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Interview: Geek songsmith Jonathan Coulton

Kevin Kelly

Internet balladeer Jonathan Coulton has a new CD + DVD out called "Best. Concert. Ever." It features 20 different tracks of music with an accompanying video on DVD. Plus, we're giving a copy away! Read through our interview with Coulton below, which contains all the information you ever wanted to know about him and then some, and leave a comment on the related Joyswag post telling us what your dream job would be.

Read on for more, and you might want to put some music on while you do. It's a long interview. Like, seriously long. Grab a cold drink, turn up some tunes (here are a few suggestions), and kick back while you read about the musical voice of geekery.

Gallery: Jonathan Coulton | 5 Photos

How did you get started in music? We know you were a software programmer and you quit your job to work on music full time, but what got you interested in music?

Yeah, You know, my parents were both pretty musical and my dad played guitar and my mom played piano and we all sang. So I've been singing and messing around with instruments since I was a little kid and it's just part of me growing up. I took piano lessons as a kid. I played the drums in the band in school and taught myself guitar in like junior high and really got into it in high school when I realized I could impress girls by singing songs. Once that happened ...

It's all over.

You can't really go back. I know it's true. It's totally lame, but that's mostly the reason. It's fact.

So when did you first lay down a track of your own? Were you at home and you just decided to record something?

No, the first recording I ever did was ... how old was I? I must have been a sophomore or a junior, no I was probably a sophomore in high school. I had a 4 track cassette machine that I had asked for at Christmas, because I remember I had borrowed my mom's tape recorder, like a boom box tape recorder and another tape recorder we had around the house. I remember I was trying to do vocal overdubs using two built in mics on two cassette recorders. It was a complete disaster as you might imagine. It's not high fidelity when you do it that way.

Gee, surprisingly!

You play one tape and sing along and record on the other. I was trying to do vocals for "This Boy" by The Beatles.

Oh, nice.

Yep. Impossible, you were about to say. You're right. And then I was like, this is ridiculous. I need a 4 track cassette recorder. So, my parents bought me one for Christmas or something and the first recording I did was just acoustic guitar and vocal. As were a lot of my recordings in those days because that was all I had.

So by the time you were doing "Thing a Week" what were you recording on then? Did you have that set up at home?

Yeah. Well by the time I was all grown up, over the years I sort of continued the recording as a hobby and as hobbies do, this one attracted a lot of equipment and gear. Over the years I developed a pretty decent home studio. So by the time I recorded "Thing a Week" I was recording on a Mac with Pro Tools and a Digi 002 audio interface. And a whole bunch of effect boxes and compressors and all sorts of other stuff. The whole thing was done in a little 4 by 8 room in my Brooklyn apartment.

Is that still where you record or do you actually go out to a studio now?

No, I still do recording at home. We've moved to a bigger place and I have yet to set up my studio completely. We're doing some work on the house. I will end up having a much bigger room, which is nice. I haven't done any recording in the studio really. I haven't had that much need to. You can do pretty well under imperfect conditions and of course it doesn't cost you a dime when you do it that way. Although, that said, I have always been sort of an audio snob, and it would be fun, to one day go into a studio and be recorded by some people who actually know what they are doing.

Right, with the guy through the glass giving you instructions and everything.

Totally. No, I love that idea, and as a perfectionist I can always hear the lack of money stamped on my recording.

Right. I can see the running meter in your head: like, more expensive and this could have been better.


So the CD/DVD set "Best. Concert. Ever." I know it was recorded last February, why has it taken so long to come out? Where did the original idea come from?

I got a year or two into my life as a professional touring musician, and as the live shows started to come together and I started to figure out how these songs worked on a stage in front of a crowd. You know, it was a surprise to me how much of a learning curve there was for me to put on a good show. And once I got up to the point when I was putting on a good show, it just felt like it was time to capture that artifact and make it a thing, you know -- because it was something I was very proud of, and the shows were always really fun, and the audience were always shouting out jokes. It was just a lot of give and take and I really enjoy doing it so you know, somewhere in there people were asking for live versions of songs because ... of course all the live versions of songs weren't recordings that I just did in my own studio with multiple instruments and full band arrangements; so the live versions were a very different thing, just me and my acoustic guitar.

People were asking for recordings of that, so it sort of made sense. So yeah, it did take awhile, it was a frustrating process for me because of course I'm used to doing things at home and putting them on the internet immediately. This was a much more old school, complicated and extensive thing. There were five HD cameras at the shoot and we had a bunch of fans who also brought cameras and sent their footage in, which we then incorporated. The edit took a great deal of time and there was a great deal of technical things that need to be done and edited, and you know there needs to be color correction and I didn't even know what these things were when I started; so it was just amazing when we were talking about the difference between doing something at home for free and something professionally. And that's another difference, it takes a great amount of time and money to accomplish something that makes it a real product.

Right you've got to add the Michael Bay-level CGI to this.

[Laughs.] Exactly. It felt like that sometimes. It was wild. But I'm glad we did it because I really am very proud of it, proud of the way it looks and sounds. The show itself was one of the good ones, which is a relief.

Well, any time you can make people playing "Still Alive" on Rock Band an on-the-edge-of-your-seat, are-they-going-to-finish-the-song-successfully experience, I think you can be happy.

Yeah, we got lucky with that, it could have easily been us playing it very well all the way through which is not very interesting at all. For the record Leo Leporte was terrible. And Veronica Belmont, of course, was amazing. She saved us all throughout the song.

So back to "Thing a Week." Was that, looking back on that now, was that extremely hard and would you do it again? That was a big undertaking.

Yeah, it is. And it was very hard. It was hard emotionally, more than anything else. Part of the reason I did it was I have a problem with perfectionism. And the thing that stops me from creating is always the fear that what I'm making will not be good. I suppose that's a pretty common problem, and it can stop me anywhere along the process. Usually before I even get started, but frequently halfway through. This is what I discovered over the course of "Thing a Week", is that even the stuff that I thought was going to be terrible was never really that bad. There are songs in "Thing a Week" that are not my favorite. But frequently some of the ones that I've thought, as I was working on them, were going to be terrible somehow turned around and became my favorite.

The lesson in that is you are your worst critic as you're working on something. You judgment is severely impaired. So you should just not really listen to yourself. But for that reason ... I say that now, but it's not really a lesson that I have learned. Or I don't think will ever learn. So every week, it was the same. Every week it was me thinking that I wasn't going to come up with anything. And then, when I did come up with something, beating myself up about how awful it was. And then ultimately finishing it, not really being satisfied with it, putting it out.

It was hard. That said, it was incredibly rewarding. I got all these songs out of it that I never would have written otherwise. And I listened to the last quarter of that year, which is the last CD, "Thing a Week 4," and I don't even remember writing those songs really. They barely feel like mine. It's like I was in some sort of weird fugue state. And I think that's really interesting and a really valuable experience to have had. Because I sort of know where I can go if I want to. And whether or not I will ever want to go there again is another question. We'll see.

Which one of those song surprised you the most? That went on to be a hit?

I would say the longest distance from how much I thought it sucked to how much people actually liked them, is the song "Mr. Fancy Pants." [download link] -- which is really about a minute and fifteen seconds long; which is evidence of how little regard I had for it while I was writing it. It's kind of a silly, nonsense song with a tune that gets into your head and creates lesions in your brain. And I was writing it I was thinking this is completely dumb and it doesn't make any sense. It's kind of catchy but what's the point? And the form of it was weird and so it ended up just being this really small, fluffy thing.

And then ... a few weeks later, I still sort of had that song in my head. I'm actually kind of proud of that song! It's weird but it's one of those songs that you're like, "Wow! How did anyone ever write this?" And it feels that way to me the more distance I get from it. How did I possibly ... it doesn't seem possible. And of course, now when I do that song live, I don't do it with a guitar. I do it with a Zendrum, which has a midi controller that lets me play the drums and trigger samples and all this stuff. I sort of do this live remix of the song to distract people from the fact that it's short and nonsensical. And in that sense, that's always a big hit at shows. And it's a good example of something that, as I'm writing it, I never would have imagined what it was going to become.

You didn't imagine people holding up their cell phones with the lights on screaming, "Play some Mr. Fancy Pants!"?

[Laughs.] No! Not at all.

So back to your life just before you started recording. Was writing software that bad?

No. It wasn't. I feel a little guilty about "Code Monkey" because it gives that impression when you hear the song and you think that I'm being autobiographical. And it is to some extent autobiographical, but, no, It was not terrible at all. I liked writing software quite a bit. I had good friends there and it was a fun company to work for. Coding is awesome. I still like to write code. It's a very satisfying feeling, like you can get into a groove; you can go into that zone, and you can just forget the world for while, and it's a lot of fun. You get some satisfaction out of making something work. Or, I should say, I do. Whether that means building something out of Lego or out of code, hooking up wires -- it's all connected; it's all the same thing. Yeah, writing code is something I still enjoy.

What kind of stuff were you working on?

We made database software for executive recruiting firms. [Laughs.] Yeah, sexy, I know.

Hold on while I wipe the sweat from my brow!

[Laughs.] I know, very sexy stuff. Obviously, the end result is the same. But, I always kind of wish that I was working on games at the time because that's a very sexy thing to be working on. But at the end of the day, you're kind of doing the same stuff. The same four next loops and math that happens no matter what you're working on. That said, there's something really nice about being associated with a project that is sort of a public thing that everybody loves, like a really successful game or something; that's something that would really make you proud, I think.

Was there a really boring manager named Rob?

[Laughs.] No! I did not have a manager named Rob, and the guy I had around was not boring in the least.

Have your former colleagues and coworkers there heard your music? Are they fans?

Oh yeah, the whole time I was there they knew I was a secret musician. There were some other people that I worked with who were also coders who were also musicians. We would bring in tracks that we were working on and play them for one another. Yeah, I've definitely kept in touch with them since then, and they know what's going on.

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