The Happiest Blues are the 12 bit Blues

photo by Corinne Merrell

In the 16 years since his first EP Scratch Happy Land, Vancouver native Eric San – aka Kid Koala – has a roster of accomplishments a half-mile long. Through a slew of side projects and collaborations including collaborations with others as part of a band (Slew, Bullfrog) or under the direction of other artists such as his work with Deltron 3030, there is no room to question his musical prowess.

I was given the opportunity to speak with Eric recently to discuss candidly his history in music, his successes, and the “Vinyl Vaudeville” tour he’s currently undertaking.

Starting with the very basics, Eric San told me some of the ways in which he’s not your average DJ:

Beginning classical piano lessons as a very young child, he found turntablism at age 12. Learning the basics on his sister’s hi-fi system, cutting between cassette tape and turntable using mostly flexi disc records (like the one found enclosed in his new album), the next few years of tinkering were done mostly in isolation at home with Koala brand beverage bottles piling up – eventually leading to his namesake. With so few influences to direct his work, Eric became his own influence. This trait of his music is still wonderfully apparent in his music to this day.

I asked Eric what it was like transitioning from hobby musician to legitimate musical force. He told me of his tours with major artists like Radiohead, Deltron 3030, and Bjork. How – whether they realized it or nor – they had become major role models for him during the time they shared on the road, and how often he felt like he needed to be pinched. The reality of his growing fame, and the opportunity to get to know some of his favourite musicians and artists on a more informal level seemed all too surreal.

I wondered specifically what keeps his music so fresh yet so familiar with the sound he has created for himself. He said he liked to keep motivated by constantly searching for new tools to master, and taking on new roles. Self-discovery is at the centre of his passion. Trying new and different combinations to produce his music keeps him on his toes and gives him opportunity to really discover what works with his vision and what doesn’t. He immerses himself entirely in his projects, including relocating his family to New Orleans to work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in creating his latest album. It also helps to have an extremely open mind, and being able to take your skills on the road for children’s tours with “Yo Gabba Gabba” is proof enough of an open mind for me.

After much experimentation with live audiences, he’s used his experience to cultivate an exceptional choreographed show to celebrate and share his ninth studio album 12 bit Blues. A show including handmade puppets, fan dancers, audience participation and gifts. With the array of technology surrounding him on stage, which usually serves to limit the movement of electronic musicians, his brilliant knowledge of creating music allows him to personally explore the stage space… and the audience space… and the coat room… and the merch table… and leading “Vancouver’s biggest conga line” through the Venue audience, the music now produced from a hand-held device he holds close to his body, never missing a beat.

That’s what makes his tour so incredible. If you yourself are a turntable genius, and you know exactly what goes behind the making of every sound, scratch and sample, your jaw will be left agate at Kid Koala’s speed, timing and skill as a DJ alone. If you know nothing about how DJing works but like to have a good time, get your cheeks warmed up for smiling because it would take a monumental effort to hide your enjoyment. What’s just as fun as the dancing, the games, and the music, is how it all ties together. Leaving out the most modern music-making techniques, Kid Koala uses no computers, no beat counters, not even headphones, Eric San takes us back through time in a peculiar fashion that only Kid Koala can. The show looked like it would be a hit at the Most Eisley Cantina. But that’s part of what made the whole thing so grand.

Certain points of the show felt extremely surreal. The juxtaposition of all things on stage would seemingly confuse, but the result was an extremely honest, innocent good time. I felt like a little kid. A grown man playing children’s music to a room full of other adults while having the infectious energy to get the entire room doing group choreography, the biggest kid in the room was Kid Koala himself. Indeed the biggest smile I saw came front and centre over the turntables. I was looking at the direct result of what he considered a “big gamble” paying off big time. His plans for the show specifically were to reach a broader audience, and by the unique stage show, I can’t see a way he could have been more successful.

12 bit Blues is available through standard distribution channels. All art and music by Kid Koala. CD includes Flexi disc bonus track, and the miniature “build it yourself” phonograph to play it. Look for upcoming collaborations with Deltron 3030 in the new year.