Though mostly known as a turntablist, Eric San—a.k.a. Kid Koala—represents so much more. Composer, producer, graphic artist, musical innovator, the list goes on. From dominating turntable battles at age thirteen to touring with Radiohead to creating his current project, the introspective, boundary-pushing Space Cadet headphones tour, San’s career is truly one of the most unique and all-encompassing in the industry. While in Montreal preparing for his Space Cadet tour, San took a few minutes to speak with MXDWN.
You are a turntablist that has seen great changes in the electronic music scene throughout the course of your career. What do you see for the future of the genre?
I think it’s just about trying to play with more heart. There’s a lot to the technical side of scratching, but at some point it has to be about expressing rather than just performing on autopilot. As an artist, you tend to practice your techniques over and over again as opposed to trying to channel how you are actually feeling. That connectivity—for lack of a better word, the soul—has to come in after you’ve done the initial technical aspects. The future, for me, is about trying to get these melodies in my head, these actual feelings, and to express that through the turntables.
Where did you get the idea to use turntables as a means for creating instrument-like music?
Classical piano was my first instrument when I was four, and it shaped the way I approached the genre. That had a lot to do with it.
That makes sense with your classical background.
Yeah. A lot also came from playing in band contexts as opposed to being the single person controlling everything coming out of the speakers. The difference playing in a band is being in charge of your 15 percent and really making it count. Like, the drums are taken care of, the vocals are taken care of, so where do I fit in with the other instruments and make the overall sound better?
Speaking of bands, you’ve performed with so many incredible artists over the years. Which tour really sticks out in your mind?
I just remember a few times where I really had to stop and pinch myself, like, “Is this really happening?” Performing at Madison Square Garden with Radiohead was one. They asked me if I could play turntables on a couple of songs. I was like, are you kidding? It was an out of body experience, really beyond words. When they actually walked out onstage for the first time, it was like this wave of energy was thrown toward the stage from the audience. It was really indescribable.
I can’t even imagine.
Yeah, that was crazy. On the flip side, another time when I had to stop and pinch myself was when I played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. I’m a big fan of New Orleans jazz. The band members were all 70-plus years old, but they invited me to come and perform with them. At that point I was equally nervous, but for different reasons.
Taking it back to your roots a little bit?
Definitely. That type of music is completely from the heart, completely in the moment. For me, it was about being able to keep up with these incredible musicians.
Lets talk about your history as a graphic artist. How did you come up with the idea of incorporating your music with your art?
I’ve always drawn since I was a little kid. But I’m a big fan of cinema, and old Charlie Chaplin films especially. I know that kind of work is sort of obsolete now… people expect more from their cinematic experience. But for me, it was burned into my brain. Silent motion pictures used music to help augment the drama or the comedy. For example, with my recent project, I started drawing the story about a robot who tries to write love songs but can’t sing. When I was drawing I started hearing themes, physical themes that I thought would resonate. I think that had a lot to do with it. A lot of people draw with music. The two worlds are really quite connected.
Speaking of which, can you tell me about the inspiration behind your Space Cadets Headphones tour?
That goes back to my DJ roots. The rule was always, can you do something people haven’t seen or heard before? If it was a DJ battle situation, that would have been the case. But for me, it’s not really about battling anymore, it’s about seeing what else there is, where else we can take this. I’ve played thousands of loud venues, clubs, and sweaty music festivals, and at some point I was like, there has to be more than this. Since I knew the music for my book is quite somber and delicate, I thought that the best way would be to experience it through headphones. It’s more comfortable, really.
Rather than having the audience all crowded and sweaty.
Exactly. This is a story about family, and the music was written around the time when my daughter was born. What I played was almost a lullaby. Just to have that cozy feeling in the actual show was what I was going for. So we came up with the idea of inflatable space pods. Originally it was bean bags, but that would have taken huge trucks to move them, etc. This way is great because everyone has their own personal, in-their-head experience, but there are also people around. There’s this connectivity there. I love listening to music on headphones. Some music is perfect for it. I tried to keep that context of the book and the theme of isolation and connectivity in the production. The space cadet character is alone, just floating in space for much of the story. The flashbacks are the only time they’re together. I wanted to get that sentiment in the show.
The story is really very emotional.
Yeah. We did one show and two people came up to me and said they cried. I mean, I’m still a DJ at my core—gotta keep the party going, that sort of thing. When people started crying… I don’t know if that’s the reaction I was going for, but it was kind of cool anyway.
Well, people can relate on a lot of different levels.
Right. For instance, on one page the main character is on a busy street surrounded by people on cell phones. It was based on an experience I actually had, on Oxford Street in London trying to figure out the time. Everyone was on the phone, frantic, and I couldn’t ask anyone. I love that city, but at that point it took me thirty minutes just to figure out the time! It was actually humorous, but I did feel pretty alone. Everyone feels that at some point.
Any new tour dates scheduled?
Right now we’re speaking with presenters at different venues all over the world. It’s looking like we’ll be doing fall in the UK and Europe. It’s a big production and we need to install for about a week, which makes it different from regular touring. It’s exciting. The show is much more of a family event. People brought their toddlers. The show involves what’s almost a museum of analog recording equipment, magnetic disc recorders, tape recorders, etc.—music-making equipment. The kids have a good time making their voices sound like robots. It’s one way to get people to familiarize themselves with the equipment used on the soundtrack, but beyond that, there’s also this magic there that the kids pick up from the technology. Like, how is all this sound recorded on this strange equipment? It’s interesting for kids to see.
We’ve heard rumors of a new Lovage album in the works. Is there any truth to that?
There is. The beats are done and my turntables are done, but that’s about it at this point. Mike [Patton] is still writing, hasn’t recorded anything yet. I couldn’t put an exact date on it. Sometimes it goes quickly, but if he’s busy sometimes it doesn’t. But soon, hopefully. I always thought it would be cool to drop it on Valentines Day.
Then you better get moving on it!
(Laughs) Yeah, we only have a few months. I should call him now, actually!
What about The Slew? New album in the works?
Yes also, we’re recording it. Chris and Myles are members now. Mike is recording vocals. Right now we’re setting up the skeletons for the tracks. We’re going through it all and finding bits that we dig and cutting it to vinyl, reassembling so it has turntable flavor but with that heavy rock thing going on as well. It’s slated for next year.
I saw on Twitter that you’re working on a track with Q-Bert. When can we expect to hear it?
That’s actually for a tsunami relief track. I was on tour in Poland a couple months ago with Q, and we talked about it. The project is being put together by a DJ in Japan, DJ Sonu from Sendai. The project is pretty close to his heart. We’ll be delivering the track this week.
We’ll look out for that. Thank you so much for talking to us. Can we expect to see your headphones tour in the States anytime soon?
Probably next year.
Can’t wait! Keep us updated.
Photo: Will Cooper-Mitchell