Scratchmaster general Kid Koala has returned from throwing multi-disciplinary science fairs across the country and drawing 132-page graphic novels to doing something a little more, well, rootsy. His upcoming fourth album, 12 Bit Blues is the turntablist version of going acoustic, recorded almost entirely on the hottest technology 1987 could buy: the E-mu SP-1200 sampler! The results are beautifully broken, the Kid furiously tapping pads and maxing out all luxurious 10 seconds of sample time before adding his trademark scratching — still some of the most virtuosic and expressionistic in the game. It's monstrously funky — fresh for '88 or your fresh 78s — the Kid tearing up vintage blues vocal samples into be-bop-inflected shards, atmospheric wiggles, or head-knocking cut'n'paste grooves. Hear the whole thing below, with the Kid's kommentary, or wait until September 17 when you can buy it with a hand-powered build-your-own-turntable kit and adorable flexi-disc!
"1 Bit Blues (10,000 Miles)"
This is just a very romantic moment in a young DJ's life, when he finally is able to get his hands on a machine that lived in an almost mythical realm. The SP-1200 has kind of eluded me ever since I got into DJing back in 1988. I remember reading an interview that all the producers were using this machine. The one that really cracked my head open was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. I remember my parents driving me to the music store to investigate how much one of these machines cost. And it was upwards of $5,000, which, on my paper route was maybe 20 years in the future for me. Which is about right, actually. Had I just stayed on that job, this album probably would have happened at the exact same time!
Now, you have to understand that this was state-of-the-art. By today's standards, there's pocket calculators that are probably more powerful. It has a maximum, I believe, of just over 10 seconds of sampling time. I found it on Craigslist. I got this machine home and booted it up on its little 3.5" — and the reason "1 Bit Blues" is the one that starts the album, is that it's literally the first thing that I hooked up on this machine. This was always the start. "1 Bit Blues" has kind of a special place in my heart because at that time I didn't have a manual; I was just trying to figure it out. But luckily, most of the instructions for the machine are written on the top panel. I made a few chops in the first four pads. I didn't bother learning the sequencer; instead I just started roll tape, and decided to just punch it out and that, essentially, became the methodology for all of these tracks. I still don't know how to use the sequencer [laughs].
I just decided for ease's sake — and also it was kind of more fun too — to just do it on the fly. The whole idea that if you stop pushing buttons the music will stop, the whole danger there. Like I can't go make a coffee or something. I had to keep playing, I literally had to perform using these pads.
"2 Bit Blues
This is one of the snappier numbers on the record. I've been traveling around and rocking parties and clubs and dance floors and, I've been accused of putting out the most down-tempo records in this genre. Being in that environment of party music and club music, loud decibels and such, whenever I actually have time to myself, whether it's on a plane or a train or when we're driving in a car, I opt for slower, quieter music. It sort of balances out the adrenaline. There's something about that 6/8 tempo and the sway of the blues, it kind of calms me and helps me recalibrate so that when I actually do go onstage I can try to throw it out again.
That being said, "2 Bit Blues" is the party number, so if anyone expects anything more up-tempo than that, they're going to be thoroughly disappointed. I kind of have this fascination with the shuffle beat. This dates back to, I would say, 1993, the first time I saw Maceo Parker perform. And, you know, you take a kid who's just outta high school, like super into scratching; and a guitar player in this band I was playing with said, "Okay, I'm going to take you to this show tonight and you're going to lose your mind. This is Maceo Parker, he played with James Brown." I went in with my skepticism in terms of, okay, this guy must be pushing 60 right now, what am I going to learn from this show? And I remember just being floored from the first beat. These songs that they were playing — some of them would last 10, 15 minutes, something like that. But one, I remember, they kind of kicked off this shuffle, this track by James Brown called "Doing It To Death", which is essentially just a shuffle. And at one point I think the chord change is, "Okay! We're going to modulate the beat here" and then the whole band is just compin' on this one-bar riff and there's something so infectious, and so much relief at that show. I was standing next to this raver kid on my left and this 55-year-old woman on my right, you know, this is the most motley crew group of people ever. It was literally like a spiritual, musical experience. Like, I want to do that! How did that happen? Something about that groove and that shuffle beat and the way they just kind of took their time to build it up. The whole place was dancing, including the wallflowers. Purely captivating with just a simple kind of rhythm and performance: "2 Bit Blues" is kind of my feeble attempt to do that.
"3 Bit Blues"
The first time I premiered some of these shows I brought both SP-1200s. The problem is these drives, the discs, it actually takes 45 seconds to a minute to load in between songs, which is something I didn't really accommodate for. That kind of awkward silence where everyone was sitting at cabaret tables and you could hear that disk drive running sound. The whole night, it was like, "Don't worry, it's booting up. It's working." A lot of the equipment I used on this album, a lot of the pawn shop scores and unwanted lost and forgotten pieces of equipment, Craigslist, old vintage synths with oscillators that kind of drift in and out of tune, they're on their last legs but they're going to squeeze out one last swan song…and that swan song was going to be on "3 Bit Blues."
"4 Bit Blues"
It makes me feel drunk in a way. Like, you feel like you're down south at some juke joint. You know the story of John Henry? I remember reading that in grade school and it was a sort of important idea for me in terms of this whole idea of man versus machine. In essence, big machines aren't supposed to make your life easier. In his case, it was the steam engine meant to like plow through the rock or whatever. There's something romantic about doing stuff by hand. That's not to say I spend my time on airplanes crocheting or whatever, but in terms of playing music, just kind of having it live off the grid and breathe like how it does, you know?
Without a doubt my favorite moments in the studio have always been these really human kind of interruptions, like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome during "Like Irregular Chickens" and my mom actually phoned while I was doing a take and I had my phone next to my turntables. I remember I was doing the beat, you know, by hand and the phone is ringing and it's like, "Oh, Mom, really? Now, during this awesome take?" to the point where I was like, Oh, it's probably important, it's been ringing this long. I remember listening to the take afterwards and there was this awkward silence where the beat just stops. This really, really, beyond pregnant pause. It sounds like a constipated chicken in a factory with a cog off. I just wound up using that take because it makes me smile. That whole thing of kind of out-syncing the machine or outworking the machine, or if you stop or it stops, I like that about it. It feels more urgent to me.
"5 Bit Blues"
If you live in Montreal, there are four seasons, but really there are only two, and the coldest winter you've ever experienced in your life. If I happen to be recording, and the recording sessions take longer than staying within one of these seasons, there's a definite shift in mentality. I can totally tell. And I remember distinctly both "5" and "6" were done in the deep of winter. Which would probably explain the vibe of it. These are the two kind of sad blues numbers on the album. What I've always loved about the blues is that it can tackle the heavier conditions in the heart but it can also transcend those things. It can, you know, send you into it but there's something kind of hopeful about it.
If you listen, there are these synths that come in at the three-minute mark and these again, are these machines that I refuse to get fixed. Some of my more hardcore keyboardist friends are like, "You know, this is pretty drift-y." I just try to squeeze just one take if I can get it to stay in tune. Yeah, it's at the 3:40 mark, it just goes and does something completely random, it just spiraled up. Like, what is going on? I did not do that. It just decided to go there. It almost feels like you're on a bit of a tightrope and there's these ghosts in the machine. Whenever that happens, I always try to just keep those takes. That's something I couldn't reproduce if I tried.
"6 Bit Blues"
This is me trying to do a Portishead blues. When you feel low, you just feel low and that's it. Sometimes hearing music that's also low or has that intention in it makes you feel less alone, you know what I mean? I think as a DJ, records and vinyl records are my link to the past, knowing that someone's gone through something similar, or maybe at its core, is asking the same questions. I think that's how "6" turned out. For me it's almost therapeutic. Like, it's bad, but it's been bad before, and it'll be bad again, you know what I mean? And it'll be okay. There's a light at the end of the tunnel.
"7 Bit Blues"
This is arguably the second party track. In the new show, I actually have these three dancers with me who are also puppeteers. We're actually going to get a big old conga line going on this one.
"8 Bit Blues (Chicago to LA to NY)"
"8" is my version of the road song. Some of those bits I've found from actual sound effects records of airline announcements. This track was sort of collaborative, a call-out to people I knew in the airline industry to see if they could actually just get recordings of people talking about flights departing, specifically these three cities that I was cutting up into area codes. Did you pick up on that? Maybe not, maybe you didn't. You're in New York….You didn't pick up on "212"?
Okay, so basically it's "8 Bit Blues," Chicago to L.A. to New York. Chicago: 312, L.A.: 213, New York: 212. I had these numbers on a record and I just started cutting them up, and I learned how to cut them into these area codes. So in my head the chorus was always "312 to 213 to 312 to 213" the idea of flying back and forth between from Chicago to L.A., Chicago to L.A., New York to L.A. This kind of harks back to those years when I was doing that much road. Where I felt like I lived at O'Hare. I knew the person at the popcorn stand by, like, first name. It was crazy.
I don't know if you have the Nufonia Must Fall book, but if you do, the last chapter of that graphic novel, the final scene actually takes place in an airport. And it's your typical rom-com, running toward the plane, trying to reconnect with the love of his life, she's on the airplane already getting ready to take off. And Louisa Schabas is the artist I work with, and she was doing all the shading on it and she went out of her way to say, "You know, the last few chapters you really dialed in this style and it really feels like an airport!" Louisa, the only reason for that is those are still-lifes from me sitting in whichever terminal!
"9 Bit Blues"
I just imagine some lost scene from a Jarmusch movie or something. This is definitely…a little cinematic moment, I figured, after that barrage of area codes or numbers, you can have a little respite from it. Get on the SP and have some spaced-out harmonica scratches. One of the interesting things about this track is that I was using all these old delay machines, like some of the more tape-based delays like Space Echoes or Maestro Echoplexes. One that I found especially dusty was this one called an oil can delay, and this is crazy to me, because it's essentially, it's like a tuna can with a bit of electrolytic oil in it, like a couple of tablespoons of oil. And there's a disk for the playback head and the record head, and it spins. And so basically, the record head dips into the oil and charges it, and then the oil keeps the sound, and then the playback head dips into it and plays it back, and it keeps doing that. And what you get is this really warbly echo effect
"10 Bit Blues"
There's always a section of my collection that's dedicated to spoken word, separated by gender and age. So I have male vocals — dudes under 30 or old men, women over 50, and essentially I try to make these impossible conversations that would never happen. This idea happened started with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and I guess I watched a bunch of Woody Allen movies that year and loved the back-and-forth and how the dialogue played off itself. I wondered if I could use turntables to approximate that weird storytelling.
This one's basically about an un-stylistic guy going to a party, trying to impress a lady who's there with his outfit. Which his probably something at least some of the population could probably appreciate. I was always one of those people at parties who was not comfortable being in the party, I was never the life of the party. Being the main person on the dance floor or something like that. Whenever I hear little spoken-word bits about that kind of awkward thing, about slightly uncomfortable social situations, it resonates really true and funny to me. My joke is that when it was cool, like in the '80s and '90s, revival music, I was doing '30s and '40s music. I've always been four decades off of what the hip thing to do is.
"11 Bit Blues"
One of the interesting things that I started doing probably around 2009, is I got this record-cutting machine: this ability to actually cut custom records now, with original sounds. And that has been such a crazy development for me. I hear this chord change, I can go play it on the piano, then cut it to vinyl, then scratch it in, so I still get that whole surreal turntable element of it. It's like if you're making your own salad, it's like you grow your own tomatoes.
When I was in the studio, there was literally maybe 18 things on the console, and I didn't want this track to go on for a while, I just wanted it to be a quick sign-off. This is a complete decrescendo: it should probably be called "Decrescendo" instead of "Denouement." We had literally all the tracks up in terms of like bass, synth, extra sub-bass, drums, whatever; all that stuff was up. And then it just starts muting, everything just starts muting one at a time, so if you listen carefully you can hear it strip down to its bones. That to me is like the image of getting back on the train tracks and walking away toward the sunset or the crossroads or whatever it is.