Culture  Kid Koala crafts narratives with a beat

Local DJ and McGill alum reflects on his influences in anticipation of graphic novel release

“You have to understand, I don’t come from club culture….When I’m in the studio, there’s no desire to make some banging club-stopping beat.” These are the sentiments espoused by Montreal resident and McGill alum Eric San, better known as Kid Koala. Such confessions are indicative of San’s unorthodox career path, the same that had him touring with the Beastie Boys just a few years after being too young to attend their Check Your Head show at Metropolis. A distinct product and veteran of Montreal’s relatively wide-open music scene, San has garnered international acclaim as a DJ while circumventing the club scene.

San emerged on the national scene with his debut album, 2000’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Though the playful and inventive nature of his sound is immediately accessible, a brief study of his influences is enriching. San vividly remembers learning to DJ as a young teenager, though the significant difference in age between him and the pioneers of the craft created a vacuum for other influences to seep in. He adds, “ I never wanted to be in a band, I never wanted to, you know, make songs that were on the radio.”

Rather, San describes listening to old comedy records such as Monty Python and Cheech and Chong and taking particular enjoyment from their tangible personalities and characters, as well as their explorations of the dimensions of sound and music. In a parallel growth, San mentions having classic hip hop like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy on “eternal repeat”. The blending of these two worlds – the lively, humorous storytelling of comedy records and the classic dimensions of hip hop – forges the dynamic nature of San’s music. This merger manifests itself in colorful vocal samples laced over beats with pitch-shifting brassy accents. What results is a subtly layered work that takes on and manipulates input from a startling variety of sources to form a coherent, joyful entity.

One of the most striking features of the artist’s work is his ability to develop and illustrate complex narratives with little to no direct communication. His graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall, which follows the story of a robot attempting to woo a workaholic girl through song, summons remarkable pathos in the reader despite featuring almost no dialogue. The simple illustrations, along with the accompanying soundtrack CD mixed by San, engage the reader with their startlingly relatable human content, regardless of the robotic protagonist.

As a DJ, San’s tracks often form a coherent and deeply involving narrative, without the aid of lyrics beyond his obscure and enigmatic vocal samples. San lists the silent films of Charlie Chaplin as his chief influence in this regard, and it shows. The music video for the single “Fender Bender” feels at times like an animated update of Chaplin’s slapstick antics. The video’s animation playfully illustrates a traffic conflict and the subsequent verbal sparring and confrontation, elaborating on and making more accessible the concept San had in mind when he pieced together the song.

San’s experimentation with sound and communication extends out of the studio and into the performance environment. He is certainly no stranger to the “20-minute, short attention span set” often expected of DJs. As mentioned before, he has toured with the Beastie Boys, as well as with Radiohead, an experience he likened to “going to school” in terms of performing on a large scale.

Another diverse set of influences, however, has pushed him to pursue other, more unorthodox opportunities. It was after performing with the rock band Bullfrog while on tour with Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark that San realized the creative capability of a single performer on stage. Seeing Money Mark captivate the crowd with just an organ onstage inspired San to move beyond what he calls the “standard, party-rocking DJ set.” In terms of enjoying the spectacle of a live performance, San has also drawn inspiration from the infectious energy of Kids in the Hall sketch comedy shows as well as the interactivity of the Slava’s Snow Show, a form of Russian clown circus.

This interest in experimentation has culminated in his recent “Music To Draw To” events that took place on three consecutive Mondays in March at the Theatre St. Catherine. At these “Music To Draw To” sets, all three of which sold out quickly, San performed a 5-hour set of quiet music with the intent of providing a space for Montreal’s artistic community to come out of hibernation and work in a collectively inspired environment. Much of the set involved San allowing his favorite records to play uninterrupted so he himself could continue work on his forthcoming graphic novel Space Cadet. For both San and his listeners, his recent shows have provided ample opportunity to towards San’s stated ideal of “storytelling meets rhythm.”

Though there are currently no plans for more Music To Draw To events in Montreal any time soon, Kid Koala will be releasing his graphic novel and accompanying CD Space Cadet, as well as another album titled Slew this summer, and expects to perform in support of them. Check for more information.