Interview by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
Kid Koala needs no introduction, but just in case…
Eric San is a Vancouver native who moved to Montreal for university in the early 90s. His early self-produced cassette of mixing and scratching, Scratchcratchratchatch, caught the attention of the Ninja Tune label whose North American offices are in Montreal. He’s since released numerous remixes and EPs and two full-length albums on that label, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs, and has toured the world with the likes of the Beastie Boys and Radiohead among many others. His other projects have included playing in Deltron 3030 and Bullfrog, collaborating with Mike Patton and Dan the Automator and touring with Money Mark. He’s also an accomplished comic artist (a strip of his actually ran in the first issue of Fish Piss back in 1996), and recently released a full-length silent graphic novel/ CD called Nufonia Must Fall (ECW Press).
We met up in June, 2004 and spoke about how he started out, the strange art of making records with other records, and, in a Fish Piss worldwide exclusive, about the secret formula for his success.
FP: Were you always interested in records?
ES: When I was a kid, it was always those comic book records– those 45s in the booklet with a story. I still have them all, too. I loved the pictures, the characters and the narration –with an active imagination it was like you were there, you know. I get inspired from movies a lot– you know how sometimes you go see a band, and you’re all excited about it and feel inspired to do some music right after? Sometimes I’ll go see a movie, and it’s like a trigger, I get activated. About half of my records for Ninja have nothing to do with music at all. It’s really about these characters interacting with each other.
FP: I’m surprised you haven’t done any soundtracks yet.
ES: Well, we’ve done four things for Sesame Street, and I think they’ve been approved for the show now. That was me and the animator who did the video.
FP: Are they like those short bits, like the 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-eleven-twelve type things?
ES: Yeah, one of them is about the seasons– they’re all only forty-five seconds long.
FP: Were you also into comic books when you were a kid?
ES: Well in my group of friends, half of us were collecting comics, the other half got into records. Of course, with what little money we had, we could only afford one vice [laughter]. You didn’t get much money delivering the morning newspaper, and that was when I began buying records. But I remember at the time, even new records, a twelve-inch single would be like four dollars. That was when I was maybe thirteen, around the same time I started DJing.
FP: Were you inspired by anything in particular that you heard, when you started scratching?
ES: Oh yeah, it was immediate. I heard this Mr. Mixx track, this DJ– I’d heard scratching before that, but only when it was on songs playing on the radio. But this was all orchestrated, where the verses and choruses were built around scratching, and it was obvious that it was being performed by somebody on turntables. And I’d never seen it before, but maybe it was my musical background, playing piano, I could hear that it wasn’t programmed, that it was live. It was instantly intriguing– the first thing that came to mind was that somebody practiced to make these noises! They’re taking a human voice, stuttering it, repeating it on beat, and off-beat, and up-beat, and then pulling it backwards, all on time, and I was like ”what is going on? This is amazing, it sounds like so much fun!” That was in about ’87, ’88. I immediately asked my sister, who was three years older, who was playing. She’d tell me names and stuff, and I started checking for those records.
Not long after I went to a Radio Shack with an album cover and pointed to the machine in the photo that was between the two record players, and said “I don’t know what this machine is, but I think I need this.” The guy says, “It’s a mixer.” And I was like, “What does it do?”
But my first scratching, for a year and a half after I started, was just using the hi-fi system at home. I would just turn the radio switch– the knob that toggled between AM, FM, Phono and Tape, and how I would work it would be to cut on would be Phono, and then off would be AM –I’d tune AM radio to really quiet static. That’s how I’d practice scratching. Also, I had to scratch with flexi-discs– that was the only thing that wouldn’t skip the needle when I’d scratch. (They don’t make flexidiscs anymore, by the way. We tried to get one for Nufonia Must Fall. In North America, there aren’t any companies making any. I think they even checked in Asia, too.)
I had a really low-tech record player then, one of those cheap hi-fis that had a counterweight, but it was really just a molded piece of plastic. My friend was working at a fast-food restaurant, and got these wax-paper wrappers for the burgers that we’d make slipmats out of. We had tried real wax paper, and tinfoil, fabric, all kinds of things [laughter.] It was a belt-drive, so it needed to be really light.
We made “pause-tapes,” is what we called them. We’d record the song, pause it– try to minimize the gap, try to make the next song come into the next beat, or on beat if you were slick enough. I remember taking the tape out and rewinding it a bit with my finger, figure out from practice the amount I had to turn to avoid a gap. I didn’t even know what that was exactly; now I know it’s because the play and record heads are spaced apart.
That tape deck was terrible– the erase heads didn’t work well on it, so it would be like a double exposure with film, but just on one channel. So I used to record just beats, all through on one track, and then go back and record over it with spoken word and scratching. But in record mode, I couldn’t hear the beat, so I had no idea if I was on time until I played it back. Which is funny, because some people listen to my albums now and say “Do you still do that?” [laughter] Maybe my ears got used to it. I’ll still be like “Yeah, that kinda clashes, but it’s cool!”
FP: Do you still have any of those old tapes?
ES: I’m sure I do, but they’re not really worth hearing.
FP: So when you were 16, how many records do you figure you already had?
ES: Hmm… maybe, a couple hundred? It took me a long time to save up for a good turntable though, they were like $600. The first one I got was a Gemini 1500. I had wanted a 1200 [Technics], but it was already a step up, I mean, compared to those flexidiscs. I was really excited when I could finally do stuff I’d been trying to do, I was like, wow.
I started DJing in high school. I would DJ sweet sixteen parties– which was cool, because I was thirteen [laughter]. Back then, you basically had to play what the older kids wanted to hear. My friends and I spent most of our money on records so we could keep getting DJ gigs.
Even when I first moved here, I was DJing at Gert’s at McGill. I had to buy records that I personally would never listen to. But that was the gig that was there, and you learn things like crowd dynamics– especially Thursday nights there, it was pretty crazy.
FP: Is there any seriously bad stuff you still remember cringing at having to play?
ES: Hmm, at that time– Ace of Base. Serious requests for that. There were always records you had to play, like Red Red Wine. If you didn’t play that by eleven-thirty, somebody was going to come and punch you out.
FP: I assume you still accumulate a lot of records, check out the local shops when there’s dead time on a tour…
ES: Yeah, you know, if I pass by a place that might have some records, I’ll go in and check real quick. “Oh, there’s more records in the basement.” In the States, I’ve bought records in barber shops. For a time barber shops were like hangouts, or neo-speakeasies, you’d go there, shoot the shit, listen to new tunes and pick up a couple records. On a few occasions on tour, I’d be getting a haircut, and they’d ask “So what are you doing in town,” “Oh, I’m doing a show,” “Oh really, what kind of music,” “Oh, I just kinda play records, cut up records,” “Oh, vinyl records? We got a few boxes of those left from back when we used to sell those, you’re welcome to look through them.” Some of that stuff, too, I’d never heard of, a lot of local stuff in those places.
But I don’t go much to these record stores where they have all these records up on the wall, and it’s like “No, you can’t listen to that, you can only look at it.” [laughter] I’m not like that with my records—the whole point of a record for me is to play it, or play with it. Most of my records aren’t really worth much, except to me. Some of them might be pretty rare, but not in a desirable way—they’re rare, but nobody really cares [laughter].
FP: Can you name offhand some of the weirder records you’ve come across?
ES: Well, I have this one that is called Medical Aspects of Venereal Disease, it’s just a panel of VD experts talking. There’s something about it that I find compelling. I can’t help but imagine where it was recorded, probably four people flown in to make this album. And all I’m thinking while listening is, what do a bunch of VD experts do after a recording session?
What else– I have records that teach you how to grow taller. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the ad at the back of the comic book, “Grow taller in 14 days, buy this album.” So A: there’s the comedy that this record was made, went from idea to somebody financing it, somebody selling it, then somebody buying it! So I spend a moment just thinking about all those people, and for some reason there’s something comforting about it all. I’m not sure where I come in– “For the record, this record exists, and I just want to say that I enjoy the fact that, as Humans, we sell ourselves records for everything.”
I have records that are How to Pick Up Girls, and you know, I can’t help but think of some poor guy who first owned this, and maybe tried following the advice on it, using these horrible pick-up lines. Did it work? Did he find somebody?
I’ve also got a record that you’re supposed to play for your plants, to help them grow, because there was a study that said that talking to your plants helps them grow. I mean, I’m not a botanist, I don’t really know the legitimacy of it, whether it was the act of talking, or the tone of your voice, or if it was the carbon dioxide exchange with the plant. But for whatever reason, they decided to capitalize on this idea and put out a record for people who are too busy to talk to their plants, and so this person will talk to your plants for you.
It’s a great record– and I’m listening to it now, I’m not even listening to it as a listener, I have to listen to it as if I were a plant. And it’s telling you things like, “Reach for the ceiling, feel the sun on your leaves…” And I’m listening to this, and it wasn’t even made to be heard by human ears. But, meanwhile, there’s an engineer at the session, there’s the guy who made the record, there’s a guy who mastered the record and cut it, there’s the guy at the plant who had to check the test pressing– and then there’s me. So there’s like, six people in the world who’ve actually listened to this record.
FP: And plants.
ES: Yeah, and however many plants.
I have records that are supposed to teach your bird how to talk. You can’t even listen to them, because they just repeat one phrase, over and over for like half the record, and that will drive you insane. I can go to a zoo with these and start a coup.
FP: You can even go to the Botanical Gardens and start a coup.
ES: Uh, yeah. So what can I say, those are the types of records– I wouldn’t spend a million dollars on one, but if it’s there, and I find it, and I realize suddenly that this is a record you play for your plants… It’s kind of silly, and I enjoy that about it. And when I make records, I enjoy making all those universes collide.
FP: I guess sometimes only you know how deep your music goes…
ES: Yeah, and that’s fine. And if you wanted to know, I could get into the details: “This is a song that was made by this orchestra that I arranged that doesn’t exist because all the instruments were recorded in different decades. We’ve got a dog trainer singing chorus, and…” [laughter].
FP: How did it feel when you first ended up on a record?
ES: That was a scary moment, going through the whole process. We were at Abbey Road, at their lathe, that’s where Ninja mastered Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. But first we were getting all the business stuff and arranging the schedules etc. etc., then pulling out all the records I wanted to use, practicing with those, then going in and hitting the tape and doing it. And then to the mastering, and then to the cut, and then to the press and having to go back and by the end I’m like “Wow, so that’s how it’s done,” you know what I mean?
FP: Like you crossed over to the other side or something.
ES: Yeah, all of a sudden I saw the strings and stuff above the puppets. I realized how there’s so many points where there’s so much crap going on, that you really need a lot of actual professional people who do that. It really made me appreciate the whole process.
FP: And how even the plant records involve that, like you were saying.
ES: Yeah! That’s what I’m saying, this isn’t just some guy who had this idea.
FP: Have you ever used your own records as material to scratch with?
ES: Uh, no, but we’ve made tour vinyls [custom-pressed records]. That’s mostly for cueing purposes, tracks that we’re performing with multiple DJs and having to synchronize parts of songs, so that what comes out of the speakers is pretty much like the song. We’ll have someone dedicated to the rhythm section, and we’ll be “Here are your breakdowns, your beats, here are your fills that you have to scratch in,” and we rehearse it like a band, really. When you’re recording and you’re doing it by yourself, layer by layer, it’s one thing, but if you want to recreate it live, sometimes it’s just too quick, you’ve got four bars to change the record, so you’ve got to go with the tour vinyls. Unless you want to set up even more turntables on stage.
FP: I guess you wouldn’t have thought that it would get to that point when you first started scratching, that you’d be mounting stage shows of it, and cutting special records to replicate edits.
ES: Man, I still trip out that people show up. Honestly, even when we just put a single out and they’re like “OK we’re only pressing two thousand of these,” I’m like “What are you talking about, I don’t even know two thousand people!” I’m thinking back to selling chocolate bars in elementary school, when they’re handing them out, and I’d say “I’m good for about forty of them, if I hit up all my cousins, and my grandparents too,” you know what I mean? It’s freaky, going to a city that I’ve never been to, and people actually show up, and actually know something already about me.
FP: So it all started with that one mix tape?
ES: That was in ’96, I was going around in the Plateau, and I would drop off copies in stores that are closed now. I remember Noise being one of them, on Pine, also Chin Fat, remember Chin Fat Records? They’d ask me, “What’s it like?” and I’d answer “I dunno, just stuff done on a four-track, you know.” And they’d say “Well, you can leave them hear and come back in a couple weeks,” and I’d go back a few weeks later and they’d all still be there. So some places would say “I think you should take them out of here,” but then other places would say “Hey, we ran out of your tape!” That was trippy to me, you know? That was insane.
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