The turntablist movement produced all types of characters—introspective mystery men like DJ Shadow, alien beings like DJ Qbert, and armies of vinyl shattering beasts like The X-Ecutioners. As a product of hip-hop, turntablists carried with them the bravado that’s inherent in the genre’s elements, like rhyming words with your own name or writing it in massive letters on a wall.
There was one man in this global movement who didn’t swagger, whose music swapped machismo for endearment, and, interestingly, he may be the most skilled turntablist of them all. And that’s not hyperbole. While every other DJ in the world was scratching faster, Kid Koala was experimenting with the basics, truly making turntables into instruments by playing melodies with his hands and creating rich, layered compositions with nothing but a pair of decks and a mixer. His work was never about speed. It was about craft.
But his deviation from the standard image of a DJ in the late 90s didn’t leave him devoid of imagery. On that front, Koala went his own route. Being a cartoonist, he created all his own album covers, each of his early sleeves a minimal but meaningful pencil sketch. This later developed into the creation of charming little characters that were central to his graphic novels, beginning with 2003’s Nufonia Must Fall. This was a far cry from what other turntablists were up to at the time. It was crafted impeccably and displayed immense skill, but there was another element to it—a word that hip-hop heads don’t often utter. It was cute.
The cute aesthetic permeates Koala’s work. As he matured as a musician, he carved out his own space in the sphere of music, finding a home in a place that prides itself on prodigious misfits, Ninja Tune records. With his own style established, and a fan base that is always hungry for more of his particular brand of art, Koala was free to experiment, and before long he brought the cute to the stage. What started out as some audience participation and a few jokes has evolved into a full on experience that you can feel like a hug, a live concert with marshmellowy goodness oozing from every corner.
Kid Koala’s current live show is built around Space Cadet, his 2011 combo graphic novel/album release. The experience begins with a browse of his own sculptures and artwork, interspersed with relics from the vinyl age that he is so fond of—old phonographs, toy phonographs, even some remarkably intact Show’N Tell machines. Walk further down the line and you’ll see games—plinko and pinball—which you play to win raffle tickets for prizes to be given out during the show. After that, an honest-to-goodness cookie table with frosting bottles so you can write your own name on a ginger snap and then stuff it into your face. Beyond that is a bar, a necessity that sort of ruins the illusion of being at a kid’s birthday party.
The actual floor space of the show is covered in puzzle matting, with dozens of long inflatable cushions laid out (they would have had beanbag chairs, but they’re too noisy, and how do you bring 300 beanbag chairs on tour?). Upon entering the stage area, each concert-goer is handed a pair of wireless headphones. Save for an external subwoofer, all the audio of the show is channeled through these headphones. Take them off and you’ll hear silence.
The show itself is a series of acts by Kid Koala, assisted by his bandmate from The Slew, DJ Dynomite D. Between tracks of mellow turntable work, including his famed rendition of his mom’s favorite song, “Moon River,” Koala tells jokes over a background of old timey jazz, has the audience cheer for an animated B-boy battle, and holds the most official thumb wrestling match ever witnessed, all while audience members are laying around on cushions having the time of their lives.
With everyone’s health in mind, Koala asks everyone to rise mid show and participate in his remix of the Yo Gabba Gabba theme song because he “doesn’t want anyone getting deep vein thrombosis at a Kid Koala show.” The show resumes with songs on the Wurlitzer, more jokes, an audience member playing a music box along with Koala, and an interactive song game with four other audience members that he describes as “Mr. Holland’s Opus, but stupider.” Walking out, everyone is all smiles, delighted, and no one is deaf. Unusual aftermath for a DJ set.
We caught up with Kid Koala a couple of days after his New York performance of Space Cadet to find out what inspires his music, his imagery, and the instrument at the center of it all, the turntable.
The Creators Project: Being in the crowd at the Space Cadet show last night, I noted that every element of the performance and your interactions with the audience had this element of childlike wonderment that seems to have always permeated the Kid Koala aesthetic. Where does that come from?
Kid Koala: That’s where I get the most juice from. That’s where I get psyched for working on projects, often as if I’m pushing myself into musical or live concert territory that I’m not adept at but very interested in. So because of that, you get a kind of adrenaline from learning. So everything starts firing in my brain and I’m just constantly trying to adapt and make it better.
You talk about childlike wonderment… Now that I have a daughter, and I see it a lot, any new activity that she has she approaches with a little bit of trepidation but a lot of enthusiasm at the same time. It’s this cute, nervous energy that she has about her. I get bored, you know? If things become too easy, I like to throw myself into some scenarios where I feel a little more like you have to have your radars on. A little more dangerous. Not to say that playing to clubs and dance floors is behind me. I love rocking parties and that whole thing, but there’s something about the show that has a completely different pacing. In some ways you actually feel more there. There’s a lot more room for things to just happen, whether it’s reacting to someone playing a five tone tune and it breaking and then that becoming a part of the song and you have to respond to it in those moments.
My favorite shows are the shows where it’s like, “This is only happening this way right now.” And, obviously, all bands and all DJs have set lists and songs and stuff set up, but that danger element, that safety net—I wanted to cut that out and throw myself in a situation where I wasn’t relying on just volume or just 808 kicks or tempo. You can’t hear the hecklers if the 808 is crushing [laughs]. I wanted to expose it so it was more interactive, even just as a show experience.
Theres an incredible clarity to the format of the Space Cadet show. Under the circumstances of a typical show, there’s less risk for the artist because it’s more of a wild party, whereas in yours, you’re putting the audience in a position to scrutinize everything that you touch. So how did the thinking behind the whole sit-down headphone thing come about?
Part of it was a reaction to just being a bit tired of playing those types of club gigs or putting together those types of sets. But the response, I mean the energy is palpable in those scenarios but at some point it just gets a little Pavlovian, you know what I mean? “Ok, we’re gonna drop the beat out and then everyone cheers and then we’re gonna bring the beat back and everyone’s gonna cheer a bit louder and then we’re gonna cut it up and…” If you’re up there by yourself, you’re always at the mercy of falling into that style.
I started bringing quieter routines into my set. This comes from watching the bands that I tour with, Money Mark, Radiohead, or whoever it is. Sometimes it was those really quiet moments, not the full audio assault songs, but the actual skeletal tunes that were the most captivating and moving and I remember when I toured with Mark, I would be on stage jamming out and the whole band would be rocking out, but then he would go up and just do one tune on the organ, just him playing that tune “Cry,” and it was just so there, and I could feel it. Pin drops of silence in the crowd which was completely captivated there, and so I started wondering, “Can I do this?” And I had a completely hip hop set, and it was really a slow process over the last ten years where I just started trying it.
Do you still consider your sets to be hip hop sets, fundamentally?
I mean, yes in the way that Bambaata would play rock and electro and hip hop and soul and funk. Above the genres, it was pretty much just creating an art and so I guess I kind of took that Idea. And these days I play a lot of rock stuff, I play pop stuff, and then I started adding these really slow moments. Just quieter routines without any safety net of speed and just going into harmonics and just sort of scratching and just doing it that way.
As far as your specific turntablism is questioned, when was the first time you started playing melodies using a turntable and what was the sample that you were using?
My father is heavy into classical music, so my first inherited record collection by default was a lot of classical records. And so, as I was digging for drum breaks, I might find a timpani or a concert cymbal here or something like that. I was actually just digging for solo instruments on like, concertos or whatever. A cello playing a B flat was like gold to me, ‘cause I knew if I have that for one rotation, I can bend it into all these other notes. And so that was pretty much it by default. Because I had access to that kind of record, and as I moved on with it, in college I was playing turntables in bands, with other DJs, trying to find a place to fit before the song. Sometimes it would be a ballad or something. First, when we’d try and integrate DJs into bands it was like, “OK, give it to the DJ!” And I would just scratch for sixteen bars, and be like “OK, lets get back to the song!” And I felt like there has to be more to it than this. Finding ways to play the choruses and back up vocals, or keyboard roll or counterpoint… I think that really forced me to just dig in that way, and practice in that way.
Getting back to Space Cadet, as far as the interactive individual elements of this show, we’ve got the games, the cookies, the b-boy battles, the asteroids… How did you come up with each of those individually?
Well, first to answer your question from earlier about the headphones, this show is based on the Space Cadet soundtrack, which is actually very quiet. They’re almost like piano-turntable lullabies that were written for my daughter right after she was born. Not necessarily written for her, per se, but she inspired them to happen right after she was born. It was just the music that seemed appropriate for that point in my life and it also just matched the tone of the story and the space in the story and the sentiment.
Often she’d be asleep either in my arms or in a crib not far from the piano or turntables and I would play everything extremely quiet and then I would do all the turntables on headphones because I didn’t wanna use monitors and wake her up, and it had this really intimate sort of sound to it, whisper quiet at times, and it just made sense when it was time to tour to present this project, that the music be experienced the way that I recorded it. Because a lot of it is in the delicate or nuanced or little delay tails or spinbacks that you wouldn’t catch if it was just at a blues bar or rock venue PA, so it just felt like the appropriate way to present it. And, that being said, I like dynamics in a show. I like shows that are surprising. I was raised on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and now I’m into the Mighty Boosh, where it could be something where, overall, it’s under this umbrella of this style of storytelling, whether it’s humorous or not, there’s this overriding sentiment where you know what this crew is about.
Even The Muppet Show. Within that, there’s plenty of little characters and cameos from Rowlf the dog, who played piano, and all of a sudden Kermit would do a ballad and then they’d do a big number with all the Muppets. In Monty Python there was the same rule. There would be something about Spam, and then there would be a little theatrical piece about someone trying to sell somebody a dead parrot, but within the whole episode it all made sense. It was just this little demented universe where everything just sort of worked. Where anything could happen but anything was quite contextual, oddly. You could go from pigs in space to the Swedish Chef within five minutes of each other and it was fine, it’s allowed, it was the ultimate license to ill for me, just to hear that. “Wow, these guys can do whatever!” They could get as creative as they’d want with it.
I think being raised on that type of show, and the albums, The Muppet Show album and the Monty Python albums altered what I think was normal for an album and for a live experience and for a DJ set. That dynamic element and the element of surprise, introducing characters, and getting into modes… So here’s a moment where it’s quiet and focused, and here’s this rocking, bluesy number, and here’s something that’s more visual and more storytelling related. Trying to create something that would weave through all that and not feel too jarring. The humor, whatever it is, that’s inherent in most of what I do, gives me the freedom to make that happen, but at the same time do some pretty advanced turntable stuff for my repertoire as far as this is the most forward stuff that I can think of doing right now on a turntable, but it might not make sense to do in an opening set at LIberty State Park [referencing the New York performance while on tour with Radiohead], but if everyone’s got headphones, we’ve got cameras and screens, we can make that happen.
Have there been any changes in the audio technology you used for this album?
Well on my new album I actually, oddly enough… I’m always like thirty years off, whether I’m ahead or behind [laughs]. I’m never in time. What I’ve gotten really into in the past year and a half was like 12-bit samplers, which was stuff that actually… the machines that made the records that got me into production and like scratching. The Bomb Squad record for Public Enemy in the late 80s and early 90s… The machines that they were using, the SP-1200s and MPC60s, they had this crunch to it, and a swing, and that’s still very much a part of my pulse, ’cause I listened to those records obsessively when I was a preteen and teen and so it was a big exciting idea to have this actual machine. Like for a guitar player to be like, “Ah, this is what a ”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratocaster" target="_blank">Stratocaster is!" So I got really into that.
In the last year and a half I’ve been using these sort of 8 bit and 12-bit samplers that actually run off 3.5 and 5 1/4 inch floppy disks, and I have an Emulator, the one that Ferris Bueller had, and they made all the New Order and Depeche Mode records that I also loved when I was a kid, and hearing some of those tones come out of those samplers, it was like “This is rad.” It just dusts it up, has all the aliasing and the conversion—something about it that just brings what I loved about those records back.
So my next album, 12 Bit Blues, is all done with that technology, where all the beds were done on SP-1200s, and Emulator 2’s and scratch turntable stuff that turns over, so when I did that on stage, that was the travel version of that. I didn’t bring the SP-1200s. I’d like to, but loading 3.5 inch disks and making the audience wait for them to [makes clicking noise]. They’re not the most reliable touring machines, so I’ve switched them for Yamaha SU-10‘s which is the pocket sampler that behaves in the same way, and I have a looper, so I don’t really sequence to a grid, I just punch it up by hand and loop it and add a layer and loop it, so it’s not like I have all the drops pre-programmed or anything, I just wanna build it there.
For you guys who were early turntablists, there was no visual element to DJing. There was no screen or waveform going by. Do you think that turntablist DJs lose something when they rely on BPM counters and moving wave visualizations and stuff like that?
Not at all, I think that with any technology there’s always room to express through it. There are always ways to outthink the machine, outthink its design and to get back to the plane of what it is that happens to be in your heart. I guess that’s very central to all the music that I love, whether it’s jazz or blues or something else, it’s not about catching up to something, it’s about making it there, making it happen.
For me, I haven’t used that in a live scenario. I love digital for what it allows you to do, but to me, it’s like how synthesizers don’t allow you to replace an actual piano, but you can appropriate the sounds you create, sounds that you’ve never even imagined, so it becomes a new instrument unto itself. So i’m curious about all that, but as far as just turntables and that whole interface to me, it’s always been a very analog thing. Record crackling, record skipping, cueing, flipping records over within a certain amount of time so that you hit cues, it’s all part of this joy of doing it, and in a way, the second things get done for me, I’ll get bored.
But that being said, I think that’s part of the DJ code too. You don’t want machines to do it for you, so if they are all of a sudden making this stuff easier, you gotta find that John Henry, “How can we beat this thing, how can we outsmart this thing sort of style?” Which is why I’m so excited for all this new technology and all these new styles, but as far as me performing, I come from a band background as far as live stuff, and before that it was prepping for battles and making mixtapes. When I actually started playing in public, it was always in a band context, which is a very communicative experience, whether it’s you and the other band members or you and the audience. If they came over and they had to get your attention, and they were just looking at the top of your head the whole time, you would miss cues and stuff. “We’re gonna extend the song, keep it moving!” And I was like, ending the song, “What, where am I?!!” I already find watching DJing can be quite dissociative, especially if they don’t know the technicality going on, and just for me, personally, the idea of trying to keep a rapport and then having to dissociate and actually read some little words, it’s almost like, we’re having a conversation but I gotta answer this phone, and for each song, I find that it cuts up my ability to connect. But that’s just me, personally.
Do you think that people are still inspired to participate in turntablism after seeing what you do? There aren’t many artists touring the world with the pure turntablist aesthetic. Do you still think there’s the potential to inspire, for there to be another upswing?
I would hope so! And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be in turntables. I can watch a Woody Allen movie and it’ll psyche me up to stay up in the studio for like three days just cranking out tracks. It’s just a matter of witnessing somebody do their thing to the max, and being moved by it. I don’t care if you’re playing wine glasses or spoons or a guitar, piano or scratching, if you’re going for it, it’s inspiring to me, and it doesn’t have to be a direct correlation between passing it onto a next generation, though I’m sure that happens. I hope it happens, but I don’t really know. I think at the end people wanna see people do their things, and if they’re inspired by it, that’s just people doing their things! It’s what the universe requires; that everybody do their things.