If hiphop and turntablism conjure up images of trendy young kids with too much attitude, performing impossible technical tricks in front of a self-involved crowd of cap wearing wannabes, then get ready to have your world turned upside down by Kid Koala. Having parents from Hong Kong, but being raised in Vancouver and Montreal, Canada, Eric San aka Kid Koala has a diverse cultural background to draw upon, but it is his background in classical music that led him to the wheels of steel. Being one of the most enigmatic producers on a Ninja Tune, a record label that is renown for it’s eclecticism, in conversation he is very down to earth and friendly, jumping around the place, looping upon himself, much like his records, and is also very quick to laugh. After finally getting through, “It’s turning into one of those fibre optic traffic jams”, he laughs, and we chatted about his history and his upcoming tour with RDJ2.
“I’ve actually been to Australia once”, San quips when I ask about his DJ name “but I don’t think that trip had anything to do with it. There was a drink in Canada when I started DJing in the late 80’s, a really sugary beverage called Koala Springs. It had this really big stamp that said ‘Made In Australia’, which is really funny because every Australian I’ve spoken to has never heard of this drink,” and I had to concur that I’d never heard of it either. “It was actually quite a popular beverage especially amongst those who likes really sugary drinks,” he laughs. “So anyway, my mum would buy cases of this stuff from Costgo [the Canadian version of Bi-Lo] and if you were a kid, you know, 25 and under or whatever, you’d always be offered that – it’d be milk, water or Koala Springs. My friends started calling me the “Koala Kid” as a joke, as there were always empty bottles of the stuff around my room”, he laughs again, “and that’s the real story”.
San starting DJing in the early 1980’s, “in my really awkward, pimply period before I discovered discover girls”, he chortles. Inspired by the sounds of New York’s hiphop scene, as well as the sounds of the British cut up artists like Coldcut, he says “at one point you stop spending all your money on firecrackers and candy and spend it on something you decide to get into. Some kids get into comic books and I got into records,” he says.
“I think it was the classic music stuff I was doing. It was like an elastic band being pulled back,” he says referring to the stress of his training. “Because it was such a strict music experience for me as a kid, just being told ‘you have to play this 500 year old piece exactly the same way it’s been played for the last 500 years – any deviation will lose you points with the adjudicators'”, he laughs. “It wasn’t a very joyful musical experience for me, so when I first heard scratching the first thing I got from it was that it was so free from these rules. And the people doing it were maybe 10 – 15 years younger as opposed to 500, it was more within my grasp. I was like “oh there’s these DJs and they’re doing their thing and they’re really good at expressing themselves and they’re not like buried somewhere” and again he breaks into infectious laughter.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he begins, with a hint of seriousness in his voice, “I think at the time I was just too young to understand how you play a classical piece and actually put your own feel into it. For me it was just a rope memory exercise, and now obviously I’ve grown to like and understand all kinds of music. But when I got into turntablism there was a central idea that all the DJs, whatever they were doing, they were trying to do something new. And I think that was the most impressive thing to me. Technically I didn’t know what they were doing”, he confesses. “I didn’t know how they were making the sound, I just knew that every time I got a new hiphop record the producer or DJ behind it was trying to do something new. You never knew what you were going to hear when you dropped that needle, and I really liked that, and I think that’s something I keep to heart when I go to play or go into the studio. In my mind, if there were any rules to scratching, it would be to do something fresh,” he states.
One of the tunes that San is most famous for is Drunk Trumpet, a fantastic scratch fest involving a trumpet being played over a 12 note blues loop. It’s distinctive sound drew me to Kid Koala, and I still haven’t heard anything like it. “I think for me when I started scratching it was very percussive,” San begins, but the falters as he tries to describe the process behind the tune. “How can I say this? I’m a big Louis Armstrong fan, and I know I’m doing him a disservice by comparing the two,” he laughs. “For the first few years I would say [my scratching] was very percussion orientated and very much into making the WEIRDEST noises ever. Stuff that would stand out and make you go “What is that noise?” And I still like doing that, making the freakiest noises ever,” he giggles, “but I think that from playing with bands and playing with other musicians that it’s equally as interesting to try to blend in a certain context. ie: you’re scratching, but you’re scratching on a ballad, so how can you do that? For me starting to do that with Drunk Trumpet – trumpet through a melody scratching – you’ve got a 12 bar blues song, is there a way to play and actually run within that by scratching? Trying to figure out how can you do something that can only be done on a turntable, but doesn’t totally overtake the rest of the song.”
San is stoked to be on the Ninja Tune label. “I can’t really imagine being anywhere else”, he states matter of factly. “Coldcut were one of the first tracks I heard with scratching, and Bits and Pieces was very inspirational to me, and still has a big influence on the things I do, so philosophically there’s that kinship. They’ve very patient and they let you explore whatever music avenue you want to and give you time to fall on your ass and take a break if you need to,” he laughs.
Being based in Canada, but flying to London every few weeks to do a Ninja Tune performance means San has racked up a lot of frequent flyer points. “Let me put it this way – we’re very excited to be coming to Australia for the first time. I’ve been touring across oceans since 1996 and still haven’t made it to Australia,” he sighs with a smile in his voice. He’s also looking forward to touring with RJD2. “We’ve never worked together before… it should be fun!” he exclaims excitedly. “I’m a big fan of his work and I’m really excited to see him play. I know he has a show that he does, and a have the show that I have and we’ll do them on tour, but who knows what we will do with the remaining time… we’ll probably open it up”