Kid Koala had to write a book . . . about the technique of scratch deejaying. No problem, right? The Kid, born in 1974 as Eric San, knew his stuff, honing down the craft of turntablism since his first demo tape, recorded while attending college in Montreal. Over the years, Kid Koala drew worldwide attention for his music, working and touring with artists ranging from Gorillaz to Radiohead, as well as creating a wildly frenetic mix of recordings and performances including everything from turntable bingo to vinyl vaudeville.
But there was one problem with the request from a book publisher. “They wanted a 10,000-word manuscript, kind of like a how-to about the mechanics of scratch deejaying,” San said. “But I got two pages into it and was already bored to tears. I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into. I needed an artistic escape, so I did what I’d always done since I was a kid: I grabbed a sketch book and started doodling.
San had released 32-page comic books with previous recordings. And this time, as he was doodling, a robot was born, the protagonist of the 350-page graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall.
The dialogue-free graphic novel, which San says was inspired as much by his adoration of Charlie Chaplin films as it was science fiction, was released in 2003. The story about a lovesick robot on the verge of obsolescence desperately trying to write love songs to a fellow, human office worker has now mutated into a genre-shattering combination of music, cinema and puppetry. Think a silent film created on the spot on miniature sets and filmed in real time, as San performs on a variety of keyboards and turntables, augmented by the strings of the Afiara Quartet.
It’s directed by K.K. Barrett (who earned an Oscar nomination for the production design of Her and also helmed the visual concepts of films including Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Lost In Translation). “I’d been a fan of [Barrett] for as long as I can remember, and I met him in Los Angeles a few years ago and started talking [about] doing a project, a way to merge a live music event with his experience in film,” San says. “Meanwhile, I’d met this classical chamber-music quartet, and we started thinking of including them. How could we have everybody on the same stage doing hip-hop, electronic and classical music in a way that complemented one another, rather than sound forced.”
At some point, the idea of filming San’s novel or, more precisely, filming stage-hands manipulating tiny puppets on tiny sets stuck.
“It’s really been an organic thing,” San says. “And it’s turned into this live production beyond anything we could have imagined. Every show is different, and we’ve become a Gilligan’s Island kind of crew, all of us having to learn together how to make this show better and to tighten up story points and really synchronize everything, from the stage manager having one eye on the string quartet and the puppets to the cameras getting ready to jump-cut to me ringing a doorbell and hitting a piano chord at the same time. There is a lot of multitasking going on.”
Nufonia Must Fall isn’t a soup of aural and visual chaos, the equivalent of a club show in a theater. The focus is all about telling the story. “Usually, when I’m deejaying, the obligation is to keep the energy going for people on the dance floor,” San says. “But this is in a theater, and it’s narrative, and we are scoring music for characters. So I totally had to change my approach. I might be playing turntables or pianos; the end result isn’t to make people dance, but to make them feel something for these characters. So everything has to do with what we as a team can do to make these moments funnier or more dramatic or melancholy or scarier.”
And based on the reviews and audience vibe at shows ranging from Toronto to Brooklyn and San Francisco to New York, people get it.
“I think a lot of people see themselves in the robot,” San says. “Since he doesn’t talk, and the story is told visually and through the score, people have to assign what they think the robot is feeling, and it becomes more personal. And I think there’s a kind of lonely, frightened robot who feels his time has passed in all of us. Every generation seems to be pining for this golden past, when life was so much better. And I think if there’s a universal theme, it’s that at some point, everyone is going to feel they have nothing left to offer or they’re tired. And this robot has to go through that crisis every night, so you root for him.”
Nufonia Must Fall at the Off Center Festival, Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2121; www.scfta.org. Sat., 2 p.m. $19.