Bullfrog guitarist Mark Robertson could feel the heavy gaze of the audience as he took the stage. Slowly plugging in his Stratocaster, he looked out upon a packed house, only to find a sea of angry, disdainful faces staring back up at him and his bandmates.
Robertson had expected as much. Playing to a room crammed with electronic-music purists did not seem like a very welcoming proposition for a funk outfit rooted in the traditional muse of artists like the Meters and James Brown. Still, the group had agreed to back their friend and fellow bandmate DJ Kid Koala as part of a package tour of turntable superstars. Now the real challenge came.
With the assembled masses eyeing the band's amps and drums suspiciously, Bullfrog started to play.
Bullfrog and Kid Koala
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 10. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Slowly, and with each passing number, the group beat back the crowd's resistance -- first with some muscular rhythms, then with searing jabs of melody -- until finally the entire place was all but consumed by the music emanating from the stage. By the end of Bullfrog's brief set, the scowls of the audience had completely melted away, leaving beatific smiles of acceptance in their place.
It was a scene that would repeat itself as the band passed through the electronic-music dens of Europe and America, converting audiences with an effusive brand of showmanship and a funky resolve capable of swaying even the most hardhearted club cynics.
"It was a feeling of winning people over," recalls Robertson two years after the fact, a trace of pride lingering in his voice.
"After they saw how we were playing together, they could sense the musicianship in the band," remembers Eric "Kid Koala" San. "Those audiences, even the purist types, they appreciate the performance aspect. That's something you can't deny, and we gave it to them."
For the members of Canada's Bullfrog, converting the proverbial musically unwashed must have seemed a far-flung goal -- at least back in 1994, when they took up residency at Montreal's Club Voltaire.
It was there that the group -- Robertson, San, bassist Peter Santiago, drummer Massimo Sansalone, percussionist Joanna Peters and MC James "blurum13" Sobers -- first convened, staging a series of weekly revues that mixed turntablism and live music in a giddy party atmosphere.
"It was about having an evening that was a total party, a celebration, and getting things going that way," remembers San, who would spin several varied sets before joining the band for its night-capping slot.
Mostly though, the long evenings at the Voltaire found Bullfrog engaging in a brand of unmitigated funk, a far purer strain than the watered-down grooves of the acid-jazz movement of the day.
Along the way, the group began crafting material that bridged the band-DJ divide, somehow housing the tightly wound R&B of Booker T and the MGs and the chaotic break beats of Mantronix under the same roof. The experiment would go on to have profound impact on both sides, eventually changing Robertson's songwriting methods and proving equally pivotal in shaping Koala's spinning style.
"It completely altered the way I approached playing," says San. "Before I met Mark and these cats, it was a lot of practicing by myself in a vacuum in my bedroom. Just prepping for competitions -- which was a whole different thing. Those are situations where you get up for 90 seconds and try to show off what you can do. With a band, I learned how to play more supportive parts. 'Cause not every song was 'Hey let's show off our DJ.'"
Throughout the latter half of the '90s, the group's popularity grew steadily in and around the Montreal club scene. Undertaking a series of regional tours in Ontario and Quebec, band members realized they had unwittingly become part of a musical crusade.
"Being a Canadian band, we were playing in a lot of places where it hadn't really hit [audiences] that DJs can be musicians," says Robertson, "that you can be as much of a musician on two turntables as on a traditional instrument."
"So in a sense we were turning this 'band audience' on to hip-hop. And then later, when we went to Europe, it was the opposite. The [club] crowds there hadn't seen guys holding guitars unless they were playing grunge or something. So, in one way or another, we've always been crossing over and reaching different audiences."
About three years into Bullfrog's run, a funny thing happened: the group's DJ, Eric "Kid Koala" San, became a solo star.
Having already made sufficient noise in scratch circles, Koala found his profile raised considerably in 1997 when he signed a deal with the U.K.'s Ninja Tune label, an imprint owned by famed Brit freestyle-DJ tandem Coldcut.
Ninja Tune quickly issued a 10-inch version of Koala's by then legendary underground mix tape, Scratchhappyland. He followed that up with the release of the popular Charlie Brown 10-inch and a memorable appearance on the second volume of the Bomb's Return of the DJ compilation. Soon Koala would contribute to a string of high-profile projects from the likes of Peanut Butter Wolf, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030, among others.
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.
"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 just a 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."
Koala's vinyl crates famously include a plethora of unusual thrift-store finds, everything from instructional LPs to celebrity vocal curios to platters full of animal noises. These collages of found-sound oddities grace cuts like the record-industry satire "Extra Track II," and the bizarre running conversation of "Massimo's Wild Wilderness." Elsewhere, blurum13 takes a page from Del Tha Funky Homosapien's book for the ironic "Reverse Psychology" -- and its cheeky anti-dancing refrain -- while he infuses the lazy beats of "Nice Try" with a litany of pointed comic raps.
Viewed from a distance, Bullfrog's efforts are clearly part of a larger movement toward redefining the parameters of what constitutes a funk or R&B band in a post hip-hop, post-DJ world. It's a concept similarly being explored by groups like L.A.'s Breakestra, New York's Antibalas and even experimental endeavors like DJ Logic's recent turn fronting a six-piece band.
"I don't know if it's a trend or whatever, but for me it goes back to an organic style of playing," says Robertson, "which is one of the great musical innovations of the 20th century. It's something that started with blues and jazz and has gone all the way through to hip-hop. I think it's good that there are a lot of live bands who are dabbling and bringing in some modern elements, but at the same time staying true to the roots of where they're coming from."
With the release of Bullfrog, 2001 proved to be a breakthrough for the group. It also turned out to be an equally memorable period for San -- beginning with his scratch work gracing the smash Gorillaz album and ending with the DJ being tapped to play a series of sold-out arena shows with Radiohead. "It was so bizarre," recalls San of the high-profile opening slot. "I had to keep pinching myself. I mean, when else are you going to be able to play records at Madison Square Garden?"
As to his upcoming projects, San remains busy on a number of artistic fronts. Along with plans for a follow-up to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (slated for early 2003 on Ninja Tune), the turntablist is hard at work on a graphic novel for ECW Press. Described as a "romantic tragedy involving a robot," San says the book's release will be accompanied by a soundtrack of "non-DJ" music that he's composed.
As to the immediate future, however, San is dedicating himself to spreading Bullfrog's sound worldwide. In addition to prepping material for its sophomore album, the band will devote the bulk of 2002 to an extended tour, beginning with a cross-country U.S. jaunt before moving on to Canada, Europe and beyond.
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SHOW ME HOW
As Robertson and San both note, the Bullfrog/Koala road show, which hits Tempe this week, proudly boasts an eclectic menu of music, with the band's headlining slot preceded by a warm-up DJ set from Koala. The revue format is clearly an attempt to bring the spirit of the group's early Canadian club nights to a wider audience.
"It's taking the whole thing that we did almost a decade ago at Club Voltaire and taking it to different cities and letting people in on it," enthuses San. "As an evening it's almost cabaret-like -- both musically speaking and what happens on stage. For me it's fun and demanding. I need to bring more records to a Bullfrog gig than any other show I do."
Eclecticism aside, San says the motive behind the show is ultimately about taking a party on the road.
"The nature of the band means that the show is going to be a real journey; you're going to be taken to a lot of places. But the goal of it all is simple: It's about having a good time and playing some good music."