When he thinks about The Storyville Mosquito, it sometimes dawns on Kid Koala that he’s living a dream dating right back to high school in Vancouver.
The multimedia project is nothing if not ambitious, with each live show incorporating 70 puppets, 20 miniature sets, and eight cameras to tell the story of a simple jazz-loving mosquito with a dream. Determined to join a world-famous old-timey band at the big-city Sid Villa’s Music Hall, the woodwinds-playing insect dares to make the daunting move to a major metropolis, the catalyst being nothing but faith in his own talents.
In The Storyville Mosquito, 14 puppeteers bring the story to life, with the show performed, filmed, live-edited, scored, and projected in real time on a giant screen. Orchestrating the action, including a live string section, is the iconic DJ, comic book creator, director, artist, and all-around visionary known to the world as Kid Koala.
The magic starts with miniature sets, where attention to detail is king. In the world of The Storyville Mosquito, tiny ceramic cups sit on Arborite tables in retro diners, movie-theatre façades look straight out of the 1930s, and glass cases hold small-scale replicas of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms.
First performed just before the pandemic shut the world down, The Storyville Mosquito didn’t arrive out of nowhere. Back when Kid Koala was a Vancouver high school student known to his teachers, parents, extended family, and guidance counsellor as Eric San, he was already mapping out a future he hoped to have.
“In high school I had the most amazing physics teacher, so there was a question: ‘Should I got into science or physics?’” recalls the 48-year-old San, who now lives in Montreal with his family. “My mom didn’t think that art was a very safe path, so I ended up studying education—learning to be an elementary school teacher, where there was plenty of art, and creativity, and music, and even puppetry. I even took a course for ukulele. That was all because when she asked me originally what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to work when I grew up, I said, The Muppet Show or Sesame Street.”
When asked why by his mom, he already had the answer.
“Because there was animation, and I liked drawing and animation,” he says. “And there was puppetry—I’d made puppets in high school—and there was music, and jokes. It was like, ‘That’s the kind of place that I want to work.’ My mom literally said, ‘If Jim Henson doesn’t offer you a job, can you study something that you can fall back on?’ So I did some child development and preschool work on how to create lesson plans. But when I think about what I’m doing today, at one point in the show I do have to play the ukulele. So in my mind—my mom’s a pragmatic accountant—I’m like, ‘See, Mom? I amortized the three university credits I had for ukulele, because I’m still playing.’”
THE STAR INSECT of The Storyville Mosquito dates back to the early ’00s, when San began sketching the mosquito on the regular while hanging out at soundchecks and before shows.
“What triggered it was that I was working on this turntable technique—pitch bending and stuff—and I had this little keyboard with a high tone that I was scratching around and creating little melodies out of,” he says. “My friend, who was walking through the studio at the time, said, ‘Hey, that sounds like a mosquito,’ which it kind of did. So all of a sudden I had this audio seed planted—a voice, if you will. I was also sketching this mosquito, and I was like, ‘I have both a voice and a look.’ It became a real thing the more I drew it, and the more I practiced.”
Laughing, he notes that he’s one of those people who mosquitoes inevitably zero in on when it’s time to hit the two-legged human buffet.
“My relationship with mosquitoes isn’t that good,” San says. “I don’t hate them, but they love me. It’s one of those things where, if I’m out by a lake or a walk in the woods, for some reason I’m like their catnip. Even if I’m the only one covered in repellent, I’m leaving covered in welts. So I figured I’d maybe even out my attitude towards them by choosing a mosquito as a protagonist. This is me trying to have empathy for every creature.”
IN MANY WAYS, the character of The Storyville Mosquito tells a version San’s of artistic story. It’s no accident, for example, that both he and the star puppet of the show play the clarinet—an instrument the future Kid Koala first picked up in elementary school.
Coming out of sleepy Vancouver to become one of the most respected DJs on the planet, San has spent the past quarter-century running with heavyweight artists. Rewind back over the years, though, and at one point he was just another hopeful with the dream of getting recognized for playing music.
Saving up his money to buy a turntable and mixer, he first made his name as a scratch DJ in the fabled late ’90s electronica boom, his technical prowess dazzling on genre-defining records like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Some of My Best Friends Are DJs.
What’s followed since then has been a career that’s as incredible as it is varied. Musically, when not making his own albums, EPs, and singles, San has collaborated with everyone from the Beastie Boys to Gorillaz to Dan the Automator’s wildly underrated Lovage.
You want the sound of someone hijacking an already great party? Check out Kid Koala’s “Third World Lover” on the batshit in the best of ways comp Bombay 2: Electric Vindaloo.
ALONG THE WAY, there have been graphic novels (Nufonia Must Fall, Space Cadet), soundtrack work (The Great Gatsby, Baby Driver, Looper), multimedia projects (this year’s Creatures of the Late Afternoon was both a double-LP and a board game), and live shows designed to be all about audience participation (his ongoing Music To Draw To shows encourage fans to show up and draw to ambient music—or knit, paint, sculpt, code, or write a screenplay).
Explaining why he’s happiest when always pushing himself to do something new, San says: “I need to make art so I don’t go too cabin feverish. I always want to be progressing, so during the pandemic I started painting. My family and I were playing a lot of board games, so we started coming up with ideas to design a board game that ended up being part of my new album [Creatures of the Late Afternoon]. I don’t feel that centred unless I’m doing something involving, you know, visual art or music or film or anything.”
Just as important to San is the idea of being part of a community—that being a common thread connecting many of his projects. As proven by even a cursory look at nothing but his discography, there are few things he enjoys more than collaborating with fellow artists, whether it be remixes, all-star recording projects, or de facto bands like the Slew (fans of which will be thrilled to hear there’s another album underway).
Mission accomplished there in a big way with The Storyville Mosquito. It’s not quite The Muppet Show—yet—but it’s definitely simpatico in spirit, with music, jokes, puppets, and an enduring love of controlled chaos with no safety net all part of the party. Sometimes daring to dream, whether you’re a lowly mosquito or a fledgling Vancouver turntablist, pays off.
“The Storyville Mosquito is a production where a lot of my favourite things, and a lot of my experiences, come together,” San muses. “I played clarinet in elementary school band ’til sixth grade, and now I’ve got this character that plays a woodwind instrument. But most of all what I love is that it’s very much a team effort where all these amazing artists—puppeteers and set designers and cinematographers and musicians—are working together.”
There’s a part of the show when the camera “goes over the set and the strings are playing,” he continues. “Even though it’s an establishing shot, it really takes you somewhere emotionally. To have that kind of feeling on display is, really, the point of everything we’re doing here.”
When: November 25 to 26
Where: Massey Theatre
Tickets: Go here