Kid Koala’s Space Cadet Headphone Experience
Wednesday, April 4
(Not) better than: Standing up.
Outer space is just like sitting uncomfortably on a concrete floor while gazing up at a disbanded church’s raggedy ceiling that also happens to be peppered with holes poking through to the rafters. It’s also really, really hot, and seemingly lit by halogen lamps. At least according to Kid Koala it is, as the Canadian turntable wizard and comic book creator came to Brooklyn to perform what the pre-show hype promised would be “a unique immersive headphone concert experience” during which “the audience sits in inflatable space pods.” To that set-up, a charming promotional trailer (above) suggested that Koala would soundtrack a projected showing of his graphic novel Space Cadet. It sounded like it could have been bliss, transporting each audience member off to an insular new world and immersing them in sounds and visuals as the story unraveled. But the arrangement was only partly true and only applied to some of the crowd, either through disingenuity or design.
The disingenuous part came from the way it seemed that greed won out, as the lack of space pods resulted in around a third of the audience being left to sit on rickety chairs or the bare floor. This was not any sort of way to immerse yourself in anything other than discomfort. Frustratingly, the way the venue was set up meant that those who got into the space spirit of it all and either partook in the pre-show art gallery and otherworldly-themed games (of which you could win raffle tickets) or, you know, actually went to the bar area and bought a drink, were pretty much guaranteed to be denied their concert-going right to sit in a space pod for the performance proper, being that they were then lumped at the back of the line to be ferried downstairs for the main show. (Is it not an ancient rule of honorable gig promotion that you do not sell more tickets than you have space pods?) Anyone who paid $30 for a ticket on the basis of the night’s promotion would probably be in the moral right if they were to ask for their money back. (Journalistic disclaimer thingy: The kind people at Ninja Tune allowed me to sit on the floor gratis.) It might seem churlish and overly curmudgeonly to complain about not getting to lounge against what was basically an oversized pillow, but this was billed as an “experience,” not just a gig. A major part of that experience was the promise of offering fans something different from the stale show format—but the disorganized and potluck format of the evening slated that.
The bulk of the Space Cadet Headphone Experience was more of a curious disappointment than anything revelatory. Copping out on his own commitment, Kid Koala didn’t so much as soundtrack Space Cadet as let a few illustrations from the book flash up on screen while he offered some atmosphere-breaking director’s commentary, invited audience members up on stage to play games like thumb wrestling, and performed a rag-bag of songs—one with Damon Albarn, some from the Space Cadet soundtrack, and some from his upcoming, blues-themed album. Overlooking his searing, hyena laugh—not the sort of thing you want to experience through a pair of oversized headphones—Kid Koala came across as a likable nice guy as he told his anecdotes, but he’s not a born host or yarn-spinner. These constant breaks and asides kept tearing at the intended intimacy of the night.
There’s a point in Space Cadet where the robot, who has been left lonely and displaced back on planet Earth while the subject of his guardianship jets around the cosmos, uses a painting kit to write her an “I miss you” note. It’s tender, and brings up parallels with real-life father and daughter relationships—as alluded to by Koala throughout the night, as he explained how parts of the soundtrack were inspired by creating lullabies for his daughter. But the emotional pull evaporated every time the pure union of music and image was cut by the voice of someone talking over it. Worse still, it wasn’t long into the night that you realized that the headphones didn’t add anything to the entertainment: Audio might have been channeled through them, but it wouldn’t have made any difference had Koala broadcast through ye olde traditional, Earth-wired speakers. The headphones went from being an integral part of the pitched evening—the gig goers equivalent of wearing 3D goggles in a plush private cinema—to a clunky gimmick.
Kid Koala deserves some sort of a pat on the back for attempting to come up with a way to present the idea of scratch-based DJing in a live arena without it becoming a spectacle for turntable nerds. The idea of using turntables to manipulate sounds and samples to score an animated comic book story is appealing and potentially heartwarming. But that relies on taking the audience into an alternative fantasy world, not fracturing the night with needless commentary and attempts at “audience participation” that bordered on the variety show. As Kid Koala began his Space Cadet Headphone Experience, he responded to the crowd’s somewhat muted opening applause by quipping, “Glad to see we’re all jaded about live gigs.” He meant it self-deprecatingly, but the words would soon go on to sting. The Space Cadet Headphone Experience was meant to shoot you up into another world for a couple of hours, but it ended up leaving you firmly grounded in this one.
Critical bias: I twice emailed the show’s publicist to ask if I could take a space pod home. Each time she merely LOLed.
Overheard: “It’s really hot in here.” “I know.”
Random notebook dump: The guy in a blue t-shirt who kept his headphones on while going to the bathroom during the song where Kid Koala dressed up in a marsupial costume did not wash his hands, giving a less-than-fresh new meaning to the phrase “dirty hipster.”