An Interview w/ Kid Koala, Part 1
By Jonny DeStefano & Krysti Joméi
Print Layout Design by Julianna Beckert
Art by Kid Koala
“Keep it weird, they’ll get it later.” — Kid Koala
Montreal-based Kid Koala (Eric San) is a polyartist who isn’t afraid to try new things and take left turns. A world-renowned scratch DJ, music producer and member of Deltron 3030, he’s collaborated and toured with Gorillaz, Beastie Boys, Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest, Dan the Automator, just to name a few. A film, TV and theater producer and composer, he’s scored everything from featured films to shows on Cartoon Network to video games, and has globally toured his own wildly interactive turntable carnivals and productions — Nufonia Must Fall, The Storyville Mosquito, Space Cadet Headphone Concert and more. He creates graphic novels, paints, draws, scratchboards, sculpts, the list goes on.
His latest endeavor, Creatures of the Late Afternoon, is nothing short of magic. A 20 track, 2-LP record with the album’s gatefold cover doubling as a board game, it comes complete with 150 cut-outable cards, four tour van pieces and a pair of dice, all painted by Kid Koala himself. The goal is to create your own band by hunting through flea markets to find instruments and recording equipment, and to write and record heartfelt songs in multiple genres. As you climb the charts you just might gain enough clout to save the Natural History Museum. Currently on tour with musical prodigy and “alien from a fantastic planet” Lealani, this MPC/turntable duo is bringing Creatures to life, which includes some stops in Colorado.
In this two-part interview, we had the honor to chat with Kid Koala about the creation of Creatures of the Late Afternoon through the pandemic, his ability to balance his ever-expanding projects, and some guidance for a lifelong journey in staying true to yourself as an artist.
… (Loud beeping sound goes off when screen recording starts) …
Krysti Joméi: There we go. Robotics. It’s like a sample.
Jonny DeStefano: It’s like “Robo Hotel.” So funny by the way.
Krysti & Jonny: Oh! Yes!
Kid Koala: He’s a good buddy of mine in LA. I met him at Comic Con. I was just a huge fan of his comic books when I was in college, and I heard he was doing a signing. I went and there was this huge line all the way down around the building. So I brought him a cassette, a mixtape I basically said, yo, big fan of your work. I don’t have anything to sign. I wanted to give you this tape. Anyway, he listened to the tape, he got back to me, and we’ve been friends ever since. But he sent me a text after [Creatures of the Late Afternoon] came out, and he’s like, dude, stuck in traffic listening to your album. I want to hear a whole album of just “Robo Hotel.” I want to know what this hotel looks like. I want to know what the middle spaces are. And I was like, dude, if you draw it, I’ll record it!
Krysti: I love the lines of “Who’s DJing?” “Someone by the name of Kid Koala.”
Jonny: “Never heard of him.” (laughing)
Kid Koala: It’s all real life. That actually happened. Well, it happens more often than I’d like to admit. But it was one of those things where I’m going to the States, for instance, and I’m just at immigration. I have an O-1 Visa, which is as they call it “an alien of extraordinary ability” or something. I don’t know, surgeons and movie stars and some musicians and stuff.
Jonny: NASA musicians.
Kid Koala: (laughs) I get to the counter and they say, so I see you have an O-1 Visa. What do you do? And I’m like, I’m a scratch DJ. And they say, oh, really? You must be pretty good if you have an O-1. I was like, I don’t know. Some people think so. I have a bit of an audience here. And then he goes, what’s your DJ name? And I’m like, Kid Koala. And then he’s like, I’ve never heard of you. (laughing) I just love the quick cut down. I just had to put it into a song.
Krysti: So how we went about exploring your new album, we were listening to your music and I had the best time in the world cutting out the pieces for the game. And the first thing I was thinking is, I know you have the hidden game tracks on the record, but did you create the album for the game or are they two separate entities? Did you create them in tandem?
Kid Koala: It all began to combine and congeal as it started. Some of those tracks did begin just from a song or a sonic perspective. It was just like, I want to try this. During the pandemic I remember acquiring a Soundcraft Series 1, which was a little mixer that Lee Scratch Perry had in his studio. It’s one of the first portable consoles, like vintage early era.
I remember seeing all these videos of Lee Scratch Perry where they were dubbing stuff out, overdriving all the preamps. And so when I found one, I said, I want to make a turntable ska tune but through this mixer just to see what kind of mojo it adds. So that would be an example of something that started as, I just want to try something musically. That ended up being the “Jump & Shuffle” track.
But once that was done, there’s other tracks that were starting to come into play. And I think one of the watershed moments for me in the process was when I was talking to the team behind The Storyville Mosquito and Nufonia, all these these live puppet film productions that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years or so.
Jonny: Yeah, those are amazing.
Kid Koala: I can’t wait to bring one to Denver. I really want you guys to see it. So basically, we had talked about, well, we’re on tour with Mosquito now, and some of the presenters that have already presented it are like, hey, what’s next? (laughing) We just spent three years building this show! Well, I asked the puppeteers, hey, what do you guys want to do next? Even from a collaborative standpoint, what kind of stuff do you want to try? And they’re like, oh, it’d be cool if we were were able to break away from the sort of more sitcom style miniatures and actually have a wider range to play around with on stage. I mean, we do it very dynamically, but still they’re all huddled under the table. They’re thinking about something a little more action-based. It was the real sort of breakthrough moment for me. It’s like, okay, so what if Creatures of the Late Afternoon is the soundtrack to the next show and the next show is an action film?
Once that came into play, then I was like, alright, I need a real banger of an opener for the opening credits. So I worked on the “Here Now” track, and I’m imagining when you’re sitting in the theater and you hear this beat come on, and I want to see the letters come into play … Romeo … Echo … it’s spelling out the title of the show and the album. And so I wanted it to launch off that way. And then once that happened, it started to tell me what would happen next in the plot.
I had the characters and I had a loose storyline mapped out, but in typical action movie trope fashion, I said, okay, well, we need the final third act denouement showdown battle track, you know “Rise of the Tardigrades.” And we need the moment, the crisis moment, where the protagonist is not sure whether they can do it. We need the training moment, but we need the moment where all the creatures rally together to go up against this common foe. And so it told me what tracks needed to happen, at what point, in this show that’s not even out yet.
Jonny: That was the feeling we got. Listening to this could easily be a soundtrack. The way you present it, that makes total sense now.
Kid Koala: I’m glad you picked up on it. I didn’t want it to be overly explicit that way, like you had to listen to it with that ear open to narrative or anything. Because some of the songs are just me being my own music supervisor — I want to write a song here that, if I were to license the song, it would be a doo-wop style love song. You know what I mean?
Jonny: Like the song about your parents?
Kid Koala: Exactly. So it’s one of those things where there’s two characters, there’s always a love story, an element of that. That song [“When U You Say Love”] I’d written for my parents originally, but then I was like, I think it could work in terms of playing that part of the meeting and the date montage sequence in the show. And so that’s where it landed, right there, kind of at the heart of the the record and of the show.
So while I was working on even the storyboards, it’s like, oh, we have this motorcycle chase sequence. So it really came down to we just need a short queue to make all this happen. That track “Highs, Lows & Highways” is just car chase music eventually, but for now, it exists as an album thing. The answer is, I wasn’t explicitly just scoring this story because the story was still forming while I was making the music, and it was informing how the music was going to go, which would then inform what the story might need next in terms of pacing and energy. And so that’s really how it came together.
Jonny: That’s got to be good to have so many references to create something, to know that this could be a puppet show, this is going to be a game, this is an album, this is my music. To have all these things kind of guiding you as you go through it must have been helpful.
Kid Koala: Exactly. In a way, it kind of provided the framework of — it has to work on these multiple levels and I just wanted it to still be a fun listen. I was picking my kids up from school. We were listening to it back and forth, I don’t know how many months. I remember the day it released I said, we’re going to listen to this one last time and then you’re never going to hear this again. (laughing) They know all the words to “Robo Hotel,” every little thing. They could just recite it now.
But I was there mainly checking mixes and stuff like that and just seeing how it was flowing as a record to cruise to even. Having that framework of these characters I had in my mind, how they would interact, what would happen in the course of a story, even if it was a prototype version of it at first, was just exactly what you said it was, like a good muse-like guidance process.
Krysti: I feel like you’re an artist who, it’s not only about telling your own story, it’s about inviting the listener, the reader, the person into your world and having them interact with your art. And to see it come to fruition with a game. When I was sitting there cutting the pieces out, I was like, man, this is so cathartic. This is so healing. And the fact that I knew you created it in the pandemic, such a globally traumatic event, and everything else going on. George Floyd. Me Too. Et cetera. And then to see this piece of art you created, that you also invited the world to interact with while experiencing your music, to me, it was kind of this full circle healing moment.
Kid Koala: Oh wow. Thank you. It’s the first time I’ve heard that. That’s very sweet. I think we were all there, just tuned into everything, right? And my wife and I were just talking about it nonstop. Anything news all day. Two things that were saving us just as a family unit were board games and these nature documentaries that my daughters loved. We were learning about all kinds of creatures, many of them who ended up in the actual game. I remember one was the desert rain frog. Do you know about that? (sharing screen) This brought us so much joy.
BBC Narrator: But sometimes more unexpected zones grab our attention. Like this desert rain frog squeaking viral sensation. 11 million hits and counting. It sounds like a dog toy, but actually, this is the sonorous war cry of a very angry frog.
Kid Koala: Can you believe that?
Krysti: So cute! That’s amazing! Which game character is it?
Kid Koala: So he’s a drummer. Ruby, my daughter, and I were just so tripping on this animal so I painted him with some drums. I was drawing all these creatures we were learning about and sadly, every episode of a show we’d watch, there’d be this sort of warning at the end saying, there’s only a handful of these creatures left. And they’ll be extinct within a few years if we don’t change our direction with encroaching on their habitats and all this stuff. And so that was kind of this sombering wake-up call. It seemed to be at the tone of every single episode, no matter how cute and amazing and inspiring the footage was.
Meanwhile the world was on fire, flooding everywhere. It was one of those things that I had to sort of process it in some way or speak to it in the way I could, which is just through art, again, not too explicitly. But with Creatures of the Late Afternoon, even as a title, it was about that, creatures being at the late afternoon if your entire Earth is like a whole day, the late afternoon means you’re past the midpoint. You might be on your last lap. And what are you going to do?
So really it was tapping into everything that was going on. And I remember even with “Things Are Gonna Change,” it was one of those moments where I was like, oh, there needs to be this call to action track. I needed somebody with a voice who could just really cut through that. During the pandemic I was in LA doing something for Cartoon Network and I spent an extra day there to go meet up with Lealani, who I just met to record her vocals on that track. And that was the only actual time I recorded a track during the pandemic. And now Lealani is one of my favorite people. It was one of those things where she had that kind of riot girl energy.
Jonny: That is a great collaboration by the way.
Krysti: You’re so synergistic with each other.
Kid Koala: She’s this polymath who’s just starting. She’d already done two albums under The Pezheads, which is her one-girl punk band and a Lealani album. I was like, how did you get that? I just recorded it in my studio. I’m like, cool, so we’ll just do it in your studio. I don’t have to rent another place in LA to record. And she’s like, okay, and oh, just so you know, the studio is my room. I’m like, I’m cool with that. I’ve seen bedroom studios before, but hers is like a mini museum of modern art mixed with a quirky 8-bit synth shop mixed with her bedroom. It’s this tiny room with things on the wall floor-to-ceiling. I was looking around and was like, where’d you get this piece? She’s like, oh, I did that. Then there’s this beautiful Cubist thing, a totally different style. And there’s a photorealistic charcoal drawing and she’s like, oh, yeah, I did that. I’m like, what the fuck? And she animates. And she records, some of the songs that we’re playing on tour. I was like, this song is a jam when’d you write this. She’s like, I wrote that when I was 15. I’m like what? I said, okay, so where did you record your vocals? She’s like, this is my vocal booth. And she opens her closet, a little clothing closet, packed with all her clothes, just real tightly packed. And she’s like, yeah, I just use that to deaden the sound. (laughing) She had a clipboard with the lyrics, and she was just screaming into her clothes. And so we did maybe a couple takes, and then I said, okay, why don’t you do one that’s just super unhinged. Don’t worry about being off axis on the mic. You just take the mic off and run around or jump around, do whatever you have to do. Then she really cut loose on it. And I was like, okay, that’s the lead one right there.
Jonny: It’s so cool, that video where she’s got the MPC going and she’s got guitar going. And then you’re back there playing the drums. Like two polymaths just rocking.
Jonny: We’re looking forward to seeing more of where you guys take that whole endeavor.
Kid Koala: There’s potential here because it’s kind of like a Black Keys or White Stripes duo mentality only turntables and MPCs. And then the sound palette that she has just on MPCs and on turntables is so wide anyway. We could maybe tap into some pretty advanced concepts of a duo playing stuff. But we’ve got a few more shows this summer … Are we coming to Denver? We’re not. In July it’s mainly East Coast … Denver … I think we’re going to be there with Deltron , actually. At Fiddler’s [Green]. September 8th. We’re going to be opening for Wu-Tang Clan and Run the Jewels. Deltron is kind of reactivating for that show. Maybe a couple more in that area around there.
Krysti: Oh my god! That’s going to be so fun! It’s so wild how multifaceted, multidimensional … I don’t even know how to describe you … all the art that you’re constantly doing. How do you balance all those projects? What’s the day in the life of Eric? Are you hyperfocusing on one thing at a time? How do you do it all?
Kid Koala: I mean, you guys know what it’s like. It’s like putting a magazine out every month. You give yourself that deadline, right? And then you set up a certain context for the stuff that you want to be putting out there. And you put it together. Some things go on the super hot front burner. That would be what I’m hyperfocused on. When you’re talking about crunch time delivery, that date, I live for that, personally. I don’t sleep that week. I’m pretty much just like, let’s go!
As you can tell, I’ve lost my voice. I’m still kind of dealing from this whole launch leading up to April 14th til now or like a month after, and we’re about to do our last board game event in Montreal on Saturday, and then I think I get a break. But my breaks will entail recapping or debriefing, trying to figure out how do we refine, or how do we keep pushing that idea forward, or what did we learn? I’m always really trying stuff.
To give you an example, we’ve only done three board game events. We did Toronto, we did Chicago, we did Montreal last week, and we’re going to do Montreal this weekend. And I would hope that every time we did it, I learned something so that we figured out how to make that event better, or how to present it better, or to make it more comfortable for people. Just from touring, I’ve always learned that you have your show, you try it out, and then things happen and you remember what that is and you add it to the next set. And that’s when I find the real progress kind of happens, at least for the live experiences.
So what did we learn from the board game event? What I learned last week between Chicago was people need a break. It’s about an hour to play the game and then maybe 15 minutes to introduce a little kind of bumper on each side. But somewhere in the middle there, the energy in the room, you actually need to break it up with something. It’s almost like you’re on a two hour flight. You would expect a bag of pretzels or something. And it was something that simple where something flatlined when we didn’t do that. So the last time I was like let’s bring a tray out of little snacks. Why didn’t I think of that the first day? But I had never been to a board game event. But then I think about if we had people for board games at our house, there’d be snacks all over the place. So it was one of those things where once you’re there, you’re like, oh, duh, let’s do that.
A day in the life … my night times are usually in the studio making music. When everything’s quiet. My daytimes … right now, we’re working on a feature film. It’s a CG animated feature film based on Space Cadet, which is my second graphic novel. And that’s actually my full on day job now. And then whenever I get a chance, I just try to do a little bit of everything, but not with any real oh, I have to get this done. Except for the thing that has to get done next week.
But then on an average day, a little bit of playing in the studio, recording stuff, learning how the equipment works, or trying a new signal chain with some guitar pedals. Just trying to see if I can understand what the palette can be. Because sometimes it’s creating a new type of sound or tone and be like, oh, I don’t know what I can use that for right now, I don’t have any open sessions where that would make sense. But it’s good to know that this device does that sound on it for later.
And then the visual art part, I try to either do a little scratchboarding or drawing or painting. I mean, a lot more during the pandemic, but that’s always been a recentering thing for me. And then just hanging out with the kids, going for bike rides. I found to have more than one project going at a time is actually healthier for me. It keeps me from getting too obsessive about one thing and just spiraling into a feedback loop about it. If I feel that coming on I recognize it pretty quickly now. It’s like, okay, I’m not making the sort of fun, quick, intuitive decisions. It’s not that I don’t like the struggle of wrestling with the track, but I do know at some point if it’s really kicking my ass that I just need to take a break from it and do something completely on the other spectrum of creativity. It could be cooking or drawing where I’m literally not even using my ears right now. And then when I go back to listen to that track, I can objectively and almost intuitively just react to it.
If you think about it like a stovetop. There’s always three or four things cooking here at our workshop and in our studio. Which burner we focus on just depends on what the deadlines are mostly. But then at the same time, you know what you’re genuinely just inspired to work on at the moment.
Stay tuned for Part 2 with Kid Koala next month in August’s Issue 116.
Creatures of the Late Afternoon is available for purchase here.
Snag tickets for Kid Koala’s 2023 Tour Dates >>> here | 2023 Colorado Shows:
Friday, September 8th at Fidler’s Green Amphitheater — Kid Koala x Leanlani w/ Wu-Tang Clan, Run the Jewels & Deltron 3030
Saturday, September 9th at Dillion Amphitheater: — Kid Koala x Leanlani w/ Wu-Tang Clan & Deltron 3030
Head to our Explore section to see Kid Koala’s art published in Birdy issues past.