A Conversation with Master Turntablist Kid Koala

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Kid Koala is a world-renowned scratch DJ, music producer and award-winning graphic novelist. His music ranges from his five ecclectic solo albums, the most recent being Music To Draw To: Satellite featuring Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini, to his role in legendary collaborations Gorillaz and Deltron 3030.

We spoke with Kid Koala ahead of his show at The Cedar on April 30 about scoring a breakdance battle video game and the Vinyl Vaudeville Tour. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

You’re coming off of a successful weekend at the Big Ears festival, what did you take away from that experience?

The variety and quality of stuff that was going on there, even if it was far in different directions as far as genres, made sense for the vibe. The audience there was very open. It was cool. I had two types of performances. I had to do a regular party rock DJ set one night and that went off crazy. I was wondering, “Oh, this is an avant garde music festival. Are they just going to not dance or throw down?” But no, they were with it. They were a raging party crowd. And then the next day we were doing our Satellite Turntable Orchestra. Here’s something that’s a little more ambient in nature and they went for that too, it’s great.

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Kid Koala's interactive Satellite Turntable Orchestra

You have a new soundtrack coming out for Floor Kids, a breakdancing video game project. Can you describe that project and how you ended up working on it?

Floor Kids is a hand-drawn, animated, breakdance battle game. It was spearheaded by my friend JonJon, who is an animator and a breakdancer himself. I met him over ten years ago and I saw an early test of him drawing these characters doing these break moves. I was just immediately captivated by the whole thing. And we made a few videos over a decade ago just for fun. Over time, we met with these game developers at Hololabs and we decided to start this company together to create Floor Kids. It’s been years in development, but it’s finally out now on Nintendo Switch and now we’re in the process of porting to all the other game platforms. We’re just very excited that it’s actually done and out in the world. The music is about to be released on double vinyl, which is great. I got the test pressings myself and I was able to DJ with them as you would at a break event where you just kind of make two or four bar phrases back and forth. It was fun, it was actually the first one of my albums where I feel like you could do that.

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Floor Kids, a hand-drawn, animated, breakdance battle game

How would you describe the differences in sound between this and your other recorded material?

Everything is context for me. Something like Nufonia Must Fall or Space Cadet are these very classical bass, piano, bass with turntables as sort of a counterpoint instrument or a backup instrument. Something like 12 Bit Blues was really more about the SP1200 and creating a kind of turntable blues record. So the tempos on that are more 6/8 times.

Then the earlier records, if you look at something like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, those are almost like radio show records in a way. Those were more inspired by a Monty Python episode than an album of songs per se. It just depends on what the context is. Creating the Floor Kids music had to operate with the game engine and it actually had to feel like authentic breaks. Had I had these breaks or found these records, would I throw them in the mix of a break battle? It was creating music from scratch where I had to play drums, bass, keyboard, saxophone, whatever it was to create those 30 beats that would work in the context of a break battle. We had very positive feedback from a lot of people about the music. It was the game community that requested, “We want this released,” or “We wanna buy this on vinyl.” It was one of those things where I hadn’t thought about it prior to releasing the game, but then I was like, “Oh, you know what, this could make sense.” And then when I actually got the test pressing, I’m like, “This is a super fun record to DJ, to double up and hand-mix the beats with.” That kind of made me smile. That worked out, you know?

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Kid Koala's Floor Kids Original Video Game Soundtrack

You also worked on the soundtrack for the movie Baby Driver; how does your artistic process differ when making music for a film?

The thread of logic for me that connects them all, whether it’s a solo album or a collaborative album or a film or a video game is just that the music has to serve the greater idea of what you’re trying to create. On my earlier solo records, it was often that. It was almost like there was a narrative in my head to track “Fender Bender” or “Barhopper” or something like that. It was to create a soundtrack for these characters or this narrative that I had in my head, whether they were actual characters I’d drawn in a comic book or not. It was sort of what was informing me to make certain decisions in the studio while working on the music. I think going to some work it was a pretty easy transition, because I always thought visually with music. It’s hard for me to separate the two worlds in my brain. Probably because my earliest records were 7” storybook records when I was a kid. You would read along, there were stories, there were characters, there was music, there was voice acting–it was all in there. I think in my brain they’re quite grafted to each other, the visual and the musical worlds. When it came to doing film work, the director has an idea and they may have already shot the scene. This is the scene, here’s the pacing, this is the emotional beat they want to hit, here’s that critical moment they need a sting for, whatever. That seemed very normal.

I think what changed with a game was I was still treating it like I was making tracks for Jon’s visuals. He created a very, very rich world, all hand drawn, kind of sketchy art style of this city where your crew of floor kids band together and battle eachother and eventually save the universe. I looked at each venue that he had given me concept art for and tried to create tracks that would make sense in that venue. For instance, one of the venues is an 80s style arcade with arcade consoles. That was an obvious one for me. I’ve got to bring out the Commodore SID-based synthesizer or an NES MIDI sound card to create 8-bit tones in those tracks for these battles to take place. It was the same thing for each one of his venues. The final piece of it, the big boss, had to have that intensity of a big finale. So I sort of brought out all the crazy modular synths to try to make it as aggressive as possible to feel like that final boss music.

I think the difference that I realized with game music was that it’s almost like you have to set up the bed track like a broth [laughs]. Then you have to provide ingredients that the player is going to use. Every single sound or every move that they trigger–and each of the characters has at least 16 moves–every one of those sounds could be triggered multiple times in succession. So it was about designing a palette of sounds that this player may or may not use. They still need to be able to hear it cut through the mix of the music so they get the feedback that the button input is happening. You get the feedback of what that move means and sounds like. The beat’s there, the bed track is there, but we also need to leave space for the player to basically trigger a whole sequence in any way they choose to, because it’s kind of like a Tony Hawk Pro Skater-type game where you have to link certain moves into combos. It’s completely up to them how they want to do it. I tried to anticipate that. How do you make a track that leaves space for that and how do you use sound design for all those moves in a way that it doesn’t get stale. That was a part that was different for me. Even in films, once we go to print, that’s the scene, that’s the music, and those are the levels. You don’t know, someone could pick up a game and be like, “I’m just going to do windmills for three straight minutes.” You can do that. That was the interesting part, I guess. Half thinking about the music and another half thinking about the sound design and how it would all operate together.

Can you explain the “vinyl vaudeville” tour concept and how it differs from a typical Kid Koala show?

Vinyl Vaudeville is a show that I started doing during the 12 Bit Blues Tour. Originally, the concept was that I wanted to play a lot of the tracks from that album, which were slower than your average club record. I had an option, either speed up all the tracks to the club level or we create some form of spectacle or show that makes sense at that tempo. So I brought in this dance troupe from New York called Adira Amram & The Experience and they helped essentially make every song into its own act like an old vaudeville show, with costume changes, different choreography, different dynamics in the show. That went really well. It was a super fun show.

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Adira Amram & The Experience

We’ve continued to expand it. The crew got bigger. We’ve got puppeteers now. I wanted to use a lot of low-tech visuals, all human-powered. There are a lot of puppets, but now the puppets are like 9-foot ogres and 15-foot spiders that dance through the crowd. We just wanted to make it this super smile-inducing show that keeps surprising you. So again, all the tracks, every song, every minute of the show will have its own visual choreography or little puppet act that animates those tracks. Meanwhile, for the turntable-heads, there’s still all that live turntable action happening, obviously. From the other side, we kind of created this show that starts weird and just continues to get more outrageous and silly as we move on.

So we have a lot of fun with this format, because it comes down to the tracks that I play and how we create a visual counterpoint to that. What should be happening on stage or in the audience at that time. It’s essentially that. It’s threaded through vinyl, obviously. I’m up there with three turntables threading it all together. There’s a lot of fun stuff happening for sure. It’s kind of like The Muppet Show meets Pee Wee’s Playhouse meets a DJ set meets all the strangest parts of my albums, now including all the music from the Floor Kids soundtrack.

How does this new soundtrack play into the sound of the new show?

For one thing, we’re traveling with a mobile arcade system. We’re bringing these custom Floor Kids consoles with us. So even before the show gets started, we want people to hopefully come in a little earlier and battle each other on the game console. We’re bringing DJ Jester from Austin, who’s gonna open. He’s got a half hour set and then Adira Amram & The Experience have their own 20 minute set, which is outrageous–super, super funny. And then Vaudeville will start and I’ll be working some of the Floor Kids music into that set.

Floor Kids has been in the works for over ten years now. So the fact that the game is actually finally out is just cause for celebration for our crew. So we were like, “Let’s do this super extended vaudeville tour and just pick it up on every level and just have some fun.”

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Kid Koala's Vinyl Vaudeville Tour

What’s inspiring you lately?

I’m not actually a gamer, per se. I think the last console I had was a Sega Genesis [laughs]. But, we’ve been here at the Indies with Nintendo and going to the PAX festivals and stuff like that and just seeing how vibrant the scene is. It kind of reminds of like the first time I got a four-track or something. These kids have this game programming engine now available to them and they can make really professional looking, sounding, playing games from home that don’t have to be a part of a massive studio effort. Some of the most insane ideas that haven’t been committeed  to boredom, that actually maintain inspiration behind them. I’ve been really really stoked some of the work that’s being done. It’s a very optimistic scene.