Two turntables and ... a good imagination

Sound collages: Montreal DJ Kid Koala brings his layered sound on tour to Baltimore.

May 09, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It used to be that DJ music was just that -- music made using two turntables, a mixer and a box of LPs. These days, though, a DJ in the recording studio will use anything available: samplers, drum machines, keyboards, singers and digital editing software such as ProTools.

Not Kid Koala, who arrives in Baltimore this evening as part of the current NinjaTune tour.

When he went in to cut his new album, "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," there were no samplers to make loops with, no ProTools to slice and dice the tracks. All he had were turntables, a multi-track recorder and his imagination. And that was enough.

"It's quite a tedious way of doing it," he says, over the phone from his home in Montreal. "If I'd had a sampler, the beats would have been a lot tighter." He laughs. "It would have made people want to rap or something."

Using a sampler, a drum beat can be recorded off a record and made into a "loop" that repeats indefinitely. If edited properly, a sampled drum loop sounds like the world's most perfect drummer, indefatigably keeping the groove going.

"If you hear a drum loop on `Carpal Tunnel Syndrome,' it's actually two copies of the same record," Koala says. "I play one copy while I'm cueing the copy on the other side. We call it back-spinning, and that's sort of looping it by hand, which is essentially what a sampler does."

Back-spinning is a DJ's most basic skill. It was also the starting point for most of the compositions on "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome."

"I don't have an idea of where the songs come from," he says. "They might start with just the beat or something. For instance, in `Fender Bender,' I started with just this piano loop. The second thing I did was the gibberish solo.

"All of a sudden, those two things together started to have this identity. I listened to it, and it was like, `Oh, that sounds like people arguing, and this bit sounds like Sunday afternoon driving music.' It developed a theme on its own, and I just followed through on it."

Maybe that's why Koala, born Eric Yick-Keung San in Vancouver, British Columbia, sees the tracks on his albums less as songs than as journeys by turntable.

"What I wanted to do was take a whole bunch of really strange records -- you know, chickens sounds and duck calls and blips and bleeps -- and try to make them interact with each other," he says. "I wasn't trying to make radio-friendly or dance floor-friendly music."

Because Koala is working with found sounds from records, what he ends up with tends to be more like sonic collages than pop songs.

"My mom listened to the album, and she didn't understand it at all," he says. "She tried to eat dinner to it, and it just wasn't happening."

With so much of the album built upon layers and layers of turntable manipulation, Koala admits there are some selections he could never do live -- unless he could clone himself into an army of DJs. Instead, he'll be working with another DJ and live musicians to create a collage of a different sort.

"I've been playing with a band for many years," he says. "I really love having the option that, if it's feeling good, you can add another 16 bars at the end, and make it louder. If you're working with a sampler, you're pretty much a slave to the machine."

Kid Koala

When: Tonight, 10 p.m.

Where: Fletcher's, 701 S. Bond St.

Tickets: $10 (call 410-481-7328)

Information: 410-558-1889

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