Kid Koala (ft. Dan The Automator)- “Unreleased Live Track”
I spoke with Dan The Automator back in ’05 when he was riding the success of Deltron, The Gorillaz, and Lovage. Kid Koala, who had emerged years earlier as a DJ with fresh, innovative routines, subsequently did the cuts and scratches on all those albums. At the time, Automator said this: “Koala does his own thing. I think other DJs are starting to catch onto his methods now. He has an amazing musical touch. Q-Bert’s technical, but Koala’s musical. He knows how to drop shit in and work the musical keys unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of DJs, and Koala’s acrobatics are amazing. There’s no one I’d rather have touch up my records than Koala. He’s insanely good.”
It’s been 4 years since that interview and Koala still does his thing. I’ve seen him do wildly entertaining sets without using headphones, tossing records behind him until they pile into huge, tipping stacks. His reputation as an oddball follows him, but so does a lot of reverence (Cut Chemist referred to him as his “hero” during The Hard Sell tour). Koala still uses only vinyl; still puts together weird projects that confuse and engross fans. I spoke with him recently, talking about his gear, his “Drunk Trumpet” routine, and seeing what future directions he thinks DJs might take. Koala hits the road later this month on a big tour–The Slew–with a live rhythm section and 6 turntables. Here’s our talk with one of the most creative DJs around, Kid Koala.
What new routines do you think DJs might start doing?
Turntable love ballads. Rocking parties is easy, trying to pull off a turntable serenade is a whole other animal.
You think DJs get better with age or is there a point when they’ve done all they can do?
I think as you get older it gets easier to communicate ideas through your instrument. Your life experiences and personality just sort of naturally come through the more you play. I look up a lot to those jazz musicians down in New Orleans. They seem to really hit their stride when they’re 70 years old. It’s like they’re monks of music. They just breathe into their instruments and the most beautiful sounds and stories come out.
What does your setup look like right now?
For The Slew tour we are using 6 turntables, 2 Rane Empath mixers, Radial Duplex DIs and an old Fender PA100 with two 4 x 8″ speaker columns.
I actually haven’t jumped over to that yet. I’m too lazy to bring a computer to shows. I have more fun with a pile of records. I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
Talk about the current tour a bit. What kind of music and routines can we expect?
It’s going to be loud. The Slew is a rock show where everything is assembled on turntables by hand. We’re bringing 6 decks and we have our friends Chris Ross and Myles Heskett on bass and drums. We liked the way they played and knew they were the only ones we wanted for the job. We will doing most of the tunes from The Slew soundtrack as well as trying out some new tunes.
What adjustments do you have to make playing with a live band?
Mainly watching the bass resonance on stage, trying to avoid the bass frequencies feeding back into the needles. We’re building a special set up for the decks that will help this issue. We’ll be able to dig into the cut more and not worry about needles skipping etc.
Do you do your own recording and mastering too?
We did most of The Slew recording at Dylan’s studio in Seattle and my studio in Montreal. We mixed it at Mario Caldato Jr.’s studio, and mastered it with Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk.
What’s all the equipment you use to get everything recorded?
In the studio I’ve been using turntables, Rane empath mixers, Rane TTM-56 mixers, Chandler Limited Channel MKIIs, Chandler Limited ltd-2 compressors, Chandler Limited germanium preamps, Radial DI’s, Fairchild 658 Spring Reverb, Fender Variable delay, Roland Space Echo 101, Fostex G24s 24 track reel to reel recorder, Philips 2 channel 1/4″ mastering tape recorder. RCA 77-D ribbon microphone, Royer 122 ribbon microphone, Shure sm 57 microphone, various tube amplifiers, and a 12 channel Ward Beck M1204 console.
How long does it normally take for you to come up with a new routine?
Sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes years depending on how long it takes to find the perfect pieces and learn how to bend them in to key.
How’d your famous Drunk Trumpet routine come about?
I was in the studio and tried bending a trumpet tone over some 12 bar blues. The result of that first attempt sounded kind of “inebriated” to say the least. So I kept that take and called it Drunk Trumpet.
Routines like that led you to open for Radiohead and Bjork. How was that?!
Those were dream-come-true gigs for me. I was so excited when we got the invitations. Both of the their audiences are wide open and fun loving people. It was a pleasure to play for them. Getting to do 25 minutes at Madison Square Garden… woah. That’s more time than some basketball pros get to do. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play those gigs.
Let’s talk about some of your projects specifically. Talk about the making of Scratchcratchcratchcratch. What was that like?
That was a 30 minute tape I made with an old Fostex 160 4 track. With the tapes I was using you could only get 15 minutes of recording time. So instead of making seperate tracks, I just decided to make two 15 minute ‘sides’. It was a lot of fun… I exhausted my entire record collection at the time… which was about 4 crates maybe… Some of which I had since I was 3 years old. That’s all I had access to… the records, a mixer, 2 turntables, a 4 track and a pair of walkman headphones. I didn’t know anything about production at the time… but I just knew how to make a little audio adventure happen with those records. I haven’t heard that in a couple years now but when I heard it, it still made me smile, just remembering the time I spent putting it all together.
Scratchhappyland and Nufonia Must Fall; Compare those two and what you wanted them to convey?
Scratchhappyland was just an edited version of Scratchcratchratchatch that Ninjatune did so it would fit on a promo 10″ record. Nufonia Must Fall was this whole other weird scenario where I was asked by this publisher to write 100 page/10,000 word book on any topic. I turned in a manuscript that was 320 pages and had no words. But they liked it and wanted to print it anyway.
That was what ended up being Nufonia Must Fall. It’s a love story about a robot who tries to write lovesongs but can’t sing. So he has to find all these other ways communicate his affection for this girl using sound fx records. It was fun to record the soundtrack for that book. I did most of it on a Wurlitzer piano and one turntable while everyone in the house was asleep. I had to play very quietly so I wouldn’t wake anyone up. It would be 4 in the morning and I would play the chords on the piano with my left hand while scratching records with my other hand.
How was working with Money Mark?
He’s my musical mentor. He taught me a lot about playing blues piano and what it is to do a live show. He taught me how to focus your energy on stage and to “zone.” I learned so much from touring with that guy.
Speaking of collaborations; How’s working with Dan the Automator on all those albums?
He’s also another one of my mentors in music. He taught me a lot about production and recording and the need to find your own thing in this industry. He really knows how to use a studio as an instrument. I call that guy just about every time I have a studio related question.
When did you start collecting records? How often do you go out looking for records?
My first record experiences were those little storybook records. You got a little 45rpm disc and a 20 page storybook. My parents got those for me when I was a child. They’d heard it was a good way to foster an interest in reading. I had those from when I was 3 or 4 years old. Whenever we’re on tour if there’s a flea market or 2nd hand record shop around, I’ll always go and investigate… you never know.
Do you still draw comics?
What can we expect from Kid Koala in the next few years?
More books, more records, a puppet musical with turntable orchestra pit, and more silly live events.
What do you think is the most important skill for a DJ to have?
The ability to enjoy what you are doing.