Philadelphia's Mann Center for the Performing Arts is an open-air theater that is more accustomed to performances by Weird Al Yankovic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir than the alien beats and advanced technology of electronic music. Kid Koala (aka Eric San) is on Mann's stage, working three turntables and a mixer as the opening act for alt-folkie Ben Harper. As stoned youth enter the venue, Koala serves up background music for their enjoyment and occasional derision.
“Welcome to the Canadian portion of your show,” Koala announces. “If you don't like what you hear, talk amongst yourselves.” Koala mixes a set of The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Björk, Autechre and Boards of Canada. Some of the cranky and less-informed youth start to boo. Koala wants to have fun while entertaining the Neanderthal mass, so he rips out a surreal freak-beat fiesta: his tribute to Louis Armstrong, “Drunk Trumpet” (from Koala's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome [Ninja Tune, 2000]), and Henry Mancini's Breakfast at Tiffany's theme, “Moon River.”
“Drunk Trumpet,” one of Koala's inspired takes on traditional jazz, climaxes in a scratched trumpet solo that Armstrong could have never imagined. Koala furiously rubs the vinyl, making the trumpet stab, wail, spit, trill and slide, all the while smiling like a mischievous tyke farting in church. The audience finally gets it, to which Koala replies, “Thanks for your jaded applause.”
“Moon River” is even more stunning and sonically daring. As Audrey Hepburn sings over the song's acoustic guitar strums, Koala beat-juggles two copies of the record into a slow-motion dirge and then rearranges every syllable of the vocal until Hepburn is stuttering like a Tourette's syndrome victim. Koala then mixes in a third record over the free-spinning first platter, adding screaming seagulls, looped orchestral strings, an ecstatic Moog solo, rocketing explosions and a final scratch of Hepburn reciting “end, end, end, end, end.” It's “Moon River” as an apocalyptic nightmare and angelic vision.
Koala closes the set with The Muppet Show's song “Mahna Mahna/Lullaby of Birdland.” An excited female fan jumps onstage and gives Koala a bear hug, embarrassing the DJ, who quickly retreats behind his equipment.
Kid Koala is one of today's most inventive, original and humorous DJs, and high-profile groups and producers such as Radiohead and Dan the Automator have taken notice. Working the turntablist ethic into his smashed jazz 'n' beats cutups, Koala pushes the boundaries of DJ culture as few can. His 1997 underground tape, Scratch Scratch Scratch, sounded like Public Enemy remixing Walt Disney with literal samples of Charlie Brown and Björk. Koala's Ninja Tune debut, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, followed after several singles and remixes. He toured with Coldcut, Beastie Boys and Radiohead. He then got busy with Deltron 3030 (as Skiznod the Boy Wonder); Lovage; and his longtime band, Bullfrog. An accomplished cartoonist, Koala released his early-2003 book, Nufonia Must Fall (ECW Press), a dialogue-free comic story accompanied by a downtempo soundtrack. To support the release, he toured, playing shows with two pianos (Koala studied classical piano for 10 years before vinyl and comics ate into his brain), four turntables and the help of his friend DJ P-Love.
Kid Koala operates in a space that is rare for any musician. Although it draws on hip-hop, trip-hop and turntablism, Koala's music is practically without parallel. His turntable-based style is only really challenged by DJ Shadow, who follows a similar loner's path to fanatical vinyl ecstasy. With a gentle science of spoken-word humor (“Shake loose; don't be silly; you can dance” is one obscure sample that he often cuts in), scratched solos and lazy beats created on a simple analog setup, Kid Koala upends the turntablist's machismo with songs that are as ingenious as they are hilarious.
Sitting down with Remix, Koala is shocked to hear that he's on the cover: “Oh, geez,” he says with a sigh, fidgeting. “Great! The Neptunes deserve to be on the cover — now, I am nervous. [Laughs.] By the way, did I mention I worked with Madonna?”
Kid Koala's basic DJ setup includes two Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables with Shure SC35E cartridges, a Rane TTM 56 Performance Mixer, a 1950s Wurlitzer piano and a Peavey VMP2 tube preamp. And although a few hundred dollars can get a person started on any hard-disk recording program, Koala still prefers his 1980s Fostex 4-track cassette deck. “It helps me make decisions better,” he explains. “I dump everything onto Pro Tools when we mix, but that is just to add EQ. Dan [the Automator] helped with that. But I like hiss. It might piss people off, but I grew up working this way. It was always about layering stuff with vinyl as opposed to programming stuff. It is about doing one track and then the other. After that, it's putting the drums in from a couple of records and layering. It is low-tech, and sometimes the groove might get a little messy, but for me, that is what it is about.”
Jazz, blues, ska and hi-fi spoken-word references fill Koala's latest, Some of My Best Friends Are DJs (Ninja Tune, 2003), which includes a 50-page illustrated booklet. Unlike the busy arrangements of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, My Best Friends Are DJs is sparse and uncluttered, closer in feel to Scratch Scratch Scratch. “Stompin' at Le Savoy” mashes blues harp with slapping funk beats; “Skanky Panky” combines ska rhythms and lazy saxophone; “Flu Season” imagines two sick DJs exchanging coughs and greetings; and “Elevator Hopper” uses Blood, Sweat & Tears' “Spinning Wheel.” Jazz — as in Dixieland and Thelonious Monk — is what most inspires Kid Koala.
“Within four bars of Dixieland music, there is so much expression,” Koala says. “Every instrument is doing its thing, and it could be really chaotic, but it turns into something really beautiful. I want to have the budget to hire an ensemble of DJs and cut all of the plates, and we'd do a version of ‘Basin Street Blues’ live with a Dixieland turntable band.”
“BASIN STREET” BLOWOUT
Written in 1928 by New Orleans musician Spencer Williams, “Basin Street Blues” is painstakingly re-created, one instrument at a time, bar by bar, on My Best Friends Are DJs. Stand-up bass, banjo, ukulele, trombone, saxophone and clarinet spin the melody, to which a slurred and scratched trumpet solo is added, all within a languorous Dixieland groove. Sounds slow down and deflate; scratches jump up like angry children; a hip-hop beat scurries absentmindedly. Calling his process “an experiment,” Koala uses Digidesign Pro Tools only in the final phase of production. Loops, he can do himself.
“There is one instance during ‘Vacation Island’ where a Hawaiian guitar loop is from Dan's Pro Tools sampler,” Koala says. “And ‘Basin Street’ has a banjo that loops for the eight bars. That was done in the computer, then cut to dubplate. But all of the other loops are two copies of records on the turntables, or if I only have one copy, then I do one side on one track, four bars at a time, then repeat it for the next track, on and on. When it comes to making the loops, I have to do it manually.”
“Basin Street” devoured 100 records during its four-month recording period, achieving Koala's goal of an authentic Dixieland track. He began with the melody, looping every instrumental part one note at a time on turntables and tape deck, track by track, until he had assembled an entire Dixieland band. “Initially, I found the chords, studied how the chord changes went, put that on a banjo and looped it up,” he says. “Mark from Bullfrog played banjo and ukulele, and we looped it up and cut the ukulele and the banjo onto a record. That was the template.”
Stand-up bass followed. Again, the process was single-minded and laborious. “I wanted a hand-cut stand-up-bass line. I sang the bass line first, following the banjo loop; I just scatted it through the song. Then, I dug through my records for the actual bass tones to put over the scatting to line up with all of the notes on the Fostex. Each note is a different bass tone; I had to pitch it on the turntable and cut it in. Some of them have similar runs that I wanted, so I cut those in, or if I wanted to bend the note, I would pitch it up. You can hear which ones are manipulated and which are just layered on there. Some of the notes might be doubles, so I would slur them with the turntable because some might need the bend in the middle. The bass line took a week. I had to find the right pitch for every note in the scat. Then, all of the little ghost notes and pickups, I scratched some of those. I didn't want to rip off a bass line from some other version of ‘Basin Street.’ I wanted to write my own.”
Koala's front-line horn section followed a similar method. “For the horn pads, I broke down all of the chords again,” Koala explains. “It was a primitive way of arranging horns: I wrote all of the notes and overtones for each chord on the Wurlitzer. With the trombones, for each chord as it goes over the eight bars, I would pick a different note for it to go to, after singing it first. Then, the next eight bars, I'd go for a different one and the next one. It is a cycle. I did that, note to note, and if you listened, it sounded kind of sparse. But as I added more tones and instruments to it — the oboe or the clarinet, which were also holding sustained chords — that is when it started getting that richer sound.”
For the kazoolike trumpet solo, Koala simply scratched a single tone on vinyl direct to the Fostex. “The trumpet is the lead instrument; I did that last in one take. It is a couple of trumpet notes and stabs on the turntable and one extended long tone that I manipulated for the melody. I was flipping it on 45 and using the pitch and speeding it up and slowing it down with my hand.
“‘Basin Street’ was almost assembled like an animated film,” Koala exults. “It is frame-by-frame in a way. Although there are live hand-cut parts to it, it still has this very weird un-natural feeling. Usually, it was only a few elements, but on ‘Basin Street,’ it was about having several tracks of stuff all running at the same time. I was trying to emulate how each instrument is responsible for one note of the chord. It is a combination of all the different sounds, but it is different for each instrument. After that, I was ready to do something with just two copies and rock it.”
VINYL MEANS FOREVER
Forget about politics or personal relationships; Koala finds inspiration from his pals: his records. “For ‘Space Cadet 2,’ the idea came from juggling a bass line from two copies. After that, it is like painting. You have your foundation that you paint or layer over. With ‘Skanky Panky,’ I wanted to do a hand-cut ska song because I found this great break. Some of them were narrative songs. It might start with a bit of spoken word or just the feeling you get from the loops.”
“Flu Season,” on the other hand, was inspired by one of Koala's record-buying binges. When you have 8,000 records, it takes a lot to keep you excited. “I started collecting sneeze and cough samples for some reason,” he recalls. “I heard this nice cough with a sharp attack. I just started scratching it for fun, and it became one of my favorite sounds. There is a human beatbox on there, then just layers of coughs and sneezes. That track is all vocal noises cut from records. One record is all coughs, the other is all sneezes, and I juggled them. What a silly noise.”
“Stompin' at Le Savoy” has the feel of an old blues track, but halfway through, Koala injects a blast of double-bass-drum ferocity that could be mistaken for Squarepusher. “That is two copies of the drum break,” he explains. “I flange them as I am juggling them. You open the cut on one record, and the one you are spinning next, you let it go close to the same time to offset it a bit. At one point, the bass drum on the record goes like a train: choo-choo-choo-choo. So if you have two copies, the notes double up. I went crazy. That break was real long.”
EMBRACE YOUR INNER KOALA
Kid Koala will continue to challenge himself and, in the process, anyone who makes music with turntables and electronics. His art is organic and is best described by Dan the Automator: “You can't see the edges; it is very natural.”
“This record is reminiscent of what I do live,” Koala says. “But some of the music is more musically ambitious. And like Monty Python, some of it is freestyle, almost absurd, like two people bantering, and it's over before you know it.” Koala's music is full of personality and quirky attitude, built on love of vinyl, turntable muscle and endless imagination. But how he arrived at this point in his career is part luck, part determination. “Some environments allow you the space to develop and improve,” he says. “They will let you go for a while, even if there is no real crowd. But other places just want you to play music so that the crowd will drink. That won't help you to try things and learn. I got in a lucky situation where people let me take it where I wanted. Even Ninja Tune is very patient and supportive. You almost have to say, ‘I don't care if I don't get this gig. I am going to work on my stuff at home.’ You have to satisfy yourself and what you are trying to do.”
AUTOMATING KID KOALA
Dan Nakamura, who spent some studio time with Kid Koala during the production of Some of My Best Friends Are DJs, offers the following inside information about processing sounds:
“I used Pro Tools, a Mac G4/857 and an Otari Series 54 console as a mixing board. Turntables sound dull, so we bused the master signal to a 1960s Altec Lansing 1567 tube EQ, and it allows this really clean top end. For compression, we used the Focusrite Red 3 [dual compressor/limiter] and a Tube-Tech LCA 2B [stereo compressor] for the bass. Turntable mixers can sound sharp, so we wanted to round stuff off. We used a Drawmer 1961 [vacuum-tube equalizer] to overall shape sounds, bring up the bottom in a warmer fashion.
“We bused the drums through some Neve 1074 mic preamps to beef up the signal, which we ran in tandem with the original drum signal. We also bused the drums out to a UREI 1176LN [peak limiter] to add a little top-end crunch. Simultaneously, the drums were bused to the Altec to give the hi-hats more sheen.
“The Pro Tools stock compressor was used to compress the horns. On ‘Basin Street,’ we ran three different trumpet parts through three different channels through the different tube EQs. We also ran the trumpets through the Demeter [RV-1] Real Reverb, a nice spring reverb. And we used the [McDSP] FilterBank EQ [plug-in] to roll off some of the bottom end, because turntables rumble. We limited all that and compressed it through a Summit TLA-100A tube compressor. We ran them all together to get all of those different elements. Records tend to have less of a frequency range up high, so we were trying to create something.”
KID KOALA'S TURNTABLE TIPS
- USE TOILET PAPERIf the venue doesn't have a good foundation to play on, put toilet rolls under the table legs of your actual support table. Just squish a roll on its side; one under each leg will control the feedback that you get a lot in small clubs.
- LABEL YOUR RECORDSI draw lines on the center or use a sticker. I know when the sticker is pointing at the needle, there is a sound that I want. It can tell me where the one is. For instance, if I am beat-juggling drums, the one would be indicated by where I drew the line. So I would start and let the record roll for a couple of rotations while I am bringing the other record back to the one. Even if you label the record on the one, you can start the juggle on the four.
- USE HEADPHONESIf I am playing in a band and the song changes, I'll use headphones to find the part that fits the changes. Or I might use headphones when I am doing a blend. But if it is a more performance-styled set, then I have all of the records labeled. The rest is just counting rotations. You know where the first sound is; the next sound might be three rotations later. It is like remembering a fretboard or your friend's phone number.
- CLEAN YOUR RECORDSIf there is a lot of gum or dirt on your records, use lighter fluid.
- SET YOUR TRACKINGThe Shure SC35 carts are a bit heavier, and they stick better if you are outdoors where it can get windy. I have the antiskate set at 3, the height at 3 and the counterweight all the way in, pretty heavy. And I add the extra weight above the cartridge.
- LEARN TURNTABLE BASICSFor any technique, start slow. Try -8 on a slow break. Just get the actual feel and the muscles going correctly. That will be a lot less frustrating in the long run than trying to do stuff that your hands are not ready to handle. Your hand needs to get used to the crossfader cutting on and off and pulling the record back. Even practice one without the other.
- KEEP SCRATCHINGMost scratches are a combination of chops, stabs, transformers, flares, drags, chirps and crabs. The more you play, the more control you will have. I am always working on stuff. I want to actually slow it down or speed it up, but in pitch. You can hit 33 and 45, and it goes up a fourth, but from there, where do you go?
- REMEMBER YOUR INFLUENCESYou can't deny your influences. The Beatles and Carpenters, which my mom was listening to when I was growing up, influenced how I listen to music now. Your input will reflect your output. Don't deny that input. That is what is going to help you come up with your own style. The freaky part is to find an approach to this machine that it was not designed for. If you can imagine it, you can pull it off.