A page recording Kid Koala's performance at Preservation Hall from his online scrapbook.
"People always ask me what was my most memorable show," says Canadian turntablist Kid Koala, aka Eric San. "'Oh, it has to be at Madison Square Garden with Radiohead!' And I am like, 'Yeah. that was great,' but actually, it was when I was at Preservation Hall."
Eric San brings his multi-media graphic novel-turned live movie Nufonia Must Fall to the CAC this week. His fans may know that his version of "Basin Street Blues" is the first tune on his second album, Some of My Best Friends are DJs. Less well known is that he's a big fan of Preservation Hall and has performed and recorded there. He may record with Preservation Hall musicians during his visit this week, as part of his forthcoming graphic novel, Storyville Mosquito, about a country mosquito who moves to the city to play clarinet in a jazz band.
San discussed Nufonia with Gambit. He also shared the story of his pilgrimage to Preservation Hall.
While growing up in Vancouver, San's father always had Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz vocalists on their record player. San spent all his money buying records as a kid.
"My father always knew I was into music," he says. "He didn’t think I’d pursue it professionally. But when I signed my first record contract and started touring around, he took me aside and said, 'Hey look if your travels ever get you to new Orleans, you have to go see Preservation Hall.' I was like OK."
San has performed a few times in New Orleans, including at Voodoo Music + Art Experience, and his first visit was in the early 2000s.
"So the first time I got to New Orleans, the first thing I did is I went straight to Preservation Hall and was like, ok, 'Oh I have to come back at 7 o clock.' I went and saw the show and I stayed for all three sets. My jaw was on the floor. I loved that there was no mics, no amplifiers, they just ripped the front off of the piano. People didn’t have their phones up in the air. Music was being made, it was being experienced by the people that were there, and then it evaporated. It was so urgent and in the moment."
During his brief stint in the city, he also went to other jazz venues, and he says he heard "Basin Street Blues" played at every one of them.
"I got on the plane when I was leaving. and I was like, 'I know how I am going to start my next album,'" San says. "I am going to do a complete turntable version of 'Basin Street Blues.' That’s exactly what I did.
"I went home. I kind of layered all the the sound. I wrote the chord cycle out and I charted — this is not how jazz is made, I’ll be the first to admit that — I charted, 'here are the chord cycles,' and I would pick a line for a trombone part or a clarinet part or whatever. Then I would go try to find a note on a classical record, like a clarinet playing A flat. When I had that I would bend it into all the other notes. Then I would do that for trombone and upright bass.
San used his father's copy of a Preservation Hall recording of Sweet Emma Barrett playing the song. He used her tempo in his version.
"It took me six months to make a version of 'Basin Street Blues.' It’s almost like a stop-motion animation version of 'Basin Street Blues.' I know [the song is] supposed to be made in a room with a bunch of musicians together. But I don’t know any other DJs who would have enough interest to do that with me, so I layered it. I did that. I put it out. My cousin made a video for it."
"My second album came out," San says. "That’s how it started. A year or two passes. Then I got a call from [Preservation Hall artistic director] Ben Jaffe. My manager told me — she said hey we got a call from Press Hall. She was like, 'Yeah, they want you to come down and play at the hall.' I was like, 'What are you talking about? It’s Preservation Hall.' I am a DJ."
"I got on the phone with Ben. He said he saw my turntable version of 'Basin Street Blues' and (thought) I captured something of New Orleans. I was like, 'Really, because I have only been there once — but most of it at Pres Hall listening to you guys.'"
San accepted the invitation.
"When I went down there, they set up a projection screen and started with that video of 'Basin Street Blues.'" San says. "As that was ending, the Pres Hall band played over it and improvised and took it from there. They invited me on stage and I cut with them. Ben was sort of directing. He was like, 'OK, now you have to trade parts with him and now with him.' At one point I was playing with the trumpet player. We’re trading and I think I learned more about playing music in those 32 bars of trading than I have in 10 years of touring by myself.
"I am not lying," San says. "Those 32 bars were a lifetime of joy for me. It was so rich. I was so nervous. I was trained as a kid: Preservation Hall is the pinnacle. I asked the drummer, 'Hey were you nervous the first time you played here?' He was like, 'Baby, please. The first time you’re old enough to play the whistle or tambourine, you’re in a band."
There are two performances of Nufonia Must Fall, and Kid Koala DJs both a kids robot-themed party Thursday and a performance after party Saturday. He also participates in a panel discussion on comics on Thursday.