Montreal's DJ Kid Koala performed at New York record store Other Music Monday, promoting his Ninja Tune Records debut, "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome." He spun records on three turntables simultaneously. I wrote down the following observations during his set.
1. Five different people are filming Koala's performance on teeny handheld camcorders. The turntablism movement documents itself obsessively; this equalizes the tension between the genre's improvisational aspects (cutting records back and forth wildly against the needle) and its programmed ones (the carefully pre-planned selection of records that goes into a DJ set). After waiting outside in a line that stretched all the way to Crunch Fitness around the corner, I am part of the fourth or fifth wave of spectators allowed into the store. I have a lousy sight line to Koala's turntables, but I'm able to watch his hands on the screen of a nearby Sharp Viewcam.
2. The last time I saw Kid Koala perform, he was 22 and looked about 12. He is now 25 and looks about 15. Youth is king in DJing right now -- the champions are either teenagers or strangely teenage in appearance, like Olympic gymnasts. People are always remarking on Kid Koala's babyfaced cuteness -- someday, he'll get fed up with it, grow a beard and drop the "Kid" from his name. It's hard to be taken seriously when your name starts with "Kid." Decide for yourself if Kid Rock is: a) supporting evidence of this theory; or b) a notable counterexample. Koala seems to make satirical reference to his cuteness with the first needle-drop of the evening. It's a sketch in which a woman talking to a radio-talk-show host compares her (married) boyfriend to a koala bear. "Apparently he's very cute and cuddly," the host says. (He's one of those sly vintage comedy-album personalities, like Tom Lehrer or Mal Sharpe, an affable wink in his buttoned-down voice.) The woman agrees, but points out that while koala bears are small, "they're very strong." The host chuckles, "I wonder what sort of bear his wife thinks he is," then Kid Koala goes straight into his first song -- a heavy prog-rockish organ groove, more than a bit menacing, as if to suggest that Koala's own cuddliness masks a hidden strength.
3. If you were to go into Supercuts and ask for a haircut like the one Kid Koala has, you would ask for it not by name, but by number.
4. Other Music stocks a great deal of "serious" underground music. There is a rare Big Black record ("'Headache' 12-inch ... sealed w/poster ... limited ed. 500") on the wall directly above Koala as he performs. Koala's set seems to take cues from its context -- it's darker and less schticky than the material on his album. He mixes in Radiohead's Mac-voiced daily affirmation "Fitter, Happier" and a William Burroughs sound bite ("Random imagery ... how random is random?")
5. Records of Burroughs saying cryptic things are a nuts-and-bolts item for many DJs. So are snippets of voice-over from trailers advertising ninja movies. So are "Star Trek" records.
6. Koala plays a "Star Trek" record in which Captain Kirk talks about alien attackers who "feed on laughter." To ward them off, Kirk says, "everyone is directed to think only sad, depressing thoughts. Anything which will make you want to cry."
7. The DJ segues from this dialogue into some moody hip-hop breaks, then begins scratching a glass-harmonica sound over the beat. It sounds a little bit like the "Forbidden Planet" soundtrack -- played on the musical saw, by a novice musical-sawist -- and a little bit like the way a forbidden planet would make one feel. I begin to think sad, depressing thoughts. The guy in front of me turns on a slow-motion "strobe" special effect on his Viewcam. On the screen, Koala scratches in flickering, dramatic slow-motion.
8. The three-turntable setup is a stunt, the DJ equivalent of the amps in "This Is Spinal Tap" that go up to 11 instead of 10. It increases the element of trickery inherent in the performance, makes it more like a would-be Vegas entertainer spinning plates on broomsticks on "The Gong Show" or the guy from Cheap Trick playing a guitar with six necks. But to deride this kind of stuff as mere trickery seems disingenuous; even playing a "rootsy" instrument like guitar involves technical contrivance, performing complex finger-placement exercises (so complex I can't do them, anyway) to create a sound. And at its best, scratching is techy trickery in the service of funk, noize, yuks. Koala's stage demeanor helps defuse the performance's sonic-stunts aspect; he winces at the occasional clumsy mix and responds to the audience's enraptured "Oooohs" with (if he'll forgive the characterization) a boyish Dennis the Menace grin.
9. Like many of his DJ peers, Koala can scratch really really fast. But his approach is more musical; he's interested in speed and fireworks only as a means of making more interesting sounds. At one point, he scratches a synthesized whoosh -- it could be from the same "Star Trek" record, perhaps the sound effect for a being of pure energy dissipating into cosmic dust -- faster and faster, until it sounds like the hiss of dry sand poured on sheet metal, the tone of the hiss growing more trebley as the sand bag empties and the sand falls more rapidly.
10. The finale of Koala's set -- a live re-creation of the track "Drunk Trumpet," from his album -- is a remarkable integration of musicality and technical craft, skills in the service of sound. Koala cues up a corny jazz record, a walking bass line augmented by banjo; it sounds like Dixieland from Disneyland. He puts another record on another turntable. The second record has the sound of a trombone on it, and Koala begins sliding the trombone record to the beat of the Dixieland record, so that it plays a "solo." It's a moment of comical, jaw-dropping virtuosity, as the trombone wiggles around the scale in ways a real horn couldn't -- you can close your eyes and picture Ornette Coleman as Plastic Man, twisting his toy saxophone into various balloon animals, the contortions as natural as breath.