Gaga, Taylor and Wayne, Oh My! The Napkin Holder Plays Space 15 Twenty

The T-shirt reborn.
The T-shirt reborn.

On Saturday evening, Hollywood's Space 15 Twenty celebrates the opening of its Planet White T-Shirt exhibition, conceived by L.A. arts organizer Triple-Major and benefiting Designers Against AIDS.

The installation, which runs through April 18, promises to re-imagine and transform the plain white T-shirt with the help of 31 designers from around the world, whose takes on the medium run the gamut from shredded couture versions thereof to a framed pile of cotton-derived ash.

But what pricked the collective ear of West Coast Sound was this: The opening event, which runs from 7 to 9 p.m., includes a rare in-person performance from enigmatic YouTube piano phenom Napkin Holder.

For just over a year, Napkin Holder has been banging out his barroom-friendly, 88-keys versions of some of the biggest pop singles to grace the charts. No, that's nothing new in and of itself, but Napkin has got two things going for him: how damn good his covers sound, and how weirdly they're often executed.

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His take on Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," for instance, sees him using an actual lollipop (held in his right hand) to play. Following the Kanye West, Taylor Swift kerfuffle, he created a mashup between the two artists' contemporary hits, with West's "Heartless" repeatedly butting rudely in on Swift's "You Belong With Me." And he scored his biggest viewership to date with an 8-minute medley spanning the Daft Punk oeuvre.

Napkin Holder grants WCS his first interview after the jump. And, of course, it's interspersed with a few must-see videos from the man's body of work.

The Napkin vs. Daft Punk:

West Coast Sound: Let's start with the obvious. Why "Napkin Holder"?

Napkin Holder: Musicians or bands are often named after something serious. I started this project as a hobby with no serious intentions, so I named it after a random object I saw on the table when I was thinking about a name.

WCS: What attracts you to the songs that you cover?

NH: I never really plan which songs I'm going to play. I listen to the radio or a CD when I am driving, and if the songs are catchy I'll go home and play it on my piano. If it sounds good I'll go record it.

WCS: What do you like to listen to, for fun?

NH: Mostly electronic music. Ironically a lot of the songs I like can't be played on piano because they don't have much melody. I guess that's why people find my Daft Punk medley interesting -- because they don't expect songs like "Human After All" to exist as a piano version.

WCS: You played little Wayne's "Lollipop" using an actual lollipop and Rihanna's "Umbrella" using an umbrella. Is there a point that you're trying to make here?

NH: Not exactly. You could say it challenges the traditional way to play piano but, after all, it's an expression of humor. It's just a series where I play with objects that are related to the title of the song. I also did [T-Pain's] "Buy You a Drink" with a bottle, [Beyonce's] "Single Ladies" with a Barbie, and Lil Wayne's "Mrs. Officer" with a toy cop car.

WCS: Each of your clips advises that you "play all songs by ear," which seems like quite a feat. What's your history with the piano?

NH: I started learning classical piano when I was five, but then figured out that I learn music by listening instead of by reading sheet music. That was when I was in high school. I had to do a medley of cartoon theme songs that weren't available already transcribed. That's when I started to play popular music by ear.

WCS: How old are you?

NH: It's more fun not knowing my age.

WCS: How much prep goes into doing one of these pieces -- for instance, the Justice medley?

NH: If I'm doing something like that, it probably takes about one full day to figure out every song and compile them. Some single songs can take me half a day. [Jay-Z's] "Empire State of Mind" took probably an hour. It depends on how complex the song is and how much I want to develop it. The nice thing about YouTube is that I have no obligation to make a song. I just record when I feel like it.

WCS: The room that you're seen playing in is all-white, with what looks like a tiny window in the door, which means one of two things: penitentiary or rehearsal room? Surely the Napkin Holder has a piano of his own?

NH: I do record in a rehearsal room. I take whatever's available at a nearby university -- that's why I use different piano every time. I actually only have a keyboard.

WCS: You're playing in public this weekend. Will you hide your face? If so, how?

NH:It's not a very serious disguise, like Batman or anything. It's not like if I show my face people are going to know who I am. But, yeah, I'll still wear some kind of mask related to the event to be fun.

WCS: Are we correct in assuming you'll be performign a set of pop covers on Saturday night?

NH: Yeah, much like an abridged DJ set, but on piano.

WCS: What are Napkin Holder's future plans with music? Is there an end game? Will he/does he play in a band?

NH: Well, I used to be a pianist at the USC bookstore. I was expected to play classical, but I just played pop songs. I've played at some small concerts and parties, but for the most part it's just a hobby. I don't think the kind of music I play would fit into a band setting, but I might do some collaborations with other musicians down the line


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