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Jonathan Coulton interview -- Part 2

Kevin Kelly

Speaking of games, do you actually play games? Like video games or board games?

I do. I'm a big fan of video games. I just don't have a great deal of time for it anymore. I have two kids, which takes up a lot of time and a wife who does not play. Well she plays some games but the things that she picks are few and far between. Usually they are not multiplayer so I can't play with her. But yeah, I have Xbox 360 at home and a Wii as well. Lately I've really gotten into Marble Blast Ultra, which I never expected to really get into. I know. It does sound ridiculous. It's not a game that I thought I was really going to get into but I've really been enjoying it.

I've been playing a lot of multiplayer on Xbox Live and I continue to be amazed. Even though I think I'm pretty good at a game, I'm surprised at how much better other people can be. You're in a multiplayer situation and you're like, 'Man, I am working as hard as I can and these people are running circles around me. It's like they are magicians. I literally do not know how they are doing what they are doing.' [laughs]

How cool is your family with your job? How does that dynamic work?

It's interesting. I think everybody is happier because I'm happier. You don't want your family members to be constantly complaining about how they wish they were brave enough to take a chance and do what they want to do. "I've really got to quit this job.' You don't want to hear that over and over. The fact that I'm in a place where I want to be makes it better for everyone.

That said, it's good and bad. I'm certainly home a lot during the days and I get to spend more time with my kids than I would if I was working a 9-5 and commuting to and from work. It's not like I'm sitting around playing Marble Blast Ultra all day. Just at lunch, usually. But there's quite a bit of work for me to do and on top of that I do a fair amount of traveling on the weekends. That's when shows tend to happen. The traveling is very hard on everybody, I think. For you are a traveling musician, you are like a character from a Journey song. [laughs]

It is a weird thing to be that guy but I kind of am that guy. I keep my touring schedule as light as I can and I do these really short trips. So, I'll do like a weekend and play two shows and then be home again. I couldn't ever do these extended to three weeks trips into the Bahamas. It's just not appropriate for me, for my life.

What was your very first show like? How did that happen?

Well, really the first thing ... I mean prior to this stage of my career, when it was all a hobby, I had been in a couple bands in New York and our friends would come out and see us play. I've done some work with my friend John Hodgman who was a writer, who had a live writing series and I would play music for that. So, it's not that I've never played in front of people before. But doing a show for fans, the very first time that happened was when I found out at the last minute that I was going to be in Seattle for a weekend and I had an evening free. I had been using this website called which let people demand me in their town and then I can see how many people are in a city who want to see a show by me.

And, I noticed that I had 75 demands in Seattle, which was odd because I've never been to Seattle before. So, I send a message to these people and said 'Hey I am going to be in Seattle this coming weekend. I don't know anything about venues or booking them or what's available or what's good, but if you find a place that is free that you think with work with this let me know.' And, within 24 hours I had a bunch of people respond with options and I picked this little place that held about 80 people and set up a show there. It's essentially a build-up show. [laughs]

That was the beginning of it. The first time I never really experienced doing a show where more than two to three random fans who were not actually my friends showed up.

And where do you tend to play now? In small clubs or colleges or ...?

It's mostly clubs and theatres. It depends on the city but the annual has become really huge, the annual has become like probably 800 or 900 the last time I played in Seattle, which is enormous. Generally it's in a 200 to 400 range with a few exceptions obviously of cities like Seattle that are for whatever reason larger.

Yeah. What's the biggest group you've played before? You've played at PAX. There is usually a pretty big crowd there.

That definitely is the biggest crowd I've played in front of. I think it was 8,000 last year. And, that's a big crowd.

It's bizarre. You hear everyone talking about how an arena rock band gets so big. They don't like the big arenas anymore. They miss the intimate, smaller shows, and it's true. There is something that happened where part of what I like about the show is that I get to actually talk to the audience ... literally. They say things to me and I hear them. And I say things back.

Once you get at a certain point it kind of gets so large, you can't hear anything that anybody is saying because other people are saying things at the same time. And, so with a crowd that big I find myself, I find that I just have to sort of ignore the crowd, which is equally half the fun, the back and forth that I have with the crowd.
I am not saying that I don't like to play for enormous crowds because it's also kind of incredible but it's just a very different feeling from playing in front of the crowd that I am used to playing in front of.

You'd been establishing a name for yourself as a sort of geek musician, and then "Still Alive" comes along in Portal, and suddenly it seems like a lot more people know who you are. Was that what it was like on your end?

Yeah, it was definitely huge for me. I have had the same experience where, you know, there are fans who are from that core of pre-Portal fans, when it was just the stuff I'd done on my site and, you know, that was not insignificant. I was already amazed by the number of people who knew my music at that point. And then, yeah, when Portal happened it was definitely a terrific explosion. You know, there were people who had never heard of me at all before who became fans because of Portal. And it just cast a much, much wider net. And you know, the way these things work, they need to run across you and your music a few times before they decide to buy something, or even to come to your site and see what's going on.

It's rare that someone listens to a song and then immediately it's like 'I love this person, I want to buy all of their stuff.' So, yeah, in that way it was sort of timed perfectly, because there was all this background radiation going on, with you know, "Code Monkey" had been kinda a hit and, you know, the "Thing a Week" stuff generated some buzz. So if you were on the the internet the chances are I'd come across your radar once before and then the Portal thing hit. It was just so wide spread, that you know, it just brought everything further along, that much further along.

Did you know someone at Valve? How did that come about in the first place?

Well I was touring in Seattle. Actually at that same venue, that was the first venue that I played in Seattle, although this was now a different show and someone came up to me and said 'Hey, we work at Valve, would you be interested in writing music for games?' and I said 'Well, sure!', and then a few weeks later I was in their offices meeting with them and playing an early version of Portal. And after sitting down and talking with the writer of that game, we all sort of realized -- oh, this would be a great thing to do and this would be a nice match-up of our sensibilities for me to write a song in the voice of this character.

And was this the first time one of your songs was sung by someone else?

Yeah, yeah kind of, yeah. I think that's probably true. Yeah, I think that's certainly true. And of course from the very beginning I knew exactly who I was writing for, so I had to sort of figure out what key to write it in before... before I tried it.

Are you comfortable with the 'nerd' label, or are you worried about being pegged like ... the new Weird Al?

Well first let me say, there's worse things than being the new Weird Al.

Very true.

Al is a very talented man and a very significant man. He really ... you know, I'm a fan and he's done good stuff and he does not have a bad life Al Yankovic, let's just say that.

I know, he's still making songs today, it's amazing.

I know! I don't want to call it a comeback, because he never really went away, but he has had a bit of a resurgence of late. And, you know, the nerd thing? Personally I don't mind being called a nerd or a geek and we can talk about the difference between those and the different definitions forever, but sure ... It's true, I like that stuff. I fit in that category.

I guess I have a small, a twinge of, you know, 'Oh is this really the best thing' when I notice that's always the way I'm introduced to someone. But the thing is you don't really get to decide what people think of you, and how people describe you. And being a fan of music and musicians myself, you know, I'm familiar with the thing that happens to a band or artist where they do something, and they're known for one thing, and then they spend the rest of their careers trying to be known for something else.

I think that kind of thing can really drive you crazy as a creative person. So I try not to worry about that too much. I have geeky songs and I have songs that are not geeky at all. I have funny songs and I have sad songs and the people who like those things find them. I hear about it; I do a mix of stuff at shows.

Sure, everyone sings along to the zombie song because everyone likes to be zombies. But then, there are pockets of people who really enjoy the sad song that I do about becoming a parent, you know and who might come up to me afterwards and say 'That's a really inspiring song. It spoke directly to my heart' or whatever. It's a nice thing. I get to be many things to many people and to the extent that I have to be labeled a 'geek musician' or 'internet superstar' actually helps people find me and become familiar with the music. That's a good thing.

The Tron commentary that you did for RiffTrax, how did that happen?

Well, I was doing a show in San Diego and Mike Nelson lives there and Bill Corbett was visiting. I don't know if they were recording something or what. It was probably my friends Paul and Storm, who are musicians, singer-songwriter musicians who travel with me and play shows with me. They may have had a connection already but anyway, at some point it came to light that Mike and Bill were coming to our show.

We, being big fans of theirs, arranged to say hello to them and get them nice seats and all that. I think I even made Bill come up and do the line that is sung by robots in my song "Chiron Beta Prime." So that is where we met them and I guess it was a mutual fandom thing. At some point they said, 'You guys should do RiffTrax with us. And we said, 'Yeah, OK, sure! That's awesome!'

Have any of your other songs been licensed for use in other games or are they talking you about that? Even another Rock Band track?

Actually, I don't know if they plan to do more. I certainly be thrilled, if they do. But, but I don't think any music has been licensed for other games. I haven't heard anything. You'd think that offers would just be pouring in from the big game companies. 'Will you please write the ballad of Halo IV?'

Right, like what about writing a song for Call Of Duty?

[laughs] People are always surprised when I tell them that I haven't gotten a lot of offers from game companies to do more game music. But then I point out that the Portal song is a very unique kind of game music and it plays to my strengths almost perfectly. You mentioned of doing Call of Duty 4. I would be completely lost if I do the music for that game. That's just not my thing. Unless they wanted one of the characters a sad song about his falling in love with his gun, or something, like that.

One of our other writers is a Brookline native. He wonders when are you going finish "Brookline" and officially release it or has someone from Brookline gotten to you?

[Seriously] I don't know what he's talking about. [Laughs]

Nice. Well played. What about PAX this year? Do you have anything special planned?

Not yet. I am working on a couple of things .. a couple of ideas. But I don't want to say what they are now because they may not happen. Certainly there's pressure to do something new and interesting. People don't want to come and get the same old show. That's the problem anytime you play. I always try to mix up the songs and constantly introduce new songs and pull stuff back from archives that I've stopped playing. But that said, PAX demands another level of interest. So we'll see.

You are self-proclaimed fan of math and science. Do you do anything with those currently or are they just sort of hobbies and interests?

No, and really it's because I don't have time. I would say that if I no longer needed to sleep, I would use that extra time in part to return to my hobby of building robots. Which is the other thing I would do if I wasn't musician. For awhile I was really into making robots. You know, building circuits and programming basic stamp boards and stuff like that. It's just another very very satisfying thing to do; to assemble something from pieces and then watch the completed thing do what you wanted it to do. Its a very exciting thing. But, you know, as they say, kids take up a lot of time.

Will Wright has sort of left game development and is working on some robotics project now.

Oh, is that true? I hadn't heard that. That's interesting.

So you guys have similar tastes in that area.


So the last question is what every creative person loves to hear: what's next? Are you working on a new CD, are you just focusing on touring? What's new?

The DVD has been occupying a lot of headspace for me for a while. So now that is done, my current plan is actually to take the summer off from touring, and do little creative exploration. It's very easy to get stuck in a loop especially when you are doing live shows. You're always either getting ready to go, or you're away on a trip, or you're recovering from just coming back from a trip. You don't have any time on the ground to really work on stuff.

So I am gonna spend this summer daydreaming and messing around with my instruments and equipment which is supposedly my job. And I say that because i have to remind myself that that is in fact my job. So I don't know precisely what's next. Lot of things have come across my radar. Regardless of what else I do, I'm sure that I will continue to record songs and release them as they come. When I have enough I'll put them on a CD and put that out as well. But for now I don't have any large projects that I know that I'm gonna working in the future. I'm sort of in this exploration phase to figure out what that might be.

Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.

And thank you for yours.

Note: if you're interested in entering the Joyswag contest for the CD+DVD, enter that here. To leave a comment on this interview, hit that big, fat "Comment" button just below.

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