Pay attention to the man in front of the curtain, the one in the koala-bear costume. He's Eric San, the Vancouver-born, Montreal-based turntablist and internationally known DJ who performs and records as Kid Koala, and who earlier this year gave what he calls "chill-out concerts" at a former Buddhist temple in Toronto.
He usually plays clubs, with blockbusting sound systems and sweaty adrenalized crowds. But his Space Cadet Headphone Experience (which he brings to Vancouver's Granville Island this week) is not the body-moving party he normally throws. Do his fans object? Not at all. In fact, they're taking the whole radical departure lying down.
Literally. Lying down. "Prepare for the calm," San instructs from the stage. With the sold-out crowd of 150 or so on their backs, reclining on something like space-age bedrolls and wearing wireless headphones, San and an accompanist present a concert version of his latest and long-in-the-making project, Space Cadet, a graphic novel and ambient soundtrack.
It's a quirky show, involving audience interaction, prizes, Space Invaders shenanigans, intimate electronic music, artwork from his book and lighthearted banter. Thumb-wrestling between a pair of audience members happens, as does San's inimitable vinyl scratching. Tiny on-stage cameras reveal the analog knob-turning and whatnot. Soothing Wurlitzer sounds are here; hip-hop blues and beats are there.
Highlights of the graceful space lullaby provide an architecture to the show. San himself is the wizard of it all, but he doesn't attract attention to himself. (The koala garb only makes an appearance towards the end of the show – it has to do with a bet San lost to a colleague.) Rather, it's the overall multidimensional experience that matters.
Before the concert I had a chance to speak with the famously cheery San, who says Space Cadet began taking shape in 2004, with the birth of his daughter. "Just like most first-time parents, I went into bubble mode," he explained. "You just want to surround your child with comforting sounds."
When the album and book (which tells the story of a girl who outgrows her robot companion) began taking shape, San began contemplating ideas on how to present the conceptual piece live. "The music was a departure for me," said San, who has previously released a graphic novel and accompanying CD (2003's Nufonia Must Fall). "It was down-tempo and lullaby-like, and I wrote it on a piano that was right next to a baby's crib."
The headphone concept was the natural result, with the work's nuances and subtleties preserved in a live setting. "I thought it would be great if the audience heard it the same way I did."
The interactive nature of the presentation extends to pre-concert attractions, including freshly baked cookies and a whole slew of retro-futuristic gadgetry with which concertgoers can experiment. A Battlestar Galactica vocoder mutates voices Cylon-like, and the 1960s-vintage Show'n Tell Record Player-Slide Show devices have been adapted for vinyl scratching.
To San, the interactive preshow fun harkens back to his own childhood visits to science centres and planetariums. "Those places were just outside of your normal experiences." As for the multimedia headphone concerts themselves, they were partly inspired by school librarians and illustrated storytime sessions. "They were an escape for 30 minutes," San explained. "They took you into another zone."
Until recently, shared musical experiences, at their base level, had hardly evolved at all since the 1950s. Concerts? Elvis shook his hips, the Beatles twisted and shouted, U2 rattled and hummed, and everybody paid money to stand or sit and watch them do their thing. And at the dance clubs? A DJ played his records; rhythmic movement ensued.
Things are changing, though. Crowds at this year's Coachella Festival saw a projected image of the late rapper Tupac Shakur "perform." The medium of multidimensional imagery in a concert setting is in its infancy, but we'll see more complex holographic interactions in the future.
The groundbreaking Montreal-based Brazilian Amon Tobin is forever pushing the boundaries of live electronic music. His use of real-time projection-mapping, artful generative imagery and audio-active elements moves beyond the traditional and relatively simplistic wall of flashing LEDs.
Headphones are nothing so new, but now their wireless capabilities offer intriguing possibilities. In the past decade we've seen "silent discos" in which listeners hear competing DJs and dance to music not coming from thumping speakers. The portability of MP3 players gave rise to mobile clubbing and flash-mob happenings in public spaces.
San's Space Cadet Headphone Experience is something of a hybrid of these. He sees it as a breaking down of the fourth wall, and a rethinking of the club-music experience. The feedback so far has been extremely positive. "I've been over the moon," he admitted, emitting his own space-cadet glow. "With my regular shows I can just jump on-stage with a bag of records. But with this, with all the meticulous preparation required, it's testing me, and in a good way."
Kid Koala's headphone concerts take place June 27 (two shows) and June 28. Performance Works, Vancouver.