The American debut of Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet Headphone Experience,” held in Brooklyn’s Irondale theater, was a triumph of whimsy and trust. “Whimsy” because half the show meant milling through the DJ’s please-touch science fair where you could marvel at sculptures of colorful comic-book fauna and skritch-scratch around on his personal collection of vintage musical equipment. “Trust” because he has faith that 250 fans a night won’t break all his shit… And I’ve seen fans completely destroy a Wilco art exhibit.
Obviously Koala fosters a kinder, gentler, IKEA-ready beatfiend, his work increasingly focusing on drawing graphic novels starring adorable little spacemen, appearing on Yo Gabba Gabba! Live! and selling oven mitts as merch. Although his unique style of DJing — a quirky, cartoonish spiral of Carl Stalling jazz and tipsy be-bop — has remained at turntablism’s bleeding edge for 16 years, Koala would clearly rather be the hip-hop Wayne Coyne, playing carnival barker to an audio-visual flea circus of his own design. In fact, you could spot Koala himself practically giving away tickets at the Awesometown Prize Raffle on his homemade Plinko board. He wants to throw a party, but with you at the center.
His pre-show balcony carnival featured show and tell with his vintage ‘Show ‘ N Tell’ toy record players; beanbag games; a makeshift stage for opener Terence Bernardo to play a quick three songs; and a station where you could growl into the type of vocoder used on the old Battlestar Galactica. People etching (and scratching!) their own voice into his old analogue disk recorder seemed amazed and delighted like a four-year-old recording onto My First Sony. Like a good parent, Koala gave his fans a fun place to play, but instilled a little responsibility too. Fans were trusted to restart the records of ambient noise themselves; expected not to hog out on the completely unmanned plates of ginger cookies at the “decorate your own cookie” station; instructed to follow directions to take their own pictures at a photo booth for a game of human Asteroids. Everything was so tender and intimate and breakable. “Someone just made that,” someone marveled at a little hand-painted flipper game, thick with black paint, heavy as half a breadbox, seconds away from flying off the table if someone wasn’t careful.
The show itself was a piece of friendly vaudeville, his feats of scratching pyrotechnics always broken up by a little joke, a little audience participation, or a little piece of animation. The “headphone experience” meant everyone in the audience was gifted a pair of wireless Sennheisers for maybe the most sensuous, three-dimensional experience I’ve ever had in a concert setting — the bass filled the room and vibrated your body, while the intimate cuts and vinyl crackle caressed your ear. (Though, as an ad for Sennheisers goes, every headphone company has a long way to go before wireless set-ups don’t sound like hot garbage). Between the deep surround sound and cameras broadcasting right from his gain knobs, it was kind of a close as you could get without being Kid Koala.
While his rapidfire scratchwork is obviously the crowd-pleaser (he unleashed a Damon Albarn collab from the upcoming Automator album and promised a new Deltron 3030 record in June), he had no trouble making the more austere stuff off his recent Space Cadet soundtrack interesting. A mix of sentimental Wurlitzer, Eno’s Apollo ambience, Philip Jeckian drones and frenetic scratching; Cadet is gorgeous — maybe even his most mature work to date — but not exactly a body-mover. Koala has an old-school battler’s sense of crowdwork though, filling every spare minute with jokes, thumb-wrestling competitions, and raffles/contests that gave away an amount of stuff that would rival the amount of merch another band would sell legitimately from a booth. “It’s a really downtempo soundtrack and a really depressing book,” he said from the stage. “It wouldn’t make sense as a rave.”