I’ve been a fan of Kid Koala ever since I was a university student in Montreal in the early 2000s, back when the Canadian turntablist had just signed to UK label Ninjatune and released his first album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Nobody in hip-hop circles would ever deny that Kid Koala is a highly skilled DJ, but what I latched onto in particular was his… I dunno… his charming weirdness.
From the wacky early mixtape Scratchcratchratchatch and equally off-the-wall first album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in the early 2000s, to last year’s excellent but more straight-faced adventure into blues territory, 12-Bit Blues, pick up any of his solo albums and you’ll probably admit you haven’t heard anything quite like Kid Koala’s music before.
He’ll be playing his first DJ performance ever in St. John’s as part of this month’s Lawnya Vawnya festival. I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to him on the phone and ask a few questions.
I want to go back in time to 2000 for a second and ask about the song “Irregular Chickens”. It’s super weird, but it’s one of my favourite tracks of yours from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Really? Somebody told me that Thom Yorke put it on one of his lists. I’ve never actually asked him about it because that’s just weird. [laugh]
“Hey Thom, [Chicken noise]!” [laugh]
Yeah. Carpal is half comedy album. It’s definitely inspired by Monty Python, Cheech and Chong and stuff like that.
So I heard there was a good story for how that fell together, and it involves your mom calling your studio at just the wrong time…
Yes, I still have that phone in the studio. It has a screen and a caller ID, which was a big deal at the time. I always turn off the volume when I’m recording but it has this bright red blinking thing at the top, sorta backlit and gleaming like The Matrix.
I was in the middle of this take and, of course, she calls. I did wait for quite a while, considering I was in a groove but then I thought, “oh no, maybe it’s an emergency.” The flashing light got to me after a while, and at that point I was thrown out of the zone. I was thinking, “I’m going to have to call her back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I should just pick up the phone. But I’m in the middle of this great take!” It was a flurry of synapses firing in the brain.
You were doing that, you were half distracted, you were actually talking to her at the time where it was going, “Bak, bak, bak, baka, bak, bak, bak…”?
Yeah, I was doing the groove. The tape was rolling the whole time and when I listened back to it, it had this very kind of awkward, sort of weird pause thing that happened. But something about it struck me as kind of funny.
Kind of funny? It’s perhaps one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard on tape. [laugh] You’re not supposed to have silence — a pause — last that long on a record. It’s too potent. And you lived up to the expectation of that pause with that explosive chicken sound. [laugh]
Yeah, the climax of… [laugh] Yeah. That was really a moment in time. I remember. I was there.
I’ve heard a similar story from Grand Wizard Theodore. Have you heard that story?
No I haven’t, no.
He was beat matching some records and then his mom was in the house, calling him to come to dinner. He was just holding the record in place, and for whatever reason he was rubbing the record back and forth to keep it in place. He was literally screaming back and forth with his mother. She was like, “Theodore!” And he was like, “What!?” And out of the corner of his ear he heard, out of his headphones, this sound of this record rubbing back and forth.
And, apparently, legend has it that that’s how he got the idea for scratching.
[laugh] That’s hilarious.
All roads lead back to…
Mom, nagging you to come to dinner.
Your mom, yeah. I’m sure there are tons of examples of that throughout history. [laugh] Basically any musician who takes credit for anything is just fooling themselves. All hail your mom.
Let’s talk about your newest album. Listening to 12 Bit Blues after being such a fan of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome I noticed a big shift, but I still really liked it. It was still organic, it was still inventive, but it wasn’t as alienating or weird. You know?
Yeah, there’s fewer poultry cameos.
Yeah. [Laughs] Although 10 Bit Blues is still a wacky cut up.
Oh right, yeah there is one. For the most part it was a blues record though. The difference between the process with 12 Bit Blues was that all the skeletons for those tracks were done within three days, whereas Carpal was literally done over four years. And they were four kind of formative, life-altering years. I had just finished school and was out on my own, travelling the world, and trying to find my footing. With 12 Bit, it did end up taking maybe two, two and a half years to complete, but the actual form of the album took shape really, really quickly. I think I had 20 tracks that came out of that first week of playing around with the SP-1200 [the E-mu SP-1200 sampler that played a big role in the history of hip hop production]. These are 12.
How did it come together like that?
I just plugged this thing in and then I was, I didn’t have a manual. I found it on Craigslist. This is a machine that is legendary in the hip-hop circles, so I was pretty excited to finally have one in the studio. Yeah, something about it was just, it’s pretty intuitive, all the options of the machine, all the menus are written on the front panel. You just kind of punch buttons and see how you can change the sound…
The thing with the SP-1200 is it’s got these big square buttons on the front and when I actually cut up, you know, I sampled some drums and made some, basically a kit because it’s percussion sampler and I just started playing it live. I didn’t bother learning how to use the sequencer, I just started punching the thing. The first beats that came out were all these 6/8 blues beats. I don’t know why! [Laughs]
That’s interesting, so they were in you and they just came out spontaneously?
Well, with that machine. A lot of people use the SP-1200 to make house music, but for whatever reason I made a blues record. You know, penne, that’s a pasta, people make different dishes out of it, but you could probably make furniture out of it too. Why did you make a blues record? They ask me so many times.
Yeah, why not make furniture out of pasta?
Or one of those beaded car seat covers for your car maybe. I’ve never seen anything like that done with uncooked pasta. I think that could work. Also, if it’s uncooked and it was penne or the loopy one, the straight macaroni, then let’s say your car breaks down or something and you’re in the woods, you could cook your car seat cover.
A little like Cheech and Chong driving that van made entirely out of marijuana in Up in Smoke.
Exactly. [laugh] But you know what I mean? I don’t really know why it came out that way. I just wasn’t in the mood to make a record that this machine is traditionally used for I guess.
I thought it was kind of a logical direction for you. “Drunk Trumpet” on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, was jazzy, but had a kind of basic bluesy swagger.
So it made sense to me when I heard that you did a blues record.
Yeah there were definitely the gateway tracks. [Laughing]
Also, I found the tracks on 12 Bit Blues had this real bombastic energy even though they were down tempo.
Yeah. It’s kind of like deep tissue massage. You think, “I’m going to put on this record and relax,” and then you put on a blues album and then it actually starts punching you in the stomach. I think that’s what drew me to the blues. A lot of the blues records I like, they deal with that heavier stuff. Whether it’s a party tune or whether it’s just trying to transcend or it just addresses those things, for whatever reason that resonates with me. Things that are down tempo but can still shake you up a little bit, or disturb you.