UnRated Magazine



UnRated Magazine Review: Interview Conducted August 2009
Band Interview
Jonathan Coulton: Year of the Monkey, or how a musical [evil] genius coded.

Jonathan Coulton: Year of the Monkey, or how a musical [evil] genius coded.

Interview Conducted August 2009

By Jackie Lee King

TO: Those interested in mad scientists, evil geniuses, and corporate zombies
FR: Skull Crusher Mountain (Corporate Headquarters)
RE: Jonathan Coulton
CC: Monkeys


Please find attached the final and completed interview with Mr. Coulton. It has come to management's attention that many of employees have been listening to his "geek culture" songs and have been downloading his music from the Internet. This is a practice that we do not support. Although we do recognize his genius when it comes to his deadpan comedic performances that often inspire many to go out and appropriate his music to compose art, parody videos [Editors Note: Ironic], and even a dance craze or two (i.e. the song "Code Monkey")

It is very brave for Mr. Coulton to have left his corporate job many years ago, in the midst of having his second baby. No, he did not have the baby, his wife did. Upon leaving his programming position he set out to complete 52 songs in 52 weeks with his 'Thing a Week' project. Upon successfully completing this task he set out to bring his music to the masses though mini-tours across this great nation of ours. This is documented in his current DVD release, "The Best Concert Ever," though the ideals and stories continued herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of our parent corporation, nor its affiliates; Mr. Coulton is out there on his own. We do not support the abuse zombies, monkeys, (evil) geniuses, or any of the individuals who may be subject of his commentary. We have zero-tolerance for Henchmen that support his silly songs. The abridged, sanitized, and cleaned up and compliant version of the interview follows.

Jackie Lee King: So considering the name of your new DVD is "The Best Concert Ever." Barring your concert, what has been the best concert ever for you?

Jonathan Coulton: I have to say and maybe this is because I was a young person and easily impressed by these things. I saw Peter Gabriel play I think it was for "So."

JLK: Oh, that was an amazing tour.

JC: I had started buying his old records and really started listening to a lot of stuff when "Shock the Monkey" came out.

JLK: Well, what was difficult for me when I went to the record store for Peter Gabriel album is trying to figure out which album you want to get because they were all named...

JC: "Peter Gabriel" or "Peter Gabriel."

JLK: So you would have to describe it by the photo on the cover like "Melt", "Car" or "Scratch."

JC: Right, but that show was just amazing. Well that's a great album to begin with and that he's an amazing performer because he's kind of crazy you know. I remember he had these lights on stage that reminded me of "War of the Worlds."

JLK: Was it like the robotic lights in the video "Shock the Monkey?"

JC: Exactly. Yeah.

JLK: They would like move and kind of bop around.

JC: Yeah, and I remember he used those to great effect and would transition between songs with lights. There were several of those around him and they would become creatures onstage. I remember he did the song "Mercy Street" lying on the floor on the foot of the stage with those lights just sort of staring right at him, over him, and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

JLK: Wow. I got chills.

JC: It was amazing.

JLK: So, barring your own performance, Peter Gabriel: a close second.

JC: Yeah. He was pretty good. He's got a bit more money than I do by my count.

JLK: So I guess that you remember Gabriel fondly, but if you had to write your own 'six word memoir', which seemed to be a recent activity on Twitter, how would you like to be remembered?

JC: Well, I actually I had a contest because I was asked to contribute one of those 'six word memoirs', so I asked people to write in suggestions and they wrote in a lot. They varied from "Maybe I use too many monkeys" which I thought was the best and what was the other one? "He sort of peaked with Portal."

JLK: Ouch!

JC: I liked that one, but the winning one that I decided to go with was actually a reference to a story about Ernest Hemingway who claimed that he could write-- was it him or was it O. Henry? Now I can't remember.

JLK: It was Hemingway. I have it listed here and it was something about baby shoes?

JC: "For sale: baby shoes never worn." That was his 'six word memoir' and it's kind of brilliant and there's some question if this was, of course, actually true. So somebody suggested for me "For sale: adult shoes never worn." I liked it because it was a reference back to Hemingway and it was also kind of like I did not care to be a grown up and have a job and wear a tie. Being a grown up was not for me, and I did sort of refuse to do that, although I did an adult job for nine years before I refused, so in some way I did wear the adult shoes but not for long.

JLK: You've explained in a previous article that you quit your "Code Monkey" job to work on your music so you could spend more time with your wife. To what extent has your travel schedule now replaced that job and is it interfering with your goal?

JC: Yeah. It's kind of ironic that you leave the day job to have more time and then it turns out that the other job that you get also takes up a lot of time. It's an interesting struggle. On the plus side I do get to spend a lot more time with my kids because the way my playing live schedule works; I generally do these little mini treks. I'll do a long weekend somewhere and I'll fly to the Midwest and do two or three shows and then fly home and during the week. I am generally in town with a few exceptions. And during the week that's where I actually get to see my kids in the afternoon and evening. We have a babysitter that takes care of them during the day but I get to stay here in the morning as long as I want and get to see them whenever I want because they're around. I don't have to leave the house at 8:00 in the morning and not get home until 7:30 at night. Which is the way it used to be when I was working? It's nice if I decide to take a day off and take my kids to the zoo. I can do that and I don't have to ask anybody about it. So I basically sacrifice time with my wife for time with my children.

JLK: Well, depending on the relationship that could be a good or a bad thing.

JC: I don't know. We'll see how it shakes out.

JLK: I've heard that the secret to a good relationship is staying the hell out of each other's way.

JC: Yeah, I think that's certainly true. You know, when I'm in the Midwest, I'm very far out of her way.

JLK: Has the modicum of success that you've attained exceeded your expectations or do you just sometimes look out there and are like there are a lot of geeks out there who like my music?

JC: Yeah. It's by far exceeded my expectations. I think when I first started doing this I wasn't at all convinced that it was going to work and that I was even going to be able to make a living this way. To my surprise, by the end of that first year, I was actually pulling in some money. Not getting rich exactly but enough that I could sort of hold my head up high in the family and say I was at least contributing something. So that was a victory even at that level it was a victory. So now things keep getting bigger and bigger and I continue to be amazed at just how many geeks there are out there.

Jonathan CoultonJLK: Yeah it does seem like the geek culture, via the internet, have taken you in as one of their own, not that you weren't one of them to begin with, but have you had a hard time with more mainstream media outlets promoting your music. For example I contacted your, big fancy Hollywood agent, to coordinate this interview. So have you come to the dark side, decided to do it the corporate way? Be one of us Jonathan, come join us!

JC: No, you know I am usually pretty good about how to deal with those 'people.' I'm not going to work with somebody that doesn't really get it because there are different ways to do things. One of the reasons I have 'people' is because I still believe there's a lot to be gained from some of the old school methodology. Granted I've been able to do quite a bit relying on the incredible word of mouth engine that is the internet, but people still read magazines and newspapers and watch television and to ignore those things means you're sort of missing out on opportunities to spread the word. At the same time you can't really work in Hollywood without a fancy Hollywood agent you know? Because you know when stuff happens on that front I need somebody who knows what they're talking about and frankly I don't know anything about Hollywood.

JLK: So, somebody that speaks the language and can translate what is going to happen with a deal.

JC: Exactly. When "Code Monkey" came to me to ask if they could use the song "Code Monkey" as theme, I had no idea what that's worth or what the terms should be so, it's nice to have an advocate who knows what they're talking about.

JLK: Speaking of Code Monkey, I saw one of your live performances at Schuba's in Chicago and a female audience member leapt up onstage and did a dance to the song. How did that come about?

JC: Yeah. Her name's Emily and she created a video of her doing this dance that she invented.

JLK: That's actually how I got introduced to your music: her You Tube video dancing to your song "Code Monkey."

JC: (Laughs) That's awesome. It's funny you said that because a number of people have found me through that video. It's been viewed I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of times and it was sort of it was a big hit, you know? And not because of the song I think mostly because of the dance. It's very charming and funny and it's just cool. So she did that dance and then at some point later I was doing a show in Boston and I saw people in the audience doing the dance while I was singing that song. Afterwards I went up to them and said 'hey, you guys, do you know Emily?' and they're like 'we don't know Emily. We just learned it from the Internet.' Then there were other people putting up videos of them and their kids doing that dance, so yeah when I played in Chicago, she was living around there at the time. I'm not sure where she is now. I invited her to the show and I said please come onstage and do the dance live. I think that would be an amazing closure to the circle.

JLK: It was. People just went crazy. It was a phenomenal evening.

JC: What's funny is like she's sort of a star? I don't know; it's this weird kind of ancillary famous person effect that happens.

JLK: My friend Jim wanted me to ask you this question: I understand that Neil Gaiman got his start on your short lived 1985 TV series, does the fact that he never credits you for this put any strain on your friendship and do you blame his leaving for the show's failure?

JC: No, it really was a flawed concept to begin with. Everyone knows that it's very sensitive to work with a live monkey. There are all sorts of rules and regulations with regard to how you have to treat monkeys and it just never could work really. It does strain our relationship a little bit. I'm actually very angry at him but I cannot tell him that I'm angry at him because I do not want him to use his black magic.

JLK: I see. He kind of told me that you would have that kind of response. So I guess that's the correct response?

JC: All right. How many points do I get?

JLK: You're at 37.

JC: Great.

JLK: Yeah, but that's negative 37.

JC: Oh well, okay.

JLK: No, that's good. We're dealing with negatives here.

JC: So it's like golf.

JLK: Yeah, exactly

JC: Okay.

JLK: Okay, here's another Jim question, "Skull Crusher Mountain" and "The Future Snow"-- some of your fans tend to think of the former as a sequel to the latter. Were you thinking about that when you wrote the songs? Why do I feel like there is an in-joke here?]

JC: I did not think of them that way, and I'm not sure I've thought of them that way, until this moment. Nobody's ever pointed that out to me, but it certainly does make sense. I think that the real explanation, which is a lot less interesting than the idea that I brilliantly conceived of them as two parts of a larger piece, is that they are about kind of the same character. They are basically at different stages of his life. I don't mean that literally, as if that's what I was thinking, but you know for some reason that kind of character really appeals to me. That he's specifically somebody who is monstrous in his actions, but who is really that way because he doesn't know any other way. That's who he is. To be completely open and honest he just happens to be a monster.

JLK: So is this going to be the beginning of the trilogy medley? Jonathan, should there be a third song?

JC: That's a lot of pressure. I've already had good success with the first two. How could I possibly live up to those? To do the third you know?

JLK: I think you can do it. I believe in you and there's enough coffee in Manhattan that you can get it done.

JC: I don't know. You know what I fear the mess. That's what I fear.

JLK: Well, then it could kind of be like a shtick and there's another depressing negative song.

JC: Yeah, people would write comments and they would say sorry, liked "Skull Crusher Mountain" better. Fail!

JLK: I know it's just sort of like, 'I'm just trying to be entertaining.' And the response being, 'not funny Jonathan Coulton, not funny.'

JC: No, people are very nice. I have to say throughout the whole "thing a week" process I knew I had done a song that was not good because people would not comment on it. You know the good ones would receive a lot of comments and the bad ones would receive a small number of comments.

JLK: It would be like great effort!

JC: I never had anybody who was like this one sucks. Everyone was very nice which is surprising considering how nasty people can be on the Internet.

JLK: It does seem like your fans have a lot of input on your music. They even appropriate it for their own work. I just read about somebody who made illustrations for every song you did for "thing a week." Then there are all these videos on the net that use your music for their own projects. Do think there is an expectation by your fans when you release a new song?

JC: It's hard to avoid being affected by what you imagine people are waiting for. On the other hand I try very hard to ignore that simply because I think any creative person is at their best when they're working on something that is 100% their idea.

JLK: Yeah, that's true but I've seen artists that get too full of themselves and then they'll write this huge orchestrated piece and people are like 'play more "Code Monkey" stuff.'

JC: Yeah. That's the trap of success is that you do something, that people like, and that's fantastic, but then on some level there's that expectation, whether it's real or not, to do that thing again. What if you can't or what if you're not interested in that anymore. What if you do something else? It's a struggle but I really think the best way I can serve the fans and myself is by-- just being true to myself. Although if it comes down to it, if I have two songs that I want to work on and one of them's about an angry robot and one of them's about a sad lawyer I'll probably go for the angry robot.

JLK: My friend Jim also introduced me to "RE: Your Brains." My day job is in a corporate environment and it's just funny because some of the memos that come across my screen read very similar to that song.

JC: Well, I come from a corporate environment myself so I'm familiar how the memos look.

JLK: I love the deadpan presentation of the line, 'nobody's going to eat your eyes.' Come on! It's like the corporate way of trying to anticipate the response in the memo so I'm going to put this in the memo to supercede that though.

JC: Well, again it's the same character.

JLK: Well, he is a monster.

JC: Yeah and it's true that he wants to eat your brains but it's not really his fault. Of course he wants to eat your brains, but he's not mean. He's doing it out of spite.

JLK: Exactly.

JC: He's a zombie!

JLK: He has to; it's part of the corporate culture.

JC: Yeah, you can't blame him. He's just following orders.

JLK: When you were first starting out, after the corporate job, and seriously committing yourself to the one song a week thing, given your perspective now, what advice would you give yourself back then?

JC: I probably would have set up the infrastructure before I got started. I think. No. That's not true, actually. I was going to say the regret that I do have is that I didn't bank completely about how to best leverage whatever web traffic was happening. How to leverage that; into either money or more word of mouth. There are a lot of music services now that are doing that in a really smart way where you can post your music online but when people listen to it, you listen to it inside a widget, and that widget has some buttons on it to allow them to share the song with other people just by clicking it. Or they can post to their Twitter feed and they can put a copy of that widget on their blog. All that stuff was not there and when I started doing this. I would just put the mp3s in a blog post and I didn't even have the storage set up when I started. Then when "Baby Got Back" hit, and traffic went crazy, I was like 'oh, hmm-- maybe I should set up a store.' And then as other stuff happened I was like, I should make it easy to listen to these songs. I should make it easy to download the mp3s, even if you don't know how to right click on a link. I should make it easy to share this with somebody else or repost this or whatever you know. So that's the kind of stuff, that looking back, I wish that would have been part of the original plan because, as it was, over the course of that year I had to sort of scramble and cobble stuff together and make it work. But that being said, I think it's the daunting task in setting up an infrastructure to create a word of mouth Internet musician success.

JLK: Can you bullet point it there for me?

JC: Yeah, if that would have been my first task I'm not sure if I would have ever written song one. I would have spent the whole year setting up the infrastructure because a nice way to procrastinate when you've got a dangerous creative endeavor in front of you.

JLK: Yeah it distracts you because you're doing all that programming and coding and it's just sort of like okay I could just see your wife coming in and saying 'let me get this straight -- you quit your coding job to code about your songs that you haven't written yet?'

JC: Exactly. It's a classic avoidance behavior for me and I think a lot of people say, 'I can't really start this creative project because I need to get this piece of gear first or I need to know how it's going to end before I can start it.'

JLK: So your advice is to just to do it.

JC: Absolutely and really the best advice I could give to anyone who's thinking about doing this is to just start doing it. Regardless of whether you're doing it correctly or well or intelligently or any of that. Just start because that is the thing that will give you-- that is the thing that will power you and empower you to move forward.

[Editors Note: Well said Mr. Coulton, well said. We will be investigating your support Staff Paul and Storm on an upcoming issue of this newsletter.]