Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jonathan Coulton

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Without fail, the introduction for every interview with self-proclaimed "Internet superstar" singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton mentions: his nerdiness, his sensitive-white-boy novelty cover of "Baby Got Back," and his many other touching, oddball songs about things like Flickr, SkyMall, and robots. There's a little more to it than that: Coulton quit his job as a computer programmer to pursue songwriting, even though he was a newly minted father. After 2005-2006's highly popular "Thing A Week" e-series, in which he mostly succeeded at recording/releasing a piece of music every week for a year, Coulton has focused more on performing live, which has paid off: Next month sees the release of his first live DVD, Best. Concert. Ever., which captures a two-hour performance Coulton did in San Francisco last February. Ahead of his show this Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre, Decider spoke to Coulton about how nerdy he really is, taking his songs from the Internet to the stage, and how he'd run the Super Bowl halftime show.


Decider: You mentioned you're getting sick of your own hype. Why?
Jonathan Coulton: I don’t know exactly. It’s a growing problem. I think [it's normal] for anybody who has a lot of natural self-doubt and is critical of themselves—which I think most people do. When you have to talk about yourself all the time it wears on you eventually, especially when you have to talk about how you are the king of the geeks or whatever. I hesitate to even talk about this specifically, because it makes me sound horribly ungrateful.
D: How much do you feel you have to stick to that image? How often are you mindful of not doing something that might out you as being less of a geek than people think you are?
JC: That’s a good point. Somebody on my forum is a guy that I went to high school with. He at some point announced to the forums, “You know, Coulton was not that much of a geek in high school. He was kind of one of the popular kids.” [Laughs.]
D: What was your reaction when you first saw his post?
JC: I was kind of like, “Wow, I wish he hadn’t done that.” [Laughs.] Not so much because my cover was blown, but because I think, especially having Internet fame, you fear the backlash, more so than any other kind of fame. I’m just waiting for somebody to call me on it. For instance, I never played Dungeons & Dragons.

But that was a weird moment for me, because I was like, “Well, you know, he’s right. it’s not like I was getting swirlies and shut in lockers by jocks in high school.” I always felt inside like a geek, and when I was masquerading as one of the popular kids, I felt like it could fall apart at any moment.
D: Usually people ask about your nerdy background, but if you had complete creative control over the Super Bowl halftime show, what would you dazzle people with?
JC: [Laughs.] Why don’t we put a fuckin’ magic show in there? I’m serious. Let’s get some magicians up there. Let’s do some incredible stunts. Let’s make the stadium disappear. Let’s make 10 elephants disappear. I don’t know. I find it a little bit odd that in the middle of a football game you set up a concert stage and have a little 12-minute rock concert. It’s like what’s the point? You can’t do anything in 12 minutes. Poor Bruce [Springsteen] did his best but like, honestly.
D: Would there be music in the background?
JC: There would be music in the background.
D: Your music?
JC: No. I wouldn’t go with my music. I would go with something bigger and fuller. Like electronica, big rave-y dance music.
D: Would magicians also be performing the music?
JC: I don’t think so. They have to concentrate on their magic. I’m not in the show. I’m running it. I’m going to get Las Vegas’ greatest magicians—whoever they are. [Laughs.] I’m going to give them a challenge. We’re going to hold open trials throughout the season at other football games. Whoever proves them self to be the most amazing magician is going to have the opportunity to outdo them self at the Super Bowl. How does that strike you?
D: People would watch it, especially since it has a little play-off angle for the magicians, too.
JC: It’s a reality program called, Who Will Be America’s Next Super Bowl Half-time Magician?. There’s an acronym but I can’t remember it.
D: Are there similarities between programming and songwriting?
JC: Absolutely. I think that the process is parallel, in many ways. There’s the ultimate goal: You know what you want the song or software to do. But the way that you get there is the issue at hand. That’s the act of creativity. You’re zooming in and out of scale, so you think big picture for a while, and then you zoom in and you tweak a line of code or a song to work exactly the way you want it to work. And then you zoom out again and you connect that piece with another piece. And then maybe the connection doesn’t go so well, so you’ve got to zoom in again and tweak one side or the other side until they work well together. And then at the end of it you run it, you let it go, and you see how does it work, where does it get screwed up, where does it work a little more slowly than it should?
D: What about performing live? Do you see any similarities between programming and that?
JC: Eh, no. Performing live is a very different experience. Performing live, if you’re doing it well, has nothing to do with your head. My best moments onstage are when I forget what I’m doing and why I’m there, and I just sort of let the song do what it does.
D: That’s never happened to you with programming, where you just lose yourself in it?
JC: Well, I guess to some extent. There’s an aspect of being in the zone, but the difference for me is when I’m performing live it’s less of an act of creativity and more an act of like, hanging on to something. You know what I mean? It’s like you’ve got to wind it up and let it go and grab onto it, and ride it all the way through without falling off.
D: Do you get tired of people asking you about John Hodgman?
JC: [Laughs.] No, because it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Before, if I may call back to an earlier question about the "geek hook," that was the dominant hook—my affiliation with Hodgman which I am not the least bit sad about. He is a very good friend and I think he is a very talented person. We’ve worked together for a long time and I was thrilled to watch his star rise. For a while, that was just the easiest way for people to get their hands around who I was. I think the rise of the "geek angle" has sort of obscured that connection and, I guess, we haven’t done much collaborating of late. That connection is sort of old news. I think there would be more to talk about if I were the Mac in the Mac ads.
D: Have you pitched him that idea?
JC: I call him everyday.
D: What’s the reception been?
JC: They never call me back.
D: It would sort of bring up your association though.
JC: True, but I don’t mind that association. If that had to happen, certain people’s heads would have exploded.
D: How would you fit in?
JC: The scanner. I want to be the scanner and I want to wear sunglasses.

Jonathan Coulton, "Still Alive"