I have my scissors, I can just cut things out and I have these little staplers here.” You see pages of scripts to films I love, and he has cut, pasted and stapled bits everywhere. You look at his output and the man’s done a film a year. He’s so in tune with his process that it doesn’t bother him that maybe there’s a faster way to do it. A lot of people talk to me about producing stuff in the box, which I also do when I’m on tour, because I can’t bring all this gear with me. But what I love about working here—why it’s my safe zone—is that it has all these pieces from every era.
I was reading about how you produced your forthcoming album in here over three consecutive Montreal winters. Has the city’s cyclical weather patterns affected the way you create?
Absolutely. I kind of knew that about the city [before moving from Vancouver] – that there was this whole introvert artist scene, because of the weather. And I like that you can channel that. I don’t think that’s offered to every city. With the new album, the second the snow would melt, I’d stop working on it. I just had to put it away until the following winter, because people were out in bathing suits throwing Frisbees around and the city was switching into party mode, full-on Jekyll and Hyde. I can’t fight that. I hear it calling me.
So you were channeling the melancholy of our winters to produce Music to Draw To: Satellite?
Definitely. I just embraced what Montreal weather has to offer. I think that just comes with the duality of living here. Come winter, you just stare out the window and you feel it. The chords you start gravitating towards become more… winter-y. And it’s also that thing where the whole city goes quiet. You think everyone’s left, but they’re all just holed up in their studios and working. In the spring, all of a sudden, there’s a book launch followed by a new film and a new dance piece! That’s really special.
Interview by Michael-Oliver Harding
Photo credit: Paul Labonté
Kid Koala will be performing the live interactive experience Satellite at the Phi Centre from February 1 to 4 (most of the shows are sold out, so get your tickets now).