Canadian DJ on crafting 'Baby Driver' tunes and his dual creative sides
In “Baby Driver,” the movie's protagonist, Baby, spends hours recording homemade mixes, taking captured snippets of day-to-day conversation and layering on programmed drums and synthesizers to create playful, lo-fi, stuttered dance mixes. So when it came time for director Edgar Wright to commission the songs that would appear in the film, he reached out to a DJ with a long history of creating his own playful turntable mixes: Eric San, aka Kid Koala.
“From an anthropological perspective, it was interesting to try and make a track for a movie set in 2017 … where the character is actually finding most of his gear in pawn shops,” said the Canada-born San, 42, who visits Ace of Cups for a headlining DJ set on Tuesday, Aug. 15. “That was the direction Edgar had given me: ‘[Baby lives] off the grid. He doesn't make music on a laptop. Try to use stuff you would find rummaging through flea markets and pawn shops, or stuff he would find in stolen vehicles.'”
San, in turn, embraced a few more outdated pieces of equipment in his quest, including a vintage electronic card reader he was familiar with from his time studying to be an elementary school teacher (he used to “scratch” on the classroom technology, which could be used to create simple audio flashcards) and the E-MU Emulator II, best known to movie audiences as Ferris Bueller's keyboard.
“That brought me back to when that film came out and [Ferris] was sampling coughs and sneezes and trying to get out of school by triggering all these samples,” San said, and laughed. “For historical reasons, I thought it'd be funny to have another appearance of that sampler in film, or at least in the audio.”
One thing the musician didn't anticipate having to correct for was his own skillset, honed over nearly three decades of making music on the turntables. Initially, San cut snippets of movie dialogue to vinyl and scratched them into the mix, but the finished tracks were, in his words, “too accomplished.”
“It was one of those things where it didn't have the naivety that I thought it needed,” San said. “It did remind me of when I was first getting started. … You'd have fun recording your friends burping into [the sampler] and then pitching the burp up and down to make a weird song. When Edgar was describing Baby's character, it was pretty simple. He was like, ‘Imagine, if you could, an awkward kid who stays up all night making weird mixes.' And it was like, ‘Ah, you just described my entire high school existence.'”
The release of “Baby Driver,” and this current club DJ tour, coincide with San's seasonal coming out. In the fall and winter months, the musician, who started studying classical piano at age 4 and picked up his first set of turntables at age 12 or 13, gravitates to the more subdued, traditional sounds that inform albums like the stately, film score-esque Music to Draw to: Satellite, recorded alongside Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini and released earlier this year.
“That's very much my mode in the winter time: I try to make more melodic, meditative music,” San said. “And then once the weather heats up I'm always trying to initiate other energies, whether it's a block party or a club date or playing at a music festival. The snow melts and everyone goes into party mode, and it's the same with me. I leave the Wurlitzer and the Rhodes behind and start gravitating to the drum machines and uptempo-ing everything.”
These dual halves of San's creative self not only prevent him from stagnating musically — “I work pretty hard to make sure I don't go into autopilot,” he said — they also can inform one another, with exposure to more traditional instruments like woodwinds, strings and brass unlocking new turntable techniques.
“Most of my inspiration … comes from watching other instrumentalists do their thing and trying to see, ‘OK, how is that tone changing on that reed instrument? And are you able to do something similar in tone on a turntable?'” San said. “From a mechanical perspective, a turntable has fewer options for shaping your sound. As it stands right now, it's primarily pushing the record back and forth and cutting the sound on and off. With that there are an infinite number of rhythms and pitches you can get, but there are certain tonal things that a brass instrument can do that a turntable can't do yet.”
And it's that “yet” that continually draws the musician back to the decks with the intent to push decades-old technology into new, previously unheard realms — an approach he compared with jazz players.
“Look at the way Thelonious Monk played the piano. Here's this instrument that's been around centuries, and he still found a way to reinvent it … and open doors to other musical worlds,” San said, adding that he feels closer to jazz musicians in terms of mindset and approach than to the current crop of superstar EDM DJs. “When you're learning, that's when you're most excited and most awake and all your synapses are firing. It's an adventure, right? That's sort of it.
“The turntable and mixer were designed for one thing, but depending on what records you're using and the way you manipulate them, you can create whole new experiences. That makes it almost limitless in terms of what's possible. I still think that. I think that way in terms of life. … You're given this many number of days in your life. If you want, like a scratch DJ, you can flip it and do whatever it is you want to do.”