Jonathan Coulton interview
Prior to his UK tour we sent Adrian Mules to meet with Jonathan Coulton at his secret underground lair. Amazingly he got the interview, disarmed the doomsday machine and was home in time for Emmerdale.
Note: This interview will also be available in binary at a later date.
Hi Jonathan, thanks for chatting to us at The Music Fix. I’d like to extend you a warm welcome ahead of your forthcoming visit to the UK. For our readers not aware of your exploits, could you introduce yourself and tell them a little bit about you?
I usually describe myself as a singer, songwriter and internet superstar - that pretty much covers it. I used to write software for a living but in 2005 I quit that job to do music full time. I spent a year posting a new song every Friday for free on my website in a project I called "Thing a Week." And since then I've actually been making a living this way - which continues to amaze and delight me. Many people know me for songs like ‘Code Monkey’ about a sad software developer, ‘Re: Your Brains’ about a zombie co-worker, and ‘Still Alive’ - the song I wrote for the video game Portal.
I’m a huge fan of Portal! I think it’s a very important work of fiction and the next step in the lineage of 1984 and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. How did you get involved with that project?
I was doing a show in Seattle and a couple of fans came up after to say 'Hi!' Turns out they worked at Valve and they were on the Portal team. They asked if I'd ever consider writing music for a game and I said yes without hesitation because I loved their games. And a couple of weeks later I was in their offices playing an early version of Portal and talking about writing a little musical number for GLaDOS to sing.
You are coming to the UK to play some live shows in November. Who makes up your audience? What differences do you notice in playing to UK rather than USA punters?
I assume when you say 'punters' you're talking about people who punt on the Thames? And I have to tell you that you must be confused, because I believe the Thames is in IRELAND (also it is pronounced "THAMES" to rhyme with "JAMES"). Look it up, Redcoats! In all seriousness, I can tell you that audiences in the UK are very similar to audiences in the States. It really does seem like the geek culture is a truly global one. Except that when they shout things out I can't understand what they're saying because of their ridiculous foreign accents.
Don’t worry, we can barely understand each other most of the time. So what can we expect from your live shows?
I play the hits, but I also insist on playing some of the songs that I like, which usually means there are some sad ones mixed in there. But it's a really fun show. I like unruly audiences because they inject a level of chaos that keeps things interesting and makes things happen. And I'm traveling and performing with my friends Paul and Storm, funny singer songwriters in their own right, and they enjoy the same kind of messy fun I do. I don't even remember how it happened exactly, but at a recent show there was some kind of back and forth with the audience that led to us composing a verse of a new song called 'Bus Plunge’ apparently about a bus going over a cliff. That's the kind of unexpected entertainment you can only get at a Jonathan Coulton show.
I see you’ve been playing with a Tenori-on, how are you finding using it and will you be bringing it to these shores?
I've been using it for only one song generally, which is not particularly cost effective - I bought it in Glasgow the last time I was in the UK because it wasn't available in the States yet. It's a great deal of fun to mess with but like most of the electronic toys that I covet and eventually buy, I'm really not particularly good at playing it.
You have a very loyal fanbase. Why do you think that is?
I think it's the geek factor - they're just the greatest fans in the world. By my definition, geeks are people who are EXTREMELY interested in things, really anything. It's commonly thought that a geek is someone who likes science and math and science fiction but you can also be a sports geek or a weather geek or a knitting geek. Whatever it is you're interested in though, if you're into it enough to call yourself a geek, it means that you are really dedicated to it. And so my fans happen to lean that way - they really care about these songs.
Were you surprised how big an audience there was for the openly geeky subject matter of your material?
I continue to be surprised. Every time I wrote a song like that it felt kind of crazy: here's one about a giant squid who hates himself; here's one about a 13-year-old boy who fantasizes about turning the girl he likes into a cyborg. It's nuts (that means "mental" in your language). But then people respond to those more than anything else. It turns out that there are a lot of people out there who think they are evil geniuses.
You were a software designer prior to your rock star life. When did you stop being a designer and start being a musician full time?
It was September of 2005 and I had just quit my day job. I had a wife, a mortgage and a daughter who was about 6 months old. It felt like a vain and stupid thing to do. I'm very lucky it worked out as well as it did.
How important was the internet in your rise to fame?
Crucial. I didn't do a bit of heavy lifting other than writing the songs and putting them out there. The internet did the rest, it was all word of mouth and people blogging, podcasting and emailing mp3s to their friends. And my fanbase is still small compared to traditional rockstars, what I like to call "actual musicians." I simply wouldn't be able to support myself with this size fanbase without the cheap and highly targeted kinds of communication and distribution and everything else I can get because of the internet.
I’ve noticed recently that musicians are talking about software in a positive way - Lily Allen gets quite excited about iPhone apps. Do you think software is getting sexy now?
It's always been sexy, it just hasn't had mass appeal to as many people as it does now. It's also moving out of the realm of work into play. Used to be the only software people used was at work, on a big grey box that made them sit in a chair and type all day. But once it happens on a device in your pocket, and especially if you get to kill some zombies, it starts to get a little more interesting for everyone.
As someone who’s walked on both sides of the street what advice would you give to musicians who wanted to get into software development?
Don't do it - software is a tough business. There are a lot of people trying to do it and you really only have a slim chance of getting famous. And it's hard and it takes a long time, you really have to work at it. Plus there's the drugs, the groupies, it's really not for the faint of heart.
Congratulations, your legs have been selected for a cybernetic upgrade! Would you rather have wheels, skis or springs?
Skis? Are you kidding me? I live in New York City. Wheels, OBVIOUSLY.
Nobody ever wants the skis! Can you tell me what was the last great album, movie and video-game you have heard/watched/played?
I am truly obsessed with the album Tally Hall by the band Tally Hall. I just saw Paranormal Activities in the theater and it scared the pants off me. And right now I'm really into Marble Blast Ultra on the Xbox.
What was your nickname at school and why?
I never had a nickname, though I always wanted one. At some point when I got glasses I tried to get everyone to call me "Specs" but it didn't really catch on.
What leisure activities are on your itinerary whilst you are in the UK?
Luckily we have a day off here and there, so we actually will have time to explore a bit. I suspect we will eat a lot of steak pies at pubs because that is what we like to do most of all. I'm there infrequently enough that I really just enjoy walking around and looking at all the stuff there that's weird and different. Also beer.
In one word why should people come and see your shows?
Thanks very much for your time Jonathan, we look forward to seeing your shows.
With that we make an escape through the air conditioning system. We’ll also be sending some of our agents to Jonathan’s live shows in November - if you want to catch Jonathan whilst he’s on our shores he’s playing in the following places:
Friday November 6 at 8PM -
Academy 2 (Dublin, IE) with Paul and Storm
Sunday November 8 at 7PM
- The Bongo Club (Edinburgh, UK) with Paul and Storm
Tuesday November 10 at 7PM -
Classic Grand (Glasgow, UK) with Paul and Storm
Thursday November 12 at 7.30PM -
Manchester Academy 3 (Manchester, UK) with Paul and Storm
Friday November 13 at 7PM -
Union Chapel (London, UK) with Paul and Storm
Sunday November 15 at 8PM -
The Tunnels Bristol (Bristol, UK) with Paul and Storm