Kid Koala on shows, costumes and vinyl-cutting

In the wake of 12 Bit Blues and Space Cadet, Kid Koala remains in his natural habitat for New Year’s Eve, and tells Cult MTL about some of his most memorable shows, from Dawson College to Dawson City, the Beastie Boys’ 1997 tour to Yo Gabba Gabba!, and making the vinyl-press pilgrimage to Germany.

Kid Koala in costume, photo by Emma Gutteridge

Twenty-twelve was a momentous year for Kid Koala. A book, two albums and a brand new stage show brought Montreal’s friendliest son to new heights, not the least of which included a show in the retro-futurist Biosphere on Parc Jean-Drapeau.

With Space Cadet and 12 Bit Blues turning some of the most triumphant tables of his career, Koala took time out from sound check with Money Mark in Calgary two weeks back to take a stroll along Montreal memory lane. What follows are some of the best excerpts from a near hour-long conversation peppered with Koala’s perpetual giggle and taste for the left-of-centre.

Darcy MacDonald: I remember seeing [you in the Money Mark band] opening for the Beastie Boys in 1997 at the Bell Centre and you brought A-Trak out on stage.
Kid Koala: Yeah, I remember that tour very well! With A Tribe Called Quest, right before they split up. Biz Markie was there a few dates. We did Madison Square Garden. They had that revolving stage.

DM: Strangely enough — and this is embarrassing, because I haven’t seen you live this year, I haven’t seen the new show — but that last time I saw you was with Yo Gabba Gabba! and Biz Markie.
KK: Yeah, with Lance Rock and all them. That was great times! I think it was probably the only show as a two-year-old my daughter cared to be on the guest list for. All these other shows we bring her to, she’s like, whatever. After that show, she actually thought that whenever I had to go to work — like, go off to the airport and go work — she thought that I was on the Yo Gabba Gabba! tour.

DM: (laughing) Put Brobee on the phone!
KK: You know what I’m talkin’ about, you must have kids of your own. The night before [that show] my wife asked me “So what are you gonna wear at this thing?”  And I was like, I dunno, what I always wear, jeans, t-shirt. An’ she’s like, you can’t do that, it’s Yo Gabba Gabba!. I was like, what do you mean? And [she tells me] nobody goes on Yo Gabba Gabba! wearing their regular clothes.

I’m like, really? So I start looking online and it was true, it was like, oh, Jack Black had his own weird outfit, Mos Def had like a kinda cape. Money Mark was an astronaut. I was like “What?! What are we gonna do, this tour starts tomorrow!”

My wife is a set designer. And she said, well, I’ll just sew you something. So that was the birth of the koala suit.

DM: That’s awesome! So do you actually wear that suit outside of Yo Gabba Gabba! shows?
KK: Yeah, I actually lost a bet, after some of the Ninjas had seen me in footage from that. So because of that bet, I have to wear it for 100 concerts, which I just cleared two shows ago! There was like a year and a half where that was the uniform. And it’s funny ’cause a lot of these sorta younger journalists actually think that that’s just been a thing, and it’s like, “No, there was a good, you know, 20 years of shows. You just didn’t see those YouTube clips, I guess.”

DM: Let’s bring it back to the Public Enema/Bullfrog days.
KK: Public Enema was an outfit that Mark Robertson had started and they were active for maybe two years before he approached me. Essentially that was the name of his evening, I guess — I think it was like, Café Mondial or maybe one of those types of clubs up on the Main. And they basically had this weekly session. They would invite people in to guest and stuff, but there was a core rhythm section, and eventually those people that were there would form what would eventually become Bullfrog.

I was DJing at Metropolis every week at the Squeeze. I was playing in the Savoy. That’s how I met Mark. I was just there runnin’ beats and doin’ routines every now and then, but they would invite musicians to come up and jam, and Mark was one of the musicians. He came up and played guitar and a little sax, and he was like, “Hey listen, I’ve got this night,” like on Tuesday at this other club I had never heard of. I went down and that rhythm section was so bangin’ that I thought, “Okay, I can learn something from these cats.” We started jamming a lot, doin’ rehearsals and we wrote maybe like, eight tracks in half an hour — it was just an immediate sort of chemistry thing there. I was like, cool.

DM: If I’m not mistaken, one of the actual first Bullfrog shows — and maybe you’ll recall, and maybe you won’t — was in the cafeteria at Dawson College.
KK: Yeah I remember that! Mark was like, “Is everybody having a good time?” and people were like, “Mmmhmmph,” eating their sandwiches. They were like, thumbs-up! Thumbs up, but we only have like 17 minutes to eat our sandwiches.

DM: I remember BluRum13 was there, and it was this big cavern and you guys all kinda looked like you didn’t know where the fuck you were nor wanted to be there.
KK: Ahh, I always kinda wanna be wherever the more awkward the situation is. It’s funny because those stories end up being the most memorable sometimes. You do some shows perfect and everything goes off without a hitch, and you kinda don’t remember it.

Those are the types of shows where I’m like, man, I wish we’d had a film crew following us around back in those days. You know, like, [it would be] almost more compelling footage.

Another one in my mind is when I played Dawson City up in the Yukon. I think there’s about 60 people in the whole town. So everybody was there, all the teenagers were up being too cool for school sorta standing against the wall. All the parents and grandparents are in this sorta amphitheatre-style seating. So I said to myself, okay, this is obviously not gonna turn into a raging dance party, so I’m just gonna do more of a showcase style and explain what I’m doing, the craft, and how I got into it and stuff. So I did a couple of routines, and then I’m like, “Are there any questions so far?”

And one little girl raised her hand and went, “Can we dance?”

What that kinda opened the floodgates to was me doing a routine whilst all the kids — the eight to 12 kids in Dawson — did this relay race, pretending to backstroke swim across the gym floor in front of me back and forth. It’s just one of those moments, like, “Of all the times…”

Because some shows… you know, if it’s a big show and we’re spending a lotta money to produce it, and blah, blah, blah, and we should document it. And you bring in the film crew and what have you. But then that show, where it was just kind of a fly-in-and-out kinda situation, that more than anything I’m like, ah man, I wish we had that on film. Because no one believes me! I’m not even doing it justice in terms of how bizarre it actually was. But still, warm fuzzy feelings in terms of “Wow!” Because there are those moments when you’re like, “How did I get here?” Last thing I remember, I was just practicing scratching for eight hours a day after school. But now it’s like, “I’m in a fake swimming pool and they’re doing the backstroke!”

DM: I wouldn’t have thought of this question going in but given that we talked about Money Mark and that [Beastie Boys] tour, and given of course that MCA passed this year — did you get to spend any significant time with the Beasties, specifically MCA?
KK: Absolutely. That was like a family affair on that tour. They were mad cool. Yauch especially was always just a sweet dude in terms of just being really supportive and open in terms of industry advice. At the time, I was just a young kid on the come-up. And I didn’t really know, you know what I mean… they’re kinda your mentors and musical idols, and them being so generous with their time and information and stuff. Tell you about, “Ah, you don’t have to worry about all that stuff, it works out.” When you’re a kid kinda tappin’ into it, everything is kinda DEFCON. So when you hear, “Don’t worry about it,” you’re like, cool. It was funny because I guess in the past they were kinda rowdy, but I had to run on their bus for a couple of shows and instead of the Licensed to Ill or Paul’s Boutique Beastie Boys, they were all very like… I’d be like, “You wanna glass of wine?” and Yauch is like, “Yeah, I’m just reading this book.” He was tellin’ me about this book and climbing Mount Everest or whatever, having this deep philosophical conversation. I’m like, wow. This is bizarre.

Ad-Rock, I remember bringing around record shopping and equipment shopping at some of the dusty shops that used to exist in Montreal. He was like, “Are there any spots where they have vintage keyboards in this town?” I’m like, “Hell yeah.”

DM: That’s whassup! So this is something I’ve never really done but today I went on Facebook and actually said, “I’ve got Koala on the phone tonight, who has questions?” And I got some good stuff, but this one is from DJ Brace, who wants to know if you’ll teach him to press vinyl, a process I haven’t considered much myself.
KK: I could teach him what I know. But the thing about cutting vinyl, and actually becoming what they call a “lathe troll,” is literally one of the most masochistic of the production arts. I mean, once you start getting deep into it… like when I first learned, I had to go to Germany to train with the guy who designed the machine, a record cutter. He basically said, “I’m not talking to you.” I said, “I see you have this record cutter on the market and I’m curious about buying it.” He was like, “I’m not even gonna talk to you on the phone unless you fly to Germany and train with me.” And I said to him, listen, I work with records for hours, every day, for almost 22 years at the time.

And he says (puts on thick German accent), “I do not care about zis! I have been cutting records for 60 years and I am still learning!” So he called me out, and I get it, so I worked it out so I could have a trip out to Europe when I was on a break. I was on a break in Spain on tour so I took a few days out and went to see him. And yeah, it was like going to Dagobah. This dude is like the Yoda of lathe dudes.

The first thing he said to me was, “If you vant to learn how to cut perfect records, the first thing you must learn to do is to hear vis’ your eyes.” And I’m screwing up his accent right now, but I was like, “Whaaat?” And for the next two hours, we just looked at record grooves under microscopes. Like almost flashcard style, like, identify what’s wrong with this record groove. He’s like, “It’s obviously out of phase!” Obviously! Then he’d like, draw me a diagram. So it’s true, it’s definitely not something that… it can be taught, but let’s put it this way, being introduced to the learning process all comes from practice, which I’m sure Brace is not a stranger to. So as far as me showing him what I know, that’s fine. But if he gets serious about it, he’ll have to get ready to go down that rabbit hole and ruin record after record along the way! ■

Check out Kid Koala at Omisoka NYE 2013, with Nosaj Thing, Poirier, Lorn, Ghostbeard, Construct and more, at the Darling Foundry (745 Ottawa) on Monday, Dec. 31, 10 p.m., $30

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