Tunnel Vision

Bullfrog and Kid Koala look to bridge the band-DJ divide

By 2000, when Koala released his debut full-length, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, the baby-faced turntablist had become a full-fledged international sensation.

Still, Koala remained committed to his bandmates in Bullfrog. The group backed him on a handful of Carpal Tunnel tracks (including the memorable lounge lothario send-up "Barhopper") and later joined him on the world tour supporting the album.

Koala's surprising success in turn encouraged the group to push beyond the club scene of their native Montreal. They had already recorded a pair of live EPs that they'd sold from the side of stages throughout Canada, but were eager to take the plunge with a full-length studio effort they hoped would retain the essence of their infectious stage shows.

Turntable master Kid Koala, extreme right, with the band Bullfrog.
Turntable master Kid Koala, extreme right, with the band Bullfrog.

"That whole hip-hop ethic of making records on your own and just getting [them] out there, that was an important thing for us," Robertson says. "In terms of finally making a record, [Koala] influenced us in the sense of saying 'Fuck it, do it yourself, do it in your basement.'"

The band would do just that, completing the album in a makeshift studio in Robertson's home. Gathering together a mix of tracks -- including rerecordings of several older cuts, a handful of new compositions and a smattering of live interludes -- Bullfrog's eponymously titled debut finally bowed late last year on Ropeadope Records, an Atlantic imprint co-founded by John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame.

The 17-track collection is an ambitious hodgepodge of styles, balancing late-night soul with dance-floor funk, loping Latin melodies with furious jazz motifs. Then there are moments, like the title track -- a hypnotic, elastic groove based around the croaking of a frog -- which simply defy categorization.

Robertson proves himself a capable bandleader early on, his blithe fretwork shaping the jazz-twang fusion "Ababa," while his knowing vocal delivery sells the improbable barbershop-quartet funk of "Slow Down." Elsewhere, Peter Santiago's juggernaut bass lines and the percussion of Massimo Sansalone and Joanna Peters set a moody foundation for tracks like the Gamble and Huff pastiche, "Snakeskin," and the brooding, vampish "Ya Ya."

However, the real highlight of the record comes in hearing Kid Koala scything through the proceedings with a series of sharp sonic slashes.

"In one song he's comping organ chords, adding percussion at the same time and making some background textural noise," marvels Robertson. "On another song he's actually holding the melody. And on another song he's actually mixed into the drums. He has a lot of range. He's not just a sampler or justa guy making keyboard sounds. The beauty of [a DJ] is he can be whatever you want."

Koala demonstrates his versatility to stunning, understated effect on the Marvin-meets-Mayfield closer "Mark After Dark." As Robertson's liquid guitar lines breathe an air of classic soul into the song, Koala emerges with a litany of curiously clipped organ fills to create a blissful hybrid of old- and new-school aesthetics.

"We could have had a keyboardist come in and play on it," says Robertson of the song. "But with Eric doing it, it achieves a different sort of feel. The fact that the record is already recorded and produced with a certain kind of sound -- it produces a different kind of cerebral effect than a real organ would have."

San, for his part, doesn't view the turntable as an all-purpose replacement for traditional instrumentation.

"I don't think [a turntable] is some kind of super instrument or über instrument that makes all other instruments obsolete. I think there is ability for it to make rhythm-section figures or harmonic figures, or play lead or supportive roles. But ultimately, it should end up sounding like a turntable. I've always enjoyed the fact that a turntable has its own unique sound -- it's kind of antiquey, almost. And on a track like ['Mark After Dark'], it's not about trying to copy an organ, but taking that sound and putting a different spin on it."

Another interesting twist occurs with the cut-and-paste Philly soul of "Shine" -- a track where Koala actually triggers Robertson's vocals using a demo of the song that he pressed onto a dub plate. Again, Koala's handiwork -- a woozy, puckish mutation of Robertson's voice -- lends an otherworldly quality to the tune.

"I treated it like a background vocalist would have," notes San. "It's like if I were to sing around or loop some words around in the back to make it lift in certain spaces. That [subtle] type of thing is more what I'm interested in. I'm not down with the gratuitous stuff; that kind of thing just bores me." (One exception to this is a frenetic live version of "Music for Morning People" -- retitled "Alright: Music for More Morning People" -- which serves as a showcase for Koala's prodigious talent on the Technics.)

Aside from the inspired mélange of old-school jams and modern turntable wizardry, the album is dosed with a brand of absurdist humor courtesy of MC blurum13's deadpan rhymes and the left-field snippets that Koala throws into the mix.

"We all have this sense of humor, this common love of weird comedy," says Robertson. "When we write a lot of the tunes, if we find something that makes us chuckle we'll go with that."

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