In honor of PAX East: An extended Jonathan Coulton interview

Jonathan Coulton serenades Wil Wheaton at PAX 2009

So -- like the other 60,000 of you who are piling into the Hynes Convention Center this weekend -- we are all kinds of excited about PAX East. Just look at this schedule -- that's a whole lot of "holy shit" right there, and right at the top of the list is Saturday's concert with headliner and PAX veteran Jonathan Coulton. Even if you've already read our Back Talk interview with Coulton, this one's definitely worth checking out, since we ended up having to leave some of the best material on the cutting-room floor, for space reasons. (Such is the heartbreak of print media.) So here it is, restored to its original glory, with Coulton expounding on swine flu and a really bizarre game hack (which lets you play "Still Alive" by shooting a piano) and more about his stance on Creative Commons. He also talked about one of his obscurest deep cuts, "Brookline," which paints the picturesque Massachusetts hamlet as an insidious plot to brainwash us and take over the world -- and you can blame it all on John Hodgman. (If this piques your interest at all, do make a point to listen to our 2008 JoCo/JoHo podcast, where Coulton performs "Brookline" live at the Coolidge -- a true rarity.)

This weekend, you'll be able to see Coulton in concert on Saturday (if you show up early enough to get a concert wristband, that is); know also that Protomen, Anamanaguchi, Metroid Metal, and MC Frontalot are performing tonight, and that there's also a "PAX Musical Guests Panel" at 2:30pm on Saturday. And now, without further adieu: the extended Jonathan Coulton interview.

So you emerged from the swine-flu outbreak of PAX '09 unscathed?
You know, I had something after PAX. ... I like to think that I had swine flu 'cause it's kind of cool. ... It is a badge of honor. Especially for attendees of PAX that year. Every con has its own plague. And it was kind of exciting that at this one it was swine flu -- the dreaded swine flu.

I hope our plague will beat the West Coast's.
Yeah, that's a good point: We can only hope that more people get sick at this con. If you put that in the article, please point out that it was your suggestion.

What can the newbies expect?
So obviously, it's focused around the Penny Arcade comics, but it's much more than that, in the way that that comic has become sort of the de facto online voice for the gaming community. ... It's really about games and gamers; and it's one of those things that could have easily become a trade show, but the people who run it are really intent on making sure that it is for the fans and for people who love gaming. So it's just sort of an awesome time for people to hang out and look at crazy people in crazy costumes and also to just play some games. It's kind of fantastic. And then, of course, they have all these concerts with all these great musicians and these really niche-y sort of superstars in the geek world that can't get any radio play. They do this huge rock concert for thousands of people, and it's a really exciting, thrilling thing to be part of a community that's so intensely focused in this one physical space instead of dispersed across the entire Internet.

Did your music career initially evolve from your early collaborations with John Hodgman?
Hodgman and I have known each other since college; we've been good friends since college. He, a couple of years prior to me doing so, had quit his day job to become a writer. As part of that, he had started doing this reading series called the "Little Gray Books" lectures. And it was just sort of a reading series on steroids. People would read stuff they'd written to a particular theme that John had selected. But also there was a dog show, there were cooking demonstrations, slideshows, and all sorts of crazy stuff. Like a variety show, I guess. I would frequently write songs to the theme, so that was my contribution to the thing. A lot of good songs came out of that. Within a short time, he was drawing a couple hundred people to those shows in Brooklyn. And it was a big inspiration to me to see my friend John, who was not famous, just start doing a thing and then people showed up to it. ... So it was sort of me practicing being a working musician of sorts, even though I still had a day job at that time. So that was the transitional thing that allowed me to consider doing it full-time. I was doing it part-time, and it was fun, and I was getting some good feedback, so it seemed like if I started doing it full-time I could push it a lot further.

The song "Brookline" came out of the "Little Gray Books" lectures, right?
That's right, yes. ... Well, because I had been good friends with John for a long time and because Brookline High School in particular is the kind of place that it is -- it's remarkable -- Brookline keeps turning up. Brookline sort of has tendrils that extend around the globe. It's like, "Oh, that guy went to Brookline High." REALLY? And this was a sort of phenomenon that John had always remarked on, and the more I hung around him, the more I discovered it to be the case. And his wife is someone that he met at Brookline High, and my wife is someone that he met at Brookline High. It's like I met my wife through him. So when the four of us hang around, I'm the only one who did not go to Brookline High. ... After one too many nights of the three of them deciding it would be a good idea to pull out the yearbook and reminisce, which is very boring for the people who did not actually go to high school there, that song came out of me when John decided to do a "Little Gray Books" lecture that was to celebrate Brookline.

I like the almost Lovecraftian horror of it.
That was the spin, to take a minor annoyance and turn it into a dark conspiracy.

So what does your songwriting habit tend to be? I'm guessing you're not going through anything as grueling as "Thing A Week," but what's your approach to music writing right now?
Songwriting has become a real challenge for me of late. I have been doing so much touring that it's frequently hard to find the time and energy to do it. Largely, I think I suffer a little bit from the kind of damper that success can put on a musician or band or songwriter. ... I'm very grateful for it, but it kind of messes you up a little bit. ... Sometimes an idea will just come to me out of nowhere while I'm in the shower or on a bicycle. A little fragment of a phrase, a little character sketch appears fully formed in my brain, and then I like it enough to pursue it and spit it out into a full song. Other times it's real work, and it comes from nothing, and you decide, okay, today I'm going to write a song. And you sit down with the guitar two hours and just noodle around and do some Billy Joel covers ... and play around in this key and find a little fragment of something that you like and then build it from there. It really comes from those two directions for me, that spark -- that is the thing that people always described as coming from the muse, because it does seem to come from somewhere outside of your head, versus the other part of the process, which is actually building the thing, which is really work.

Your "Thing a Week" exercise was patterned after They Might Be Giants' Dial-A-Song, wasn't it?
Exactly. In fact, it was seven times easier than Dial-A-Song, because Dial-A-Song happened every day. ... I keep being reminded of how many ideas I have stolen from them [They Might be Giants], just in terms of approaching songwriting and performing and showmanship and interacting with an audience. They really are very much my creative, spiritual fathers.

For me, what typifies your songs is how incongruous they seem to be. You have these very sweet and catchy melodies, and you'll have a song that's funny but it's sad and then also it's about zombies. Is that something that you're aiming for, or does it sort of well up naturally?
I think it is something that I'm aiming for. I like best when songs do that. I like happy-sounding songs that are actually sad, and vice versa, I guess, is a nice thing too. And I also like songs that start from a really unusual perspective but actually end up saying something kind of universal. The reason I write that stuff is that's the stuff that I like to listen to. I really am trying to write the songs that I would most want to hear, I think. Not to keep talking about They Might Be Giants, but that's another thing that I really took from them when I first became a fan. They have these songs that are kind of goofy and crazy and really out there. You don't even know what they're really about, except once you've listened to them 10 times, you do. And it turns out that they're about something very deep. And I like that moment. I like when you actually develop a relationship with a song and you think about it when you're not listening to it and that kind of stuff. And that's always the direction that I'm headed.

How did you get first hooked up with Valve [the creators of Half-Life and Portal]?
Valve happened when I did a show in Seattle, and after the show, I was hanging out at the merchandise table saying hello to people and signing things. And a couple of people came up and introduced themselves and said they worked at Valve. And I knew what Valve was because I had played and loved Half-Life. And they say, "Have you ever thought of writing music for video games?" Yeah, sure. And they said, "Well, you should come talk to us. Come hang out in the office and meet some people." I said alright. So, a few weeks later, I went to their offices, and it turns out these people were in charge of working on the Portal game. And so I got to play an early version of Portal before it was finished, and I got to meet the writer and meet the character GLaDOS. We talked about a few different things. We weren't sure exactly what we were going to do together to start with. Once we made that connection that GLaDOS was the kind of character that I was writing about all the time anyway, it felt like a very natural thing. It [GLaDOS] is sort of this passive-aggressive monster. She's murderous; she actually is trying to kill you, but she's sort of pure of intent.

And very hurt.
And very hurt! She's kind of a tragic figure, even though she wants to destroy you. She's not malicious; it's just what she does. And that's my favorite kind of character to write about. And so Erik Wolpaw, one of the writers, said, "I've always wanted to have a video game moment where it sort of devolved into a musical-theater number." And I was like, "Oh, that sounds REALLY interesting!" And so we kicked that around; and as it turns out, the best way to deal with that is to sort of put it in the end as a little coda to the game when you finish it. And I was just thrilled with the way it ["Still Alive"] turned out, thrilled with the way it was received.

Did it surprise you just how much of a phenomenon "Still Alive" became?
Oh, yeah. Everything I finish, I'm like, "Eh, that's not very good. Nobody's going to like it." So yeah, I was definitely amazed at the almost immediate outpouring of love from the Internet. And people have done all sorts of cover versions of that song.

Yeah, I heard a chiptunes cover of it the other day.
Oh really? I haven't heard that one. There was a guy who used a plugin thing called Gary's Mod that lets you sort of hack around and build stuff using the Half-Life engine. Within that thing, he created a piano that he played by firing a gun at different keys and he played that song in the game using the modification of the game. Like, insane. Try explaining that to your mom.

Or my editor.
Or even me -- I still don't understand it myself.

I have to ask: Are you planning to work on anything for Portal 2?
Yes, I believe it's been announced, so I can say that they have asked me to do more music for Portal 2. And I'm very much looking forward to working with them again.

Are there any details that you can relay?
I don't think so. And quite honestly, we don't know exactly what we're going to do. I've had some discussions with them about potential directions. ... We're still kicking around some different ways of integrating music in. So nothing has been decided yet, and it's all ideas at this point, and I wouldn't wanna say those, because we might not keep them.

How did you get the troubadour gig for Popular Science?
Well, like all good jobs, that one happened because of a poker game at a futurist convention. I was at a thing called Pop Tech, which, if you've heard of TED, it's sort of an East Coast TED. It happens in Camden, Maine, once a year. I had been invited to play there, and it was a lot of fun, and I found myself one of those nights at a poker game with several people, some of them being editors from Popular Science magazine who I had met through mutual friends. At that point, I think I had written an article for them about building a robot. So we'd worked together and we knew each other and we were friends and everything. We were playing poker, and somebody said, over a glass of whiskey, "You should be our contributing troubadour and write an official song for our magazine." And the next day when we were all sober, it still made sense. So they immediately put me on the masthead as contributing troubadour even though I hadn't done anything, which was kind of cool. And then one of the first things we did was they asked me to write a five-song album to go with one of the issues of their magazine. It was all about the future of the body and the way technology would transform body-related medicine. So there were songs about pharmaceuticals, there were songs about artificial muscles, there was a song about DNA-scanning, all this stuff. And I did a couple of other little things for them, did some podcasts for them. Eventually it got to the point where I didn't have time to do that stuff anymore. My career as a professional rock & roll musician is now a full-time job. But they're a great bunch of people and I've always loved that magazine, so I had a lot of fun working with them.

Are you still as gung-ho about making your work available through free MP3 downloads and Creative Commons licensing as you were when you first started your professional music career?
Absolutely. I credit my success to that. There's no question in my mind that that was enormously helpful in making this happen. People ask me all the time, "How did you promote yourself when you were first starting out?" And the answer is, I didn't. The Internet did it for me, and that was sort of the crazy plan that I had. And I wasn't really convinced it was going to work, but there's no question in my mind that it did, and it continues to. It's word-of-mouth on a grand scale, and using a Creative Commons license like that just enables that to happen. You want the stuff you make to reach as many people as possible. That's the goal. ... If you were to give away your music and a million people heard your music without giving you a dime, is that really a problem? I think that's actually a great place to start. ... Having a business that actually works and makes money hasn't changed my attitude in any way. In fact, it's only made me more certain about it. Just because it's really worked for me.

Yeah, I feel like eventually, you'll see enough success stories from this kind of example that things will have to change.
Yeah, and I don't know if you heard, but I think it was yesterday [interview was conducted on March 11, 2010] that OK! Go announced that they're leaving EMI and starting their own label. They haven't made public the ins and outs of the issue, but recently -- you know, they have all these videos floating around on YouTube that are amazing and fantastic and people love. It's one of the things that they've become really famous for, and people were complaining that you can't embed their videos on your web page.

Oh, right, and I've never, never understood that at all.
I know, and it's like, WHAT? And that's EMI's decision. ... I don't know exactly why they [OK Go] decided to do that, but I would guess that they're very creative people and they want to make stuff, and they want to put it out there, and they want to do some unusual stuff that a traditional record label is not going to be able to support. I don't say this in a mean way, but I think that, largely, the people who are working at labels come from an old way of thinking and they're not always going to see the wisdom of doing these new things. I think you're right -- I think things do have to change, and they are changing. I'm excited. Anytime I hear something like that -- like OK Go leaving EMI -- I'm like, that's exactly the right move. Because not only are you making incredibly creative stuff and putting it out there for fans, but you also have a really creative way of reaching those fans, and you're probably going to come up with all sorts of crazy new stuff that people haven't thought of, and you're going to lead the way into the future of the music business. It's a very exciting time to be an artist, I think.

Last question: OK, so at PAX 2008, you Rickrolled the audience. At PAX 2009, you changed "My Monkey" to "Wil Wheaton." How are you going to top this? Maybe we're not allowed to know.
Quite honestly, I don't know yet. ... I'm runnin' scared. I know it's a lot of pressure. I've gotta outdo myself. Now you see the horrible burden of fame and success. It's terrible. There are a couple of things that are in the works that I think will be kind of fun. We'll see if they pan out or not.
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