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The most surprising thing about last year's critically acclaimed videogame Portal wasn't its story or the innovative way it let players bend the rules of time and space. No, the game's biggest reveal was musical—the lovely, funny, insanely clever song that played over the game's ending credits. Jonathan Coulton's "Still Alive" did all kinds of work. It provided an offbeat end-game reward, presented players with the suggestion that the story of Portal wasn't over, and most importantly, it provided a laugh. As part of The A.V. Club's series of interviews inspired by the interaction of music and videogames, Jonathan Coulton talked about self-publishing, Dr. Demento, and his approach to writing from the perspective of an angry female computer.
The A.V. Club: When were you contacted to write the song for Portal?
Jonathan Coulton: I was doing a show in Seattle, probably sometime in 2006. Some folks came up to me afterwards and said, "Hey, we're fans and we're from Valve. Would you ever be interested in writing some music for a game sometime?" And I said, "Yes, please." I was already a big fan of Valve. I had played the Half-Life games, and I had also seen the little teaser trailer on YouTube for Portal and thought it looked really great. They contacted me later and had me come out to their offices and we talked about a few different things. It turns out the people that came to my show were on the Portal team. The first thing we did was I sat down and played an early version of Portal—and really loved it. In tossing ideas around we came up with the idea of writing a song that GlaDOS would sing at the end of the game.
AVC: It's not often that pop music gets created for videogames.
JC: Definitely. Music for videogames means a certain thing, for the most part—a film score, essentially. With a few exceptions. I've been aware of more of them since Portal came out. I was inspired long ago by a game called Skullmonkeys. It was a side-scroller. You went around and picked up coins or rocks or something. There was one bonus room, and when you were in there there was a song that played the whole time. It was just a guy's voice and a guitar, and he was singing about how you were in the bonus room and it was fine and there was nothing to worry about. It's a happy little song. I was so blown away by that because I'd never heard music do that in a game. I was inspired by that as a possibility.
AVC: You've mentioned elsewhere about approaching GlaDOS' character in the song. What did you take away from playing the game about what kind of personality GlaDOS was and how did that inform your writing the lyrics?
JC: I think one of the reasons it works so well is that GlaDOS is such a well-drawn character. There's a lot of plot in video games, but there isn't always a lot of character. And GlaDOS was, almost as soon as you start playing and she starts talking to you, you start getting an impression of who she is. And, of course, that deepens throughout the game. She's conflicted in a lot of ways, I think. She seems to want to kill you. But not really out of any ill will or resentment—except there is a little bit of ill will and resentment. And she is sort of mad about something, but she's masking that with the fact that she's a computer. That's the brilliant thing about the writing in the game. Over the course of the game she inadvertently reveals her true self to you. You gradually begin to understand that she's not just a computer. She actually is pissed off about something. It comes across as passive-aggressive behavior. The lucky thing about that is I write, frequently, about passive-aggressive monsters. I don't know why.
AVC: A lot of the songs you write are about getting into the character's head. What's the appeal of that kind of writing to you?
JC: I like very much to find sympathy for unsympathetic characters—zombies and mad scientists and giant squids and that sort of thing. The sad monster really tugs at my heartstrings for some reason. On top of that, the misunderstood personality, I think, is something that really resonates with me. The mad scientist, evil genius who is in love with this woman. He's awful, but he can't help it. It's who he is. I think that's the most heartbreaking thing—to see somebody do their best and fail because of who they are.
AVC: Did the success of "Still Alive" result in more phone calls from people wanting music for soundtracks?
JC: Not really. The main thing that it's done is just brought a lot of general attention to me and the rest of my music, which is great. People love the game, as they should because it's great, and they love the experience of playing the game. But then afterwards they say, "Hey, that's actually a good song." And if they take the time to see who that is, they come and find other songs that they like. That's been the bulk of it. I haven't had thousands of offers from videogame companies for additional songs. But it's been wonderful. I'm very gratified by such a large and positive response.
AVC: You release your work under a Creative Commons license—freeing people to make their own music videos using clips from World Of Warcraft or other games. More than a few of these get millions of hits.
JC: It's another thing that's been instrumental in getting my word out to people. I understand that the Creative Commons license is a sort of counter-intuitive thing. How can you let just anybody use your music for anything like that? It's true, some of those homemade videos have been viewed millions of times. You can't buy that kind of exposure. I mean, you can buy that kind of exposure, but it's very expensive. For me, that kind of exposure cost me zero dollars.
AVC: You were also giving away a lot of music for free and doing the Thing A Week series, which was quite similar to those old They Might Be Giants songs you could dial up and listen to. Were those songs something you were thinking about when you were doing the Thing a Week?
JC: I don't think it was something that I was specifically thinking about, but I was certainly a fan of Dial-A-Song and I used to call from work, as instructed. It used to say call us free when you call from work. [Laughs.] I'm not sure I was modeling after it specifically, but it was somewhere in my head. Since I've done it I've discovered there are at least a couple of other people who did pretty regular songwriting, song-a-day, song-a-week, which is not really a surprise when you think about it.
AVC: Is that the kind of exercise you'd think about doing again? Or do you feel like you've put yourself through that kind of misery and deadline?
JC: It's funny. I did it because I have such a problem with deadlines. I hate deadlines. I wanted to learn to deal with them a little better. It was instructive in that I learned I'm able to do that. I'm able to force myself to create. But I also don't feel like I'm any better at it. [Laughs.] Because I still have the same resistance to finishing a song that I did before I started. It's a hard thing to get over. The creative process is kind of painful. Not to sound like a jackass, but it's true.
AVC: There's that birth metaphor that a lot of people use.
JC: Yeah, exactly. I hate that metaphor. It's awful. But it's a cliché because it's true, I suppose. You know, I'd like to do it again. Right now, I just don't have the time. I'm playing live a lot now. The day-to-day running of the business is taking a lot of time. I was only able to do it because nobody knew who I was. Nobody was e-mailing me and I wasn't playing anywhere. I had plenty of free time.
AVC: Speaking of touring, the first time I saw you perform live was a clip somebody had taped from the Penny Arcade Expo. The thing that struck me was that the crowd was really, really involved. Is that pretty typical of a Jonathan Coulton show?
JC: There are moments of involvement. The clip that was circulating was for the song about zombies called "RE: Your Brains." When I do that song I teach the audience the part and they sing this part in the chorus. They're playing the zombies. So that part is especially participatory and it's always a lot of fun. You'd be surprised how many different ways there are to act and sing like a zombie. The rest of it: It's just me with a guitar on the stage. You see a lot of shows where they just get up there and sort of stare into the bright lights and play their music. I like it much better when I can see the audience and when I can talk to the audience. And when the audience can talk to me.
AVC: Why do you think the sense of humor and non-traditional subject matter is so taboo to your average singer-songwriter?
JC: It's hard to be taken seriously when you write funny songs. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say. If you want to be known as a brilliant singer-songwriter, which most singer-songwriters would probably cop to wanting, then the funny genre is not the one that wins the brilliance award in people's minds. It's the same reason why, if you were a director and you really wanted to get an Oscar, you might not spend you whole life making Ernest movies—Ernest Goes to Camp. I like it best when I write a funny song and there's a kernel of sadness to it. That's my favorite thing ever—when you can sort of cross over from funny to sad.
AVC: Were you a Dr. Demento listener as a kid or a teenager?
JC: Absolutely. I listened to him all the time on Sunday nights. He ran across my music and started playing that zombie song. It was like a dream come true. I remember sitting in the dark with my radio dial glowing and listening to "Fishheads" or "Hocus Pocus" by Focus or whatever it was.
AVC: You do write songs that have a more serious tone—stuff that is less concerned with humor or fabulous worlds. Do you worry about the humorous songs overshadowing the others?
JC: To be perfectly honest, yeah. If I was going to be remembered for something, I would prefer to be remembered for the serious songwriting that I did. Just saying it, it sounds like a silly thing to worry about. I generally find that most fans are able to appreciate both the funny ones and the sad ones. People are smart. People like funny. People like sad. That's not really a surprise. I try not to worry about it, because I know its possible to do both.
AVC: You worked as a software coder before getting into music—that seems to be a focus among much of the geek community. Did you think, when you set out, that you'd become a kind of bard for the geek crowd? Was that expected or was that a surprise thing?
JC: I had some inkling that that was happening. I had written a bunch of songs for this thing called "Little Grey Book Lectures," which was John Hodgman—who's now a famous author and television personality I went to college with. He started this reading series in Brooklyn called the Little Grey Book Lectures. Every month there was a show and every show had a theme. People would read stuff and give demonstrations. I would write a song for that theme. They were really wide-ranging—really general themes. There was one about animals that led me to write "I Crush Everything"—about the giant squid. There was one about genius, which led me to write "Skullcrusher Mountain"—the love song from the mad scientist. Without really knowing it, I was doing a lot of geeky stuff anyway. I was asked to perform at this conference called Pop! Tech, which is a futurist conference. Scientists and thinkers and CEOs of technology companies get together to talk about stuff. I played the song "Mandelbrot Set," which is about the fractal—and when I got to the part where I actually sang through the equation that generates the Mandelbrot Set, people stood up and cheered. A little light bulb went off. I went, "Oh!" I've never really had an audience that I could play that for, who would get it. I've played it for audiences before and there was always sort of amusement and confusion.
AVC: Do you feel like, since then, you've mobilized that community? This is a crowd that, maybe, doesn't go to concerts that frequently.
JC: You mean, "Am I getting some of the shut-ins out into the world?"
AVC: I have a friend who is in IT and one of the first shows he's been to in years was a show of yours in Chicago.
JC: Really? I never thought about that before. It's true that you if you get enough like-minded people together and they start to talk to each other, it becomes a community, whether you want it or not. I'm amazed. The forums on my website—I don't spend too much time in there, because I don't have the time to follow everything that's going on. It's more a space for the fans than anything else. I dip in there every now and then and it's amazing what's going on. People are playing various games based on the music. People are getting in touch with each other for meet-ups prior to shows. "Does anybody have a ticket to this? Or can anybody give me a ride to the show?" When I played in San Francisco recently there was a group of five or six or seven people—they were all singletons. Somebody had seven tickets. They all found each other on the forums. They all went together to the show, just having met on the forums. I think it's a cool thing. It's not something that I intended to happen. But I'm certainly delighted that it has happened.
AVC: You quit coding to start a career in music. And at some point you worked at a record label. You also had a daughter around the same time you made the transition into music. Usually people go and get the boring job when they have the kid. What was your motivation to do something risky right when the daughter comes rather than sticking to the nine-to-fiver?
JC: I'm a procrastinator. That's really what it amounts to. It was something I always meant to do and I just never got around to doing it. I blew through my twenties, which is the easy time to do it, without ever, really, taking a risk. My daughter was born and immediately, I felt my own mortality that much more acutely. I think that happens to a lot of people. You see the person who will grow up and replace you when you die. [Laughs.] I can keep doing what I'm doing, which is not awful. It was actually a good job and I enjoyed the work and I liked the people and it was interesting and everything. But it was a lie. It was not who I was and it was not what I really wanted to be doing. It seemed really important to set an example. I imagined her grown up and in this situation, and it was not what I would want for her. I would want her to quit that job.
AVC: Was that a scary move, especially at that time?
JC: It seemed really stupid and selfish. And vain. It didn't make a lot of sense—mostly because I didn't have a plan. I didn't really know how I was going to make money. It was a hard thing to say to people. "Why are you leaving your job?" Well, I'm 35 and I think it's time I became a rock star. I'm really lucky it's worked out as well as it has.
AVC: Are you working on an album?
JC: Since Thing A Week I'm unable to think in terms of albums. I just got so used to writing a song, recording it, and putting it out there. I can't imagine storing stuff up until I have a whole CD worth of music.
AVC: The album was always a kind of marketing ploy anyway, right?
JC: Exactly. I am still writing stuff, although very slowly. I'm trying to write faster.
AVC: What was your experience working for a label? Did that inform your decision to self-publish?
JC: I was the assistant to an A&R; guy at a very small label. It did classical crossover and adult contemporary. It was a real sort of backwater division of this giant corporation. It wasn't so much the label business that put me off. It was just a big office. I just don't like working in offices, I think. It wasn't like I saw a whole lot of dark, seedy things happening.
AVC: None of them were throwing televisions out of hotel windows.
JC: Not really. It wasn't the most glamorous part of the business. My main reason for doing things independently was that I'm too lazy and too fearful of criticism to go the traditional route and attempt to get signed. That whole process makes me ill. I did it the easy way, which I didn't think was going to work. What if I can just put my music on the Internet and the world will come to me?