Love & Robots: The Making of Kid Koala's Nufonia Must Fall

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Love and Robots: The making of DJ Kid Koala's Nufonia Must Fall

January 29, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin

Kid Koala and the music-loving T4 robot from Nufonia Must Fall (Photo by Brian Liu)

Kid Koala is a DJ, producer and turntablist who idolizes Thelonious Monk and has opened shows for Björk and Radiohead.

He is also a graphic artist whose Nufonia Must Fall – a wordless graphic novel – has been turned into a multimedia stage production that mixes live puppetry, live filming and live musical performances. It is a happening: Video is edited in real time to create a silent film that is projected onto a screen above the stage. Simultaneously, the audience gets to watch both the finished product and the process by which it is created. There are 70 puppets and a team of puppeteers. There is a string quartet and a turntablist – Koala, who composed the music (with arrangements by Vid Cousins). There are five cameras wheeling this way and that, while the action veers among the 20 sets and the stage crew races to keep up.

“It’s the kind of thing that gives you the dopamine… the adrenaline rush,” says Koala, who is bringing the production to SFJAZZ for five performances (Feb. 7-10). “It is quite a tightrope of a show, one that can fall apart at any moment, and I think the audience can feel that – because they can see us frantically running around!”

Koala – born Eric San – conceived the adaptation, which is directed by K.K. Barrett, a veteran of Spike Jonze productions. A love story with existential undertones, Nufonia revolves around an obsolete robot who falls in love with a robot designer named Mallorie. When the original novel was published in 2003, Koala, then 27, was going through what he calls a “quarter-life crisis” – wondering about the meaning of his life as he flew around the world, DJing hundreds of shows and living out of hotel rooms, alone. We talked to Koala, now 44, about those years and much else, including his upbringing in Vancouver, his love of Monk and jazz, and his life as an artist who tries to build a certain level of improvisation into whatever he’s doing. Never one for set scripts, he enjoys courting “the no safety net aspect” of the creative process.

Kid Koala, who will host a listening party at SFJAZZ on Feb. 6, spoke to us from his home in Montreal.

Q: Let's hear about the music you listened to as a kid.

A: I’d say jazz music has been one of the main soundtracks to my life. My father was always playing jazz and classical records in the house when I was growing up, especially jazz vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone. My mother was really into musicals, so that’s how the holidays were spent, going to see musical theater or movie versions of those shows. Later, I started exploring other instrumental stuff and soloists: I’m a huge fan of Thelonious Monk. Even now, my car actually has a 5-disc changer. I drive my kids to school and they're listening to Thelonious Monk interpreting Duke Ellington or something.

Q: You also played classical piano?

A: It was my first instrument. It provided the foundation of how I hear the world. Starting at age four, my sister and I went through piano lessons and that lasted until I was about 13, playing Haydn, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven. It was a strict conservatory training, not one that fostered a love for the piano when I was a kid. But in hindsight, I'm glad I went through it. Nowadays, playing piano is one of the most calming activities for me – that, and drawing comics.

Q: I’m guessing something changed in your teens.

A: Yeah, when I discovered what was happening in the turntable thing, it was like my musical world got cracked open. Prior to that, the classical music I was playing – those were centuries-old pieces and you weren’t really invited to deviate from what was on the page. My teachers would get frustrated because I would start improvising over the chart, or change the swing and feel of the piece. Whereas when I found out what was happening in the scratch and DJ scene, they were all about branching out and finding new things. So I’d spend all my paper route and lawn-mowing money on records, and I discovered that every record that was released seemed to break all the rules of the last record that was released. And that’s still very fundamental to how I approach my work: Whatever you’re going to do, do it with a bit of a twist, a fresh spin; add your own voice to the mix.

Kid Koala (Photo by Corinne Merrell)

Q: How’d you get started in the scratch scene? This was the 1990s.

A: There wasn’t much opportunity for scratch DJs to perform in front of an audience; it wasn’t like promoters were booking DJs to headline concert venues. So you would get the odd chance to play five or ten minutes at a DJ battle or something.

Then as I got to college, I started playing with bands and that started to change my approach to scratching: to try to play within the music rather than over it. Suddenly it was, “Let’s see if you can contribute to the feeling or the sentiment or the harmonic content in this song.” So over the years, it’s just been a constant growth.

Q: You’ve said that Nufonia is a play on the words “no fun.” As your DJ career too off, were you not having fun?

A: I really enjoy performing and doing shows. But at the time, it was like several hundred shows a year and most of the time you’re just in transit. You’re living on a conveyor belt of sorts and you’re wondering, like, “Hey, I’ve been mostly by myself for the last 200 days.” I remember playing shows on New Year’s where the clock strikes midnight, everyone’s drinking champagne and kissing – and you’re looking through your record crate trying to find the next record. So there was a bit of disassociation there and I thought I had to find a different context for playing, and that’s when “Nufonia” got started. I had signed a book contract in 2000 and began writing a book about survival tips for the touring DJ. The chapters were about “How to do your laundry on a 50-day tour” or “How to recalibrate rental turntables.” I began thinking, “Hmmm, I don’t know if this is actually going to be of interest to anybody.” I eventually dropped the idea and started writing a wordless comic about a tone-deaf robot trying to write love songs, and called it Nufonia Must Fall.

Q: You struck on some universal themes. Let’s talk about the music-loving T4 robot, your lead character.

A: He’s an older-version robot who is very much aware of the fact that there are newer, faster, more efficient versions that are being put into action, and he kind of sees his window closing. It’s a bit of an existential crisis that he goes through, where he has to figure out if he has anything more to offer in a world that’s constantly speeding up. I think every generation has a bit of nostalgia for a time when things were slower and easier to process... But sometimes, with a slight recalibration of your outlook, the world can open up again. In the case of the robot, after facing these obstacles, he's eventually able to find happiness and realizes what he can still contribute to the modern world.

Q: I find it interesting that you went to all those musicals with your mom when you were a kid – and all these years later, you’ve basically created a musical with Nufonia.

A: For me, a more direct inspiration would be Charlie Chaplin, who did a lot of scoring for his silent films. I remember watching Modern Times with my parents and my grandparents. We were all laughing at the same time and getting choked up at the same time, depending on what was happening on the screen. I also remember understanding for first time that there was a production process. Prior to seeing that film, my five-year-old mind actually thought a movie was just real life happening on camera. No acting, no sets. Modern Times caused me to have that epiphany, suddenly realizing that what was happening on the screen was coming from someone's imagination. "They built all this stuff!” It blew my mind. And at that moment, I thought, “I want to learn how they did that.”

Q: And here you are, 40 years later.

A: Right. It was definitely a paradigm-shifting moment.

Q: I get the sense that you and your Nufonia crew are kind of like a band.

A: Absolutely, because everything’s live, including the cinematography and the editing. So we all have to work very much like a band and synchronize for it to work. We have to have our antennae up all the time, and the connection at this point is almost telepathic. We have 15 people on the team, and, after each show, we review what happened: “How do we make this moment sadder or funnier? How do we refine it?” We want to get the feeling and emotion in each scene to the highest level that we can.

Q: Do things go wrong from one show to the next?

A: All the time!

Q: Is your skill set for Nufonia related to the skill set you developed as a DJ years ago?

A: Yes, I think everything I've learn or experienced along the way – I try to apply those skills to the next project. As a DJ, there were a few years where I didn’t do anything but practice a certain six-minute battle routine – you develop a skill set, running through all these minutely timed routines. And then when I played turntables with a band, the song or the form would require me to quick-cue certain things or to change keys; that was another step forward. And if you were to watch me in the Nufonia show, I play piano, which I’ve done from a young age. But at the same time, I’ll have to reach out and play this percussion device – and that kind of multi-tasking comes from what I learned 20 or more years ago in those battle routines!

Q: It sounds spur-of-the-moment – improvisational.

A: It is. We keep a constant eye on each other throughout the show -- the string quartet, the puppeteers, the cinematographer. We play off of each other to get every scene to click.

Q: Your father was really into the Preservation Hall jazz scene in New Orleans, right?

A: When I first started DJing and traveling, he told me, “Hey, if your travels ever take you to New Orleans, you need to go to Preservation Hall.” He described this very pure, very alive music there – like a transcendent experience. I did get to New Orleans and I went to Preservation Hall with this preconception, thinking it would be like this grand theater. And I walked in and realized – wait, this is kind of like a bunker! I stayed all night, three sets, and they did this version of “Beale Street Blues” that became the soundtrack of my trip.

Q: You wound up making an animated video of “Basin Street Blues.”

A: I had decided to make it the lead track on my next album.

Q: It’s amazing. You’ve got this deep walking bass and this fantastic tailgate trombone going throughout the music – which you created entirely with your turntables. What’s the process?

A A lot of the original tones I found were on classical records, but I scratched them in a jazz way. For instance, I found a single plucked note on an upright bass on vinyl. Then I'd practice with that one note and learned to juggle it and bend it into a walking bass line. I’d find some trumpet or trombone or whatever on a classical record and I’d bend that into the melody or solo I was hearing in my head. If I could find one held trombone playing an E in the center rings on a record – that would be like gold for me! I would do that for each instrument’s voice. You keep building it up; it’s quite a long layering process, but I'll be the first to admit it's not jazz. To me, jazz is played by multiple musicians simultaneously, and everyone is playing off each others’ lines. This was just me playing turntable clarinet over my previous take of me playing turntable trombone over me playing turntable bass. It's like a lonely person’s jazz experiment for turntable.

Q: OK, so you created the music for the video. Who did the animation?

A: My cousin in Los Angeles; he calls himself Monkmus. He’s also a huge fan of Thelonious Monk. The funny story is that a couple of years after we released the “Basin Street Blues” video, I got a call from Preservation Hall, and it was Ben Jaffe, the bassist and musical director down there. And he says, “Hey listen, we found your `Beale Street’ video and we love it. We feel like you’ve captured a lot of the heart of New Orleans.” And I basically said to him, “I’m doing my best, but I don’t feel this is real jazz, what I’m doing.” But he told me, “Look, we want you to come down and play in the hall.” And I’m like, “What?” And he says, “Yeah, come on down, there’s a kinship here. Let’s mix it up.”

Q: So you actually wound up playing “Beale Street Blues” with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Preservation Hall? You played turntables?

A: Exactly. They started by projecting my video in the hall on a small screen and around the three-minute mark, the band started playing over it and then they took over as they walked on stage to start the show. Honestly, I was just crying, I was so honored by the beauty of their playing. I was speechless. At the same time, I began playing with them. Ben was like, “OK, turntables trade with the trumpet!” And we’re kind of cutting back and forth, two-bar licks, and I think in those 32 bars of trading I learned more than in a year of DJing by myself. I was in my 30s then, and I realized I still have decades’ worth of work that I need to do on my instrument. I’m nowhere near the level of these jazz musicians. I’ve put in a lot of time, but the fluency – the stuff I hear in my head – my hands still don’t have the muscles to do it. It’s going to take me into my 60s or 70s to get to the point where, if I want to bend a record and jump an octave accurately, I’ll know how to push my hand to be exactly one octave higher. It’s what I practice these days. I still feel like I’m on the kindergarten level. At least, that’s how I felt when I got offstage at Preservation Hall.

Q: Let’s end with this: What motivates you as an artist? Why keep doing what you’re doing? Why bother with this big complicated Nufonia production?

A: I just want to keep learning; that’s when I’m in my happiest state. I enjoy working with a team of people who inspire me. We push each other to get the best out of each other in terms of creating something for people to enjoy. We do it all live because it leaves us room to create on the spot and change it from show to show. Yes, it's a bit of a complex, multi-ring circus, but I’m not trying to create something that soars over people’s heads. We’re here to create something that you can connect to. Despite all the technological stuff and despite the five cameras and the 20 sets and the 70 puppets – despite all that, at the end of the day it’s still a love story that we’re telling. It’s like that Charlie Chaplin film that connected to me and my family.

The short answer is: I’m trying to connect.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.