When a DJ steadily releases killer albums for over 20 years, lends a hand to bands like Gorillaz and Radiohead, and becomes one of the biggest names of a generation, they start to look at other means of creation. Y'know, to diversify the portfolio. This is how Eric San, aka Kid Koala, busted into the world of music and rhythm-based video games with the Nintendo Switch title Floor Kids, a hand-animated affair that challenges players to take that B-Boy and B-Girl game to the next level. On top of that, he's mashed up his support of the game with his Vinyl Vaudeville tour, a carnival-like event that showcases his very best alongside over-the-top production design and dance party mayhem. We caught up with Koala ahead of his upcoming Meow Wolf appearance to get the good word on what's going on.
Let's talk about video games for a sec. You've got Floor Kids out on the Nintendo Switch, but as I hear it you're not much of a gamer yourself. Think you'll convert?
I think the last console that I put a lots of time into would have been Sega Genesis. Prior to that, the NES, and then at one point I kind of just got deeper into the whole music and scratch kind of thing and started being in the studio rather than gaming. Over the course of the last 5 years that we've been working on Floor Kids, I was reintroduced to all the stuff that's happening in the game scene, and it's really exciting what's possible; the game engines being faster, the ability to have … more memory to actually do music. Some of these games that are out now are like like films. With Floor Kids, [animator] Jonathan Ng didn't really know … he wasn't deep into filmmaking or animated film. We connected through the B-Boy scene; he's a dancer, I'm a DJ, and when we linked up with the coding team, they said we could probably design an engine that could somehow run through these tens of thousands of frames of animation that links to the controls in a way that's more intuitive.
How involved with the music production were you?
I think that Jon Jon and I were just trying to hit the mark and turn a certain feeling that it's going for. From my experience of DJing at break battles over the years, the battle tracks required a certain kind of energy and propulsion to them. They had to knock, first off. Normally when a dancer will jump, they'll go into it for 16 to 32 bars, then they kind of end their little set, at which point the DJ either scratches in a new break or you go to a chorus section where every crew member jumps in. The whole point was to see if we could capture that feeling, so that each session … it's very open; it's not like a rhythm game during in that sense. That was for me at least, trying to capture that energy in a break battle. Other than that, I was just really just trying to score to the picture, the animations, whether it was in the grocery store [level] or the arcade, I looked at the drawing of the venue and tried to make the music.
How does the game play into the Vinyl Vaudeville tour or vice-versa?
Vinyl Vaudeville is a show we started around the 12-Bit Blues tour. Essentially what it is is a variety show threaded together through turntables, wherein each track or each song in the setlist is its own act, its own choreography. We've got costume changes, dancers, puppeteers. Obviously I'm up there with turntables doing all the music. The spectacle of each track is meant to be vaudevillian in that it starts with the spectacle and progressively gets stranger and more wild. What I love about the format is that it allows me to run through different eras of my repertoire and put it into the show and have it balance with the show. For instance, I can do something from Carpal Tunnel or Floor Kids, and each track, when it happens, will have its own animation. I'm using the word 'animation,' but I mean something onstage amplifying the feeling of that track. Sometimes it'll be with the dancers, sometimes it'll be with a giant 9-foot ogre walking on the stage, sometimes it'll be dancing laptops. And there's music from all of my albums featured, there are also new tracks we've developed only for the show that i'm not actually sure I'm even going to release. It just makes sense in a live situation when you're watching two giant ants playing, that it's the silliest show on earth, and we're trying to live up to that. We're going to set up custom Floor Kids arcade consoles in the room, so prior to the show you can battle your friends.
Was the development of the show really intense?
It does all start with the music, and originally it was talking about when 12-Bit Blues was released, a lot of those were 6-8 in meter and downtempo tracks, they wouldn't really make sense for a dance floor situation. So I had 2 options: I either speed all the tracks up, or I find some way to present the music in a context that it would made sense. When I met Adira Amram and her dance troupe, we thought maybe there was a way those guys can animate the stage or the narrative in a fun way. It could be a giant paper airplane, a kazoo battle—we just tried to see what stuck and what didn't. As far as the version you'll be seeing, they're the reinvented ones we've been doing for a few years and others, I just had a meeting with the set builders, in fact, for some things that we'll be trying for the first time on this tour.
Where do you suppose your place is in music when some people call you hip-hop, some dance music, some other things … ?
I dunno. I will say, ironically, the Floor Kids soundtrack and the first Kid Koala album you can actually dance to in a non-interpretive way. If you were looking up my earlier albums, those were more inspired by Monty Python or The Muppet Show or The Mighty Boosh—like, some demented show of characters. Those records, it was never really about the dance floor then, I just wanted to create using vinyl. Some of those tracks are literally 90 seconds. The whole point is you just get dropped into this situation, like on a track like 'Bar Hoppers,' it was, 'OK, let's just paint this picture of someone at a bar coming up with the worst pickup lines and someone responding to them.' It was really more about exploring audio. As time went on, it kind of branched out into different directions. We wanted to do a Paul's Boutique style rock record on turntables. A rock record that DJ kids could get with. Or there's a DJ record that rock kids could get with. And I've got a new series of winter-inspired music, all ambient electronic music featuring vocalists. I'm trying to make music that puts you in that creative space. Floor Kids actually required a hand-drawn animated kid for me to say. 'All right, I'm gonna do some tracks for breakers.' That was what was fun about it. I wanted some of it to sound like '70s break anthems, old funk tracks from kung-fu flicks. In the '80s, everything went electro and 808, in the 90s it was all 12-bit samples and jazz records and beyond and by the time you get to the peace summit [level] in the game, I'm making beats our of modular synths.
OK, last question—I read that Damon Albarn was supposed to introduce you to Björk. Did you ever get to meet Björk?
[Laughs] I have! And it wasn't through Damon or Gorillaz. When I did work on the first gorilaz album, I wasn't paid. Dan the Automator was like 'Come in and do some cuts and he can introduce you to Björk.' I was able to meet her many years later just through my own channels. A promoter who knew me and knew that I was super into her work gave her a copy of my graphic novel, and for one show in Toronto, I guess the opening act couldn't make it, and at the time she had this copy of the graphic novel and was like, 'I'm gonna ask this kid to come open.' I got the call like 20 hours before the show. You're just at home doing what you normally do and the next minute the Björk people call, and it's like 'YES!' I had to rent a car and practice for hours.
Kid Koala's Vinyl Vaudeville: Floor Kids Edition:
7 pm Thursday May 10. $20-$25.
1352 Rufina Circle,