You never forget your first break.
Sometimes the seven months I spent in Chicago feel like a weird dream; the scenes from a movie I watched while half-asleep, and can barely recall. I do remember it was really cold – a lot colder than anywhere I had ever been before – and that I was very lonely, a consequence of a late September move to a new city for a failed relationship and a soon-to-fail job. And in that personal and professional nadir, the flicker of an idea to reach out directly to an artist I admired and ask if hey, would you mind if I interviewed you before your show this weekend?
Eric San wrote back, and invited me to meet him in person at the (now defunct) Double Door in Wicker Park. We sat at the bar and spoke for forty-five minutes, folding dozens of paper airplanes as we talked – all props to be launched during his show that night, one of the first performances of the Vinyl Vaudeville concept, featuring puppets and a conga line and choreographed dancers. It would turn out to be the first music story I ever did, and the spark that led me out of a dark place.
Never underestimate the impact of a random act of kindness.
San, who goes by the stage name Kid Koala, is one of the most creative, resourceful, and quirky musicians performing today. The Montreal-based producer and turntablist has an incredibly admirable drive and ability to create art out of almost anything, and most importantly, a warm heart and a generous demeanor. Live shows are more than just music – they’re full-on celebrations of life and art. I had a chance to catch up with San in anticipation for the revival of his Vinyl Vaudeville, which now includes video game consoles featuring the music of Floor Kids, a game he recently scored. As usual, he was as vibrant, jovial, and thoughtful as the art he creates.
Kid Koala performs at Washington DC’s Union Stage on May 16, and at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere Hall on May 18. Floor Kids (Original Video Game Soundtrack) is out now on Arts & Crafts.
Brightest Young Things: So much of the music you put out has heavy ties to or touches other media. The word multi-media truly applies to your work: video games, visual arts, film, graphic novels, puppetry. Are there any art forms you haven’t approached yet but want to, and whats next?
Eric San: Food! Although I will say this, a lot of my chef friends think it’s pretentious to say food is art. I would disagree, from an experiential standpoint. It gets to that level where you really have an impact if it is done properly. It’s a combination of all of those things. I think, to me, the presentation is something, the context, the venue, the sound, everything, it’s all part of it, I think.
I don’t think in compartments that way. It’s not so much that I think I’m just going to make an album, so I’m going to put a blind fold on and just use headphones and record – I am always interacting with what’s around me at the time. The weather, the equipment, the people you play music with or collaborate with. I just try to be where I am. It does go back to that, to my earliest experience as to what entertainment was. Whether it was a Charlie Chaplin film, or watching The Muppet Show. Those things had crazy amount of jokes, art direction, crazy design, amazing performances, music, and in terms of the emotions that will be in the show. You can be totally insane, like Gonzo eating a rubber tire, or it could be something more sentimental or sweet song, that spoke to the more universal question. All of that really had a huge impact on me as a kid. I like to find that feeling of surprise, where you might enter into a film and you think it’s about one thing, but then you get drawn into the characters, into the story, and the music and the film and then hopefully it sweeps you up and you kind of get taken away with the stories and it might move you more, like laugh, cry, get scared. I think that dynamic is kind of what I am searching for all of the time. Especially with the live shows – I think there can be a balance. Some of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve witnessed in the concert, and I’m talking about big stadium rock concerts, are the most quiet, intimate, valid, in the middle of a rock concert. Those are the ones that sometimes punch you in the heart, and you are kind of like “wow, that was unexpected.”
BYT: That invokes a memory of watching some old footage of Queen playing their first South American tour. Freddie Mercury is singing “Love of My Life” and you realize that though they’re the first major English-speaking band to ever play in Argentina, the audience is singing along to every word, and everyone is crying. It’s one of these incredible show-stopping moments, and Brian May is playing a 12-string guitar next to him. Every time I watch it I can understand the absolute magic in that moment.
San: In terms of function of music, just being a DJ and having access to the music, always being interested in lots of different kinds of music. Also understanding how that can affect the energy in a room or with the crowd of people or what you play in a party, or what you play in a restaurant, or what you play to get going in the gym, versus what you play to unwind to or try to reflect or try to find some more restorative or “quiet time” music. There are perfect records and perfect music for all of that, I think, if you pair it directly with the function you need it to. Music is supposed to enhance your life or help you through bumpy times, or amplify great times.
Sorry for the food metaphor, but if it was something – like I love lasagna, but I also like soup noodles. There is something to be said that just because you are into lasagna today, doesn’t mean you want to eat it for the rest of your life. For me, even with recording, the same thing. It’s not always about, okay, I have to make a record that serves this function. I have to aim squarely at the dance floor and try to move it, because that’s what i’m known for, that’s what the genre is known for. Some of the most satisfying moments are when you can take that knowledge of being able to rock a party and try to apply to it a scene in a film when you are trying to score a film. Or you are doing music for a dance company, or a theatre company and you are trying to create using what you know about music or how you play music and applying that. That actually ends up making you a better vision. If you could change formats or change functions. For me, turntables are that, sometimes it’s a soloist, other times you have turn tables, but now you are in a band and there are eight other people on stage – how are you going to fit with that?
Or scoring a film or video game: there is a player playing the video game that is also adding sound effects because they also need the audio feedback from their button inputs. How are you going to balance that? The end goal is to have a satisfying, connecting experience. I think that’s the stuff I really like fires on all those levels, whether it’s a film or a live show or album, will trigger visual tribute with an album. The arrangements that just sort of bring, where it becomes a very rich multi sensory experience. Those are the ones I gravitate towards. We got pretty new age, pretty quick. [Laughs]
BYT: Are there any video game soundtracks from games you’ve played in your life that have stood out?
San: What era? How about for you – are there any that have stuck with you?
BYT: Well, I’m 30 and grew up with a Sega Genesis and Nintendo 64 – which was really a peak moment for me. I still find myself whistling parts of the soundtrack from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I’ve been playing Breath of The Wild on the Nintendo Switch and recognizing some of those motifs and theme songs, even if they’re stretched out or adapted a new way, is really emotionally resonant.
San: We just came from PAX in Boston, a big video game conference; we were at a booth with Floor Kids, and it was a non-stop stream of people we had to explain the game (Floor Kids) to. We didn’t realize it was the first time they were playing, so they had to select the few first songs, these ones are a bit easier and a earlier level of the game, just in terms of format. As you get deeper into a game, sometimes you get to a boss level that you just can’t pass, and you might be stuck there for two weekends trying to get past it. You are listening to this one track, that’s a phenomenal amount of musical tension when you think about it. Whoever wrote that piece of music, the idea of listening to one piece of music for 72 hours, and then move on to the next arrangement. You would never really think that but then it’s really not up to you, it’s up to the player. Sometimes they just like that track and they want to stay there, or they just can’t.
It’s funny because I saw a band that was playing at PAX. I was backstage, during the concert period, I heard the music, but I kept hearing cheering. I didn’t hear anyone address the crowd, I wasn’t hearing big sing-a-long choruses or anything. It was just this instrumental music and then really random bursts of cheering. This is strange, I went and I looked, it turns out they were scoring live to a super gamer, that was playing all of the boss levels of the medley of different games, and beating them. The bands were playing all of the music live and watching it. You can tell the energy in the room was so amped up because all I could imagine, one was Duck Hunt, one was Mario Brothers – those I recognize. But they went in deep because games I haven’t even played before – they just played the end boss level, you can just feel this arena-like final playoff, Stanley Cup level energy. And when they actually beat the boss, the whole crowd would cheer; you can just see a whole ocean of people with smiles on their faces because they have lived with that music for so long. You never beat that boss level, or you spent a week listening to it, it has become the ear worm of all ear worms, and it’s part of your DNA. That’s when I realized, there is game music and people really do link to the game, and spend a lot of time with it. Yeah, they listen to the music more than their favorite album and their favorite band. [Laughs]
BYT: Speaking of film, you had a hand in one of my favorite movies in 2017, Baby Driver. How did your involvement come about? I read that Edgar Wright didn’t want to start the film until he cleared the rights to all of the songs that he wanted to use. Which is such an auteur moment for what is essentially a heist movie and a love story. How did you connect to Edgar, and is this your first film score that you worked on?
San: The first film I scored was actually Edgar Wright’s as well – it was Shaun of the Dead. He had come to one of my concerts in London, we met there, and at the time he was in the studio editing the movie he wanted me to do a remix with one of the pieces that was in the original Romero film. That was my first time working with Edgar, the second time would have been on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. He and Nigel Godrich asked me do to a few layers on a few of the scenes. I’ve done some music for Rian Johnson’s Looper, I did one track for the club scene. I worked on the music for Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, for The Great Gatsby, a little bit.
With Baby Driver, it was exactly as you said. Edgar had this vision of pretty much having everything synced to whatever music in that scene. Everything was cleared except for Baby’s track which hadn’t been made yet. He approached me 3 years ago, maybe 4. I saw a very early version of this script; he basically said “I want you to read this. I want you to see if you can come up with something for his home studio. But in short, it’s about a guy who is kinda awkward and quiet and he’s a really good getaway driver, he’s a bit of a loner. He spends a lot of his night getting together audio that he has collected and making weird tapes out of them. Can you handle that?” I remember answering Edgar, you are pretty much describing my entire high school experience. [Laughs] They sent me a couple of the table reads, next to the trying to find bits that would work, basically, he didn’t want it to be professional, he wanted it to be things he would find in the cars he was stealing, or pawn shops. I said, okay I think I got it. He wanted it to be very analog, not music on a computer, he wanted it to be hands-on. Let’s use that magnetic card reader and make beats on whatever he can find.
It was funny because they actually flew me down to help the set up people to make sure all the tables were legitimately plugged in. It got to the point that Ansel [Elgort, star of Baby Driver] was being held up and all these people were standing around, Edgar was like “Eric should just do it.” [Laughs nervously] Ansel is 7 feet tall; we don’t have the same hands. I was literally ready to go, make the drum beat, play the stylophone – luckily Ansel showed up the last minute and was able to do his own stunt.
BYT: You were almost a part-time hand model.
San: It could have been me. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun to work with Edgar, he’s great – and a music head.
BYT: When we first spoke in 2012, you made this comment in reference, in your own words, to the Pavlovian nature of DJing the club scene, and I quote, “There has to be more than to life than this. Drop the beat off, the crowd cheers, bring it back up.”
I just thought it was funny, it seems that in 2012 we were talking about the club scene and it’s pretty much the same. I go to a fair amount of club shows and it feels like it hasn’t really changed, even if the music starts to slowly evolve. What are you thoughts on present day club music, or tech music. Do you even pay attention to this anymore?
San: The context of that comment is that you have lived through it for so many years, I needed a new angle and a new perspective, or to completely leave that scene altogether. Which I have been doing, but that said, again, I think that it really comes down, it’s kind of an unfair statement, it comes down to the function of the music. Some of the music is to help, serve, a trip, possibly. Because of that music, the experience works better in a certain way. I think that what the function is for that, but for me the music I wasn’t under the big influence. Blown away by the music or the experience, or the performance, or nostalgia, or hearing things that I’ve never heard before. That’s what got me excited for a live show.
I understand when people go to a show, it’s not always about, “I want every single one of my horizons widened” – sometimes it’s comforting knowing what you are in for. The best example is, here is your favorite band, you’ve been listening to all their albums since high school. You go to see them, and they play only their new songs, which isn’t out yet. It’s a bit of conflict, where you just wish they at least played half of the material you know. Then my prep work prior to the show, there is something there, that everyone’s been in that situation. I’ve been on the stage side, where you don’t want to keep playing the same tunes, the ones that everyone’s expecting you do, so you just wanna get out there and try it. I try to balance, it runs through, there are songs that are not really in the show. There are songs that we created for the show, that works with the show, and the puppet choreography, and the dancers and their costumes, and they have become in their own way their own track and the people are asking me when they can get that track. The context is it’s just part of the show. It wasn’t even an album cut that we choreographed to something on stage!
We are here, we started adding little moments, extra tracks, other things, it would be great to break the fourth wall here, we create music for that part of the show. Those moments in the show, the visual spectacle of the show are so strong, what the dancers are doing, the puppeteers are doing, the music helped enhanced that and even if they never heard that track, hopefully they will be grinning from ear to ear. It’s fun – at the end of the day, that’s what this show is. I’m not trying to soar over people’s heads. I think for a show, this is a show you could come in and not know my work, and still have a great time.