Kid Koala, Eric San, has just released his album Music to Draw to: Satellite, an ambient collection of tunes that has a narrative of interplanetary travel, loneliness, loss, and connection. Featuring Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini, who brings some of the finest vocal moments of her career, the songs represent San’s first full collection of entirely self-played music. This is a multi-textured album that relies on his roots in classical training, his genius-level skills in turntablism, and a new found confidence in lyrical composition.
The album is about to be taken out on the road for a string of live dates where Kid Koala will invite members of his audience to join in the performance, via 50 turntable stations positioned around the auditorium. Every show will bring the album, and the atmosphere, with a revised texture and a communal experience unlike any other live event.
In the days between album release and the launch of his tour, Eric San spent some time with popbollocks to discuss the process behind this latest project, his collaboration with his favorite singer, and how important it is to continue unlocking challenges and upgrading a sense of exploration. A man of many words, a fast infectious laugh, and a generous spirit, Eric San seems like the perfect companion to go hang out with while drifting in space, or living on a tiny planet, or attending a live show.
Finn: We’re here because you just launched a new album. Music To Draw To: Satellite, you’re in the middle of rehearsals for the tour that you’re about to embark on…and adding to the mix, one of your young daughters had a big birthday party yesterday, so let’s start with, “where’s your head at right now, and more importantly; was there any cake?”
Eric San: My headspace… It’s a multi-tasking headspace! [Laughs] I think work and play are the same thing in our household, as it is with most of the people that I work with, so there’s a lot of laughing involved and there’s a lot of silliness involved. Even if we’re doing something serious, something that has a more somber tone, or a dramatic tone, we turn process into a game.
Downstairs right now what they’re doing, the technicians, is tuning FIFTY turntables – so what you have to do is take a step back and say “How did we get here?!” [Laughs] and you have to laugh it off! But it all makes it worth it – having fun during the process of it – that’s as important as delivering the end ‘product’, when we’re actually out on the road and we’re delivering the shows and we’re creating the music live. I think the main part of it is the importance of having fun the whole way through.
So, throwing a kids party in there, right in the middle of all this tour prep, is sometimes exactly what you need to do. So we had a ball pit up here, and all (my daughter) Rubi’s friends were dive-bombing into the place – and there were literally thousands of these little plastic balls everywhere. They wanted to make the whole building a ball pit. [Laughs] But the way you can turn that around – when all the parents are saying “Oh I feel really bad – my kid’s throwing balls all over the place” [Laughs] – you just have to say, “No, No No! Let’s make it a game!” [Laughs] and that’s exactly what my wife, Corrine, did! So, to pick all these balls up she just said, “Okay kids – we’re going to pick up ALL THESE BALLS!” And they were like, “nope – there’s thousands of balls.” So she said, “Well, okay – first we grab all the… RED!” and they did, they went and grabbed all the balls, and did all the work. So, it became a hilarious game.
But that’s my point – you can look at it the wrong way and think ‘Oh this is a chore… this is going to be such a pain in the ass.” or you can change your perspective on it and turn it into a game.
Finn: Talking about rehearsals; you’re known for putting on some pretty immersive gigs – from headphone concerts to puppet shows. Can you explain for people not in the know, just what to expect from this current string of concerts?
Eric San: For the Satellite concerts we have fifty turntable stations in the audience area, so we’re going to have one or two audience members at each station. The station consists of a record player, an Interstellar Orbiter, which is an effects pedal – a dual analog filter – designed by Earthquaker Devices, specifically for this show, Also, there’s a set of color-coded, harmonized tone records that I created, and so I can ‘conduct’ things. We have this wireless lighting system that we control, where we can make half the audience’s turntables light up purple and the other half light up yellow. So when the light on your turntable turns green, you have to find the green record and put it on the turntable. Essentially, the combination of that – with other audience members playing a different colored record – creates a full chord or harmony for specific moments in the songs. So the audience becomes, in essence, and ambient vinyl orchestra.
Finn: That approach outlines my next question – I’m thinking of the cliche of the swan, looking beautiful above the surface, but pedalling like crazy beneath. You have a tight crew all working hard on this venture – but you’re at the center, involved in every aspect – all the variables, all the moving parts. Do you ever doubt that you’re going to pull it off?
Eric San: [Laughs] Funny thing about swans, most DJs I know can’t even dance. So if you were to watch me scratch, you can see the top half moving and being involved, but my feet, they don’t do a thing! [Laughs] I feel like most DJs can’t even dance – but they still wanted to get into the party somehow! [Laughs]
At our workshop shows, I did have the sense of ‘Urrrrgh!” and I’d be very very nervous if THIS was the first time we tried this concept. But we have workshopped this idea, and what we’re doing now is a refined 2.0 version, and every one of the shows now I like to give it that time now and let it evolve. Y’know, do a short run of shows, see what we learn, get it figured out and start ironing it out. You have to do these things when what you’re doing is unprecedented, in your own experience.
There were certain things that I thought of ahead of time, like “What will fifty turntables playing at the same time actually sound like?” because it could sound HORRIBLE and just be a complete fiasco! [Laughs] How would we set up a simple, elegant way to use the power of all that sound, in a way that’s actually augmented and that would actually work with the music that we’re trying to perform.
One of the methodologies is something I learned when I was studying to be an elementary teacher in college! In the music program there’s this theory called the ORFF method, and basically all the instruments are all diatonic xylophones or something where it’s a built around pentatonics, so you can have sections removed, leaving just specific notes that you want played. You hand that to one or two students – and say, “These one or two notes will work on this song.” and then you hand out other, similar instruments to the other kids and say “You get these two notes. And You get these two notes. And You, get these two notes,” and at that point you let them go at it – they can do whatever they like – freestyle – but from a harmonics perspective it would always work. The best thing about this approach is that it removes the fear factor from playing music.
In this situation – even when we’re playing with adults – many of them are quite trepidatious about playing a record or a turntable, so for me, it’s more about creating an environment where it’s safe for them to just have fun. We put so much thought into the pre-production it was easier to say, “Don’t worry – this is not going to be catastrophic! It’s actually going to sound good!” [Laughs] And it all works as one!
Finn: Through the years you’ve had a variety of expressive modes and formats, but one common element is the inclusion of the crowd and bringing in an audience, breaking down the fourth wall and inviting them into process. Why is it important to have such inclusivity?
Eric San: Well I’ve never really believed in the whole “altar-dj set-up” where someone is fifteen hundred feet into the air, and stretched out beneath them is a dance floor of minions. [Laughs] I hate that whole thing!
A big epiphany for me was seeing Maceo Parker perform. I was a young, just-in-college-smart-alec punk and a friend of mine had brought me to this concert saying, “You really need to see this show, it’s really going to blow your mind,” and I went in thinking, “It’s really not going to blow my mind. What’s this 55 year-old guy going to show me?!” [Laughs] Of course, I was a DJ and I loved James Brown, and I knew who Maceo Parker was, but what I wasn’t expecting was to get there and see, first of all the audience… the audience was a mix of every demographic you can imagine, and every age group you can imagine – it was a mix, a crazy crowd, and I thought “How did they bring this audience together?” And so that was awkward at first, before the show.
But then, I saw them come up on stage and they were dressed all in suits in a very classy way – like they were going to work, really work. And they went into this first song, which maybe lasted like twenty two minutes or something [Laughs] and it was super simple, a high-hat, a snare, and just a groove of them all falling into sync.
What I noticed happen in the audience that night was that everyone’s guard started to come down. There were the jaded-punk, agro, emo teenagers and then there was the skeptical college crowd, and the uncomfortable “this is loud in here” crowd – but what happened over the next twenty minutes is everybody’s guard came down and the groove was so infectious and inclusive that by the end of the first track everyone was on the same beat. All of a sudden there was no difference between the stage energy and the floor energy. Everybody was moving together, and there’s something so beautiful in that and so mind-blowing – I still think about that feeling, and I realize that’s what I want to do – create THAT feeling [Laughs].
In this case – whether it’s releasing a new album that’s different, genre-wise, or doing a new kind of show – I think it’s trying to be clear enough with the intention that people just relax, and when they do they’re going to have more fun. Hopefully they’ll surprise themselves, and us as the performers, as to just what they can create. That’s why I love involving the audience; I think it takes everyone in the room to make a party, or everyone in the room to make a feeling happen, otherwise y’know we may as well just sit in a studio and transmit it via satellite to your YouTube screens or VR helmets or whatever. I really believe in the idea of “there’s this communal experience as humans that is transcendent.”
Finn: Let’s talk about the focus of the tour. Music To Draw To: Satellite. This is the first time you’ve played all the instruments.
Eric San: On Space Cadet, I did a lot of piano and a lot of layers, but the string parts were done by Marika Shaw from Arcade Fire, and arranged by Vid Cousins. So, I didn’t do everything…
Finn: … So, Was this decision a natural evolution that you’ve been moving towards over time — or was it something you woke up one day and thought, “I should make life more difficult!”
Eric San: There were a number of things going on. First of all, piano was my first instrument, I started that when I was four years old, and I started scratching when I was twelve. I think in a way by the time Nufonia and Space Cadet were happening it was coming full circle – where the stuff I was practicing on turntables – which I was doing in direct revolt to what I was learning in classical music – which was so important to me because I could make the most cacophonous sounds ever and it was encouraged.
Over the course of WOW, thirty years of scratching, you still have to pursue the ethos of, “What are you going to do next? What are you going to bring that’s fresh?” If you were in a DJ battle that was the only time you would play in front of an audience – you had just five minutes and you had to get up there and do something people had never done before.
In the classical music scene you had to play it almost exactly the way it has been played for the last hundred years or you’re going to lose points and lose this competition. You will SHAME your piano teacher! [Laughs] I actually remember the piano teacher calling my father and saying, “I don’t think I can teach Eric anymore, Mr. San. His heart’s just not in it… he likes to improvise, he likes to goof around. I think he’s ready for something else.” So oddly, after about twenty years of scratching it became, “What’s the next thing to do on turntables?” And the answer was to use some of the classical motifs that I’d used back then. I realized there was a lot of emotion that could be conveyed not on a turntable.
Finn: So you returned to more conventional weapons?
Eric San: Yes, because I wanted to see if I could play a turntable in a more emotive way. Rather than just scratch and make people’s jaws drop wonder ‘what is that noise?!” [Laughs] I wanted to take people somewhere they didn’t expect. A lot of that impetus came from touring with bands – I was just like a sponge, trying to learn. Money Mark still continues to be one of my musical mentors, he introduced me to Thelonious Monk and he taught me my first Blues scale. [Laughs] Touring with everyone – the Beasties, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, I’m just always watching that and wondering “How are they doing that?” And I realized, “If you want that feeling you sometimes have to play these kinds of chords on these kinds of tools.”
Also, getting more involved in film scoring when directors would say, “We want this kind of emotion here,” it was better to use instruments that were more suitable than the turntable, and other times it was better to use other instruments along with the turntable… it opened my world.
Finn: I believe the album was recorded over three Canadian winters and you collaborated with Emilíana Torrini, who came along for the middle winter. Can you speak a little on how you invited her into your process, and her influence on the development of the project?
Eric San: The first time I heard her voice was at a Belgian music festival – it must have been around 1999 – she was doing a panel interview in public in a tent. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but I heard her voice coming over the speakers and I went into the tent and was intrigued – her accent it’s very melodic, her speaking voice is already very intriguing. So I watched the rest of the interview with her and she was her usual charming self, but I knew nothing of her, and I didn’t meet her. I just went and got “Love in the Time of Science” so she got on my radar.
Fast forward to about 2003, my wife Corrine and I go to see her show at Joe’s Pub and after the show she was being swarmed by the audience and I got through the line and I handed her a copy of the Nufonia book and I ran away [Laughs]. She yelled after me “Wait! You! You! Come back here!” And she asked “What is this?” And so I told her it was nothing, but something for her to read on the tour bus if she wanted, saying, “Oh, it’s just a comic book I made, I really like your records.” So – we’d met – but we didn’t exchange contacts or anything.
Fast forward to another few years and Vez Hoper, who did all the PR at Ninja Tunes was running a night called ‘Antenna’, where she played matchmaker between musicians and video directors – and all these collaborative videos would come out of those nights. Anyway, one of the artists was Emilíana, and I said “NO WAY! I LOVE EMILÍANA!” [Laughs] and I passed over my email – and got an introduction, it was literally one of those, “Oh hi, I still have your book, bye!” and “Oh, hi, I still love your records, bye!” [Laughs]
So – it was a real slow courtship. [Laughs]
Come 2014 [Laughs] it was like sloth-level collaboration! I’d been doing these Music to Draw To pieces – these ambient pieces… Jason Reitman, the director, asked me to submit some music for a soundtrack, so I sent over a track called “Nightfall” as an instrumental, he really liked it and said “Hey, I’m going to use this in my film – but I’d like a reprise in the credit roll and I’d like some lyrics on it.” And then he asked if I had any singers that I’d like to work with, so I thought ‘Oh…. I have Hollywood on my side now!’ And so the first person that came to mind was Emiliana! [Laughs] But you know, it was because of her voice, and this is a very delicate song, and I felt she would be amazing. I went DEEP back into the hotmail account to find her email [Laughs] and she answered, and I explained that we wanted vocals – and that was our first time of actually collaborating. It was like a pen pal thing. I sent her the instrumental and she sent back the acappella.
Finn: So, what we’re saying is ‘you’re a fan of hers’ – but was there one particular moment during recording when you finally sat in a room with her, she was singing, you heard her voice and finally got the chills of, ‘yup – she’s nailing it!’
Eric San: I think that would have been “Adrift” – the first song that we recorded. After the “Nightfall” pen pal collaboration, I continued working through the winter on instrumentals, and I realized that I had a few that she would sound good on also. I reached out to her, she said “Great – let’s do it!” and flew out to Montreal.
She showed up, and it became clear that she was pretty daunted to be handed a bunch of instrumentals and to be told “Okay, write a bunch of deep and personal songs right now!” [Laughs] So, in our ten day session we spent the first third not even stepping foot in the studio – she wanted to hang out and sight-see. She wanted to go around Montreal, and it was a really bizarre time when I didn’t know what we were doing… I just knew I spent a bunch of money to fly this lady over from Iceland! [Laughs] and we’re watching movies every day and going to eat out, and she wanted to go out shopping for jeans. It was one of those things when I didn’t know why we weren’t working in the studio, but I was just rolling with it.
While all of that was happening we were getting to know one another, and where our points of view coincided, and at one point she mentioned an article she read about a Mars mission. At the time, a European company was recruiting to send a pioneering spacecraft to take volunteers to Mars. In the article, a couple had signed up but only the woman from the couple had got through the recruitment and they were discussing the person she was going to leave behind. This story caught our imagination – it became the backbone of the narrative to this album. It really unlocked a lot of things and gave us a sandbox to play in.
We used the template of “Here’s a couple – one of whom is going into space to never return. What does that mean? How does that feel?” We created these characters to deal with those issues. So there was one night when I couldn’t sleep and I sat up right before dawn and I wrote the lyrics to “Adrift” and I handed them to her and I said “if you think these are garbage, just tell me” – and she took my notebook and said “Ooooh, I’ll tell you.” And my heart sank, thinking ‘What did I just do?!’ [Laughs] I handed a sleep deprived poem to my favorite singer! [Laughs] worried that I’m about to undo all the goodwill we’d built up.
Anyway, it was like a really awkward job interview [Laughs] but she finishes reading, she looks up and says “I really like these, we need to record these, let’s go, right now!” and literally, fifteen minutes later I’m at the recording console, I have my headphones on. She’s singing those words… and coming up with melodies for lyrics and at that point I was like “WOW — this is crazy!” I wasn’t expecting this, and when I heard it it gave me chills. I remember saying “even her interpretation – these really simple melodies and really simple harmonies is exactly what it needed.” That’s when I knew, okay, it was all going to be okay [Laughs]
Finn: I don’t feel that it’s just on this album that separation and distance are explored. It seems like they’re subjects that you’re really interested in – from 12 Bit Blues – a previous album, we all know blues songs are peppered with heartbreak, sorrow, mourning. The form you’re now using – and the weapons of choice have changed – but the themes of loneliness and space, they’re still there… What’s going on, Eric? [Laughs]
Eric San: [Laughs] Well, I think it’s from this outsider mentality – this feeling of not quite fitting in, always, no matter what. It can even be my own birthday party! [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe I just read too much Albert Camus [Laughs]. It’s one of those things where, I was part of this scene – in this turntable scene – and even in that I didn’t feel like I fit in. [Laughs]
As you said, the weapons of choice have changed – A lot of it I have to say comes from what I was inspired by – the hip hop records which were very progressive and always about doing something fresh. I would spend half my time listening to those albums, half my time listening to Cheech and Chong albums and Monty Python albums… these universes that some of these crews created that they could seemingly go anywhere with and it made sense to me – but I had to seek them out.. I wanted to work with Jim Henson on the muppets and would want to know, “How do you get a job on Monty Python?”
They weren’t mainstream – the attraction to these things made you an outsider. You had to dig deep deep into the crates to find the Monty Python stuff… there was only maybe 4 or 5 other people in my high school who got it, the others were all listening to Nirvana… so there was an outsider element.
When I started Dj-ing I hadn’t even been to a block party. I started scratching when I was 12, I wasn’t old enough to get into a nightclub. I was in Vancouver, I couldn’t get further on the continent from the Bronx, so even DJ-ing was still an outsider thing. So yeah, hip hop and Monty Python, the things that really inspired me – they were from other planets and I always felt like a bit of an outsider.
You know, I could get on a plane to go to another country to play a gig, and all these people flying with me, sitting right next to me have these completely different lives, and even if I explained to them what I was doing, they wouldn’t be able to understand. [Laughs] But I was playing 250 shows a year, and no matter how much I love my job and being with the crowd, and being in that energy for 2 hours a day, there were many other others in the day, where mostly I was alone and in my thoughts. I got to thinking, there has to be be more to life than this, and that’s when I started to experiment more with what a live show could be, or what a music career could be. Maybe I should work harder to meet some people and work with some people… I still DJ and love doing it – but I want to take what I’ve learned there and put it into stage shows with puppet shows and live quartets….
Finn: So, we’re back at the sense of togetherness – because when you’re in a room and there are fifty turntables and the audience are right there with you. The music happens, and this event gives everyone the license to just ‘be’… and there’s a permission for community…
Eric San: …Absolutely, I try to make it clear – but sometimes I’m misunderstood a lot. [Laughs] Normally when I package my albums, I do it with with all those features, “Look at how many songs I can write and how many things I can draw!” But this time we’re packaging it with a black sketch book and the music is purposefully slow.
There’s a utility to this project – the community thing is the exact point. Unless you’re at one of these events, you can’t understand what happens. But when you’re there and there’s all these people creating together it’s beautiful. It’s an exciting thing, not like a ‘WHOAH!” hooting and hollering, pouring beer on themselves way, but in a subdued, focussed and very palpable energy in the room. You can leave these things energized, people aren’t even talking to each other and it’s contagious somehow, and I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but it can be life affirming.
I’m continually shocked that people want to come out to these events… and it’s not because they want to instagram that they were there. No, it’s more like they think, “We have some work to do!” Instead of being alone in their hotel rooms or their studios, they just come together.
Finn: So, you have this unsuppressable urge to create – at what age did you start thinking “I have to do THIS…” whether it was drawing, or making music or building sandcastles… but in essence, Eric, why bother to do all this this stuff?
Eric San: Well the answer… to when did I know? Huh… I hope that happens soon! [Laughs] But again, everyone has this idea of nostalgia… even my daughter, who is eight, was saying “You know, life when I was Rubi’s age was so much easier” – that’s her younger sister! [Laughs]
But at one point, this hits you when you’re on tour and you think that shows can become too dialed in. You have have to do something to change the scenario so you wake up and you’re back in the moment. When you wake up and you feel like you’re stuck in a loop, or a “Groundhog Day” scenario, you have to think, “There’s more to life than this.” So I keep asking myself, “What’s next, with the time I have?” Just having fun with that thought – and come what may – it will always get more interesting.
I look at drawings in the original Nufonia book, and I feel like it’s horrible – I could draw circles around myself now… with my left hand! [Laughs] but you also have to look and think where you were at that time, and at that time that was my way out of the loop I was stuck in at that moment. What that went on to become led to graphic novels and soundtracks. If you told me back then that I would be doing a live version of the story with a Juilliard string quartet and my favorite cinema production designers, I would be like, “Fuck off! That’s totally not happening!” [Laughs] But that’s what I mean – once you put that thing out there it grows – and you learn, and you get better.
HURRY – ORDER “MUSIC TO DRAW TO: SATELLITE” – FROM KID KOALA
Main Images: Patt Murray