Ghosts in the machine: An interview with Kid Koala

One of Canada’s most renowned DJs is in St. John’s this weekend. Eric San – aka Kid Koala – talks about his latest album, and of channeling the spirits from old gear and giving them autonomy in his music.

Eric San, aka Kid Koala, is a Montreal-based DJ whose turntable skills have, for those unwise to the genre, placed him at the fore of a growing number of DJs who are transforming the turntable as a record player, or a hip hop cliché, to a fully fledged and highly sophisticated art form.

World renowned scratch DJ, visual artist, composer, and musician with roots in classical piano, San shares a level of intimacy with music and music technology that draws inspiration from R&B, Jazz, Blues, and Hip-Hop to create a truly modern experience. His latest release, 12-Bit Blues, encapsulates the pure, raw energy of the Blues without diluting it in a pristine “fresh-out-of-the-box” digital form.

The album is a return to a childhood dream for San, whose fascination with the legends of rap in the late 80s led to a long career as a scratch DJ artist. His curiosity for era-equipment is one of the biggest factors in how he writes and the sounds that he produces.


To capture his sound, San relishes in the idiosyncrasies found in old pieces of gear. He calls those unpredictable elements, holdovers from the original makers, and the results of time coupled with many different owners: ‘ghosts’.

“Even a bad splice on a tape reel will give it a click, but that click echoes onto itself and gives it a kind of weird percussive thing,” San explains. “It’s those things that are just built into the machine, or built into the bad splice. By the time I got it, it had probably been through four sets of owners of this space echo. The heads needed to be calibrated and in some ways I’m like ‘yeah sure I should fix this up-but before I do that I wanna record this one record.’

“Oddly enough when those things happen in the studio I always kinda try to keep them.

“For instance, I have a Moog model-D synthesizer,” San continues, describing a particularly touchy piece of equipment. Once representative of the heights in music technology, though now mostly in museums, the machines San uses – like the Moog – seem to tell him what to do rather than the other way around.

“It actually won’t stay in tune unless it’s been on for about an hour,” he sighs. “But then after that there are glitches so that all of a sudden I’ll be playing this melody line and this note will just sweep up five octaves for apparently no reason.” Instead of getting frustrated, however, San chooses to work with the gear and not against it. “So those are things where I say, ‘well alright, the keyboard didn’t want to play that line there – it just wanted to sweep up five octaves and I’m just gonna let it.’”

Allowing that element of unpredictability to enter into his creative process, San is able to squeeze out some of the last remaining life from his instruments before they (in his words) “burst into flames.” While his studio process isn’t meant to be entirely “accidental,” he says, it is this element of working with temperamental machines and embracing history that makes so much of the music on 12-Bit Blues and his other works so unique.

Design and Chaos; 12-Bit Blues

12 bit BluesAs he touched upon the subject of history and of the unique nature of older instruments, San mentioned several that find their way onto the album. One of the most famous of all of them is the E-mu SP-1200, a machine that revolutionized hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s. Both this machine’s strengths and weaknesses define the sound of early hip-hop, and it is the balance of design and chaos that allows San to reach some of the artistic heights found in his records.

“I think that every kind of instrument or piece of equipment has, inherent in it’s design, the thoughts and ideas of whoever made that instrument,” San explains. “I think that by the time it gets into my hands, sometimes I feel like those machines have a personality unto themselves and they kind of help guide you to play them in a certain way.”

“You’ll hear it in all the 12-bit blues tracks,” he continues. “You kinda see the seams, there’s that tugging at each other, that push and pull. I like that, I like things that sound a bit broken, I’m not really into the pristine, fresh out of the box kind of sound. I like to see that there’s a little bit of history in these machines.”

When listening to 12-Bit Blues you are immediately confronted with those seams and that tension. This record sounds broken in the best possible way. A synthesis of raw, heavy, samples of old blues guitar and harmonica, funky and downright groovy beats, give this album such a unique place in the DJ world.

Designed to be performed by one DJ, San draws inspiration from the early Blues artists who were able to combine “the beat and the bass and rhythm guitar and singing lead and backup. The whole idea is just jumping in the back of a truck as sort of a one man band. I’m trying to do a DJ turntable version of that”.

The fourth track, 4-Bit Blues (each track is titled one through eleven with the twelfth track as a denouement), is a great example of his use of heavy drums, saxophone, harmonica, piano, and voice. As he continually mixes, scratches and rearranges each layer you get the sensation that at any moment the entire piece might collapse on the floor, breaking your needle in the process. Somehow it hangs on, however, and you can’t help but wonder what’ll happen next.

Kid Koala makes his Newfoundland debut April 21 at The Rock House in St. John’s as part of the third annual Lawnya Vawnya independent music and arts festival.

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