In the world of competitive scratch DJing, it’s one thing to impress the judges and win the crowd over with a tight five-minute routine. It is a complete anomaly to make an hour-long silent film about a clarinet-playing insect, using – in Kid Koala’s case – three turntables, vibraphone, piano, keyboards, a string trio, 20 miniature sets, 15 actors and several puppets.
Oh, and he and his team perform live, with the film projected onto the screen, all in one take.
But this is the razor-thin fine line the Montreal DJ walked, and now the Bay Area can bear witness when “The Storyville Mosquito,” Kid Koala’s latest multimedia extravaganza built from the ground up, comes to SFJazz Friday through Sunday center is coming. 25-27 November.
“I like the danger in everything,” says Kid Koala, whose real name is Eric San, during a virtual call with The Chronicle. “I balance the whole show on three turntable needles. It’s just a really, really advanced version of DJ Battles. And when we’re in the zone, there’s absolutely nothing else like it.”
The Storyville Mosquito tells the story of a bug musician trying to join a big city orchestra and the conflicts he encounters like a vibraphone-playing tarantula. Puppeteers control the movements of the insect puppets – based on Kid Koala’s illustrations – across miniature sets, and full-size DSLR cameras project the action onto the screen in silent film form. Kid Koala and the String Trio provide the live soundtrack accompaniment.
Kid Koala has been fascinated by puppetry and silent storytelling for years, he says. His interest was sparked when he watched “Of Muppets and Men” at the age of 7 and as an adult he watched the documentary “The World of Jim Henson” where he was blown away by how they got the Muppets to ride bikes through Central Park drive. Another key moment was watching Charlie Chaplin’s classic silent film Modern Times as a child. He remembers his grandparents, parents and sister sprawled on the living room floor enjoying the comedy but also absorbing the film’s romance and political message.
“Growing up I saw the shifts in action, and this show will touch those same heartstrings and fun bones,” he said. “It’s a goal of mine to create something that would entertain a multi-generational audience.” (“The Storyville Mosquito” matinees this weekend are appropriately kid-friendly.)
The show’s cinematographer, AJ Korkidakis, has worked with Kid Koala for more than a decade. And Korkidakis has a lot to do, from staging what the production will look like on screen to managing the workflow on the night of the show. There is tight choreography with various crew members – from cameramen to puppeteers to musicians – that involves precise movement and timing. It’s a production that compares Kid Koala to “15 people on a surfboard.”
“There’s not one person everyone follows, we’re all in constant sync with each other,” he said. “We don’t look at the front of the surfboard to figure out where we’re going. Everyone develops an intuition for each other and moves together.”
The show travels with a crew of 15 musicians, puppeteers, cameramen, sound engineers, live video editors and stage managers. It takes about six hours to set up and two hours to dismantle. Behind the turntables, Kid Koala eschews technological advances like digital DJ software where all music is stored on a hard drive. Instead, he uses good old vinyl and even invests in a record cutter, allowing him to create his own personalized sounds for the show.
His background as a DJ allows him to physically control the flow of the show and improvise or expand scenes on the fly. “If the audience laughs out loud, we can’t stop it,” he said. “We let the scene do what it needs to do and then move on. So it’s very fluid. It’s definitely like a scratch DJ; you have to stay on your toes.”
DJing is an integral part of its formation. Since the mid-’90s, Kid Koala has built his DJ style around mixing whimsical sounds. His 1996 cassette mixtape, Scratchcratchratchatch, famously transposed Charlie Brown’s soft “I got a rock” lament from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” into the hilarious “I gotta rock!” routine of his “Moon River,” a tribute to his mother’s favorite song, can bring tears. Since then he has consistently released entertaining and adventurous albums and has been recruited for turntable duties on both Deltron 3030 and Gorillaz. (Yes, those are Kid Koala’s scratches on Gorillaz’s biggest hit, “Clint Eastwood.”)
Meanwhile, this DJ-puppetry-silent film crossover has humble beginnings. In 2003, based on his graphic novel, his first stage production “Nufonia Must Fall” played at the Mission District restaurant Butterfly. Images from the novel about a robot wanting to write a love song were projected onto a screen as Kid Koala, DJ P -Love and DJ Jester created the soundtrack live.
Other multimedia productions he has since created include the riotous “Vinyl Vaudeville” revue, the atmospheric creative space “Music to Draw To” and the interactive “Satellite Turntable Orchestra”. In 2017 and 2018-19, Nufonia returned to San Francisco at the SFJazz Center’s Robert N. Miner Auditorium, complete with puppets and silent film projection. With The Storyville Mosquito, which will occupy the same auditorium this weekend, he’s carved out a unique track and identity that’s ever-evolving, never boring, and surrounded by childlike wonder.
“These productions are close to my heart,” he said. “All my favorite universes collide on stage: film, soundtrack music, scratching, puppetry, animation. I love all this magic and try to contribute to it.”
Kid Koala Presents The Storyville Mosquito: 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 25; 3pm and 7pm Saturday, November 26; Sunday, November 27, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. $25-$80. Robert N. Miner Auditorium, SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St., SF 866-920-5299. www.sfjazz.org