Kid Koala gets the audience involved A
dulation and endless accolades are great for one’s ego, but at some point Kid Koala decided that maybe there was a deeper, more gratifying way to connect with audiences.
“Having toured, pretty much nonstop, for the past 20 or so years, there’s this risk of going into autopilot,” says the Vancouver-raised legend born Eric San, on the line from his adopted home of Montreal. “You get to a certain comfort level.”
Unleashing peals of infectious laughter—something that he does often during the interview—he adds: “Sometimes it’s almost like a Pavlovian situation. Like ‘If I play this, I know that the crowd will do that’ kind of thing. So at some point you find yourself going, ‘There has to be something else—more to life than the kind of touring you’ve been doing.’ No disrespect to that kind of touring, because I really enjoyed it at the time. But I think that more recently, it’s been about ‘Can we create some experiences?’”
San has been doing just that with Satellite, a multimedia live performance spun out of his 2017 album Music to Draw To: Satellite, which he’s bringing to the West Coast for the Vancouver International Film Festival. As has often been the case for the past two decades, during which he’s risen from hot-shot scratch DJ to one of the country’s most innovative creatives, the 43-year-old will find himself on-stage for the event.
But what’s different for audience members this time out is that rather than sitting and watching—and occasionally screaming requests for “Drunk Trumpet”—they’re part of the show. Attendees sit at tables, each featuring multicoloured custom 7-inch records and a turntable. Over the course of the performance, they are instructed to drop the needle on records cued from the stage, adding layers of texture to the ambient works San spins on-stage. When a red light comes on on the turntable, that means reach for the red 7-inch; the same goes for purple, with blue saved for the show’s grand finale.
San says there’s an important reason for making the crowd part of the creative process.
“When the album [Music to Draw To: Satellite] was finished, we found ourselves going ‘How is this going to make sense contextually?’” he relates. “I was like, ‘I could just do uptempo versions of the songs, put drums on everything, and mash it all into a club set.’ But the point of it was that the vibe was supposed to be a little more downtempo and ambient. I’ve never been to many ambient shows, and I think there’s a reason for that: it’s probably not that interesting to watch the music be performed, you know?
“So with Satellite,” Koala continues, “it was about taking production techniques, like layering multiple harmonies on different turntables, and then tasking the audience with that part of it. If I was to do that live, I would need, like, 26 arms and 26 turntables. I’d be running around like crazy, and that would cause a disconnect because what I’d want coming out of the speakers would be something as close to the record as possible: this slo-mo, evolving, sometimes quite tranquil music.”
Part of the challenge of orchestrating those in the audience is getting that notion of tranquillity across.
“In doing these shows, we’ve found that people do have an urgency when you cue them for certain sections,” he says with another laugh. “Because they have to play the different records that are colour-coded, some people who aren’t overly adept at even putting a needle on a record have a bit of a performance anxiety. So what I’ve learned, over the last few shows anyway, is that I have to start with a bit of a tutorial. It’s like, ‘I’m here to talk you through this—it’s going to be okay and fine, even if you come in a bar late or something.’ As a law of averages, when you’re talking all 50 stations, some people are going to be right on time, some people will be delayed, some people will be scratching their turntable the whole night, and others will let it play. Despite all that, you still get that harmony happening.”
And as for those who don’t hit their marks?
“Those sort of outside cases—the person who’s late, or the person who’s scribbling and scratching and not actually hitting the pitch—add to the interest of the sound. I remember thinking before we’d done one of these, ‘This is 50 live turntables in a room. And this could sound so, so awful.’ The opportunity was there for it to be horrible and chaotic. But the way it’s set up, the pacing of the show, and how we’re kind of interacting with the crowd—it’s surprised me the nuances from the audiences. Especially because some of them have never touched a turntable before.”
Audiences range from small kids and parents to those in between.
“The shows depend on the mood, the inebriation level, the age of the crowd—there’s literally all these different factors,” San says. “I remember one show in Toronto—it was an afternoon show where a lot of parents brought their kids. We were recording most of the set, and I remember listening back. I don’t know what the right word is, but maybe let’s say there was a tastefulness to the way that they were playing. I think a lot of them had never touched a record player before. But we have a maestro, Felix, who’s up there conducting in terms of amplitude and volume level. I think because they are kids they were able to focus on that, pay attention, and sort of follow his conducting in a way that had a real sweetness to it. It was almost like hearing a children’s choir.”
In many ways, San sees Satellite as a way of getting back to his younger years, a time when he was discovering not only music but also a love of drawing and comics that endures today.
“One of the biggest mismatches at the beginning of my career was that I was playing, exclusively, nightclubs and dance clubs. I didn’t come from that culture—i came from more sort of a scratching, mix-tape, narrative culture. A lot more theatre and cinema influences. This was a case of ‘Okay, let’s try and do a show that brings in some of those other disciplines.’”
In a way, he adds, that puts almost everyone who shows up on the same playing field. The goal for his Satellite shows, Koala says, isn’t to prove that you’re a contender for the next Red Bull 3Style championship, but instead that you can play well with others in a creative setting.
“The kids are equipped with the exact same equipment we’ve given the drunk adults from Saturday night’s show,” he says with a huge laugh. “Even if they are going ‘Wait, what does this knob do, what does this button do, is this the wrong colour?’ at the beginning, everyone has a hoot. You really don’t know what’s going to happen until everyone is in the room together, and that’s what I love about it. That’s what keeps the show from getting stale.”