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Synaesthesia from Scratch: Kid Koala on Comics and DJing

By Tom Kaczynski

Eric San—better known as Kid Koala—is a world-renowned scratch DJ, musician, and producer. While his prowess with turntables is legendary, less well known is his role as a comics artist and storyteller. He is the author of two graphic novels, Space Cadet (2011) and Nufonia Must Fall (2003), which spawned Nufonia Must Fall Live, a collaborative multimedia performance puppet show. As Nufonia makes its way to the Walker, San talked with fellow cartoonist Tom Kaczynski about his formative influences. Chaplin films, sci-fi comic books, ancient recording equipment, and ninja turtles all coalesce in Kid Koala’s singular synaesthetic-musical-visual storytelling aesthetic, which is fully on display in Nufonia Must Fall Live, a copresentation of the SPCO’s Liquid Music series.

Tom Kaczynski

When I read your comics or listen to your music, it seems something tactile needs to be present. When you’re spinning records, you’re actually doing something physical. When you’re adding stickers [to the surface off vinyl records beings spun], you’re adding another layer of texture on top of it. When you draw your comics, do you draw them on paper?

Kid Koala

Yeah, always on paper. I haven’t found a mobile enough digital system to mess around with. So it’s either a sketchbook or hotel notepad or a placemat in a diner. That’s my comfort zone. There’s never an undrawn-on placemat at any restaurant.

Kaczynski

So what came first, comics or music?

Kid Koala

Definitely drawing—ever since I could hold a crayon. It’s something that’s always fascinated me. I started music a bit later, when I was about four. And that was a very standard, classical Royal Conservatory of Music training in piano.

Kaczynski

So, there’s music, there’s drawing. When did comics come into it?

Kid Koala

There were two key things that inspired my understanding of what art (or art as entertainment or art as escapism) was. The first was story book records. They weren’t comics per se. They had illustrations, they had text to read along to, and there was a musical component: a little seven-inch record that included voice actors and sound effects and a musical underscore. I remember very clearly—time stood still—and I’d get lost in the sounds and images of these records. I don’t know how that affected me cognitively, but the two worlds became inseparable to me. Because now when I hear music I always picture a story, somehow. Sometimes it’s a goofy animated story; sometimes it’s a dramatic story with humans. When I listen to a Billie Holiday record, for instance, I’ll imagine that song playing somewhere specific. I always try to find a visual context for the sound. That’s just how my brain works, I guess. 


The other thing was Charlie Chaplin films. Before seeing those, if my family was watching TV, it probably was the news or something. That didn’t interest me too much: it was just a bunch of adults talking about boring things. My parents said that when we were kids we loved watching Charlie Chaplin’s movies, so they started a family movie night. We’d all sit around the TV watching Chaplin films, and that’s when I realized that this isn’t the news; this isn’t documentary. I realized: whoever made one of these films, like Modern Times, they created all these effects on the screen. And those scenes had a lot of technology in them: when it looked like a whole house was bent over because of the wind—but you know that’s not possible—it was a special effect. In some ways it was a very low-tech, but it served its purpose.

Kaczynski

Right, it’s all in the camera. Very low-tech, but very effective.

Kid Koala

Turn the camera on the side and now it looks like they’re climbing vertically. But, it’s just the way that it’s positioned on the screen. And all of a sudden I had this Whoa! moment: there’s a lot of creativity behind it. I remember thinking very clearly: OK, this isn’t the news, this isn’t actually happening, somebody made this story. And something about how the music worked, how the characters developed, and how the plot unfolded made you feel—you laughed or cried or were on the edge of your seat.

Kaczynski

Your comics are almost always silent as well. Well, there’s a soundtrack, but silent in the sense that there are no word balloons.

Kid Koala

My parents had some Chinese comic books. I remember reading them, and I couldn’t read Chinese characters yet—I was too young—so I had to figure out the story from the action. For the most part I could sort of read them. I’m sure I didn’t understand all the jokes, but on some level I was still able to read it just through the drawings. I always liked that. There is something universal about it.

Kaczynski

That’s interesting. I grew up in Poland, before coming to the States. A lot of the media I was exposed to back then—music, comics, movies, etc.—was foreign. I didn’t understand the lyrics or the words. I had access to comics that I couldn’t read either. The visuals were very important, and somehow that imprinted itself on me, and eventually it expressed itself in my desire to make comics. I wonder if there is some kind of correlation: somebody should do a study on the early childhood of cartoonists!

Kid Koala

(Laughter) It’s a medium where all kinds of surreal things can happen. And it’s part of its code. If this illustration depicts a four-story building on the edge of a tiny cliff that clearly can’t hold the weight of a four-story building, you just believe it because it’s in a comic book. You can push the limits of reality. In the comics I grew up reading, it seemed to be part of the adventure. “Well, yeah, in reality that scene could never fly, but in this book it does,” and you just roll with it. I feel that same way, oddly enough, about scratching. You can take very real sounds that people are familiar with—sounds of waves, birds chirping, a solo instrument, a human voice—but then on a turntable, you are allowed to bend it out of range out of what’s possible in the “natural world.” The language of scratching is always that. It’s about twisting and bending into the surreal range. That’s the joy of it. I think that’s kind of why I like the two mediums.

Kaczynski

Drawing is the cheapest special effect, right? You can just draw anything; you don’t have to think about how it’s going to translate onto the screen.

Kid Koala

Exactly. I really like that about comic books—and how you can stretch or compress time on every page. You can read it very technically. Somebody said it takes about seven seconds per page to read a silent graphic novel. So you could literally time it out. Someone could methodically flip through the book just for plot. But there are also all these moments when you can slow things down. For example, on a two-page spread I can give it a little more focus or detail, or on the next page I can jump 50 years into the future, and that’s fine. It’s not as jarring in the comic book world. But if you do it in a film in just one hard cut, people would be like, “What’s going on?”

Kaczynski

Comics have that pliability where you can really play with all that. You can extend a single second into many, many pages. It’s one reason why superheroes worked so well in comics for a long time. Because until recently no one could do them any better on the screen.

Kid Koala

Right!


Kaczynski

The Hulk is destroying a whole planet in a single panel.

Kid Koala

(Laughter) This is going to be a very expensive page.

Kaczynski

What kind of comics did you read when you were growing up? Were you into all the Marvel and DC stuff?


Kid Koala

I remember seeing comic books at the Max Milk (it’s the Canadian 7-11). They would have mainly DC and Marvel stuff. I didn’t have much money. I had a paper route before school. It was probably enough to afford one vice. And at the time I just started to get into collecting records. But I had friends that were very much into superhero comics. I was exposed to them, but I never got into collecting. I always preferred space-travel stuff from the ’50s. Things like the EC Weird Science comics.


Kaczynski

Classic science fiction.

Kid Koala

I always liked that in films. too. Growing up in the ’80s, I already felt nostalgic for how the Space Age was supposed to turn out—for the future from our past, in films like Logan’s Run or Forbidden Planet. EC comics, Weird Science, and stuff like that were very fun for me to read. I felt I was living in the wrong era. I was 30 years late to that party.

The only new comics that came out in the ’80s that I caught on to were the first four or five [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the early black-and-white ones. All my friends were really into ninjas. There was a whole slew of ninja stuff happening at the time.


Kaczynski

The American Ninja movies…

Kid Koala

Even prior to that, things like Revenge of the Ninja, Return of the Ninja, a TV show called The Master. Everything was ninja. There was Knight Rider and Street Hawk, and then there was also all this ninja stuff going on. I remember my friend lending me his copy of that first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic—how dark and grimy it was. I didn’t know they were referencing Frank Miller at the time, I just totally got drawn into it. So weird, but so wonderful. They live in the gutters, and the drawings are very shadowy and scratchy. I really liked that.

Kid Koala

Whenever I go on tour, I’ll go into comic books store just to ask what’s new and to get the short list. I got a book about Wally Wood…

Kaczynski

He did a lot of those old sci-fi comics for EC, too…

Kid Koala

I love those tones. I’ve heard [Palookaville cartoonist] Seth wears suits tailored from the ’50s. I’m not there yet, but in terms or digging for tones, digging for studio equipment, keyboards, microphones, and recording technology, I am always searching for that. How did that theremin sound? Why are the sound effects in those Ed Wood movies this way or that way? There’s something about the dust you know? The educational films that we had to watch in school, with early electronic soundtracks from the National Film Board—

Kaczynski

Those are amazing. The BBC on the other side of the ocean. People like Delia Derbishire and Ron Grainer.


Kid Koala

Yeah, the Radiophonic Workshop stuff. I just have a penchant for those tones. Sometimes when I find a relic of a synthesizer or a drum machine or some wire recorder from Chicago from the 1940s, I immediately become fascinated with the fact that this is the primitive version of a dictation machine. It has a specific tone to it. And it’s so big and clunky by today’s standards. It’s something your phone can easily do, but still there’s a vibe about that…

Kaczynski

That goes back to the tactile thing I mentioned—this is the device that makes that specific sound. You can simulate that sound on the phone but it is amazing to see how it was built in real life.

Kid Koala

Exactly. It’s funny, in Nufonia [a song] has to be burned onto a CD. (Laughter) That was a weird moment in time that will probably be forgotten. We’ve gone back to analogue tape, which came before the CD. That’s stuck around more. When you see a rotary phone with a coily wire coming out of it, that still reads as what it is.


Kaczynski

A phone.

Kid Koala

Yeah, but if you see a CD: what’s that?

Kaczynski

That was one of the many little anachronisms I saw in the book. There’s that little Internet cafe in the beginning… 


Kid Koala

I used to have to go to those! And Mallory [a Nufonia character] has a PalmPilot! (Laughter) Wow, ridiculous!

I look at this book and it’s just like embarrassing high school photos. Why didn’t I spend more time drawing that one! (Laughter) Some of the drawings were done on a moving tour bus; they have this wobble. When [Nufonia production designer] KK Barrett talks about the aesthetic he wanted for the show, he said, “We’ve gotta make sure that we still have Eric’s wobble in there.” And I’m like, “Hey! That wobble is actually unintentional! (Laughter) It was drawn at 100 km/hr.”

I don’t know if you know the story of how the book came about. A publisher approached me after picking up the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome album, which included a mini comic. They wanted me to do a textbook: 100 pages, 10,000 words. I think they wanted me to do Kid Koala’s guide to turntabling mechanics or something like that. I started writing that book… and I just bored myself to tears. You can do this as a YouTube clip, and in 30 seconds it’ll have the same amount of impact! Instead, I started drawing this robot over and over again, and just let my mind wander, and it turns into a 300-plus–page book! Instead of 10,000 words, it has no words! That was the manuscript I delivered—knowing full well that they had every right to ask for their advance back. And they said, “What is this?” (Laughter) They published it anyway.

Kaczynski

I’m always fascinated how comics outside of the comics world come about.

Kid Koala

Right. When Ninja Tune asked how I wanted to package my album, I thought it would be cool if it had a comic. (Laughter). I collect records, and I get deep into the liner notes. I’ll read everything: it’ll give you the context of how a record was made, what was going on at the time, what the intention was. Like on Monty Python albums. If you enjoyed the humor on a Monty Python album, the liner notes were an extra hour and a half of entertainment. If you look at The Holy Grail, it’s covered in text. There are more jokes, more footnotes, anecdotes… I thought that was such a rich experience.


Kaczynski

That’s great! You put out a record and the liner notes are this gigantic silent graphic novel. (Laughter) Had you ever performed Nufonia before it became a puppet show?

Kid Koala

When ECW released the book [in 2003], they asked me to do readings of it. I don’t know how I’d read a silent book to people! (Laughter) We ended up doing a short tour for Nufonia in 2003. We did completely seated shows. I wanted more of a cabaret set up where people sat at tables of two or four. We’d do music from the book. I could introduce some of the characters; we could mess around with the format. That was the first time I realized that we can do a show at a different tempo than 95 to 120 beats per minute. Over the last several releases and tours we’ve tried to refine that idea and continue to look for an audience that might know me originally from a club. But, they don’t want to stand in a club for three hours anymore, and leave with ears ringing. This is the type of show that I would be really interested in seeing! When people ask me, “Did you expect to be here 12 years later touring it as a live-filmed, performed-live, scored-live, theatrical cinema?” No! But if you ask me how I got here, I can connect the dots.


When I met Adrian Fung from the Afiara Quartet, K.K. Barrett, and Félix [Boisvert, one of Nufonia’s principal puppeteers]—all at the same time—there was this mutual interest to work on a project. I wanted to bridge the gap between all these worlds, where everyone could add their expertise—something that’s out of our comfort zones but, at the same time, truly collaborative and a new adventure. When I sent K.K. a copy of Nufonia, I wanted to show him the idea of narrative and storytelling. Since films were such a profound influence on me anyway, I wanted to show him how all that filters into my work. That’s how we ended up here with this tour.

Kaczynski

I’m jealous: when I do a comics readings I don’t have a soundtrack.

Kid Koala

I can’t separate the two, but your drawings will be better. (Laughter) My drawings might not be as good, but I might have the right music to pair with it!


Tom Kaczynski is an Eisner and Ignatz award–nominated cartoonist, designer, illustrator, writer, teacher, and publisher based in Minneapolis. His comics have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, MOME, Punk Planet, and many other publications. His first book, Beta Testing the Apocalypse is out now from Fantagraphics. When he’s not drawing comics, he runs the graphic novel publishing house Uncivilized Books.

Eric San, aka Kid Koala

Photo: Corrine Merrell

Sketches for Nufonia Must Fall Live

Kid Koala, Nufonia Must Fall

Photo: ©Jorn Mulder

Artwork from Nufonia Must Fall

Kid Koala, Nufonia Must Fall

Photo: AJ Korkidakis

Making robot puppets for Nufonia Must Fall Live

Puppeteers at work underneath Nufonia’s set

Kid Koala as drawn by Tom Kaczynski