Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with geek rock guru Jonathan Coulton about why he opted out of shaving his beard for a Kickstarter donation, why he's kind of like a giant squid and his tour with They Might Be Giants.
CP: When I saw you at Dragon*Con last year, there was a lot of synergy going on with Paul & Storm and Kristen Shirts with everyone stepping into and out of each other's sets. Has there been any of that going on during this tour with They Might Be Giants?
JC: No. As the opening act on this tour, I'm very much the junior partner, so I try and keep a low profile. I'm doing maybe 30-minute sets. I feel like it's my job to go out there and represent myself as best I can but it's also my job to be the warm up act, and I don't feel like it's totally appropriate to pull a lot of stunts during my opening act. You have to keep a low profile as the opener because otherwise, you get fired. [Laughs.]
CP: That's interesting, since you used to open for Paul & Storm, and now they open for you. Do you think the same is going to happen with They Might Be Giants?
JC: [Heavy laughter.] When you write this out, be sure you put "heavy laugher" in brackets. [Author's note: Done and done.] No, I don't think so. They Might Be Giants are rock stars, and they are eternal. They've been doing this for 30 years, and I've been a big fan of theirs for a long time.
No, I can't imagine that happening. [Laughs.] You know, I've done a lot of headlining myself, but most of the time just acoustic as a solo performer. Being an opener performer for them is a great way to learn what it's like to tour with a band, which is a very new thing for me. It's been a great learning experience for me, but I'll return to doing my own headlining shows later this year. For now, we're having a great time.
CP: Speaking of TMBG, you worked with John Flansburgh even before his collaboration with you on "Artificial Heart." How did you two meet?
JC: We met - he may not remember - but we met a few times through our mutual friend John Hodgman, who I have known since we were in college together. Hodgman did some stuff in relation to The Giants' "Venue" songs, in which he played a deranged millionaire who commissioned those works.
They made some videos, and he performed at some shows with them. When circumstances allowed, he would invite me backstage as his guest. I would sort of hang around, creepily, staring at the rock stars I admired and saying awkward things to them when they looked at me.
At some point, I was doing a show in Chicago with Paul & Storm, and we discovered that They Might Be Giants had a show the same night in Chicago. It was a "Flood" show; they were playing all the songs from the album "Flood," which is their seminal masterpiece. We were like, "Great. There goes our audience."
Paul & Storm and I came up with the idea to do our own competing "Flood" show, using only an acoustic guitar, I think we had a bass, some mild keyboard skills and some shaker eggs. I emailed John Flansburgh to make sure it wasn't going to make them angry, and he said, "Sure, that sounds like fun." I think it was shortly thereafter that Flansburgh invited me to open for the Giants for a few shows. That led to us working together on "Artificial Heart."
CP: Did you mention that you'd met him before, albeit as a creepy hanger on?
JC: No, I never brought it up. Everybody feels this way when they're around someone famous who they admire: It was hard to act like a normal person. I feel like the first few times I met him, I failed to act like a normal person, and I don't want to remind either one of them of those events.
CP: What has it been like being on tour with them? Having worked with him on the album, what's it like being around him now?
JC: [Laughs.] Do I feel like a normal person when I'm around him? Yeah, I do. The nice thing about touring with those guys is that they're such pleasant, kind people - both the Johns [Flansburgh and Linell] and both the Dans [Miller and Weinkauf] and Marty [Beller]. The whole crew, everybody, is super nice to us.
You hear horror stories from opening acts where they say, "Get out of here, kid, that'sthe headliner act's potato chips." We have separate green rooms, but we do some hanging out. I try and stay out of their way because they are putting on a big show and they're the main act, so they get to decide what's what. It's definitely a fun hang for all of us.
CP: You can really heard Flansburgh's influence in the fullness of the production and texturing on "Artificial Heart" compared to your earlier releases. Had you already written the material before he became involved or was he working with you from the ground up?
JC: No, it was really ground up. I tried early on to sneak in stuff that I'd already written because I'm a lazy person, but he said, "Nah, let's do new stuff." [Laughs.] One of the great things about working with him is that he's a very driven person, professionally. He's a great motivator because he has a lot of energy himself, and he just assumes everyone else has that energy.
He'd call me up and say, "How's it going? How's the writing going?" and I'll say, "Well ... it's OK. I can't really think of anything to write about," and he'll say, "What are you talking about? Just write three songs by this weekend. Bye." [Laughs.] The thing about having somebody even pretend to be your boss is a very effective thing when it gives you a deadline.
I wrote everything from scratch for this album. I would write something and give him a very simple guitar/vocal demo, and he would give a lot of great suggestions about tweaking things and making the lyrics better and making the songs more efficient or interesting. Then, I would go in with the band, who was on the record, and we would come up with an arrangement together that worked and go in the studio and play it and Flansburgh would tell us where we were right and where we were wrong.
It was a fun experience. I spend so much time doing everything myself, living inside my own head, that it was a pleasure to collaborate with other people and not be responsible for every single decision. It was really a relief, but it also, I think, lead to some interesting places I would not have gotten to, otherwise.
CP: Even without all that responsibility you're used to, you still had a new role in leading a band, which carried a different set of obligations. Has it been difficult for you transitioning from being a solo artist to a band leader?
JC: It was a hard transition for me. I have an inferiority complex when it comes to my musicianship and my technical abilities. I feel like everybody around me is older and smarter and better at playing their instruments.
Marty Beller, who is the drummer for They Might Be Giants, was the drummer on the record, and another guy in Brooklyn named Chris Anderson was the bass player, so when I went in with them, I was intimidated. It always feels weird to say, "We're going to play this song I wrote. We're going to play my special song now." [Laughs.] It's a strange dynamic, but they were great.
When I was approaching this project, I broke down my fear to the idea that I would start playing a song to them so we could learn it, and then I would look over at them, and they would be rolling their eyes. Of course, that never happens; it would be a very mean thing to do. It never happened. I also realized that, if that was the worst possible situation I could imagine, it probably wasn't that big of a deal, and I should just do it. [Laughs.]
Right now, I'm touring with different guys. Adam Bernstein is the bass player, and a guy named Christian Cassan is the drummer, and I had to go through and re-experience the learning of these songs with them. I had already done it once, so I was less afraid. These guys are great as well. We're having a lot of fun together. It's exciting to be playing the same stuff with the same bunch of guys and getting it sharp and tight. It's a very valuable musical experience.
CP: So you're touring as a trio, then?
JC: Yes, it's what they call a power trio. [Laughs.]
CP: It seems like many of the songs on "Artificial Heart" would need to be simplified when performed solo. How well have they translated to the live experience with a ... "power trio?"
JC: [Laughs.] Yes, it's definitely more spare than the recorded version since it's just the three of us, but it's fun. It ends up being a garage rock version of stuff. Yeah, there's definitely some stuff we can't really make sing the way it does in the recorded version without additional people on stage, but there are enough straight-ahead rockers and pop songs in the catalog that we can make a pretty full set that sounds pretty good.
CP: The theremin intro to "Still Alive" on "Artificial Heart" is totally different, obviously, from what people heard in the game "Portal." Whose idea was that and will you have a theremin with you on this tour?
JC: [Laughs.] That was Flansburgh. I wanted to put the song on the album because it's probably my most well-known song, and I didn't have it for sale anywhere, which is a terrible, terrible business situation. [Laughs.]
On top of that, I had written the song for GLaDOs - for this character - and it was sung by this female computer voice. In the interim between the time when the game came out and now, I've played that song live many times, acoustically, and sung it myself. There's something about a human voice singing it that I really enjoyed as a sort of alternate take on the meaning of the song.
I think when a computer voice is singing it, it's one thing, but when you don't know what it's about, it's a straight-ahead - slightly weird, maybe - break up song. I liked the idea of doing a version on the album that had a human singing it. In order to make it different and interesting and fun, we were thinking of different things to do, and Flansburgh said "theremin" and I said yes immediately because I love theremin.
CP: There's a weird kind of symmetry to the game since you discover in "Portal 2" - spoiler alert - that GLaDOS has some human in her.
JC: Absolutely. I am such a fan of that game and that character and the writing behind that character. I think it's one of the most brilliantly conceived characters, certainly in video games but it probably beats out many characters in movies as well.
GLaDOS has always had a really complicated internal life. You can tell, even in "Portal," - spoiler alert - that she has some human in her. Machines don't know how to be passive aggressive, and she's incredibly passive aggressive and sarcastic in this wonderful way. I think that's one of the things people loved about her, as a villain.
For me, it's my favorite kind of villain: the villain who is trying to kill you, but not for any - [laughs] - bad reasons, you know? She's not mean about it; it's just her job. She's a villain ... ... a person ... ... an entity who is trying to destroy you, but it's not really her fault. She's kind of a tragic figure because she is so confused herself, and yet she presents this front that she's very certain of what's going on.
It's dramatic irony is what it is, and it's quite a thrill.
CP: Are you primarily pulling material from "Artificial Heart" for shows lately, or are you dipping into the back catalog, too?
JC: Oh yeah, it's a mix of stuff from "Artificial Heart' and the back catalog. There are a lot of songs that, if I didn't play them at the show, I would get in big trouble with the fans. In many ways, the old songs are feeling new to me because I've been playing them acoustically for so long.
A lot of the old songs were conceived as band songs and recorded as band songs, only with me playing all the stuff. They spent a few years just living in my acoustic guitar in front of audiences, and now to have them move into this much bigger house of the band and relax and spread out feels really nice.
I'm killing with the metaphors, by the way. [Laughs.]
CP: Granted bios are rarely, if ever, written by the artist they describe, but the first line of yours really resonated with me that: "Jonathan Coulton speaks to the outcast in all of us, in the voices of characters we know from our own sad little lives."
JC: [Laughs.] I think I did write that line, actually. I'll take credit for that.
CP: [Laughs.] OK. Is that something you set out to do when you write a song? You have all these songs about mad scientists with crushes and programmers with crushes - there are a lot of songs that convey that relationship via unconventional subjects. Is that intentional or just something that, looking back, you realize you've naturally worked into your songs?
JC: Well, you know, it's a fine line between intentionality and accident when you're writing a song. A lot of the time, you don't really have a choice; you just write because you only have a couple of ideas that are viable, and then you do them. [Laughs.]
I agree that that's a theme that comes up over and over again. It's mostly just a case of it being a thing that I am interested in. As I said, that's a very compelling kind of character to me: A monster who is pathetic.
I think I struggle, in my own life, to not be a small person, in the sense of pettiness and that sort of thing. So characters who are that way and who don't really recognize that they are that way or who are that way and are gloriously unapologetic about being that way I find to be fascinating characters. Lucky for me, that describes all of us. [Laughs.]
CP: There is a curious degree of universality to that type of person or that type of feeling.
JC: Yeah, I mean when you see a character behaving in a passive aggressive way or behaving in a way without self-awareness, it's the classic unreliable narrator thing. I think people respond to that. It's very easy to see yourself in that.
CP: What are your hopes for your material? What do you want to communicate to the people who hear your songs?
JC: I always try to write songs that I would want to hear, songs that I wish existed in the world, and as a listener, I am moved by songs that tell a story or reveal a character in an interesting or unexpected way. I love songs that take a while for you to digest them, where you might listen to 10 times and only then have an insight that, "Ah, now I see what's happening." That's a very exciting thing to me, like when your brain processes the punch line of a joke. It's that leap of insight you get to have.
I like to write those things, and sometimes, the best way to get there is to start with a premise that is a little unusual, a character who is, at least initially, far distant from me, from my personality.
I can't write directly about myself; I don't do that very well. If I write a song from the perspective of, say, a giant squid who hates himself because he keeps crushing the ships he loves to touch and has exiled himself to the bottom of the sea, that's not me, obviously - at least when I start the song - but as I write, parts of my personality and my experience and people I know and their experiences get inserted into it. So it ends up being feeling very personal and real, but not always in a way that makes it completely obvious what it's about or who this character is.
CP: You were writing songs and recording music even when you were working as a programmer prior to "Thing a Week." When did you first start writing songs?
JC: [Laughs.] Boy, when I was a kid, a very little kid, a toddler even, my mom and I would sing together in the car. She taught me to sing harmony. That's where it started for me. Both my parents played instruments and sang, so I was able to pick up a little piano from my mom and a little guitar from my dad. It was always a thing that was part of my life.
The first song I wrote, I must have been in junior high or high school. It was after having learned to play a lot of songs and being able to inhabit a song, crawl around inside it and figure out how it was put together. People who don't write songs or haven't written songs often find it to be a very mysterious process. Really, most of it is pretending there's already a song there and you're just playing it.
Or it's a modeling exercise. You have a thing in your head that you're trying to get to, and sometimes, you might even take inspiration from a kind of song you're familiar with. You might take inspiration from a song that's about how terrible the road is when you're traveling with a band - [laughs] - or a murder ballad. You might say, "Oh, I'm going to write a song about that." The more you know about those songs and the more of those songs you know, you can sort of a build one of your own once you know how they work.
CP: What was the first one you wrote with which you still have a good relationship, one that still finds its way into your sets or that you're not ashamed to play live?
JC: [Laughs.] That's a great question. I'm setting my time machine ... ...
The earliest song I wrote is probably the song "IKEA" about the store IKEA. That was a pretty early song. There's a whole list of songs that I wrote in high school and college that are not in circulation because they exist only on cassette tapes in my office and any number of copies of that cassette tape I may or may not have given to girls I had crushes on in college or high school. I can't go back to those songs.
Once I was a full-fledged adult, grown up person, I feel like that time of my life and that time of my creative life, feels contiguous with my life now. "IKEA" is a good example of a song from way back - it's probably over 10 years old - but it still feels like it's OK. It's acceptable for me to play it in front of people.
CP: How soon into Thing-A-Week did you realize you had the momentum necessary to make a career out of it? Were you hoping it was going to work from the start?
JC: No, I didn't think it was going to work at all when I started; I just didn't know what else to do. I got lucky early on with Song No. 5, which was my cover of "Baby Got Back," the Sir Mix-A-Lot song from 1990 or around then.
That song had a viral moment and just went nuts. Overnight, massive amounts of traffic came to my website. For that 24-hour period, I said, "OK, here we go. I've got it made." The way the Internet works - [laughs] - the next day, all that traffic was gone, but it was definitely a sign to me that what I was doing had some potential. I was very fortunate to get that kind of positive response early on. That kept me going in the weeks when I had a somewhat darker take on how things were going.
It really wasn't until more than halfway through that year that I had a confidence that it was a sustainable thing and not just me getting a link on Boing Boing. It told me that what I was doing was something that could please a lot of people and earn a living for me.
At the beginning of the year, I was writing as I if had an audience. I'm not sure I had much of one. But by the end of the year, I did have one. I was able to tour and go to cities I had not been to before and draw a crowd, and people were buying my CDs. By the end of the year, I was able to pay for the babysitter that was caring for my child while I was pretending to be a professional musician. That felt like a huge victory and something I could build off of. I've been very lucky that it's gotten better and better every year.
CP: On "Artificial Heart," you sing "The Stache" about "rocking the 'stache," yet you are known for sporting a luxurious beard. Isn't that a little disingenuous?
JC: [Laughs.] Yeah, you're right. It's a kind of dishonesty, I suppose. The moustache occupies that perfect space between ridiculousness and kickassitude because it takes a lot of guts to walk around with a moustache these days. So if you are wearing a moustache, I don't care how ridiculous you look, I salute you.
I myself am afraid to wear a moustache. I look terrible with a moustache. The beard is mainly used to cover my hideous face. With a moustahce, not only are you taking the risk of showing people most of the skin on your face, you are also adorning it with an object of ridicule. That is a very brave stance to take.
CP: Would you ever consider shaving the beard? What circumstances would have to conspire to make that happen?
JC: I thought about doing a Kickstarter where the top tier was $10,000 for my beard in a bag, but then I realized that was kind of gross. A few years ago, I shaved off my beard just to have a look and see what was going on under there. The opinion among my friends and family was almost universal that I should grow it back as quickly as possible. [Laughs.] There were a few photos taken then, and I look at them and don't even recognize that person. The beard is so much a part of me now that you might as well be having the interview with the beard. In fact, perhaps you are. [Laughs.]