By his own admission, the DJ Kid Koala "makes books without words and albums without songs". For which he apologises, though he really doesn't need to. The man known to his mum as Eric San is a champion scratch DJ who builds unique music from his massive collection of old vinyl. He's also a talented cartoonist who draws touching comic books (he prefers the grander term "graphic novels") about "robots trying to write love songs" (Nufonia Must Fall, ECW Press), complete with their own soundtracks. The albums that San cuts and pastes on his turntables may not fit the conventional three-minute pop formula but, like his comic books, they're filled with so much passion, skewed humour and talent that it doesn't matter. San does things differently; this is the man who stops his live shows for games of bingo.
In person, the fresh-faced Chinese-Canadian suffers from the same shyness that makes five-year-olds hide behind their mothers' legs. Over breakfast in a West-End hotel, he sits so far into the corner of the tea room it's as though he's trying to disappear. It would seem that the quiet, self-effacing San would rather sweep himself under the carpet of human existence than big himself up. Considering he counts Radiohead and Björk among his growing army of fervent fans, you'd expect him to be a bit more cocksure. But what the 29-year-old lacks in ego he makes up for with an abundance of wide-eyed enthusiasm.
"If you're going to do something, do something fresh," says San. It's a motto he's stuck to since 1988 when he visited a record shop with his older sister and first heard hip hop. Up until then, San's experience of music was mainly limited to the piano lessons that his mother made him take. But when he heard those chunky beats and, in particular, the snapped-back stutter of the scratching, his virgin ears were seduced. From then on there would be a different, hipper, occupation for his idle teen hands. "That was the beginning of the end for me," he chuckles. The money he'd previously spent on sweets and firecrackers was now put towards decks and vinyl. Acts like Coldcut, De La Soul and Public Enemy fuelled his passion. "The way they put stuff together to sound so new every time," he says, awed. "They were trying things."
Which is exactly what San has gone on to do on both his 2000 debut, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and October's excellent Some of My Best Friends Are DJs. Like DJ Shadow but a lot more fun, San borrows vintage sounds from jazz, blues and soul and hand-splices them with scuffed beats and random snippets of spoken word to build warm layers of quirky patchwork tunes. He rightly calls his music "short attention-span theatre" - fat jazz beats roll lazily beneath tweaked piano hooks, then give way to funky rhythms woven from stammering trumpets and mighty scratch-battles that whiz over bubbling underwater basslines. Every single sound - from strings and oboes to sneeze sound effects - is taken from vinyl and filtered through San's turntables. Using his masterly scratching skills, he warps, stretches and manipulates the crackling records into his very own humour-infected melodies.
But if hip hop was San's inspiration, Muppet maestro Jim Henson was his guiding light. "Henson created a surreal, clever world - a hodgepodge of music, characters, stories, visuals and sentiments, that just made sense to me," says San, eyes bright. Henson's influence floods through San's work, from the witty sonic skits on his albums to his fun-filled cabaret-esque gigs - which breathlessly flit between music, stand-up, animation, scratch battles and, of course, bingo.
Beneath San's love of the absurd lies an endearing sentimentality - he thinks of his albums as a "little present for somebody". And like a kid putting together a compilation tape for a friend, the same effort goes into his homemade artwork. The inlay booklets for both his albums have been 50-page comic books featuring his sweet characters. San likes couples to come to his gigs - especially first dates - and runs competitions where he plays private sets in the winners' living-rooms (even providing a finger buffet).
It's as though he wants to be invited into his fans' lives. San bashfully agrees: "Yeah. You have to realise, anyone proficient at scratching at some point had to deny themselves a social life. No matter how arrogant they seem, DJs are lonely people - on New Year's Eve when everyone's tinkling champagne glasses we're stuck behind the decks with our boxes of records. It's all quite tragic."
"You might have practised one scratch technique for years," he continues. "But at the end of the day you want to get up there and somehow speak through the music. You want to play turntables at the level Maceo Parker can play sax or Thom Yorke can sing. You want to be that expressive." A huge grin lights up his face. "You want to bring people together."
"Some of My Best Friends Are DJs" is out now on Ninja TuneReuse content