Whether bringing his brand of turntable contortionism to the Gorillaz or Mike Patton’s off-the-wall side-projects, consummate Canadian DJ Eric San a.k.a. Kid Koala has never been one to shy away from collaborations. His latest, Floor Kids (Original Video Game Soundtrack), is, as you might guess, a soundtrack to the Nintendo Switch game of the same name. Beyond scoring the game (which features characters hand-drawn by Montreal animator JonJon), San actually played a key part in its feel. The head-spinning, joyous double-album combines decades of b-boy/girl styles, from early funk to golden-era hip-hop to modern-day modular synths. Not only did he dig up the dusty ’80s samplers for this, he also recorded drums, guitars, bass, and keyboards, cutting the sounds on vinyl and then scratching over them. Bet the DJ at your favourite tapas restaurant can’t do that.
Amid his 18-city “Vinyl Vaudeville” tour, we caught up with San to chat about video games, soundtracks, and his glaring lack of other hobbies.
What’s different about creating a soundtrack for a video game?
I’d say some of it reminds me of scoring for a film, just because I had to make it work with the aesthetics of JonJon’s artwork. He did over 10,000 frames of animations and all this concept art for the city where the characters in this game inhabit. So he would just show me, “These are the venues that I think the kids will be able to battle at, this is what it looks like.” And I just tried to create music that fit that. So that part was kind of familiar. The part that was unfamiliar was knowing that sonically speaking, people that are playing are your musical collaborators. It’s really kind of a free-form, trick style game. That could mean one person goes from top-rock spin to a down-rock flip, and someone else could just do windmills for two minutes. So all the sound effects I had to create for each of those moves, I had to make sure they could cut through the mix and also not get stale.
How did you make the songs with breakdancing in mind?
Just from my experience of DJing at break battle and break events, I definitely knew the beats had to knock seriously, so that if you heard that beat you’d want to jump in the cypher and start throwing down. That’s still the goal post, to create music that went with all the eras of break culture, from the ’70s break anthem, ’80s electro, ’90s 12-bit sample stuff, turns, modular, and electronic synth beats.
Did you listen to any other video game soundtracks for inspiration?
I’d say the first Castlevania has just become a part of my thing. I’ve spent so much time on that game. I loved how it all worked together, the menu screens, the character select screens, the actual rounds and box battle music. It just had this beautiful narrative to it.
How would you describe your style of DJing?
My style of DJing is exploratory. For me, you could go from a Black Sabbath record to ‘Happy Birthday’ within two other records, if you can sequence and find the right thread to go through. All music and all genres are connected, most DJs probably feel that way, so I like to have fun, explore, and see the possibilities. I usually like to make a bit of an adventure out of it.
Where did the name Kid Koala come from?
It came from a drink, which I’m not endorsing. I started DJing when I was around 12, so it was a sugar-y beverage. It was one of those things that my mom would go to Costco and buy. If you came to our house, if you’re an adult, you were offered coffee, and if you were a kid, you were offered this Koala drink. So my first “bedroom studio” would have just been records everywhere and empty bottles of Koala. My friends started calling me Koala Kid because of that.
What made you start DJing?
I started music when I was four. I started on classical piano — I was in a very strict classical piano and theory upbringing. By the time I was 12, you know you start to get into that rebellious stage where you’re trying to find some scene that you can kind of align with and just find a voice through. For some kids I guess it’s sports or skateboarding, painting or dancing. For me, it was scratching.
What video games are you playing right now?
That’s the thing. I’ve been so deep doing the movie and studio stuff, touring, putting out an album. My last console before the Switch was a Sega Genesis. [Laughs.] I’ve just been more focused in the studio recording. But in the last five years of making this game, I’ve sort of been brought up to speed by our coding team. One of the games I really like is Journey for PS4. There’s this other game we were introduced to at the PAX conference in Boston a couple weeks ago; the game was called Overcooked. I’ve been playing that with my daughter. She’ll go, “Dad, you’re burning the soup! Oh no, the stove’s on fire!” It’s lots of fun.
How did the Floor Kids project start with JonJon?
We met at the National Film Board in Montreal. He was there working on his animated short. It was a film called Asthma Attack, about a young kid with asthma who starts drawing comic books and can sort of create his own imaginary universe to make friends that way. It was his art style I was drawn to. [JonJon] is a b-boy himself, he’s a breakdancer. He would go to break practice after his film board gig, and then after that, everyday after his film board gig, he would just draw b-boys and b-girls doing actual break moves. When I saw that I was like, “This is amazing, you have to try and put this out there.” So we thought we could create a film where you just watch, but maybe it would be fun to do it as a video game, where people could interact with his drawings. There are over 10,000 frames, each character has 16 unique moves, and over 100 transitions between all those moves.
Are you working on any other upcoming projects?
We’ll be on the road for a bit touring, promoting Floor Kids, and then there’s also some new levels, new updates, new characters, new venues that we’re creating. So there’s more music to do there. But right now, we just started the tour so it’s about Floor Kids this year really.
Sounds like your hard work is paying off!
You know, it doesn’t feel like work. I mean there was a lot of [work], if you count it in hours, but it’s just one of those things where we have fun in the studio. Jon and I crack each other up. It’s just one of these things where you just kind of synchronize with it and that’s when great stuff happens.
Do you have any passions or hobbies totally different from DJing?
That’s funny. You know, I’ve never had to think about that. I think turntables have been a part of my life for so long that it’s actually become the lens through which I see the world. It was encouraging to come to the turntables and bring your own energy into it and twist something new. So I don’t think I have any hobbies totally opposite to DJing.