Kid Koala Keeps Turning the Tables

by Brad Mackay

Turntablist and comics artist Kid Koala studied education at McGill

What do you get when you combine cupcakes, cookies, toy pianos, thumb-wrestling, animal costumes and inflatable space pods? The best kids’ birthday party ever? No, it’s just the latest live concert innovation from Kid Koala, Canada’s best-known scratch DJ.

Over the past 15 years Koala (aka Montrealer Eric San, BEd'96) has made a name for himself by creating offbeat music and art that defy expectations—and in some cases completely disregard them. Whether it’s packaging his CDs with comics, video games and chess sets or holding concerts that include eight turntables, slide shows, bingo games and, perhaps most famously, a rule that forbid anyone from dancing—San is unafraid to forge his own quirky path. And his latest project, Space Cadet, is no exception.

In gestation since 2003, Space Cadet is a moody, wordless 132-page graphic novel about a robot that raises a little girl only to have her leave him and venture out into a career of space travel. San is no stranger to graphic novels, but this time he decided to ditch his pen in favour of scratchboard, a medium that required him to scratch out every panel in negative space.

“It was kind of a simpleton idea originally,” San explains. “Since I knew it would be set in space I thought it would save me time. Most of my other books have been drawn with fine-liner pens, so when I knew this one was in space I figured if I used scratchboard then I wouldn’t have to fill in all that space. Literally, it was that naive and simple,” he adds with a laugh. “But the tables turned on me about five pages in when I realized that it was going to take me way longer than anything I’ve ever tried to do.”

The book comes with a CD of original compositions that serve as a melancholy soundtrack to the comic’s downbeat narrative. According to San the inspiration for the CD/book combination can be traced back to the Disney, Golden Books, and Gremlins storybook records he read as a kid.

“My parents would buy them for me because they read somewhere that they encouraged reading in young children, so they decided we would have access to all these 7-inch storybook records. And I just loved them because they were, in so many dimensions, a way to escape. There was the visual, there was the narration, there was the sound effects, there was always some music and of course the story and the illustrations. It was really something that you had to totally plug into and just let it take you away.”

This idea of escape drives the Space Cadet live tour as well, or as San prefers to call it “the Space Cadet Immersive Headphone Concert Experience.” Kicking off in London, England in November, the concert will feature a range of physical, visual and audio elements that are intended to convey some of the themes of time and loss that fueled the project.

“We’re just trying to create a new live experience,” he says. “Personally I get kind of bored playing the same types of shows in the same types of venues. Since Space Cadet was eight years in the making I had a lot of time to develop a live version of this experience. My wife, who’s a set designer, got involved and she said it should be like a pop-up planetarium. When you walk into the space you realise right away that you’re supposed to be in a different kind of head space.”

During atrial run for the showsin Montreal this summer, audience members were welcomed by large inflatable pillow-like listening stations (or space pods) outfitted with state-of-the-art headphones. As they eased into these, San played tracks from the CD as blue light bathed the crowd and kids were encouraged to play along to the music with tiny toy bells and mini-music boxes—all while being surrounded by real-life set pieces recreated from the graphic novel.

“People get really cozy,” San says of the unconventional live show. “Don’t get me wrong; I love rocking parties. I love playing music festivals. The energy of that is irreplaceable. But at the same time, for me it’s always about seeing if we can take it somewhere else too.”

Taking his art to new places has been a hallmark for San ever since he broke big on the international music scene in 1996. That’s when, at the age of 21, he became the first North American artist to be signed to the influential (and extremely hip) UK label Ninja Tune. (The offer was actually prompted by a demo tape that San made while studying at McGill and passed out to his fellow students.)

A scene from Kid Koala's Space Cadet

Since then, San has grown up a lot—he’s now 36, married and has a three-year-old daughter—but his renowned sense of invention and his ability to shrug off expectations remain intact. The music for Space Cadet is a perfect example. Brooding, ethereal and occasionally dark, it stands in stark contrast to some of his other upbeat hip-hop rooted recordings.

“There was a lot of stuff that was happening in my life at the time that I had to express in some way and for whatever reason it wasn’t about cutting up a drum break and doing some funky scratching over it. That was not really where my head or my heart was. The birth of my daughter, that motivated a lot of the music. After that the idea of time changed for me. With this book there was a lot of introspection on what time is and how fleeting it is—I’ve been in scenarios where I think time just takes forever, but once my daughter arrived I realized how quickly it was going. Then it became about just trying to catch up to it, or slow it down.”

Whether or not his fans (or his label) will join him on this more mature journey never really crosses San’s mind.

“I didn’t get into music to sell a million records. I’m the first to admit that these first three albums that I’ve done are art records. And it’s the same with these books. The context for them goes back to those storybook records in that it’s something you should escape into. It’s not music that I think people should drive to by any means, or try to operate heavy machinery too. For it to make any sense at all it requires almost your full attention; just like the records I grew up listening to.”

Click here to see a trailer for Space Cadet