Turntablism in general is not known for dynamic live experiences. Most of the excitement comes in watching the DJ deftly cut and mix between records, samples and sequencers on the fly, putting the emphasis in the technique and skill involved to render impressive results. Further on the electro/techno/rave side, the DJs have become known to spend small fortunes trying to craft an impressive light and visual array. Often, without the smoke and mirrors, the experience usually comes down to whether you’re interested in the science of turntable scratching, mixing and beat matching. If you are, the performance can be enrapturing. If you’re not, it can look like a guy just standing behind a turntable flipping between records. Kid Koala may have just found the perfect way to split the difference between performance, presentation and technique in what he referred to as his Vinyl Vaudeville tour at the Echoplex in Los Angeles.
The night was an almost all-the-way-through experience. The set opened with a special surprise series of guests. Beastie Boys alum Money Mark showed up looking dapper to drop a few lines on his organ. Dan the Automator joined stage left on keyboards, sampler and computer. Kid Koala provided extra instrumentation. Then, someone in a giant bunny rabbit costume joined the fray adding even more samples. After a few minutes, the rabbit revealed himself to be graffiti artist and painter David Choe.
Choe did about 20 minutes of stand-up comedy. His routine centered on a story of trying to use a public bathroom in a fast food restaurant and the difficulties involved when it was unavailable for too long (suffice it to say, it involved a crack rock, we’ll leave it at that). After Choe left, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala returned for a special Deltron 3030 Event II preview playing cuts from the long promised, but yet-to-be-released new Deltron 3030 album. At one point—completely out of left field—Looper director Rian Johnson came out and joined them on banjo.
Adira Amram and the Experience also played a short set following Dan the Automator’s exit. Adira Amram and her two back-up dancers could best be described as a more humorous version of Andrew W.K.’s “wife” Cherie Lilly. It’s a pretty painless blast of party dance music sang over a backing track (no band or DJ). After that Kid Koala’s formal set began. This proved to be as extravagant and colorful as everything that came before. Kid Koala was flanked on either side by the requisite monitors that showed a live feed of his turntables and what he was doing to cut each song together. In addition to that, there were several set props emulating both a volume pot and a recording booth.
The DJ dropped numerous cuts from his various projects and releases over the next 90 minutes, including “Robbin’ Banks,” “Shackled Soul” and “It’s All Over” from his psych rock band The Slew, as well as “Skanky Panky” from his underrated classic Some of My Best Friends are DJs. Laced between all of them were tracks “2 Bit Blues,” “1 Bit Blues” and “3 Bit Blues” from his recent minimalist effort 12 Bit Blues. Kid Koala himself is a little ridiculous on the 1’s and 2’s. People talk about performers who make their instrument look easy. Koala makes it look so easily, it looks like he’s hardly trying. The whole time he’s rocking an infectious smile. Like it’s his birthday and everyone came just to hear him spin. He cuts his own records at home so nothing is triggered unless that’s how he wants to execute it. His skill is mind-boggling, especially considering the modern variety of DJs that rely so heavily on computer-based tools such as Ableton Live.
Every couple of songs Adira Amram and her two back-up dancers would come out in a different costume to help incite the crowd. It might not seem a thrilling experience on paper, but just this little aberration was enough to help give the much-needed variety from just watching someone cut and scratch on turntables. Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley even came out at one point to add some keyboards. 12 Bit Blues was released as a variant that you could actually turn into a makeshift, manually powered, miniature turntable. In explanation of that, the Experience dancers did a hilarious routine assembling a massive cardboard version of that device explaining how it worked.
Quite possibly the most exciting track came next in the form of an unreleased cut pulling from Yo Gabba Gabba called “Bird Hands.” The song is a freight train of playful interplay, demanding through samples for the crowd to open and close their hands and jump in the air. From there, the billed use of puppets came into play. While Kid Koala assembled the somber “6 Bit Blues,” Adira Amram and the Experience dancers took control of a cartoon-ish space robot puppet and had him pantomime the song’s sullen vocals (“Sometimes I feel so lonely I could cry”). At one point the puppet performed the bit into the prop recording booth while another puppet (a producer) looked on in disapproval. Then, a gaggle of smaller puppets were used to emulate the female chorus at the song’s bridge. It’s just scratching the surface of what’s possible, but it’s mega fun to watch.
“7 Bit Blues” became an insane crowd-based experience. Kid Koala jumping into the crowd with a wireless sampler while the Experience helped lead the crowd into a venue long conga line and then limbo contest. They even took the time to crown a “queen of limbo,” bringing her on stage to give her some cool merch and a puppet crown. The show ended in the most logical way possible, using the infectious and unforgettable “8 Bit Blues (Chicago to LA to NYC)” as the party-rocking finale. The song’s call-and-response “Three One Two to Two One Three” serving as the anchor while the Adira Amram and the Experience came out dressed as flight attendants and threw out boxes filled with paper airplanes for the crowd to make use of. There’s something special here, and one can only hope that Kid Koala (real name Eric San) takes this even further. It’s special, unique and most importantly engaging. For a genre that doesn’t usually get the respect it deserves, this is just the right combination of true skill and exciting presentation.