Kid Koala’s “Creatures of the Late Afternoon” Is a Return to Form

Chris Daly connects with Kid Koala over Zoom to learn about his newest album and its board game.
By    April 14, 2023
Photo: Corinne Merrell

Image via Kid Koala/Instagram

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Chris Daly says that the world needs more electro-funk cowboys.

To call Canadian musical mult-ihyphenate Kid Koala the most creative-minded DJ in the business seems hyperbolic at best, but as I sit with him on Zoom test playing his latest creation, the accompanying board game to his album, Creatures of the Late Afternoon, I think the case can be made. After all, the turntable legend born Eric San tours with elaborate puppet shows, hosts hands-on turntable orchestras, soundtracks graphic novels in real time, and has collaborated with everyone from Gorillaz and Deltron 3030 to The Afiara String Quartet.

“I’m a bit of an explorer; a restless explorer,” he tells me as he sets up the board for our first go. “I’m interested in a lot of things in the creative arts, everything from music and visual art, like painting and drawing and music, time-based art and live art, to theater and even creating film, or the experiential stuff, like a video game. I mean, it’s a combination of all those things, right?”

As the pandemic caused ruin on so many psyches, Koala took the time to bond with his family, spending hours with his wife and daughters drawing and watching animal documentaries. The viewing sessions not only kept his family sane, but it also resonated on a nostalgic level that bubbled into his creative process. “I’ve always loved nature documentaries. When I was a kid, that’s something my mom would allow me to watch on television, and I just ate it up. I was just watching, processing.”

KK found the alarmist nature of these documentaries, well, alarming. “One thing that was kind of different from watching those documentaries in the 80s, or watching them now is that at the end of every episode, now, there’s this like canary in the coal mine moment, where the narrator would just explain to you, but unfortunately, these are the last 27 of these species. So (came about) the idea of creatures of the late afternoon. If you think about it, as a species, you know what I mean? If a day is your time on the planet, say the dinosaurs, their whole day is over. This one with some of these creatures, you know, they might be in, in the late afternoon of their existence here. That was kind of in the air, and that kind of fit into this title that I had kicking around in my head for many years, but I think it just sort of came into focus during the pandemic.”

The music itself is something of a return to form, harking back to earlier releases on Ninja Tune. While the music might be more hip-hop oriented than recent excursions into ambient, the route to the final product took a familiar path. “I was working on a bunch of different music in different genres and styles, just trying to have fun in the studio, and the concept of these creatures started to populate the house. This was just some scratch board drawing, and it was just like, oh, we learned about the mantis shrimp and how they’re the fastest fish in the ocean. Because I’m also into music gear and studio stuff, I thought oh, it’d be funny to have a praying mantis on an SP 1200. Or a salamander on vibes or this crab on modular synth and angler fish on triangle, whatever, you know, as I started drawing all this stuff.”

The inspiration for the board game typifies the type of mental acrobatics I imagine take place regularly inside of San’s brain. “Sometimes it starts just as a funny idea that might occur to me like, oh, if we did a gatefold record, there’s always the decision, well, what are you going to put there? At the time, during the pandemic, my wife and I, Corrine, were playing a lot of board games with our daughters. And it was special, because everybody had enough screen time. And it was just nice to just interact with a board game that was kind of an 80s thing for us. The fact that, hey, this is time spent together with the family, and it’s maybe an hour and a half, but there’s a goal. And then while I was thinking about the packaging for this, I said, ‘Okay, maybe it’d be fun to package it with a board game.’”

The rest, as they say, is gaming history. The concept is pretty straightforward. Utilizing provided cardboard cut-out pieces and dice, players compile a band to grab some studio time and create a song. There are the equivalent of side quests that include staring contests and playing Memory. Eric’s wife, Corinne, was responsible for the design and layout, based largely on sketches and drawings Koala had made that were lying around his creative space.
“Essentially, the point of the game is you’re trying to write songs in multiple genres and save the Natural History Museum through the power of music. And you do that by landing on apartment parties and meeting these musical instrument playing creatures you’re trying to recruit. You need a different combination of cards, but you need to start with a bass player, a vocalist, a drummer, a musical instrument, recording device, some studio time and the song genre card. And so you do that by just going around this game board.” The album plays a further role than just soundtracking the affair, with the album’s inner lock groove serving as a timer for certain parts of the game, making it a truly interactive experience.

Presented as a four-sided, two album affair, the music works as both a soundtrack to an in-the-works, upcoming movie project and as character sketches of the game pieces. And with characters like Rhonda Rhinoceros on drums, Penny Porcupine on vocals and Walsh Walrus on bass, what isn’t there to love? Tracks range from the hardcore intro of “Hear Now” to the dreamlike “When U Say Love” to the sloppy groove of “Once Upon a Time in the Northeast.” Sprinkled throughout, there’s also a series of conversations between what appears to be a robot guest and a front desk chat bot because of course there is. Throughout it all, KK’s narrative, chopped style reigns supreme, acting as the connective tissue a project this expansive needs to thrive.

As San and I run through a quick demo of the game, I know there’s no way he’s cheating, but I start with a series of “whammy rolls” that take away cards while earning others. He’s a gracious gamer, laughing throughout the process and apologizing profusely and unnecessarily as I get a flat tire and loose studio time after previously having lost my vocalist to laryngitis. He intersperses game play with decidedly Kid Koala-ian asides like, “emotion, that’s the main other thing you need can make songs” and “Incidentally, these (game cards including ramen and veggie plate) are all things on my backstage rider.”

San plans to launch the album with a series of live shows running approximately an hour throughout the day all over Montreal before taking a game-play tour version on the road. He rambles off another half dozen projects in the work, including the conclusion to the Nufonia series. The man is nothing if not busy. “I think every project is just a new adventure really and a new opportunity to learn things, kind of apply what I know and my experience to just a new form I kind of enjoy. I bring everything I’ve done prior to that with me and everything I’ve learned to date and just try to see if I can take it to a new space sometimes and yeah, the turntable has been with me all along.”

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