As children, we all had things we wanted that we were unable to have. Sometimes as adults we go out and buy those things in an attempt to satisfy that unfulfilled urge, generally discovering that they weren’t that good anyway and, oh, we’re adults now. Well, not always.
As a teenager Kid Koala, aka producer and turntablist Eric San and one quarter of The Slew, coveted an E-mu SP-1200 sampler. 25 years later, suddenly reminded of this, he decided to go out and get one, resulting in his new album ’12 Bit Blues’.
Using the pads on the machine and a multi-track, San played each part into the sampler live, rather than using sequencing software, in an attempt to capture a similar rawness to that of old blues records, but in electronic form. With the album out this week via Ninja Tune, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Kid Koala to talk about the new album, his upcoming Vinyl Vaudeville Tour (which will be hitting the UK next month, including a show at London’s Islington Academy), and the many other projects he currently has in the works, including one with Mike Patton involving zombie and noodles.
AM: So, how old were you when you first coveted the SP1200? Were you already making music at that point, or did you see it as a way to start?
KK: I started playing piano when I was four years old. I didn’t learn about turntables and SP1200s until I was about twelve or thirteen. At the time the SP1200 was a state-of-the-art piece of music equipment and it was used to make many of the great hip hop records of that era. Of course by today’s standards it would be considered pretty low tech – kind of the DJ technology equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to start a fire. But there’s something in its basic design and simplicity that is wonderful to work with.
AM: Why did it take you so long to actually get around to picking one up? Was it exciting to have it in your hands finally?
KK: The Slew were in the studio mixing the ’100%’ album with Mario Caldato of Beastie Boys producing fame. He was telling us old production stories and he thought that I would like working with the SP. “It’s got this great grittiness to it”, he told me. So when I got home from that session I started looking for a used SP1200 on Craigslist. I finally found one and set it up in the studio. It boots up using 3.5-inch floppy discs and takes several minutes to save sounds… just enough time to make some tea or write a haiku.
AM: Had you been able to buy the sampler when you originally wanted it, how do you think that would have affected the development of your style of music making?
KK: I have no idea. I’m always looking for a way to out think or out-manoeuvre the machines. So I probably would have figured out how to use these beat boxes to make ambient music by now.
AM: How soon after buying the SP1200 did you decide to make a complete album with it?
KK: Pretty much within three days I had chopped and performed all the skeletons for what was to become the ’12 Bit Blues’ album.
AM: What was the process you went through in creating the record?
KK: I like how many of my favourite blues records would drift tempo-wise. Those musicians would add bars or drop beats here and there. Maybe it was because they were stomping their feet and playing guitar and singing at the same time, but I always enjoyed that kind of looseness in many of those early recordings. So I decided not to bother with grids, or to use the sequencer on the machine. I would just punch all the pads in real time for the duration of each track and improvise little fills along the way. Then I’d layer in keyboards and combo organs on some tracks. I also have a record cutter in my studio, so I would cut some custom records with tones and chords and things, and I would scratch those into the mix afterward.
AM: Did you learn anything unexpected while making ’12 Bit Blues’?
KK: Vintage synth oscillators drift like crazy and do all kinds of surprising things when they’re played and not warmed up. I would usually keep the takes when some phantom sounds would spring from these machines. I figured it was like ghosts in the machines trying to have their say. I scoured many flea markets and picked up a lot of forgotten, obsolete music machines to make these tunes, stuff that had been uncalibrated and neglected for ages. There was an urgency when using this equipment that could stop working at any minute. It’s the sound of decades old equipment disintegrating before your ears. It can be beautiful and melancholy at the same time.
AM: How do you think your teenage self would feel about the music on ’12 Bit Blues’?
KK: Back then I spent most of my time practicing classical piano. But most of my DJing experiences involved playing records at dance parties at my high school. So I would probably be confused as to how one was supposed to dance to these downtempo 6/8 swaying blues beats.
AM: You’ve had some very interesting concepts for live shows in the past, but the Vinyl Vaudeville Tour sounds particularly interesting. What can people expect from the shows?
KK: Like the album, I kind of wanted to take a slightly old school approach to the performance. I’m bringing a crew of dancing girls and puppeteers with me on this tour. There will also be giant dancing robots and live performances of these blues tracks on SP1200s and turntables. We are also bringing a giant cardboard gramophone, based on the kit included with the ’12 Bit Blues’ album packaging, which we will assemble live on stage. Expect a spectacle, albeit a low tech one! It’s a Kid Koala show. I like to keep things silly and surprising.
AM: What other projects have you got in the works?
KK: We have started working on a follow up record from The Slew, I’m pretty excited about that – we had mosh pits going at all of those gigs last time! The new album from Deltron 3030 [San's hip hop supergroup] is finished and we are planning to release it this autumn.
For the winter months, I’ll be continuing spot dates on the Space Cadet Quiet Time Headphone Tour in North America. I’m also working on a new graphic novel and soundtrack called ‘The Storyville Mosquito’ with musicians from The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans.
And finally, I am developing a travelling puppet musical with turntable orchestra pit about zombies and ramen noodles featuring my friend Mike Patton who will voice the character of Satan. I just recorded some of the ‘Zombie Ramen’ soundtrack with James from Yo La Tengo in New York. It’s a very John Carpenter-style score and is quite a hoot!
I know all these projects sound very strange and random right now, but it will all make sense in about two years! Stay tuned.