Random Rules: Jonathan Coulton

Random Rules: Jonathan Coulton

The shuffler: Self-proclaimed "Internet superstar" singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, who rose to prominence on the strength of his satirically goofy, Creative Commons-friendly songs, including the much-celebrated "Still Alive," which plays over the credits in the popular videogame Portal. In late 2006, the former programmer released a box set and best-of compilation of his "Thing A Week" series, in which he mostly succeeded at recording and releasing a piece of music every week for a year. The project yielded mellow acoustic songs on everything from IKEA furniture and the SkyMall catalog to a widely circulated, "sensitive" cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back." The frequent John Hodgman collaborator now tours sporadically and serves as contributing troubadour for Popular Science and musical director for the Little Gray Book Lectures.

Beck, "Qué Onda Guero"

Jonathan Coulton: Beck is one of those artists I listen to and recognize his genius, and I am amazed by his creativity. I listened to [Guero] for a while back when I had a day job writing software and I had my headphones on all day. [Guero] was on pretty heavy rotation for a while. I like it, but Beck never sticks with me for a long time, for some reason.

The A.V. Club: What do you mean?

JC: As I'm listening to it, I'm like, "Oh! This is crazy! Oh! This is awesome! How did he think of this?" Then it never occurs to me to want to listen to it later on, after I've given it that initial round of airplay.

AVC: So you don't find yourself listening to a Beck song over and over?

JC: No, it never takes root very deeply.

AVC: Beck toured with puppets mimicking the band, and the puppets upstaged them.

JC: Well, I'm not surprised to hear that.

AVC: Why not?

JC: You can't look away from a puppet. [Laughs.] Everyone knows that.

AVC: It's their eyes. They know something.

JC: Exactly! Their black-eyed stare! The creepy alive-but-not-alive thing puppets do—you can't look away from a puppet. See, I think that's the perfect example of Beck's thing: "Let's tour with puppets! Great!" It's creative, and I'm sure it was a really interesting experience to watch that show, but are you going to find yourself, like, "Oh man, I'd really like to watch that video of the puppet again"? I don't know! [Laughs.]

AVC: Depending on who you talk to, Beck is experimental or gimmicky.

JC: He is a very experimental artist. The stuff that does stick with me the most, out of that album, at least—oh, what was that album that's all sad acoustic songs? Sea Change. And maybe that's just the nature of my aesthetic; I like sorta-classic songwriting.

AVC: Still, though, because of his reputation and his catalog, people probably walked away from that album thinking, "Oh, he's experimenting with being 'normal' now."

JC: It's the only way he can subvert our expectations!

The Beatles, "And Your Bird Can Sing"

AVC: What can you say about The Beatles that hasn't already been said?

JC: That's the problem. I'm a little afraid that the next four songs are going to be Beatles songs. In this day and age, where the album is disappearing, The Beatles are one of those groups that I still listen to on album. I don't like to shuffle The Beatles. When I want to listen to The Beatles, I want to hear [Revolver]. I don't know if it's something about the music and the groupings of the songs, the way their albums sort of hold together as an artistic unit, or whether it's just because I grew up listening to them as albums, and obsessing about albums as a thing.

AVC: Now, it sounds cliché to say that any Beatles album is your favorite.

JC: Yes, exactly. I play poker with a bunch of guys every now and then, and the desert-island question came up. And a good friend of mine, who has a million, billion CDs, and knows every band and has great taste in music, said, "The Beatles are not on my top 10 list. I would not have any Beatles on my desert island." And I said, "You're a liar. You're just being contrary!" But he wasn't.

AVC: Who was on your desert-island list?

JC: One of [The Beatles'] albums would go on there. Probably Sgt. Pepper's. I know that's also a cliché, but whatever. It's a pretty good record! [Laughs.]

Brian Wilson, "Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine"

AVC: Are you sure you hit the "random" button? These are all "B" songs.

JC: Yeah, it's shuffling. This is another one that's like, "Good for Brian Wilson, I'm glad he finally finished it and released it," and it's sort of amazing in a lot of ways, and if it had come out at the time when it was done, instead of him going crazy, it would've blown everybody away. Everybody would've been totally freaked out.

Brendan Benson, "Crosseyed"

JC: This is weird. It's another "B" song. But you know, I haven't actually listened to [One Mississippi]. I've listened to Lapalco quite a bit. He's really good. He writes that kind of pop that—when people ask me what kind of pop I write, I always describe something like Brendan Benson, but that's not what I write at all. I guess it's because it's the kind of music I like to listen to the most: You know, kind of smart, Beatles-y singer-songwriter, vocal-heavy pop. I love it, and I'm a great admirer of the perfect two-and-a-half-minute pop song in that style, because I think it's a very difficult thing to do. When someone does it right, I'm like, "God, how do they do that?" I always imagine myself turning out song after song like that, but really, that's not how I write. It's the weirdest thing.

AVC: How would you describe what you actually write?

JC: I guess I'm more folk-y or Americana-y. I tend a little bit more toward the Paul Simon end of the spectrum.

AVC: Wikipedia says you're a "folk-rock singer-songwriter." Did you write that?

JC: [Laughs.] No.

AVC: Do you agree with it?

JC: No, "folk-rock" is not right. Folk-rock is something else, I think. I don't know. One of the hardest questions to answer is "What kind of music do you do?" I still to this day don't have a five-second answer to the question.

AVC: Just say "good music."

JC: Yeah, that's good. I'm not going to get punched in the face for doing that. [Laughs.].

AVC: Then say, "What's it to you?"

JC: [Laughs.] Right, who wants to know?

Rufus Wainwright, "Go Or Go Ahead"

JC: Okay, so Rufus Wainwright is young. [Laughs.] He's a little green in a lot of ways. I think I really like Poses. I haven't listened a lot to Rufus Wainwright. Want One is the one where he sort of lost me a little bit, because it got too Rufus Wainwright-y.

AVC: It sounded too much like himself, or like he was trying too hard to sound like himself?

JC: He needed an editor and a producer. I think all his stuff sounds so incredible, so well-produced, but in terms of the arrangements, there are some choices I don't like. There's some stuff I don't think holds up as well as Poses.

AVC: There's probably a lot of self-consciousness in those musical families about passing the torch.

JC: Of course, that's the joke. I was a huge fan of Loudon [Wainwright]. When Rufus started doing stuff, I think it's the most amazing thing that it's so very different from Loudon. Maybe it's not so amazing, given their history. [Laughs.] I think they've had a problematic relationship, if you listen to either one of their songs in which they bash each other. But certainly it's a very talented family, and probably a lot of uncomfortable family Thanksgiving dinners.

AVC: Which is a Loudon Wainwright song.

JC: Exactly, yeah.

Pink Floyd, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Pt. 2"

JC: I lerv Pink Floyd. I really dug them when I was a kid, and as an adult, I had stopped listening to them for some reason. I guess because I didn't still have hours and hours to sit in a room by myself with my headphones on. And again this is the album I think of, in terms of these guys, and Wish You Were Here is one of those albums that I love to listen to all the way through. It's great. When I'm touring, I'm frequently traveling with Paul And Storm, who are funny singer-songwriter guys, and a couple of times, we've been on a long road trip, and somebody will put on this album, and we'll just listen to it—stop talking and just listen to it all the way through it, at like 2 in the morning, driving from Philadelphia to New York or something like that. It's the greatest thing. The closest thing to getting high and sitting in a room with a black light is late at night after a show, playing it in the tour van on the road.

AVC: Did you ever sync Dark Side Of The Moon up with The Wizard Of Oz?

JC: [Laughs.] No, I've never done it, but someone was pointing that phenomenon out to me—it used to be, there were specific instructions about when you had to turn it on and make sure you had this edit of the movie, and now it's probably on YouTube. All those moments are on YouTube. Is it a less valuable experience because you can just look at it on YouTube? Or does it not matter if you're just really high?

AVC: I don't think it matters.

JC: Make sure to tell the kids to just stay off the drugs. Too many marijuana references! I feel bad now.

The Beatles, "Honey Pie"

JC: It's a [Paul] McCartney joint. Just in case you didn't know.

AVC: More drug references?

JC: Since you haven't asked the question yet, I'll answer it for you. McCartney is the answer.

AVC: Depends what the question is.

JC: They both did a lot of great songs, but I like his more classic style of songwriting. I love that he loves that Tin Pan Alley form, and it's true what they say: His melodies are gorgeous and thoughtful.

AVC: And he's the "cute Beatle."

JC: He's a nice-looking fella. Even old and jowly, he's still puckish and adorable.

AVC: Why do people feel the need to choose between Lennon and McCartney?

JC: Well, it's a ridiculous choice. If you could only have one of them on a desert island with you, who would it be? The non-dead one. Unfortunately, Paul McCartney is still—in many ways, John is lucky. He doesn't get to destroy his own legacy. I think Paul would be more favorably remembered—

AVC: There are some decent songs on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.

JC: I listened to Memory Almost Full.

AVC: An album title seemingly inspired by his iPod.

JC: [Laughs.] Exactly. He was like, [Adopts British accent.] "I'll name this after the computer that I hear so much about." Not a lot of the songs stuck with me. There were a couple nice ones. One moment on the record that really got me was just the opening few seconds, which was a just a kick drum playing in the opening of the stupid mandolin song, "Dance Tonight." But just the sound of that bass drum; the way it was recorded, I just had this sense memory of all the times I had ever listened to The Beatles. Something about it just caught me and made me smile, and love the sweet puckish adorable face of Paul McCartney.

[pagebreak]

Jon Brion, "Dead To The World"

JC: Great, great record. I only came across [Meaningless] in the last year or two.

AVC: How did you happen upon it?

JC: Well, I actually performed with him—let's back up. That's not exactly true. I performed at the same event as him. I didn't jam on the stage with him.

It was this McSweeney's event. I was accompanied by John Hodgman, and I sang a silly song, a fake folk song about a furry lobster, and then Jon Brion was there because between readings, he had a guitar onstage, and he would come up and just play whatever came to him. It was amazing. I had never seen his show, which people think is astounding. He's obviously a genius. He has this relationship with music that 99.999 percent of the world will never understand. The fact that he knows so much and can play everything so fluidly and easily makes me so jealous. Anyway, I met him and gave him a copy of my CD, and it felt like I was handing a piece of poop to an angel. I have no idea if he listened to it, and I'd almost would prefer that he just threw it away and forgot all about it.

No, he was really sweet. He was very nice, and it was really the first night I had come across his music. I had heard of him before, but never really listened, and then I went out and bought this and just loved it.

OK Go, "Don't Ask Me"

JC: These are guys are awesome; I've played "Here It Goes Again" on Rock Band.

AVC: Isn't one of your songs on Rock Band?

JC: The song I wrote for the videogame Portal is now on Rock Band.

AVC: How good are you at playing your own song on it? JC: I'm okay. It's actually a pretty easy song. It's funny: The difficulty of playing it in Rock Band will give you some sense of how talented or not talented I am as a guitarist, because the easiness of the gameplay reflects the simplicity of the song. That said, it is pretty fun to play. It's not like, "Whee, it's me!"

AVC: So you should be able to kick that song's ass on expert mode, right?

JC: Yeah, I can kick its ass on expert, because every song on expert is like Bon Jovi's "Dead Or Alive" on easy. You know what I'm talking about.

I actually ran into OK Go in the basement of the Senate building in Washington D.C. I was being walked around to various congressional staffers to talk about digital freedom. I was there on behalf of the Digital Freedom Campaign, and they walked me around. We had a bunch of meetings, talked to Congresspeople about what they could do to keep the bits flowing as easily as possible, and why it was important to independent musicians like me. OK Go was there because they were also speaking as part of some hearing, and I ran into them in the basement of the Senate building. I'm such a huge fan of theirs, and I panicked. I pretended I didn't know who they were.

AVC: I'm sure that made them feel really good.

JC: I don't know why I panic when I meet people I like. The same thing happened when I met They Might Be Giants. I met them a couple times, and I haven't brought myself to really talk to them. Now I'm all depressed.

AVC: Where did you meet They Might Be Giants?

JC: John Hodgman has a connection with them, so actually, it's been a couple times. John Flansburgh got to play at a reading series that John [Hodgman] did that I was the in-house musician for. Flansburgh [and I] actually did play something together, which was his "Dr. Evil Theme."

I didn't have a guitar-tuner, and my guitar was out of tune. I think he was angry at me for that, as was I. And later I met them because I was out backstage with John [Hodgman] when he was for doing an event for them, and John [Flansburgh] was coming out and reading text from their Venue Songs collection, and I was sort of hanging back onstage as his entourage.

AVC: That's too many Johns in one place.

JC: That's three Johns in one place. And really, I couldn't even look him in the eye. I'm such a coward.

The Beatles, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"

JC: Hey, The Beatles! I'm sure I have The White Album, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road. I don't think I have Help! on here. I like their middle period. I'm not a huge fan of their last one, Let It Be, and I never liked when they got all rock 'n' roll.

The Abbey Road stuff, it's where the Lennon-McCartney thing comes down for me. I much prefer McCartney's operatic, well-constructed craziness on the second side to John's long-and-ponderous, heavy-metal bullshit, like "She's So Heavy." I know it's loud and everything, but… [Snores.]

Steely Dan, "Reelin' In The Years"

JC: Steely Dan is another huge part of my childhood. When I stopped listening to just The Beatles and Billy Joel exclusively, I branched out into Steely Dan and XTC. I think they're great. I'm a sucker for complicated pop, and I think a lot of times they go there, and they're such great musicians all the time. I saw that video of them doing "Peg" in the studio; they were talking about what it was like doing it and putting it together. They were writing this solo; they called in 10 different writers to basically audition a solo, and they listened to 10 different solos. They heard this one and were like, "That's it!" They didn't give many other instructions but just to play a solo and, you know, that's a unique kind of arranging, that random-shotgun approach.

Flash And The Pan, "Hey St. Peter"

JC: Oh, I love it. I don't know where my dad came across [Lights In The Night]. He bought it and liked it, and I was just a kid and I listened to it and liked it, and I wore it out, I listened to it so much.

It's disco-ish rock, but the awesome thing about it is, the lead singer is not singing. There are backup singers, but the lead vocal is a dude talking into a megaphone, doing this laid-back poetry-club reading of the lyrics. The last lyrics of the song are, "The honky-tonk called the stranger / The stranger couldn't pay the bill." You look at the whole song, and you're like, "I don't know what the hell you're talking about." But it's great, because I never heard anything like it, and I wasn't old enough to be obsessing about who they were and what they were about and what they were going to do next. I just listened to this record and never heard about them again, and I don't think they were particularly famous. [Laughs.]

Billy Joel, "Laura"

JC: Again, this is a big Coulton influence. Billy Joel, I think, has been unfairly treated by the very people who enjoy his songs. [Laughs.] I feel bad for the guy, because people snicker when they say his name, and he certainly has put out some clunkers of late. Maybe not "of late," but his last few records probably could've not been released, and that could've been better for everybody. But he had a long stretch of writing such great music, and "Piano Man" is probably not the best example. It's probably been overplayed, but he had so many hits, and people really do like them, even if there are people who snicker when they say his name.

There's this great essay that Chuck Klosterman wrote about Billy Joel, and he said that the amazing thing about Billy Joel is, the things that make him awesome have nothing to do with whether he's cool. The fact is, he's not cool, and he's still awesome. That combination is sort of amazing, considering that he's a rock star. And he writes about alienated geekery. I love this song in particular, because I think he was very consciously trying to emulate The Beatles in his songwriting and arrangements, and you can really hear it. I love it; I love that kind of derivative pop. I think it's great. And this song particularly—great chord changes, and I love the background vocals.

AVC: If The Beatles can be credited for "creating" rock 'n' roll, can Billy Joel perhaps be credited for creating the spirit of geek-core?

JC: [Laughs.] Yeah, he writes about being kind of messed-up and sad. He doesn't write a lot of songs about him being great or feeling good. It's just like, "I'm a loser and I can't talk to girls at parties."

AVC: So, he wouldn't make a good rapper.

JC: No, he wouldn't. I hope he doesn't try to do that, but I wouldn't put it past him, the kind of mistake I think Billy Joel would do.

Now I have a question: Who else were we talking about who was sort of washed-up? Oh, Paul McCartney. Washed-up is the wrong word, but like, incredible output at a certain point in their careers, but then this downward spiral near the end. Do they know? When Billy Joel puts out Storm Front, is he like, "This is the best record I've ever done," and he's just out of step with the rest of the world? Or is he like, "This isn't as good as my old stuff. What's wrong with me?" Same question with Paul McCartney. What does he think of the work he's putting out today? Is he as proud of it as he is the stuff he did in his earlier career?

AVC: I doubt they'd admit it, even if they question it or think about it.

JC: Because thinking long term, I don't want to make the Jonathan Coulton-should've-stopped-making-records-before-this-record record. So I just hope that everyone tells me when the time comes to hang it up, because maybe I won't know. Maybe I'll just blithely go on making mediocre songs and thinking they're awesome, although I don't think I've ever made a song that I think is awesome. I always think that I'm washed up. [Laughs.] I always feel like I've been teetering on the brink of the end of my career, even when I was just starting, so maybe that won't be a problem.

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