The making of a legendary modern Big Easy busker
By Kiki Prager
It’s a scorchingly hot yet beautiful day in New Orleans on Sophie Wright Place. Adrian Jusdanis, still commemorating the last birthday of his twenties, appears on the scene with a big gallon jug of water, claiming he carries it at all times because he’s constantly outside and sweats a crazy amount. “The inconvenience of carrying it around is less inconvenient than being thirsty” he explains, in between bites of a piping hot bacon cheddar croissant.
Busking has been a long-standing tradition in New Orleans. Some street performers do it for survival, while others do it as a starting point to make contacts and launch their careers. This was the case for Adrian Jusdanis. “Street performance is unique because its totally open to the public. I’ve seen homeless people dance with millionaires and people of all races coming together,” he explains, “A lot of people don’t feel too welcome in a lot of bars/venues, but nearly everyone feels welcome on a street corner.”
Although he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, Adrian’s first memories of music were reminiscent of a different time and place entirely. His dad, who now teaches at Ohio State University, was originally from Northern Greece and grew up as a mountain peasant, herding goats in a barter economy. One thing his father brought back with him was traditional Balkan folk music, which Adrian fervently listened to as a kid and eventually incorporated into his own music. He was classically trained on the violin through the Suzuki method but would find himself constantly improvising and trying out new sounds. “Ever since I was eight years old I had this kind of music in my head. Extremely repetitive, rhythmic, hypnotic, dark, beautiful and fun.”
In high school, Adrian attended a gallery event called Gallery Hop in an arts district in Columbus called the Short North. Initially, he did it just for fun, but after making four dollars in five minutes, he realized for the first time that he could make a profit off his talent and began to perform at the event once a month.
After graduating high school, Adrian started playing outside the privacy of his own room and began collaborating with others. He joined a folk band here, an indie-rock band there, searching all over town for musicians that were creating the kind of sound that he envisioned.
Jusdanis gleefully recalls a moment where he truly experienced the magic of collaboration. His friend found a spot in the street where he could perform, so he called up a drummer and a keyboardist who he describes as “an actual virtuoso and probably the best musician he’s ever played with in his life.” Her stage name is Counterfeit Madison, and the three of them got together to improvise a street performance that took everyone by surprise.
“Because she was so good, I could play this music I’ve had in my head my entire life and she was able to back it up on the spot in a way that nobody’s ever been able to play with my music before.” Only 20 at the time, he finally found someone to bring out and complement the trance-inducing music echoing in his head for over a decade.
The two formed a band in Columbus called The Apes where they performed for five years at various venues. “I really experienced the exhilaration of a crowd that’s just going crazy,” he shared enthusiastically, “Improvised music is all about working with the energy of the room because you’re making it up on the spot to suit the vibe of the crowd. It’s customizable.”
Just before forming New Thousand, Jusdanis played the violin in a New Orleans street band called Buku Broux (translates to “a whole lot of fusion”) for about two years. Through serendipity, Jusdanis was wandering around the corner of Royal and St Louis for spring break one year, violin on his back, when he ran into street performers and asked to sit in with them. A guy on an African harp and a drummer gave him a bunch of money to play with them for an hour. That’s when he decided he was going to move to New Orleans as soon as he graduated at Ohio State. The next year, he finished school and moved to The Big Easy with the intention to support himself through street performing with Buku Broux. The band was notable for performing with obscure instruments, one of them being the West African kora, a 21 string harp-lute that is covered by cowhide that acts as a soundboard. According to former bandmate Jonah Tobias, Adrian not only expanded his own use of effects but helped push him to create a more experimental sound.
Specifically, Adrian introduced the group to the use of pedal effects, which he was simultaneously using in own solo performances. “You can set it to record yourself for a set amount of time, play it over and over and add elements on top of it,” he explains. “It really lends itself to a music of a particular style because it repeats itself over and over, making the sound hypnotic.” Two years later, Adrian broke away from Buku Broux to do his own thing- just him, his unbreakable rhythm, a loop pedal, and a drummer. He would play on the street for about an hour at a time, pack up, and head home.
After hitting a creative wall, Jusdanis decided it was time to start a new band. He recruited his lifelong friend Max Jones to be a keyboardist and friend Alex Koltun to do electronic percussion. The two jumped on the invitation and took a bus to New Orleans after hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was the day before they decided they were going to start playing, and the new group realized they needed something to write on the CDs they planned to sell in front of their set. After spitballing a bunch of corny names, one of them being “Bass Ventura,” they recalled an indie rock-folk band back in Ohio called Old Hundred, and thus New Thousand was born. They sold their CD, SoundMind, in December of 2015 into January of 2016.
At the moment, the band only has two members. Due to diverging visions of where the band wanted to go, Max left, but Jusdanis didn’t give up just yet. His friend was throwing her birthday party at a little bar on St. Bernard called Poor Boys and requested New Thousand to provide the entertainment. Adrian agreed, but his regular drummer dropped out on the gig earlier that day. At 3 am, they were about to cancel the show when Nick Haven, a 30-year-old drummer from northwest Minnesota, showed up on the scene and saved the show. Nine months ago, Nick joined the band. Not only does Nick provide a backbeat for Adrian’s violin, but also handles the electronic production, using Abelton software.
Jusdanis admits that he and his had a lot of problems with energy over the years, particularly when he played on Frenchman. In fact, the band is no longer playing there because they believe it’s better for their collective health. “Playing on Frenchman was like living a rockstar existence,” he explained. They’d go to bed around four or five in the morning and generally couldn’t cope with life or get anything done during the day. They often found themselves waking up at 1 pm and would be in a daze until the sunset and he would return to the streets where his bobbing head and pelvic thrusts would send crowds into a frenzy.
Currently busking on Bourbon from six to eight and nine to midnight on Canal, Adrian finds that he has enough time to pack up his gear (weighing in at around 100 lbs), bike to his home in the seventh ward, unpack, shower, eat something, count his money, and make it into bed by about 12:30.
Although performing on the streets of New Orleans may sound like a dream come true to some, it’s not all fun and games. When I asked if he’s faced any complications since moving to the popular tourist trap of a street, he described a recent spot battle that occurred on Bourbon and Conti when he and Nick tried to perform in a spot that was apparently previously claimed by a hip-hop dancer. After trying to steal each other’s audiences and stepping in front of each other with their tip jars, things got messy. Jusdanis admits that at one point the both of them were “trash talking each other on the mic in front of like a hundred people.”
When they started playing live in New Orleans their sound changed remarkably. The city added a live crowd that would only stay for certain kinds of music. After seeing him play several times, I undoubtedly believe that Adrian knows how to keep a crowd engaged. “Sometimes I fall flat on my face trying to hold people’s attention,” he claims, but he jokingly credits the bacon cheddar croissants at High Volt cafe for keeping him going during the day. He recently changed the genre of the band from “cinematic booty shakin’ music” to “post-apocalyptic rave music,” which he describes as “if Mad Max Fury Road had a positive spin to it and then had a party and they were the soundtrack.”
As for the future of the band, “We want to grow to become a band that tours the country and the world, but we never want to lose the freedom and spontaneity that we grew out of.” Keep your eyes peeled and ears open next time you pass through the French Quarter, this is one street attraction that’s difficult to miss.