Kid Koala

Photo by Corinne Merrell

Kid Koala and the deconfined mind

“Art has always been like a coping exercise for me, something that I would do even from a young age.”

No one will ever accuse Kid Koala of being boring. 

Whether he’s DJing for robots, MCing for dancing marionettes, creating auditory atmospheres for artists to invent in, making records, co-producing certified hip hop classics, animating books and cartoons, scoring films or developing his ever-expanding repertoire of turntable orchestration stage spectacles, the Kid has stayed in the picture, at home in Montreal and around the globe, for decades.

And while you’d have to ask his wife and two young daughters if they’d agree, one speculates that he couldn’t be a more interesting dude to be confined with during a pandemic.

“Spending time at home (this year) definitely has a silver lining for me because I haven’t spent this much time at home in easily 20 years, not for a spell this long,” Koala said by phone on the evening of the U.S. presidential inauguration. “My wife is American and she was tearing up today. There does seem to be a lightness to the Force.

“But yeah, hanging out with the family and starting to work on projects here that are kind of the slow-cookers — the ones that require a lot of time, like animation, or developing a board game or something that requires a lot of play testing and redesigning — has been great. That stuff is harder to get into a groove on if you’re leaving every weekend on tour.”

Serendipitously enough, Koala jumped off a Patreon channel just two weeks before shutdowns began last March. There, he’s able to share creations and foster community, notably with his near-monthly Music to Draw to sessions, a popular Montreal nightlife event now manifesting itself as an online hangout for graphic artists and fans worldwide.

“It was originally gonna be eight weeks!” he laughed. “Now, it’s like Cheers, people coming in and saying hi to each other and checking in as they work. At first my wife and I weren’t sure if we should keep the chat on, but it’s been a good tool for connection with people who otherwise aren’t able to socialize much, for obvious reasons.”

Coming up next on his busy at-home agenda, Kid Koala partners with Place des Arts and the National Arts Centre’s BIG BANG Festival for Robot House Party. Happening on Feb. 14, it’s a web-based version of the popular family-oriented activity that he and his team has regularly hosted on tour stops.

And the concept is exactly as-advertised: make a robot outfit with whatever you have around the house and dance.

“I think the first (live) one we did was here, at POP Montreal, and then we brought it to different cities around the world, to places like Abu Dhabi, New Orleans and Chapel Hill. It was meant as a fun weekend event to get families out. Robots of all ages, actually! And for this one, you can use all your mail order boxes,” Koala added.

Koala and his team have gone to great lengths to ensure this isn’t just another boring Zoom.

“R&D on our side aimed to kinda figure out how we’d get that group dancefloor feeling at home,” he explained. “We hacked our own streaming system to where we actually have cameras pointing at screens, because we were trying to work with the latency. Normally, we’d have dancers animating the event in person, so we had to figure out how to get them on screen, in sync with the music. The idea is to not just feel like a broadcast but to get the feeling of a bunch of people partying together. We got it as good as we can get it so people aren’t just looking at, like, what kind of light fixture you have, or whatever.”

Kids and families who participated in a previous, Abu Dhabi-based edition seemed to enjoy the overall effect.

“It’s kind of like going to a sports event and seeing your face on the Jumbotron,” Koala offered.

Surrounded as they are by constant creativity (his wife, Corrine, works as a set designer), Kid Koala reckons his children will outpace their parents artistically before long.

“The kids are gonna design circles around us. They’re gonna have so much visual information and stuff that we just didn’t have. I think about it like, even when I was learning how to scratch as a kid, there was no YouTube, there were no turntable teachers. That wasn’t part of the conservatory or anything. I remember finding a battle video in London, in Camden. We were there with the family and (I realized) this was where they held the DMCs. I got the video and it was in (U.K. standard) PAL format.I bought it anyway because I’d never seen the battle videos in Canada, so I brought them back, and of course it didn’t play on VHS. So then I had to pay again to have it transferred. And I just watched it and watched it and watched it and watched it, looking at that same thing — the references. How are they making those sounds, and how’s he doing that technique? Now, as long as you know where to look, you can pretty much find a really specific tutorial.”

Indeed, the therapeutic value of creating for imagination’s own sake has always been the driving force behind Kid Koala’s ever-ticking, perhaps-a-little-insane membrane.

“In a way, art has always been like a coping exercise for me, something that I would do even from a young age. And my earliest memories of that, I remember drawing as a way for me to escape into the demented world of my creation and just enjoy the process of having an adventure. Even if it’s just an imaginary one that you draw on a piece of paper with a pencil,” Koala mused.

“I think you just kinda scroll through your Rolodex of experiences in your brain, or things you’re just kind of interested in, and those get fused into your work somehow.” ■

This feature originally appeared in the Feb. 2021 issue of Cult MTL. The Kid Koala Robot House Party takes place on Sunday, Feb. 14, 1 p.m., free. Registration is required.

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