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Kid Koala In His Natural Habitat

The Montreal-based multi-hyphenate takes us through his creative workspace ahead of the Storyville Mosquito.

by Madeline Lines

Photos by Brooke Rutner

Hanging in a corner of Eric San’s Montreal loft is a hooked rug portrait of a koala that his mother made when he was a child. San found the piece long after he’d taken the moniker “Kid Koala,” which suggests a special kind of synchronicity that seems to be the norm in his extraordinary life. San’s sprawling space is a treasure trove of stories like this. 

Perched on the upper floor of an old uniform factory is the zone where San – a multi-hyphenate artist perhaps best known as a scratch DJ – lives, dreams, and creates. The room is an expansive, sun-dappled playground when I arrive in the late afternoon to poke around and discuss his aptly-named new album, Creatures of the Late Afternoon and his latest live production, The Storyville Mosquito. 

“I do most of my recording work in the after hours. That’s when I really tap into something in the studio,” says San. “Even if I’m physically awake in the morning, that’s not always when my brain wakes up.”Creatures was designed to be enjoyed on vinyl, where an accompanying board game folds out of the jacket. It’s one of the first things San shows me when we arrive, explaining that he’d been playing tons of board games with his wife, Corinne Merrell, and their two daughters to pass time during the pandemic. Around that same time, he and his daughter were getting really into nature documentaries. The combination of the two saw inspiration strike.

“At the end of each episode, there was always this word of caution saying that we just sat with these beautiful creatures, but you have to know that there’s only a few of them left,” says San. “You’re left with that sort of sad realization.”

The idea for the board game, where a cast of creatures band together to save their musical habitat from destruction, came out of these viewing sessions. The album is cleverly integrated into the game, with the lengths of certain tracks acting as a timer for tasks as you make your way through. It’s just the latest example of how San’s incredibly wide-ranging creative brain works. Once the idea was there, it started to take on a life of its own.

“I’d painted a sloth playing a bass guitar, and in my mind, I asked: If a sloth really did play bass guitar, what would that sound like?” says San. “It moves very slowly, has really long nails. So it’s almost like it’d be playing with a slide guitar style.”

As we explore the endless sea of instruments, gadgets, and art tools, San points out the machine he used to cut vinyl and compose Creatures. He’d record something like the sloth’s bassline, press it to vinyl, and then spin it together into a track with oodles of other elements. The resulting sound is classic Kid Koala scratchiness with a fun twist, culminating in what he calls his most “playful and dynamic album to date.”

Higher up in the room sits a shelf with the intricate miniature set from the album cover, featuring a row of buildings with the album’s title across marquee and awning-top signs. It’s reminiscent of the currently-touring project The Storyville Mosquito, an ambitious production where puppets make their way through a miniature city in a heartwarming story that’s scored and projected on-screen for a live audience. 

San, who almost went to school for animation, had long imagined crafting a romantic tale about the truest of underdogs moving to the big city to try and make it as musicians. As a set designer, Merrell is both his life and creative partner, having a huge hand in bringing this vision to life. Their home and work space flow into each other effortlessly – it was Merrell’s keen spatial eye that helped transform it from a warehouse to the perfect living and studio hybrid. 

Just as I’m taking in the hundreds of objects and stories around me, San brings us downstairs – where the real playground begins. It’s chock full of records, big sets, and toys from past projects. We approach an old arcade-style game setup with “Floor Kids” sprawled on top. San kindly coaches me through a round of the breakdancing game he created with animator JonJon back in 2018.

As I’m frantically smashing buttons, he points out the voices of his young daughters in the game, cheering on the breakdance battle. They’ve grown up surrounded by their parents’ many projects, but San laughs when he explains the time he peaked as a “cool dad.” San was invited to tour with the kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! when his daughter was a toddler obsessed with the show. “We took her backstage to meet the characters after the show, and she was actually scared,” laughs San. “She ran away. They had to take off their costumes to show her they were real people underneath.”

Tucked back in the basement are some big-eyed, life-sized furry figures that might have a similar effect. They were made for a music video off the upcoming record, along with a whole musical setup crafted out of cardboard, drum kit and all. It makes perfect sense when San tells me how his younger self dreamed of working on The Muppets.At the time, his supportive but practical mom nudged him to study something that would still be employable if Jim Henson never called him up. San went on to get his degree in Early Childhood Education from McGill University, the move that brought him to Montreal and gave him a formative framework which he says still influences his work. Intergenerational enjoyability is at the core of anything Kid Koala creates, and it’s by thoughtful design. He recalls how his career started out in nightclubs, putting on shows for a particular age group. 

“I had a great time, don’t get me wrong, and I still enjoy rocking parties,” says San. “But I did at some point realize that there’s got to be more to life than that, and I started looking back to the real paradigm-shifting moments for me. When I realized that I wanted to pursue something in the arts or wanted to try making art, it would have been as early as at five or six years old, watching stuff like Charlie Chaplin with my family.”Family is important to San, and this comes through on a very special track on Creatures about his parents. While going through some old boxes of theirs in storage, he’d stumbled across suitcases full of letters and old reel-to-reel tapes. When he asked them about it, he discovered their incredible transcontinental love story. 

It was love at first sight for his mom and dad, who met in high school in Hong Kong. Shortly after, his father moved across the world to attend the University of British Columbia. He couldn’t afford flights or even long-distance calls, San explains, so they would each pen two letters per week, and did this for seven years. 

“My father would take pop songs off the radio at the time. It was the late 60s, so there were a lot of love songs, like The Ronettes with ‘Be My Baby,’” says San. “He would transcribe the lyrics and send them with reel to reel tapes. My mom didn’t have access to that music in China. So she would listen and read along, and that’s actually how she learned English.” 

The resulting song is “When U Say Love (feat. Crayfish),” a musical homage to his parents in both the sound and the lyrics. San smiles when he recounts his mother’s first listen. “She said, I like the song – could you send me the lyrics?” It’s just one of many tracks pulling inspiration from the magic found in real life, like “Jump & Shuffle (live at The Hardware Store),” a nod to their studio space prior to the current one, an old hardware store in Villeray. There’s a core playfulness that pervades throughout the world of Kid Koala. I wonder aloud if it’s always come naturally to him, or whether he has to work on it consciously. We’re back upstairs, sitting in a diner booth he bought off a local restaurant. San replies that when you approach art-making through a lens of learning, the natural excitement and experimentation flows from there.

“Keep it weird, they’ll get it later.”

He stays true to his younger selves – the kid who grew up on art that spoke to his whole family, the student teacher who had to figure out how to make kids jazzed about math, and the young DJ who was invigorated by the energy of the dance floor. “Keep it weird, they’ll get it later,” is his creative motto, as seen in his Instagram bio. I ask if he has any advice for his younger self, or any young artist currently in the period where they have to bet on themselves and their creative vision, like he once did.

“You actually have everything you need to unlock what you’re trying to say. A blank sheet of paper and a pen is just as powerful as a studio full of equipment,” San says. “Get to that place of enjoying the process of making something, learning something. Don’t think, ‘This is taking too long’ or ‘I should be further along.’ You’re not going to notice the hours passed, which means you’re becoming more fluid with it. That’s when it’s not like work – it feels more like play.”

Kid Koala’s The Storyville Mosquito is coming to One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo Jan. 17-19 at the Bella Concert Hall (Calgary, AB). He will also be hosting a Robot Dance Party (2 p.m., all ages) + DJ Set (8 p.m., 18+) at the GRAND (Calgary, AB) on Jan. 20.