Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Intervview with Jonathan Coulton

This interview is reprinted from an issue of the old Geek Gazette e-zine. I have tried to add notes and udates to any outdated information.

If you listen to geek podcast or read the Geek Gazette you’ve probably heard the name Jonathan Coulton once or twice. Mr. Coulton is a talented musician that embraces the concept of geek music in a way that is unlike any other performer that I have encountered. His music is funny and serious at the same time. With a sly wink and a nudge he can present you with the most ridiculous of notions in the most sincere way. Unlike other niche musicians Mr. Coulton’s music can make you laugh or make you think. Hailing from Colchester CT, he began his musical career as a drummer in his high school marching band, eventually switching to guitar. His love of music, which he studied in college, and performing has followed him throughout his life. His music covers topics as varied as the loyal fans who enjoy it. Whether he’s singing about a disgruntled computer programmer, Bigfoot or broken hearts his songs range from the truly geeky to the sincerely emotional. Even the most absurd subject is treated with what Mr. Coulton refers to as a sincere truth. He is a truly talented and imaginative performer who gives a part of himself to his fans with each song and only ask that they listen and enjoy. A true rarity in this selfish, American Idol society where most artists expect much more than they ever give to their fans.
Geek Gazette: From the bio on your website you obviously have a love for music and performing, but have you always had an inclination towards more humorous music?
Jonathan Coulton: Definitely. I loved Tom Lehrer as a kid, even though I didn’t get all the jokes. And when I first started writing the funny stuff came pretty naturally. Though I tend to oscillate between funny and sad – I think my first song ever was about a guy who wakes up on a cold rainy day and feels lonely. Not so funny actually. And my favorite songs are the ones that are balanced precariously on the edge between the two.
GG: Do you think your musical interest and abilities were natural or were you brought up in that kind of environment?
JC: Ah, nature vs. nurture. I’d have to say a little of both. My parents are both very musical people, and I was singing harmony with my family in the car as soon as I could speak. And I remember as a kid using two tape recorders to try and recreate the vocals for That Boy (Ringo’s Theme). Actually, it sounded terrible. I do think to be a musician you need to have some innate abilities, but it also definitely helps to have people around you making music.
GG: What artist or bands to you feel had the most impact on you musically?
JC: Answering this question always feels like pulling my pants down in front of an audience. Get ready for the free show everybody. I’ve always loved The Beatles and their offspring. Though I’m into the sensitive folky singer songwriter vibe as well. Watch this: Dan Fogelberg! Billy Joel! Simon and Garfunkel! And vocals really get me going, which is why I loved listening to old Whiffenpoofs records as a kid. These days I’m very strongly influenced by (read: derivative of) They Might Be Giants, Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne.
GG: Your songs not only show your talent as a musician but your incredible imagination, where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics?
JC: I’m a geek at heart, so I have this background noise of geeky stuff, both popular culture and actual science. On the stove a pot is simmering and in it are Avagadro’s number, some Star Trek episodes, Bernoulli’s principle, and all the James Bond movies. I’m often writing about misunderstood characters - I like to use all this stuff to get a feeling of longing, or a bad breakup, or any kind of bottled up personality. Monsters who don’t get why everybody’s running away…
GG: Unlike Weird Al or Adam Sandler the humor and geekiness in many of your songs is very subdued, if you don’t listen to the lyrics you could miss it. A perfect example of this is Under the Pines, where you never actually state that it’s Bigfoot and Leonard Nimoy. Do you write your songs aiming for this subtlety or does it just come out that way?
JC: That one I definitely kept as subtle as I could. I try to be as sincere as possible, even when I’m writing about Bigfoot and Nimoy getting it on. There’s a danger in doing such goofy subject matter, because it’s easy to slide into the realm of “novelty songs” (some people would say that I’m there). Sometimes the more direct approach just sounds clunky and contrived to me, and in a song like that the word “Bigfoot” would stick out like a boiled egg in the middle of a wedding cake.
GG: As I am sure you know a large portion of your fan base is the “geek” community , do you consider yourself a geek?
JC: ? chr(89) + chr(101) + chr(115) + chr(46)
GG: Speaking of geeks a great many of us that listen to your music, and several of the podcast that have spotlighted your music are RPG players and comic book collectors Yet, I have never heard one of your songs that focuses on either of these topics, have you ever thought about doing one?
JC: I have, though I don’t actually have a lot of experience with comics and RPG. I know: I call myself a geek? I didn’t get into D&D because the learning and buying curve seemed like too much trouble, and I’m afraid to even get involved with something like WoW because I know that I would spend all my time on it. It also feels a little gimmicky to me – one of those subjects that can all too easily slip into the novelty zone. I wouldn’t want to write about those topics unless I could find some kind of sincere truth in there to address (not that there isn’t any sincerity in RPG and comics, just that it hasn’t revealed itself to me yet). Freakin muse – what are you gonna do?
GG: First of May, I Feel Fantastic and Skull Crusher Mountain are three of my personal favorites, which one of your songs is your personal favorite or which one do you love to play the most?
JC: My favorites to play live are the funny/sad ones. I love introducing “I Crush Everything” as a song about a giant squid who hates himself. The audience gets all ready for hilarity, and there are a couple of moments where they feel like they’re going to get it, but then it just gets sadder and sadder until everybody’s crying. It almost makes the audience uncomfortable, which I find thrilling. Of course Skullcrusher Mountain and First of May are both exciting to play because it’s really fun to watch the punchlines hit, especially with an uninitiated audience.
GG: While all of your songs are better than a lot of the music on the radio, you continue to put out mostly humorous, off beat songs, why? With songs like When You Go you obviously have the ability to write mainstream music, why stay off the radar?
JC: Somehow it’s easier for me to get at what I want to express by going through the offbeat subjects. I don’t know why that is. Maybe I’m afraid of writing about myself, and so I have to do it with a sneak attack. It’s also that I can’t often get any traction when I start with a premise like “this song will be about a boy who loves a girl.” I need a hook of an idea to hang the song on, and until I have that, I just can’t get excited enough to generate anything that I like.
GG: Some of the fan made videos for your songs are pretty good, did you encourage this or was this something the fans started?
JC: I think that I encouraged it – all my songs are released under a Creative Commons license that allows for any noncommercial re-use of the music, so the permission to do it is there explicitly. But I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have taken up the challenge. All these different styles and techniques, all these people spending hours and hours working on a video for one of my songs; it’s incredibly gratifying. And I love the idea that the creative process doesn’t stop when I finish a song – obviously the beholder of any piece of art becomes part of the creative process by interpreting what they see or hear, but this goes past that. It’s like we’re collaborating on something beyond the song.
GG: Your fans are a very loyal group and I’ve heard it commented that you are the geek equivalent to Jimmy Buffet. Do you see yourself this way?
JC: Jimmy Buffet. OK, I’ll take that. I get a lot of labels like “Balladeer” or “Troubadour” and I accept them gratefully. But I’m not going to come up with some shark fin dance that everybody has to do at my concerts. OK, maybe a zombie thing, but no shark fin stuff.
GG: Since Jimmy Buffet Fans are called Parrot Heads, what would you call Jonathan Coulton fans?
JC: JoCoists? Coultonistas? Half-pony, half-monkey monsters?
GG: The internet has become the bane of the music industry, yet you seem to have embraced it. Do you think you could have achieved the following you have with out it?
JC: Absolutely not. Something’s happened over the last year, and it had little to do with any of my activities in the real world. I’m well aware that what I do is pretty niche, and not that attractive to “mainstream radio” or “record labels” or “anyone with money.” The internet has allowed me to reach the pockets of people who would like my music. That’s an old story by now, but it’s no less true. Whatever success I’ve had so far would not have been possible without broadband and the mp3 format.
GG: Even if you never get a big time recording deal, do you see yourself continuing to play and produce music for the geek masses?
JC: I hope so – as long as I can stand it. At some point it may become necessary for me to get some kind of a job that makes money, when I have a midlife crisis and need to buy a sports car RIGHT AWAY. But for now I’m getting so much pleasure out of writing and playing and connecting with people, it’s hard to imagine giving it up. GG: What exactly is a Spizzsink and a Wiffenpoof?
JC: Spizzwink and Whiffenpoof. Both are a cappella singing groups at Yale where I went to college. A little dorky maybe, especially if you’ve never seen it before – you walk into a room and there’s a bunch of college guys dressed in tuxedos singing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I can understand why you might be a little thrown. But when you’re in it, it’s such a thrill. It’s honestly one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever had, just singing harmony with a large group of people. And you get a lot of tail. I mean a LOT of tail. Just kidding.

If you aren’t already a fan of Jonathan Coulton’s music but you are interested in finding out more about this talented geek balladeer check out his website, . From his site you can download songs, buy CD’s or get on the message forums and rub elbows with other half-pony half-monkey monsters. You can also subscribe to his Thing a Week podcast through itunes and download his latest geeky creations or subscribe to The Jonathan Coulton Project and download the fan made videos to his songs. ****Note: Since this article was originally published the Thing A Week Podcast has been discontinued. Although I do think you can still download some old episodes on itunes and ofcourse you can by Mr. Coulton’s music on itunes as well.****