Interview with Kid Koala: A Turntable Evolution

Believe it or not, you might be a fan of Kid Koala and not even know it. Born Eric San, the renowned Canadian DJ has toured with Bjork and Radiohead, published graphic novels, and has composed music for such popular films as Baby Driver, Looper, and Shaun of the Dead.

For his latest project, San teamed up with his creative partner Jonathan “JonJon” Ng to create Floor Kids, a rhythm video game that celebrates breakdancing culture. Available on various platforms including Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, the duo has taken their show on tour (now retitled Floor Kids Jam) encompassing an exhibition of Floor Kids arcade consoles, behind-the-scenes history, and DJ and animation workshops.

Addicted’s Myles Herod recently met the famed DJ at Toronto’s two-day Comics X Games event.

ADDICTED: Tell me about the Floor Kids Jam event you’ve taken on the road.

Kid Koala: This is an event where we’ve created a space where everyone’s welcome to come try the Floor Kids game, as well as sample other events throughout the day. For instance, my collaborator JonJon does a little drawing tutorial on how to draw your own Floor Kid. Also, I do some turntable tutorials, meet people, teach them about the game.


When did the idea for the Floor Kids video game first come about? 

Kid Koala: It’s been out for a year now on all four platforms. The seeds of it were over 10 years ago when JonJon and I collaborated on a hand-drawn b-boy break battle. I composed the music/sound design and he spearheaded the animation. It came to a point where we wanted to keep working together. As luck would have it, we met these coders at Hollolabs who were up for the challenge to take his 10,000 frames of animation and turn it into a video game experience. That was a three to five-year process before we even launched it. We’re just happy it’s out now for everyone to enjoy.


You’re well known as a scratch DJ. However, you’ve created graphic novels, too (i.e. Nufonia Must Fall and Space Cadet). What do those two different outlets offer you?

Kid Koala: I think drawing for me has always been a way to recentre ever since I was really young. I find the idea of having a blank page that you can create your own world and play in it very comforting. If I acted up at a restaurant and my parents wanted me to chill, they would give me a pen and a placemat. To this day, it’s still a joyful practice for me.


Was drawing your first love?

Kid Koala: I would say so. I started piano lessons at four. However, I started drawing circles before the age of two. In my mind, the two are connected. When it came time to release my own albums it seemed natural to package them with comic books.


You have one of the great DJ names of all-time. What’s the origin behind Kid Koala?

Kid Koala: It came from a drink, which I’m not endorsing, but it’s called Koala Springs. I don’t even know if they make it anymore. It was one of those things that my mom would go to Costco and buy flats of it. This was in the ‘80s when I first began to scratch. So, if you came to my house, you’d find empty bottles of that stuff and my records on the floor. So my friends just started calling me koala kid as a joke. It was a nickname that stuck after a while.


Between 1996 to 2000 you released Scratchcratchratchatch and your acclaimed debut Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Take me through that creative period in your life.

Kid Koala: It was a very exciting but oddly tumultuous, personal time. It was a quarter-life crisis almost. I had just graduated from university and went straight from having homework and classes to being a professional recording artist. All of sudden, my job was to work on my first album. Meanwhile, I was touring a lot – up to 250 cities a year. It was very exciting. I saw a lot of the planet, met a lot of people, but at the same time, there was pressure with the direction of my album. So, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome was the end product of that four-year period. It was only supposed to take six months. What I learned in retrospect is that inspiration comes in really short lightning strikes, not nine to five work hours.


How did you feel once Carpel Tunnel Syndrome came out and was received well by critics?

Kid Koala: I think it confused people more than anything. Some people really loved it, some people were like, “I don’t get this at all.” It still doesn’t sound like many records I hear these days, even my own! It was a snapshot of my life at the time. However, getting back to your question, after four years there was a bit of relief once it was finished. Some artists will tell you when you get too close to something, you lose perspective. As a result, for me, it’s important to keep perspective on any project I do now.


In 2001, you opened for Radiohead on their Kid A tour across North America…

Kid Koala: I did three shows with them for the Kid A tour: New York, Toronto, and the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. I guess the band liked what they heard because when Amnesiac came out six months later, they called my manager and asked if I wanted to come open. Of course, you don’t say no to an opportunity like that!


What was it like playing in front of their huge crowds?

Kid Koala: Insane. At one point, on the east coast, Colin (Greenwood) and Thom (Yorke) asked me, “during our song The National Anthem, the outro has all these squawky sound effects and horns. We don’t have anyone here to make those chaotic noises. Do you want to play on it with us?” I didn’t think twice. I immediately agreed. I remember later that day, I was scouring every record store just digging to find squawky horns that I could cut into the mix. Remember, they opened the show with The National Anthem, so not only did I get to DJ before and have fun with the crowd, I also got to go on when they went on. And I swear, it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. It was literally white noise for the first minute until the crowd calmed down.


What did you learn from your time with Radiohead? 

Kid Koala: It was amazing to be a fly on the wall. I would ask Jonny (Greenwood) about almost every piece of equipment they had – the mellotrons, the Ondes Martenots. It was the first time I had seen a modular synthesizer in the flesh. He showed me how they performed Idioteque and how all the patches worked. I remember going record shopping with Colin (Greenwood) in New York and how it sorta changed my musical direction. We walked into a shop and he asked me if I had heard the album Lucky Cat by Isan. I hadn’t. In fact, I didn’t know much about ambient music back then. I knew more about hip-hop and funk. Nevertheless, Colin ended up buying me the album and I listened to it on my Discman during that tour. My memory of that time are those shows and that album. It sparked my love of electronic and ambient music after that.


Let’s talk about your film scores for a minute. You’ve worked on Hollywood productions such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Looper, and Baby Driver. What led you into the world of movies?

Kid Koala: I love film. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times really cracked my head open as a kid. I remember watching it with my family and everyone was laughing – my grandparents, my parents, me and my sister. It was the first time I realized that someone had created a giant set with all these moving parts and presenting the illusion that it was really happening. So growing up through that, then later working with directors like Rian Johnson, Jason Reitman, and Edgar Wright, I realized movies are all about telling a story.


You’ve worked with Edgar Wright on three movies now. It seems like a fruitful collaboration.

Kid Koala: To be honest, I’m just surprised I’m on any of their radar. I remember doing a concert in London and after the show, Edgar came up to me and asked me if I’d be interested in contributing an end credits track to the movie he was just completing, which was Shaun of the Dead. Years later with Baby Driver, he actually sent me the script. There was a note attached to it talking about how awkward the main character was and how he makes weird tape recordings in his free time. It was basically describing me and my high school life. I just knew I had to do it.


Tell me, what do you know sure?

Kid Koala: I know that there’s still more to learn, always. I think the joy in life is learning. It may be a cliché to say this but learning is when you’re the most awake. See, taking everything you’ve learned and applying it to a project and forcing yourself to think outside the box is amazing for growth and for personal fulfillment. I know from experience.


Myles Herod

Myles Herod

Traveller, image maker, pop-culture seeker, storyteller, a guy you want around when things go south. Tastes range from Kubrick to Krautrock, Wu-Tang to Wiseau. Currently resides in Toronto, Canada.
Myles Herod