There is something really amazing about the ability to speak in volumes without saying a word. Eric San, a.k.a. Kid Koala, manages to achieve that with everything he does. A DJ by profession, he is a master scratcher on the turntable and now also a published author with his new graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall. The book, which contains no dialogue and no narration, does have an accompanying soundtrack on CD.
It is the story of an out-of-work robot and a lonely office girl in 340 pages of hand drawn pictures skillfully coloured with greys, which he bills as “the greatest love story of our time.”
The fact he “wrote” a book without actually writing a word is no surprise when you think of the other medium with which he expresses himself.
Scratch DJ’s, or turntablists, don’t actually say a word while “performing”; like other musicians they let the sounds they create speak for them. Originally part of the hip-hop culture, the art of turntablism is a relatively new medium of expression that is beginning to make its way into the mainstream. These days you can hear it in commercials and even in the intro to “Daily Planet,” a science and technology show.
In primitive times, man used primitive forms of drums and trumpets for communicating sound signals. He found them pleasing to the ear and thus began to use them to create music. The same can be said about the art of turntablism, with the primitive forms being records. Some people think DJing is simply about guys and gals spinning a record on a turntable or record player. But turntablism is something completely different. The DJ proceeds to manipulate the beats, sounds and words found on the record to make a totally new piece of music. Almost like a pianist with fingers flying over the keys, the turntablist adjusts and tweaks knobs, buttons, and mixers while manipulating the grooves of the record. Sometimes done at such dizzying speeds that it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. If you listen carefully, you can hear how a beat is pulled back, pushed forward, repeated or ‘juggled’. You can hear how a 5 second line from a song almost becomes a whole song unto itself with all the manipulating involved. The songs are full of all sorts of other surprises because you never know what is up the sleeve of the DJ.
San is the son of Richard and Mimi of Vancouver. His parents are from Hong Kong, but he grew up among the culturally diverse community of the west coast, attending Chinese class after school and a Chinese Catholic Church. He began playing records at the age of 14 after hearing Mr. Mixx of 2 live Crew in a record store one day. He didn’t know what was going on but knew that “someone was playing it, that it was being performed.” His curiosity piqued, he dove headfirst into the medium. 10 years of classical piano training gave him quick and nimble fingers and learning the art was initially done through videos and much practice. The story goes that he picked up the tag Kid Koala from Koala Springs, a fizzy drink he used to consume by the caseload.
“DJing is a little bit of a faceless thing. It was originally a subculture, where people did it tirelessly with no thought for the future,” he says. “It was and still is about skills and creativity, the craft.”
To watch San in action, one is almost reminded of watching a cowboy in old western movies. He pulls two albums out, flips them onto the turntables then drops the needle and begins his thing with the smoothness of a cowboy who draws his pistol and starts firing in one quick move. While San may be a kind of modern cowboy, it’s a good thing his weapons of choice are records because he would kill everything in sight. But he’s non-violent and non-confrontational, preferring to settle things on the turntables if it comes to that.
His music is a mix of humour, philosophical insights, spiritual ponderings and self-effacing statements like “we’re nothing but the nerds they say we are”. One of his major influences is the epic album 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul. San says that it is an album that to date still “makes so much sense” to him. When he popped it into his Walkman on the way home one day, he missed his stop by about 20 stops because he was so absorbed in the world they had created on the album.
A multidimensional individual, San also writes poetry and plays the ukulele. He earned a Bachelor of Education and taught kindergarten and Grade 1 before being signed by Ninja Tune Records. His love of love and of kids is apparent in his work as he keeps it clean with no cussing, and is very, very funny. Not far from his consciousness is the desire to lift spirits and achieve oneness. He remembers being at a Maceo Parker show and says that the oneness of the party that ensued with everyone dancing “was a spiritual experience.”
He currently has one solo album out with Ninja Tune Records entitled Carpet Tunnel Syndrome, with another scheduled to come out in October, tentatively called Some of my best friends are DJ’s. He also has 3 albums with the first band he played with, Bullfrog, plus numerous other releases in conjunction with other artists. All this from a guy who says “I didn’t think it was going to lead anywhere…I was just up for learning stuff”. He likes doing something where he can put his spirit into it, with an instrument that celebrates something new. “I believe your best work is always ahead of you,” he says.
He’s just grateful to be doing what he does and that people actually listen.
Nufonia Must Fall available through ECW press, for info go to www.ecwpress.com Carpel Tunnel Syndrome available from Ninja Tune Records, for info go to www.niniatune.net. lots of downloads available, also www.kidkoala.com