Compression as Expression

Montreal's Kid Koala cuts, pastes, and layers three hundred bits of vinyl into two songs with his latest, Your Mom's Favorite DJ.

If bedroom DJs and gearheads could nominate their own Chopin or Mozart, it might very well be the Montreal-based “mixologist” Kid Koala, né Eric San. Koala performs with the funk band Bullfrog, but has also toured with an orchestra comprising three DJs on eight turntables. He pioneered the art of using the turntable as an “emotive, melodic instrument,” bending the needle a certain way to get multiple pitches from one note. While other DJs dig for drum beats, Koala paws through classical records all day looking for a bassoon playing a D sharp. His records are essentially vast, sprawling symphonies compressed into epic, seizure-inducing tracks — “just long enough to boil an egg,” he says, “but not overdo it.”

Koala’s new album, Your Mom’s Favorite DJ, is just that: three hundred bits of vinyl squeezed into two fifteen-minute tracks. He blames such density on the constraints of his materials. The DJ launched his career with a four-track cassette recorder that provided only fifteen minutes of tape, yet resulted in the 1996 demo Scratch Happyland, which got him signed to Ninja Tune. He recorded his latest album on a reel-to-reel machine, which wouldn’t have allowed for a 24-minute track unless he spliced in the extra tape. Fittingly, Koala compares his albums to Simpsons episodes: The narrative arc is about twenty to thirty minutes, he says, and the jokes get really annoying once you pass the two-hour mark.

Still, the tidy segues and clipped sequences of Your Mom’s Favorite DJ belie the intensity of Kid Koala’s creative process. The DJ, who grew up playing classical piano and began scratching at age thirteen, still practices for up to four hours a day. “If I’m really in whatever zone of meditation, I might just practice drumming or augmented fifths,” he explains, indicating that turntablism is really a matter of what jazz musicians would call “woodshedding” — barricading yourself in your bedroom for X number of years to figure out how something works.

It’s a line of work that begets a culture of isolation, so Koala can understand why most people would rather have the glamour of being a lyricist or songwriter. “If you break up with a girl, you write lyrics out and purge yourself pretty quickly,” he allows. “With the DJing thing, we don’t have those words to begin with; we have to find them. We have to lock ourselves in a room and listen to eight spoken-word records, and out of those, edit to figure out what we have to get off our chests. It’s more of a librarian thing.” In other words, he says, the Holy Grail for DJs is to be able to communicate your personality through a series of cuts, scratches, layers, and timing.

Mostly, this guy is all about using found sounds to tell stories. Koala’s new album includes a track called “Robot Cookie Factory”: It sounds like conveyor belts, but is supposed to be robots making cookies. It’s actually scene-changing music for his forthcoming puppet show — which Koala describes as “a less-evolved Rodgers and Hammerstein” about a robot, a girl baker, and the CEO of a cookie factory. The DJ explains that this is his way of reaching out to Baby Boomers, though his parents will probably demur: “They’ll probably watch it and say, ‘”Robot Cookie Factory” is a good track, but it’s not “The Hills Are Alive.”‘”

Which is not to say Koala’s parents aren’t proud of his exploits. The DJ says that when he went home for Christmas, his mom had bought a picture frame big enough to fit sixteen of his CDs, and she had put them up right on the living room wall. “I was like, ‘Wow, she’s pretty proud of them,'” he says, laughing. “Then I looked closer and they were all still shrink-wrapped.”

He may indeed be your mom’s favorite DJ, but his mom still doesn’t get it.

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