We gather in front of Roy Thomson Hall in little clumps, twos and threes accreting together just outside the venue doors, ten of us all together. Grins and little dances of excitement punctuate the conversation as we wonder aloud which songs the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will play. We aren’t the usual TSO crowd, decked out in our denim jackets or striped tights, our seats clustered together in one of the cheaper sections of the balcony. But the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is putting on the “Sci-Fi Spectacular,” a performance of key themes from science fiction movies and television. George Takei, who played Sulu in the original Star Trek series, is hosting the event. There was no question in any of our minds, the moment the show was announced, that we ‘d be going.
We wind our way through the venue, up the stairs and finally to the humble side balcony where our seats are located. Most of us share a row with a man who is wearing a skin-tight latex Superman outfit, clearly a custom job. A black rubber hairpiece is secured to his head with a chinstrap. We look at each other, nod. We are of the same ilk, him and his companion wearing a Thundercats hat, our cluster still chattering about which Star Trek series is the best (my partner fervently asserts that Deep Space Nine is the correct answer). We belong here.
Then, the conductor raises his hands, and we’re enveloped in a wall of sound as the epic strains of the Star Wars overture crashes over us. We’re silent now, wide-eyed; I clutch my partner’s hand.
* * *
I clutch my partner’s hand. My calves ache from wandering around the showcase floor all day; from trekking across the vast Washington State Convention Centre from panel to panel, conference room to conference room; and from walking to our hotel and back several times to offload our purchases. We’re attending Penny Arcade Expo in 2007, founded by the creators of the popular web comic, and devoted to celebrating gamer culture (whether it be console, computer or table top). I expected to buy too much merch, attend panels on world-building and narrative, and shake Wil Wheaton’s hand. I did not expect to find myself at a concert.
I am enraptured, as is the thin, bespectacled man next to me, the man who will, in less than a year, be my ex-husband. We are already coming ever-so-slightly undone, but at that moment we and everyone else in the room feel drawn together, enveloped in a sense of belonging more profound than any I’d experienced before. MC Frontalot, master of nerdcore hip-hop, is rapping on stage. Every rhyme is an in-joke, every line connecting intimately to my particular frame of geeky reference. “Final Boss” hits home, transports me back to playing Legend of Zelda for hours with my little brother. Exhausted as I am, I’m grinning ear to ear, smothered in blue lights and crushed between sweaty bodies. I feel at home.
* * *
I am sitting in a cafe, writing; it’s the first time I listen to Space Cadet. Or, rather, I’m trying to write. The album has absorbed me, and I’m left staring at the screen, unfocused, listening hard. The first piano notes of “Birthday — Page 66” are opening up, tremulously stretching outward as the song expands. New instruments join the mix, which pools and spreads warmly. Instinctively, I reach out to clutch someone’s hand.
While I have never run into Kid Koala in person at a fan convention or a comics festival, or even a symphony performance of music geared towards geeky folk, I can imagine easily standing next to him at any one of these shows. Only a few tracks into Space Cadet, I know this musician understands the sense of belonging that is a necessary part of celebrating geek culture.
“I was in full bubble mode,” Kid Koala says of writing Space Cadet, the title of both his latest album and accompanying graphic novel, while talking to Toronto.com’s Ben Rayner. Much of the album was written while his newborn daughter rested a few feet away in the studio. A sense of home, of intimacy, permeates the 15 tracks on the album, an achingly lovely and tragic story of a young astronaut and her protective robot companion. Each song corresponds to a page of the graphic novel.
Space Cadet is a shockingly quiet album, composed primarily on piano and turntable. It has the feel of a soundtrack, alternately supporting and driving the graphic novel’s narrative forward. At times, the music swells as the emotion of the story crescendos; at other moments, the sound falls away, leaving the story by itself to unfold, lonely and quiet. The warbling imperfections of the production only enhance the haunting sweetness. No matter how loud the listener cranks the volume, you feel you are straining to hear.
In many ways, Kid Koala is attempting to recreate the intimacy of story time – climbing into bed with a book and becoming completely immersed in the text, in the way that only children can, in the way that we as adults strive to recapture via the imaginative mediums of geek culture. The combination of the images and the songs allows the listener to participate. The music and narrative both serve each other, certainly, but they also work to block out the rest of the world. Space Cadet asks the listener to become very vulnerable, to be taken by a text and a soundtrack completely. The challenge, then, is to make the rest of the experience safe and comfortable as well, to further encourage the audience to abandon themselves and engage. To feel like they are home.
* * *
Powerglove bound out onto the stage at the Opera House, carrying guitars and wearing giant foam Koopa shells on their backs. From the moment the band begin to play, the pit erupts into a roiling mass of long hair and neon clothing. Unlike the usual gleeful violence of a metal pit, this one is much more brightly coloured, as kids wield rubber swords and foam mallets, attacking each other with play weapons as much as their shoulders and knees. Powerglove are primarily an instrumental group, and their set includes covers of some beloved music from video games and cartoons, including metal versions of a Super Mario Bros. medley and the theme to Batman: The Animated Series.
Though the band members don’t sing, using their mics only for interstitial banter, the crowd more than makes up for it with their collective voices. When Powerglove close their set with the Pokémon theme song, the crowd screams along every single word.
I am jaded by now; I cover somewhere around three metal shows a week and even my all-consuming love for the genre wears a little thin here and there. The performance is silly; it is also joyous, and I spend the entire set grinning ear to ear. The sense of camaraderie in the room is palpable. The music, a tangible connection to the geek culture, the frame of reference that we all share, is working a bit of magic. We are all in on the joke; we all belong.
* * *
Shortly after intermission at Roy Thomson Hall, the conductor pauses and announces a contest. The audience member who can answer a bit of geeky trivia will be awarded a toy lightsaber. Hands shoot in the air the second the question is asked. The conductor scans the audience, looking for the most eager palm, the most excited face to call on.
A young woman standing next to him is dressed as Princess Leia, complete with trademark updo. Before the conductor picks a lucky winner, he can’t resist leaning over and honking one of her tightly coiled buns.
“Are those noise-cancelling?” he asks. The entire room erupts into laughter. There is no joke so corny that it cannot send us all into paroxysms of glee. These jokes are for us, the music nerds and the sci-fi geeks, and with each in-joke we share, we feel a little more at home.
* * *
Talking to Josiah Hughes of FFWD Weekly, Kid Koala remarks that the ideal listening experience is to put his album on while alone: “it’s a quiet time thing.”
In an attempt to translate a solitary, intimate listening experience into a concert setting, Kid Koala has designed the “Space Cadet Headphone Experience.” Running counter to the usual live music template, which relies on volume and intensity to shape a fully immersive space, this performance strives to create a communal atmosphere, but still relies on the structure of an intimate, personal listening experience. Audience members will all be given headphones and allowed to control the volume. They’ll also be provided with inflatable “space pods,” allowing them to recline in whatever position they find most comfortable. While images from the Space Cadet book are projected onto a screen, Kid Koala will perform the soundtrack on piano and turntables.
What makes the “Space Cadet Headphone Experience” even more compelling is that it’s being co-presented with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, now an annual event held at the Toronto Reference Library. The festival is meant to showcase “the literary and artistic merits of comics and graphic novels,” attracting cartoonists, booksellers and fans. The people who come to TCAF are passionate about words and images and the rich subculture that has sprung up around comics. This audience visits TCAF to meet and mingle, sharing their love for a genre still sometimes categorized as geeky.
It makes sense that the musical component of TCAF is based so heavily upon trust. Even as the story of Space Cadet explores concepts of isolation, and even as the headphones and space pods separate people from each other during the listening experience, the experience ultimately depends on a sense of intimacy. Lost in the narrative, snuggled on inflatable pillows, absorbed in the music, Kid Koala’s Space Cadet will triumph if it makes its audience feel at home.
The Space Cadet Headphone Experience will take place at 918 Bathurst St. on Thursday, May 3rd at 9:30pm and on May 4th at 7pm and 9:30pm. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.