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The Stargazer: Kid Koala and the Art of the Awestruck

By Kyle Lemmon on May 24, 2013


The Stargazer: Kid Koala and the Art of the Awestruck


You might not recognize Eric San’s mammalian stage name, but you’ve probably already heard his infectious music as Kid Koala. The Ninja Tune scratch DJ and producer impressed audiences early on with his technical precision and flights of fancy on the turntables for 2000’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Since then, he’s created several graphic novels; written music for films (such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Looper); toured with Radiohead and Beastie Boys; and collaborated with Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator as Deltron 3030.


Every Kid Koala album is accompanied by some visual accoutrement that sets it apart from the usual detritus of modern record making. San’s fifth solo album, last year’s 12 Bit Blues, saw him shine Southern blues through a ’90s hip-hop filter, but the mixmaster really showed off his full palette when he added puppets, robots, parlor games and dancing girls to the accompanying Vinyl Vaudeville Tour. In the same way, his 2011 graphic novel Space Cadet and its soundtrack birthed the idea of a tour melding a speculative fiction-themed art gallery with an intimate headphone experience. 

In high school, San drew animated stick figures in his textbooks. Today, he doodles his scratchy and wholly danceable musicals like a kid with a big box of crayons. Uniquely, he intends to use every color at his disposal. Onstage, San often laughs like a child excited to show you the new toys he received for Christmas. Likewise, his philosophy for presenting his music in a fun manner stems from a simple analogy we all can remember.

“It’s like when you’re a kid going to your friend’s party,” San explains. “You’re really excited for the birthday cake and ice cream and to play games, but when you leave you get a loot bag. There are more toys and souvenirs of this party when you go home. That’s kind of my approach to the packaging of my records. You come to listen to the music, but there might be a chess set or a video game you can download. Or, you can put together a cardboard gramophone. I want to keep the party going!”

Kid Koala’s fervent and wily thoughtfulness appears fun and cuddly from an outsider’s perspective (especially considering that he sometimes appears onstage in a koala suit), but his graphic novels can take years to be chiseled from an ill-defined blob of clay into a statue worthy of reflection. San’s technique is subtle and nonabrasive, uncommon in the world of turntablists or graphic artists, and forever aimed at the stars. He is one artistic creature deserving of closer assessment.

What did you draw when you first started out?

Eric San: I started doodling in school. I did a lot of crude animation in all my math and science textbooks. I made all these stickman characters do backflips or get in a plane and fly away. My parents might still have those books. Every single book had some-400-frame animation in the corners. I never really went to art school, but I did do some extracurricular animation stuff in high school. I think that has a lot to do with why I started DJing. In animation, you have to break every moment down to its molecular moment in time. It’s a very masochistic art form, but the payoff from it is kind of cool when you see all the frames come to life. Making records out of little bits of sounds and stacking them on top of each other is equally tedious. My animation background made me more patient with that kind of process.

When you started scratching, what kind of records did you experiment on?

The earliest records that I would scratch and wouldn’t skip the needle were flexi discs. Those are basically paper-thin vinyl records that don’t sound great, but they were usually given away as prizes in boxes of cereal or magazines. I didn’t have a professional turntable. I just had a crappy home stereo thing. I found that if I used wax paper and those flexi discs, then the song wouldn’t skip. The first year and a half, I was doing just that.

One of the records was about the first mission to the moon with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s voices on [the recording]. I didn’t have a mixer, so I would just turn the switch from phono to AM radio static. That would be my cut. I didn’t have a crossfader. The other thing that was cool about it was that I could put a beat on it and rewind and the original recording was still on the tape. I would just record more sounds. The problem was that I couldn’t hear the beat while I was recording. It was a surprise every time. It was like a really primitive multi-track recorder.

I was impressed by your Space Cadet Headphone Tour. Are all those sci-fi records and sound equipment in the museum portion of the show from your personal collection?

Yeah, that stuff’s been informing my imagination since I was a kid. A lot of those space-themed records from that era had all hand-painted artwork. There wasn’t anything fake or cheap. These oil paintings of outer space were beautiful, but entirely a figment of the creators’ imaginations. When I look at those record covers today, I feel like a kid looking into the sky and being awestruck. I really hope I will be able to go into space during my lifetime.

The point of the Space Cadet show was to add a social experience, since the audience is wearing headphones during the musical portion. They can’t really start talking to their friends. You can decorate space cookies, play around with the vintage synthesizers and check out the different pieces of art. I wanted to create a cozy atmosphere with the inflatable space pods and headphones. It’s really intimate when the music is coming directly into your ear without the distractions of the people around you. I dig loud rock clubs, but Space Cadet needed to be a different kind of show.

Your wife, Corinne Merrell, designed the sets for the Space Cadet Headphone Tour. Who else is helping you out with these ambitious projects?

We have a crew of people to bounce ideas off of throughout the creative process. On the visual side are Corinne and Louisa Schabas. Louisa has worked with me since [2000’s] Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Corinne and Louisa are building the sets for The Storyville Mosquito book. When I was working on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, I used to go to a copy center in Montréal to work on that comic book. I was drawing all these originals on 16-by-16 paper, so when I wanted to see how they would look like in CD size, I would shrink down the images at this copy place. Louisa worked there at the time. She was helping me with all that and we quickly became friends. I was in that store every two days. She’s a great artist in her own right.

How is The Storyville Mosquito graphic novel coming along?

It’s a wordless graphic novel, as are the other two books I’ve created. I’ve written the storyboards and it’s around 50 pages. It’s a feature-length graphic novel about a mosquito that moves to the big city and tries to join a jazz band. Essentially, I went on tour once and Louisa had a present for me. I had shown her some of these sketches I was working on a few months before. I opened the present and it was a miniature room that was beautifully furnished. It was all made out of wood and fabric and beautifully painted. “That’s the mosquito’s room,” she said. That was back in 2003 or 2004. I asked her back then if it would be possible to make the whole book like that. Louisa said, “Of course we can!” Now, fast-forward eight years later, and we’re only on chapter four. We’re going to do every panel as a photograph with a practical set. There’s probably close to 5,000 photos we have to shoot in order to get this thing finished.

You’ve had a longtime fascination with Jim Henson’s various creations. I’d love to hear about the puppet musical that you’re scoring about zombies and ramen noodles.

The orchestra pit will be full of turntables. All the Foley, incidental music and sound effects will be cued off that pit. It will be a highly technical turntable performance, but seeing as there’s not a huge demand for that kind of show anymore, I thought I would add a highly theatrical puppet drama into the mix. It’s probably one of the scarier and more ambitious things we’ve tried to pull off for a tour. We’re slowly starting to test different elements of that show with the Vinyl Vaudeville shows.

What music projects are you working on this year?

I’m going to New Orleans in April to follow up on some recordings I did last year with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the Mosquito soundtrack. Scheduling-wise, the plan is to finish the music this year and the entire book next year. The earliest release date would be the end of 2014 or early 2015. I’m pretty excited about it. Also this year, there’s a cooperative project with Dan the Automator and Emily Wells called PILLOWFIGHT and the Deltron 3030 sophomore album, Deltron Event II. While all those side projects with other people are keeping me busy, I’m in production mode for my own music and art projects the following year. There’s always a bit of a juggling act, but I like keeping my ears and eyes filled with fresh material. I don’t want to burn out on any long-term project.  F

All art courtesy of Kid Koala; portrait by Corinne Merrell; the Space Cadet Headphone Tour photos by AJ Korkidakis; The 12 Bit Blues Vinyl Vaudeville Show photos by Secretlab

This article is from FILTER Issue 51