by Angela Webber
Jonathan Coulton, Internet Superstar, is the nerd and geek community’s troubadour. He rose to internet fame in 2005 when he quit his computer-programming job and started his “Thing a Week” podcast, in which he, as the name implies, published a musical piece every week for a year.
His songs, which include themes of evil geniuses, robot overlords and the Swedish furniture store Ikea, have been described as continuing the tradition of comedic musicians Tom Lehrer and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Coulton releases his music on a Creative Commons license, which means that they can be reused to share or remix for non-commercial purposes. This leads to much release of fan-made videos and art inspired by his music. Coulton interacts with his fans both online and on stage, and even has invited fans who cover his songs on YouTube to tour with him.
The Pioneer Log spoke with Jonathan Coulton about his upcoming Portland show, his fan base of nerds, and his next steps.
The Pioneer Log: Your songs deal with topics like robots in space and computer programming. Would you consider yourself a musician or a nerd first?
JC: First? I have to say a nerd first. That’s just a deeper layer… For me, being a nerd or a geek is about the way you look at and perceive the world. Really, it’s sort of out of your control. The fact that I am a visual thinker, and the way I approach solving life’s problems is very nerdy, and that’s just who I am and how my brain words. And the music is just gravy; I happen to have a talent for some of that. That sort of sits on top of the nerddom.
PL: Where did you first start working with music? Did this start when you were a kid?
JC: Oh yeah, all my life. My parents were musical; they sang and played instruments. It’s just something we did for fun when I was a kid. When I got a little older and had the focus and patience to do it, I learned to play guitar, and drums, and a little bit of piano. It’s always been something that I’ve messed around with, and I’m very fortunate to have that actually be my job now.
PL: The songs you did for Thing-a-week are more produced and have a more electric sound than when you perform live with just you and your guitar. How do you think about these two different sounds?
JC: I’m a fan of them both. It’s a struggle sometimes to translate what I did in the recording process to a live performance, particularly in some of the faster numbers. A slow song you can always play on the acoustic guitar, that’s fine. But if it’s a toe-tapping rock’n’roll number, it’s a little harder to fake, or to translate. It’s been a process figuring that out, but I think it works out pretty well. I think there’s something magical about 1 person and one instrument on a stage.
I haven’t done all the thing-a-week songs live, because there’s some of them I haven’t figured out how to do, and I may never figure out how to do.
And there are some that are just more fun for audiences. If it were up to me, I’d just be singing sad songs about giant squids all the time. But not everybody wants to hear 10 sad songs in a row. In fact, I don’t think anybody wants to hear 10 sad songs in a row, except me.
PL: What’s it like working with Paul and Storm? (Paul and Storm are the comedy duo who open for Coulton and provide back-up vocals and instrumentation for his set.)
JC: They’re great. They’re good friends. We’ve been working together for many years now. I’m always amazed at how they are able to whip an audience into a frenzy. I mean really, they can start from nothing, with the audience not knowing anything about them, and by the end of it, they have completely transformed the crowd and the energy. They really are very talented.
On top of that, we happen to get along very well, and when you’re out on the road, it’s nice to have people there who you share a common history with. You develop a shorthand for talking about stuff and reacting to stuff, it’s a lot of fun touring with them.
PL: Something unique about you as an artist that is visible in the online community and at your shows is the interactive relationship you have with the audience. What’s it like having this relationship with your audience of nerds?
JC: It’s really great! I’ve always enjoyed going to concerts where the performer is very flexible. There’s some live shows you go to see and it’s like they’re putting on a show that they’ve put on a million times before, and they’re bored with it, and it’s kinda boring for the audience too. And then there’s other shows you go to where the artist actually talks to the audience, and things happen.
I remember when I was younger I saw a concert by a woman named Shawn Colvin. It was just her and an acoustic guitar. Somebody shouted out something in between songs and that got her talking about something. She told this story, and then she was like “where was I? how did we get on this?” It was very cool. That’s what I like, when a show becomes a real moment.
Geeks are always willing to put themselves in the middle of things, so having them in the audience always insures that the show is going to be interesting and different.
PL: After you play in Portland you will be heading to the South to open for They Might be Giants. How did that come about, and how are you feeling about it?
JC: I’m really excited about it. I’ve been a fan of theirs since college, since Flood [TMBG’s first album] came out. I’ve met them a few times because we have some mutual friends. The first few times I met them I don’t think I made much of an impression because I was so star-struck that I could barely speak. The next couple of times I think I made a slightly better impression.
Paul and Storm and I discovered that we were competing directly with a They Might be Giants “Flood” show when we were playing in Chicago a while back. And so we did the only thing we could think to do–which was to do our own Flood show. So we covered Flood ourselves, and I’d been in touch with them about that to make sure that was ok with them. It’s one of those things; It seems like there’s a lot of overlap between their audience and my audience. They just asked me, “Do you want to open up for us for a little run?” and I said “Sure, yes please!”
I’m totally excited about it.
PL: Who have you been listening to recently?
JC: I just bought the new OK GO album and I think it’s really great. Not new, but something that became a big part of my collection a while ago is this band called “Tally Hall.” They only have one record out right now, and it’s called “Tally Hall.” It’s really fantastic. It’s like my favorite kind of pop. They have a new album coming out very soon.
I don’t have a great deal of time to consume media, you would think so, but somehow it never works out that way.
PL: Why is there no theremin in your shows?
JC: A theremin is very hard to play, I cannot play the theremin very will. I do love it, and it’s one of those things that I wish I could play well. It’s one of those instruments that you need to spend a long time learning before it even sounds not awful, and I frankly don’t have that kind of time.
PL: There has been talk on your blog of a “Jonathan Coulton Cruise.” Where did this idea come from, and what’s the latest?
JC: This idea is blatantly stolen from other people. The first time I heard of it was when Barenaked Ladies was doing a fan cruise and I thought that was a very cool idea… and the idea would be to do a “Jonathan Coulton Con on a boat”. So I would have other friends and fellow entertainers with me, and there would be a number of different performances and events and things. I’m a big fan of cruise ships. They’re fun. They’re like giant, floating hotels. I think it would be kind of cool do a concert on a boat like that. We’re still working out the details, originally we had been talking about a Seattle departure, and a cruise that went to Alaska, but I don’t think that’s going to work out; it’s just a little too expensive for everyone. So we’re going to probably do something that leaves out of Florida, and it may be close to the end of this year if we can figure out how to make it work.
PL: Best Concert Ever was a new distribution scheme for you. How has that gone and how was making a live concert DVD?
JC: It was a lot of work! There was a team of people and a bunch of cameras, and I had to hire all of these outside people, professional audio people and video people and color-correcting people – I had to hire people to do things I didn’t even know existed. As everyone knows, making high-quality entertainment in the old-fashioned manner is usually pretty expensive and time-consuming. It was definitely an experiment. I was like, “well let’s see what it’s like to do a full-blown concert DVD. – because I’ve spent all of my career doing the home recording method of everything, it’s all home-brew stuff, so it was really me wanting to try something on the “professional” level. It was fun, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It was a fun show, and the audience was great, and I think we got some really interesting things that were not just the concert and the music; it sort of tells a story and there are some other themes going on in there, and there’s a lot of extras that make it really fun and interesting. It’s a nice complete picture of the Jonathan Coulton Universe, I think.
PL: If you had a reality show what would it be called?
JC: It would be called America’s Next Top Jonathan Coulton.
PL: You recently posted on your Twitter a picture of you in a history textbook called “United States Government: Democracy in Action” [in a section about Copyright law.] How does it feel to be in a book that is packaged with the Great Gatsby on Amazon.com?
JC: (laughs) I didn’t know that. It feels very strange. Like all of the rest of this it feels pretty weird. A fan sent that picture to me, and I was like, what?
PL: Well, congratulations, and I hope you get to be in many more history books in the future.
JC: Me too, that was always my goal.