Big Think Interview With Jonathan Coulton

A conversation with the singer/songwriter and Internet sensation.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you get into comedy songwriting? 

Jonathan Coulton: Well, I've always been interested in music. I played instruments when I was young and sang when I was young and was in the band and the chorus in school. And I think somewhere in high school I had decided that I actually wanted to make a profession out of it and become a professional musician and then didn't do much about that for many years. And, you know, like many people, went to college because that's what you do. Then some point after college, found myself in New York City, not really knowing exactly what I was doing there and had a few short-lived jobs and put a band together kind of but never really did anything with it. Played out a few times for our friends and ultimately found myself working in the software industry writing code for a company in New York and did that for about nine years and kept doing music on the side, recording things and writing things, just for my own amusement mostly. 

Question: How did a cappella affect your songwriting? 

Jonathan Coulton: It is true that I was in the Whiffenpoofs in college and before that the Spizzwinks. Those are two of the oldest all male a cappella collegiate singing groups in the world. So, very proud to be a part of them and the Whiffenpoofs really were kind of one of the reasons I wanted to go to Yale. My dad went to college there and my grandfather went to college there and so, when I was growing up, they both had old records, Whiffenpoofs LPs that they would play for me. So I was familiar with collegiate a cappella music in a way that many American kids were not. 

I was thinking recently some friends of mine from the a cappella community who I had been out of touch with for a while, recently came to one of my shows in New York for the first time and as I was doing my standard Jonathan Coulton show, I was thinking of them in the audience and I realized how much my shtick on stage really does owe to whatever it was that I learned when I was doing a cappella. Because, you're in this group of people and for me it was a group of 14 guys all wearing tuxedos and you're standing in a big circle and you're singing, you know, ironic covers of popular songs, but also sort of jazz standards. And there's a mix of stuff that you're really quite serious about. You're serious about the music but you're also wearing a tuxedo and white gloves and a white tie. It's ridiculous, you know. And you're doing a lot of funny stuff in between the serious stuff and it's very shtick-y and hammy. So I think I actually took a lot from that. I mean, that's how I learned to be a person on stage. And so that still applies to what I do in my show even though I'm now a rock star. I don't wear a tuxedo anymore. 

Question: One of your first breakout songs was “Code Monkey.” How much did that come out of your life at that time? 

Jonathan Coulton: "Code Monkey" is a song about a sad software developer. It’s loosely autobiographical. It is true that while I was working there I felt some frustration about not having allowed myself to pursue what I believed was my true calling. I was there for nine years and it wasn't a terrible job. I actually liked it quite a bit. I learned a lot. I had fun and good people there. But there was that vague dissatisfaction. So I used that when I wrote the song, but it is loosely autobiographical. The guy in the song really, really hates, really, really hates his job, and in particular, his boss. I did not hate my boss. I loved all of my bosses and they were never as boring as I described them in the song. I'll say that for them.  

Question: How do you write a comedy song? 

Jonathan Coulton: I like it best when there's just a little crystal of an idea that comes from somewhere, I know not where, and it just sort of springs forth. A little tiny idea. It can be a line, or an image or just something that a character would say and, ideally, when it works best, it's a thing that occurs to me and then I immediately know everything about that character. It's a little nugget of a thing that makes me completely understand who this person is and then it just sort of comes out and it's very easy. 

It's rarely like that however. More often, I have to really kickstart that process at any number of points. So I might sit around with a guitar and just play and play and play and play. You know, noodling until I come up with a musical idea that I like. And then I'll play the musical idea over and over again and sort of hum nonsense syllables against it until I hear a word that I think works and maybe that word becomes something. You know, "I know this line ends with the word 'dissolve.' And so, what rhymes with dissolve and then what could that be about?" And along the way you have to sort of keep stepping back and looking at it and seeing if it makes sense and thinking about where you wanted to take the listener and just sort of piece by piece, stringing it together until it's the thing that you believe it should be. 

Question: What genres have proven most influential in your music? 

Jonathan Coulton: I'm a real sucker for the slow, sad, sensitive, folky stuff. I really am. It's one of the reasons that I love bluegrass. I came to listen to bluegrass relatively recently but it’s one of the few styles of music that actually can move me to tears when I'm listening to it. Some of the sadder bluegrass songs are so amazingly powerful, have such an emotional quality to them even though the music is very simple and the message is very simple. There's always a child dying or somebody's mother is dying or it's somebody just missing their family who's far away. It's very simple concepts but something about the simplicity of the music and the simplicity of the ideas, just expressed in this really raw way. Really, really hits me. 

And so I try when I can to, you know a lot of the time I am writing funny songs, but I try to bring out that emotional aspect of it when I can. I try to find sympathy for the characters that I'm writing about, even if they're ridiculous, which frequently they are. I like to think, "Well, what, you know what do they want?" and more important, "What is it that they want that they're not getting, that they're never going to get and why is that sad to them?" That’s to me the heart of writing a good song, is getting to that piece of it. 

Question: What bluegrass song really does it for you? 

Jonathan Coulton: I can't think of the name of the song now, but it's a Stanley Brothers song and it might be called “My Precious Children,” or something like that, but he's talking about how his kids have grown up and moved away and it used to be the family was together all the time and now they're dispersed and he rarely sees them. I'm getting a little shivery just thinking about it and maybe it's because I'm a parent now that, that means so much to me, but that's the one that you know I was driving somewhere in the car and that song came on and I started weeping. It's really, really amazing. 

Question: Tell us about “The Future Soon” and how it reflects your feelings about the future? 

Jonathan Coulton: It's a future that you might imagine if you were 13 years old growing up sometime in the 1980s and you were all alone in your room reading Omni magazine. I spent many hours exactly like that when I was 13 in the 1980s. So, yes, you know there are pieces of that character that are definitely me. He's jilted by a girl that he loves and imagines an elaborate revenge fantasy that also involves him improving himself. That’s his vision of the future: technology will save him and somehow make him more powerful, and really just sort of even him up with everybody else. 

There are definitely times, particularly in my early teens, where I felt like that. Not necessarily that I was going to build and command a robot army, but you know just the promise of technology is frequently about evening the score, making things accessible for everyone in a way that they haven't been. So I think my favorite kind of futurist thinking is that kind of futurist thinking. I am a fan of technology and science and I know there are a lot of people who don't feel that way, who fear technology and progress. And you know they don't necessarily have to be luddites to be that way. They may use cell phones and computers, but at the same time, they feel like technology is a Pandora's box that has been opened and all of the ills of the world are gradually destroying our society and tearing us apart and isolating us and destroying the planet. 

And you know maybe they're right but I kind of think that if you look at progress, in particular technological progress, if you take any sort of rational long view of what has happened so far, you'd have to come away with the opinion that ,overall, it's been good for humans here on earth. And I fully expect that trend will continue and certainly there are a lot of challenges, you know. There are millions of gallons of crude oil pouring in to the ocean right now and that's a terrible thing and it's a terrible side effect of our technological footprint on this planet. But, I believe that we can face these challenges and I believe we can solve these problems and I think that we will, because that's sort of what we're here to do. 

Question: What inspired the Mandelbrot Set song? 

Jonathan Coulton: Yes, I was very flattered to see that you asked him that question about the song and that he'd heard of it and had an opinion of it. The only thing I would like to say to him is, "I apologize that I got the math wrong." I have been informed by numerous mathematicians, both experts and armchair that I am actually describing a Julia set and not the Mandelbrot set. I still don't exactly understand the difference. So I apologize for acting as though I was an expert on the subject, when in fact, I was mostly just mining Wikipedia and doing my best to put it into lyrics for a song. 

Question: Do you consider yourself "internet famous?"

Jonathan Coulton: I definitely consider myself "internet famous" at this point. I think the difference between famous and "internet famous," it's a dividing line that is getting a little fuzzier, really month by month at this point, not just for me but I think as our culture changes, and I think it's about the medium that you are famous in. If you are famous for being on television, you are reaching a much larger and broader audience, than anyone who's on the Internet. As popular as certain ideas and people have become on the Internet, they don't really reach that kind of super fame, that sort of global broad appeal until they move into television. 

You know you can look at anything... like Twitter for example, you know that was a thing that I heard about through somebody else, signed up for it, started using... Nobody cared about it, you know, I was explaining it to my friends and they thought I was crazy. And then you started to see people on the Internet got excited about it and started using it and so it was sort of an internet thing and then you started to see people talking about it all the time on television. That was a very quick transformation. It was very, very quick it moved into that medium. And that's the point when it became a really famous thing. And it's a thing that almost everybody knows about now. Maybe they don't understand it. Frequently when it's mentioned, it's accompanied by a lame joke about how it's weird or stupid or whatever. So you know in many ways, it's infamous outside of the Internet rather than being famous. 

But you know, for me my fame is very targeted, it's not local because it doesn't have anything to do with physical space, but it's local on the map of ideas and taste, you know, because I'm famous on the Internet for writing a certain kind of song. And that appeals to a certain kind of person who's interested in certain things. And within a certain community, I'm pretty well-known. But just walking down the street here in New York, nobody knows who I am. I'm rarely recognized in public. And so in many ways it's the best of both worlds, because I have a fan base that is large and loyal enough to support me and I get that ego boost that is you know, I know now is kind of critical to me you know, that feedback from people telling me that they like this song or that song or that they really enjoyed this concert or that CD. 

I get that back and forth, but at the same time, I can see how having that kind of relationship with the entire world would be kind of unpleasant. You think about somebody like, poor Michael Jackson, who can't really go out in public anymore. Well, now he's dead but when he was alive, he could not go out in public anymore. And I think it's a bizarre thing, that the people that we love the most, we force them to become shut-ins. We've sort of cut them off from the rest of the world. It’s a strange thing that fame does. 

Question: Why do certain ideas become Internet famous and others don’t? 

Jonathan Coulton: Well, I think that there are a couple of things at play, that govern what kinds of ideas become "internet famous." One of them is just the fact that there are more geeks on the Internet than there are non-geeks on the Internet. And this is just because the Internet is still a relatively new medium on this planet. So I think a lot has been made of the ascendance of geek culture and you'd be crazy if you didn't think a lot of that had to do with the fact that there is the Internet and now all these people who use computers have a way to use their computers to get together in different ways, to communicate and create things and disseminate ideas and bounce them off of one another and change ideas. So I think part of it is just the Internet is the perfect medium for geeks because geeks like computers and that's mostly where the Internet is you know. 

But aside from that, I do think the common thread that a lot of internet culture shares is a kind of hyper-postmodernism. I barely know what I'm talking about here so bear with me, but you know I think there's a kind of humor, in particular, that is unique to the Internet and it has to do with referencing other things in an ironic way, in re-imagining them in a certain way, recycling ideas. Of course this is part of what postmodernism means, but I think there's sort of winky aspect to the things that become really popular in internet culture that sort of sits on top of that standard postmodernism, you know, collage combination of different ideas. Look at LOLCats for example. Which is bizarre and could only exist on the Internet and is, I think a real good measuring device for determining if somebody is part of internet culture or not. You know, they're basically funny pictures of cats, with a caption you know. And so you can say, well that's dumb, that's you know there are lots of greeting cards that are like that. We've had that for a long time. But there's a self-referential quality to LOLCats and it's the language that cats speak, somehow, it's this kind of pigeon language that cats speak and it kind of makes sense. I mean, if you're a fan of LOLCats, the reason you like it is because you see a caption and a funny picture and yes, you are looking at a funny caption of a funny cat picture, but also there's a joke there and it's very hard to explain what that joke is to somebody who doesn't get it. And it has to do with that language that cats speak, that is made up, that somehow a very large group of strangers all seems to agree that this is the language that cats speak. And so, I sound like a lunatic just talking about it. And that is, I think, a perfect example of the things that become popular on the Internet and why, even though I haven't really said why because I don't even know why. 

Question: What do you see yourself as? 

Jonathan Coulton: I walk a dangerous line between comedy and non-comedy music. Like many who've come before me, I'm not the first to do it and it's a troubling thing sometimes to be known as the guy who writes funny songs when in actuality my favorite songs are the ones that are not funny at all. My favorite songs of mine are the very sad ones. And so, yes, you know I think it is, I think it is crazy, I have learned that it is crazy for any artist to decide how they want, what kind of artist they want to be known as. You don't get to decide that. The best-case scenario for you if you're an artist, is to make the things that you love. To make the things that you want to make and to have a group of fans who like it and support you and who make it possible for you to continue making more stuff. That's all you can ask for and I think if you start to worry about, are people going to think of me as a novelty musician, when really I'm a sensitive writer of important songs, then that way lies madness. Because it's not up to you to decide and there's little you can do to change anyone's mind. Once you've put the stuff out there that is yours, people will make of it what they will and you're lucky to even be thinking about trying to change that. So shut up. That's kind of what I think about that. So, I'm just so pleased to be here and you know I feel so fortunate to be making a living this way. I'm happy for the fans who think of me as a novelty musician and I'm happy for the fans who think of me as a writer of important songs. However you like me, I'm just glad that you like me. 

Question: What do you geek out on online? 

Jonathan Coulton: Boy, what do I geek out on? There's a guy named Ze Frank who I have stolen from quite frequently. I don't even know how you would describe him. He's a writer; he's sort of a professional "internet famous" person. He does projects on the Internet but they exist on so many different levels. They're really interesting. He made an earth sandwich once and he set up a piece of software, where you could plug in your coordinates and it would tell you the spot opposite, on the opposite side of the globe; would show you on a map where that was. And then people signed up and coordinated with each other, sort of a contest, and two groups of people on opposite sides of the planet arranged at the same time to lay a piece of bread down on the spot on the globe that was opposite. So they made an earth sandwich. And it's a perfect example of the kind of stuff that Ze does. You know he uses technology to bring complete strangers together for an absolutely ridiculous project that somehow still has a lot of heart to it. 

So, let's see, what else. You know my friend John Hodgman, I bad mentioning him because everybody's going to think I'm mentioning him just because he's my friend, but I think he's an incredibly talented writer and comedian and he is another person that I think just creates really terrific stuff that makes you laugh and sometime later, makes you cry, because it's ridiculous but it's also true. I'm a big admirer of his work. 

What else? Oh gosh, you've put me on the spot here. OK Go, I think. They're maybe a little more mainstream now. Those guys are pretty famous but and it seems trite to even talk about their music videos because I think most people agree that they are awesome, but you know, every time a new video comes out. I am amazed that they have been able to top themselves. And again, they start with a very simple concept, these are frequently pretty low-budget videos, but it's that perfect concept that you can somehow do quite a lot with even though it's a very small idea. Their music is great too, but I think they are just super, super creative talented people on all fronts and I'm very jealous of them. 

Question: What did your song about "Portal" mean to you as a video games fan? 

Jonathan Coulton: I was very proud to work on "Portal." I had been a fan of the company Valve for some time. I had played their games before. So when they asked me if I'd be interested in writing music for them, I said absolutely, without hesitation. And I played an early version of that game and like the rest of the Internet, I had seen the teaser trailer for it and so I was excited about it, and I knew it was going to be cool. And then when we came up with this idea to have one of the characters sing a song, at the end, basically put a musical theater number in the game. It seemed fun and awesome, but also like maybe it wasn't such a good idea and it wasn't going to work out. But when we were finished, we were all kind of happy with the results. But we didn't know how people were going to respond to it and of course everybody just went crazy, which was extremely gratifying. For me, I grew up playing video games, and there's that thing that happens at the end of the game. In particular, a game that has a long story arc to it or a kind of quest to it. You get to the end and you're a little sad, you know, because you've been existing in this world and you've been participating in this story and then suddenly it's over. And you know that there's no new that thing anymore. You're done with new that thing and so I took inspiration from that. The parade of all the characters at the end of Super Mario brothers, it's a celebratory moment too, but there's also a little bit of sadness, when you sort of sit back and watch the credits because damn it, you've earned it. 

So I wanted it to be like that. It's funny, my daughter and I, my daughter who's five, we just played a game called “A Boy and His Blob,” which is a long platforming game where you have a friend who's a blob of stuff and if you feed him certain jelly beans, he'll turn in to different tools that you can use to solve puzzles. And so she and I played that together and for weeks and weeks, I watched her figure out how to play a video game, which was awesome. And then, at the end, we killed the last bad guy and the credits started to roll and she started to cry. And I was like, oh I know, I know exactly how you feel because that's what it is at the end of the game. So, I'm of course pretty pleased with how Portal turned out and how it was received and I still think it's a terrific game, even leaving aside the song, it's just such a brilliantly drawn character that you get to know in GlaDOS throughout the game and you come to really love her and understand her by the end, even though she's trying to kill you. And I think that's a remarkable achievement in any medium. 

Question: Do you think video games can be an art form? 

Jonathan Coulton: I do. Roger Ebert actually wrote a blog post recently where he declared his opinion, which is that video games can never be art. And immediately there were thousands and thousands of comments from people disagreeing with him. And I won't get into the details of his argument, I think we just have a fundamental disagreement about semantics, which immediately makes it a really complicated issue to discuss. But, yes, I certainly think that video games are a young medium and only recently have we been able to have the kind of video and audio experiences that are strong enough to really carry a story and create a vision and all that stuff. 

Although, that said, I think the trend of art games is really interesting, games that are playable but not really winnable; they are experiences and they are artworks. There's a game called Passage, that is really just a sort of metaphor for going through life and making choices and ultimately dying and it's really very powerful. It takes a few minutes to play. It's not a very interesting game to play and then at the end of it, it moves you. And you know if that's not art, I don't know what is. 

Question: Will there be a sequel to “Portal?” 

Jonathan Coulton: I have not started working on it yet, but yes, I have had some discussions with Valve about writing music for "Portal II" and it does look like it's going to happen. I don't think I'm allowed to talk about any details but I have seen some demo stuff of the new game and there's a lot of cool stuff in it and you know I'm really pleased to be dipping back into that universe again. I think the game is going to be fantastic. I am also terrified about that because it's, I don't think there's any way we can follow up on the success of "Portal I." But, we'll do our best. 

Question: What lessons can others learn from your internet marketing experience? 

Jonathan Coulton: There are times when I think the Internet has changed everything and it's a whole new world and we're all going to be doing it this way and everyone should do what I did and it will work for them. And there are other times where I think, I just got lucky or there are specific reasons why it works for me and it won't work for anybody else. And or you know maybe my journey is really nothing new. It's what has always happened, which is that you make music that you like, you put it out there. You get it to as many people as possible, not worrying so much about how you're making money, because you really just want the music to be heard. And then if it catches on, people start buying it and you can start doing shows and people will pay to come see you and you can sell t-shirts. And you that story can happen without the Internet. I think that if anything has changed it's that it's possible now for someone like me to make pretty decent-sounding music with a minimal investment in actual dollar terms. The equipment that you can get now and the software that you can get now is really high quality stuff for not very much money. And the technology that the Beatles used to record Sergeant Pepper, that comes free on your laptop. So that's a big difference. You don't need a huge investment in money to make really great music and art of all sorts of kinds. 

I also think that the rise of Internet culture is great for me and probably for other musicians who have a kind of niche music. There are so many more genres of music now than there have ever been, identifiable genres. You look at the list of genre names on Wikipedia, it's absurdly long. I've never heard of most of them. But these are names that people have made up to describe the music that they like. And I think without the technology and the connectivity the Internet brings, where there's a song in digital form that's easily downloadable and it's a format that's pretty universal at this point, mp3. There are all sorts of ways you can share it with your friends by clicking a couple of buttons. It is immediately copied and sent literally around the world for zero dollars. And that's kind of a remarkable thing and I think that is bound to change things quite a bit. I have to think that has done something to change the landscape. I believe it's been that very act of somebody listening to a piece of my music deciding they like it enough to pass it along to a friend, in whatever way they pass it along. My strategy all along has been to enable that as much as possible and to encourage that as much as possible in the belief that the first goal is to have the music heard. And the second goal is to get paid for making the music. 

Question: What’s next for you? 

Jonathan Coulton: It's been a few years now of me trying to process that and touring and actually building this business of making and selling music. And I feel like I've finally come to the end of that period of working with that music and I have been ready for some time to begin the next "thing." I just haven't known what it was. I also along the way have stopped writing music, largely. Here and there a song will trickle out but I haven't had the time or energy or drive to focus on writing stuff and I miss it. So I recently opened for They Might Be Giants, for about a week and a half. That's several shows and I've been a fan of theirs for years and years. So it was a real thrill to open for them and our audiences kind of overlap and we share a sensibility that I stole from them. So, that was a big thrill. I got to know John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the two main dudes and liked them quite a bit. And at the end of my time with them, John Flansburgh suggested to me that I make a record, I write a bunch of songs, put a band together, and make a record and that he would like to produce that record. So that is the thing I'm working on right now, feverishly and with enormous panicky feelings. I am home trying to write songs that are good... in anticipation of playing them with actual musicians and submitting them for the approval of one of my heroes, John Flansburgh. And then going into a real studio and spending a lot of money to hire people who know what they're doing to mix it and engineer it and master it and to hire musicians who know how to play their instruments. These are all new things for me. So, it's a very exciting project. I don't know what it's called. I don't know when it's coming, but that is the thing that I am very excited to be working on right now and also very terrified to be working on right now. 

Question: Can you sing us a song? 

Jonathan Coulton: Last week I left a note on Laura's desk. It said I love you, signed anonymous friend. Turns out she's smarter than I thought she was. She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too. And I'm all alone during couples skate when she skates by with some guy on her arm, but I know that I'll forget the look of pity in her face when I'm living in my solar dome on a platform in space. 'Cause it's gonna to be the future soon and I won't always be this way, when the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away. It's gonna be the future soon. I've never seen it quite so clear and when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it's already here. I'll probably be some kind of scientist building inventions in my space lab in space. I'll end world hunger; I'll make dolphins speak. Work through the daytime; spend my nights and weekends perfecting my warrior robot race. Building them one laser gun at a time, I will do my best to teach them about life and what it's worth. I just hope that I can keep them away from destroying the Earth. 'Cause it's gonna be the future soon and I won't always be this way. When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away, it's gonna be the future soon. I've never seen it quite so clear and when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it's already. Here on Earth they'll wonder as I piece by piece replace myself and the steel and circuits will make me whole, but I'll still feel so alone until Laura calls me home. I'll see her standing by the monorail. She'll look the same except for bionic eyes. She lost the real ones in the robot wars. I'll say I'm sorry, she'll say it's not your fault, or is it? She'll eye me suspiciously hearing the whir of the servos inside, she will scream and try to run, but there's nowhere she can hide, when a crazy cyborg wants to make you his robot bride. Well, it's gonna be the future soon and I won't always be this way. When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away, it's gonna be the future soon. I've never seen it quite so clear and when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it's already ...

Thank you.

Recorded on May 6, 2010
Interview conducted by Austin Allen