Q&A with Jonathan Coulton

Geek icon and Internet rock star Jonathan Coulton is set to make his first appearance in Denver on January 17, at the Soiled Dove. In anticipation of his first concert in the Mile High city, Coulton was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about his beginnings as a code monkey, his inspirations for his music and what kind of a geek he was in high school. The short version of the Jonathan Coulton story can be found here. For the full, in-depth Q&A, hit the jump.

Cory Casciato (Westword): What was the first time you knew music was it for you?

Jonathan Coulton: That's a tough one. I would say, I would go back to the first time I wrote a, the first song I wrote. That was a big moment for me. This was back in, I guess I was in high school then. I had played music, I had played a couple of instruments, you know. I was in the band and I had played drums and I had picked up guitar and I had learned a bunch of other people's songs on guitar. And then I had, my parents bought me for Christmas this cassette four-track machine for Christmas to mess around with. My first recording was "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd (laughs). You know, the two guitar part? Then I was like, "Well I should write something." I wrote a song. It was a very sad song, a little overwrought. There were a lot of jazz chords, because I was being fancy. It was, I don't know, a really great feeling. That was sort of the beginning of when I really started messing around with writing and recording and arranging. That's the moment when I really caught the bug.

WW: In terms of high school, were you a geek in high school? Did you play Dungeons and Dragons?

JC: I have to be honest. I felt like a geek in high school. Although I've recently been, people from high school have gotten back in touch with me and they're like, "What's with this geek business?" I think I had, I definitely had a very awkward period in junior high. That was sort of my real geeky times, in junior high. I started hanging out with the cool kids by the time I was in high school. But I was always a smarty, you know? I loved taking tests. I was into science fiction and listened to Steely Dan. There was a time when that did not make you a geek but I think these days that does make you a geek, especially if you're in high school. I was very chummy with the science teachers. It's funny, though,. There are gaps in my geek knowledge. I never, ever played Dungeons and Dragons. And I was not really interested in comic books.

WW: Those are kind of gaps in your geek cred there.

JC: I know, I feel terrible. People make Dungeons and Dragons jokes to me and I'm like, "I don't know what you're talking about."

WW: The other side of that then, based on your bio, is it sounds like you went through what one of my ex-girlfriends called "the sensitive ponytail-guy thing," writing sad songs and trying to use that as a way to meet girls - which is kind of geeky in it's own way. Is that accurate?

JC:I think that's accurate, yeah. I'm not sure I would have seen it that way at the time, but definitely I ... let's just say I loved Simon and Garfunkel.

WW: Did you actually have a ponytail in high school?

JC: I did not have a ponytail. I did not have long hair until college.

WW: In college you studied music, is that right?

JC: That's right, I majored in music.

WW: And how did that lead into software development?

JC: (laughs) Not so much, actually. It's a liberal arts education, so you major in what you're interested in and then your degree is worthless when you leave, that's the way it goes. It did not lead at all into software, which is why it was so strange that I ended up accidentally having a software career. I had always been interested in computers, I learned, you know, I did a lot of Basic programming on my Commodore 64 when I was a kid. I took some courses in college, computer science courses, just because they were interesting. So I knew enough and I was interested enough that when the opportunity presented itself to work the front desk at the software company and also write code in my spare time there, between phone calls, I decided to do it because I was not making money anywhere else and it felt like it might be nice to have a respectable job for a little while.

WW: And how long did you do that before you abandoned that to go music full time?

JC: I was there for nine years. And my participation in music sort of waxed and waned over those years. There were times when I was pretty active, just writing and recording on my own, for my own pleasure and time where I wasn't really doing anything at all with it. Toward the end I had started doing a little more public stuff. Working with my friend John Hodgman on this Little Gray Book lectures reading series he was doing, I'd play songs at this live show that he'd do. I think even before I left the day job I had made a CD, but it was just sort of a vanity press thing.

WW: Hand it out to friends and family, then stack the rest in your garage kind of thing?

JC: Exactly. I put it on CD baby and I think I was selling like one copy a month.

WW: When you left to do music full time, was that more terrifying or exhilarating? Or an even mixture of both?

JC: It was a pretty equal mix of both. The hardest part was admitting to myself that that was what I needed to do. And then saying the words out loud to the people around me that it would matter to, like my wife and the parents and my boss. Actually, saying it was the hard part. Doing it became easy because of course then I was strapped to the rocket, I didn't have much of a choice. It was something I meant to do for a long time and I just never got around to it. I was always afraid of it, or whatever it was that was stopping me. When I had finally left, it felt like the right thing to do, even though I wasn't at all sure I was going to be successful as a musician. It felt like that part of my life was over and it was time for something new.

WW: When you set out to do this, did you have this picture in your head, like "I'm going to become the geek equivalent of Elvis, and that's the niche I'm striving to create" or was it just something that happened organically?

JC: That's really something that happened organically. I wish I had been smart enough to figure that out ahead. At the time, I was aware that I ... I had written a number of geeky songs, just because that's what I write about. And I had a couple of instances to sort of mesh with a geeky crowd and realize that's what I was doing and who was (unintelligible) to me. So I had some sense that was coming on but it's not something that I really set out to do. And certainly when I started doing Thing a Week I had no idea where it was going to go. I didn't really expect that I was going to be able to make money that way. My plan was just to write a bunch of songs for a while and see what happens. The idea of actually being who I am today never ... I never dared to imagine that could happen.

WW: Would you have been as happy if you'd gone a more traditional singer/songwriter route? Would you have been as happy as a musician doing that?

JC: If that was what I was into, yeah. I really think it just so happens that the thing I am most interested in, is the stuff that I write. It just so happens that that stuff has resonated with people. I really think there's an audience for everyone. The audiences are not always the same size. There are obviously some kinds of music that are going to attract bigger audiences. But I'm lucky in that the things I am interested in and the things that I write about happen to resonate with the people who basically own the Internet. The only people who know how to download mp3s and Twitter about the things that happened when they went to a Jonathan Coulton show are the geeks. And that's, it's sort of a lucky match up. But certainly, if I didn't have that angle I would blissfully be writing folk songs about mountains and valleys and ballads of who knows what, and I'd be very happy doing it I'm sure.

WW: Musically speaking, what are your influences or inspirations, or even just what do you like to listen to? What are you drawing from when you write?

JC: It comes form a number of different places. The root of it is really my diet of almost exclusively Billy Joel and the Beatles when I was growing up. From there branching out into Pink Floyd and Steely Dan and XTC. There's two sides of it - I'm a real sucker for that vocal-heavy, Beatlesy pop. You know, that catchy, post-Beatles pop? But I'm also a real sucker for a sad song played on an acoustic guitar, so like I said, Simon and Garfunkel, Loudon Wainwright - huge influence - Shawn Colvin, I think she's awesome. Dixie Chicks, I've been listening to them quite a bit. So, it comes from those two places, and I move pretty freely between the folky and the poppy, although I think I lean a little bit more heavily on the folk side of things.

WW: And what about, out of curiosity, not that you have any obligation to like them - previous geek icons like They Might be Giants?

JC: I was just thinking as you were talking that I should have mentioned They Might Be Giants. I didn't mention them because I am so close to them on the tree, that I am basically stealing from them.

WW: Well, that's where all good music comes from...

JC: Totally, you're absolutely right. I listened to them all through college. I learned quite a bit from them. I think the thing they do really well is write songs that are really goofy and ridiculous but also moves you in an emotional way. That's the thing that really gets to me in a piece of music.

WW: In terms of your contemporaries, is there some kind of burgeoning musical geek movement? Between chiptunes, which broke big with Crystal Castles; nerdcore, which gets a lot of attention for such a niche style; and yourself, the guy who in many ways was the first to make the Internet work for him and build a real career out of it?

JC: I think there's certainly a lot going on. It has to do with this now completely over-reported story abut geek culture moving into mainstream, which I think it still hasn't really done in an honest way. The popular culture is sort of playing lip service to geek culture, but it is geek culture, it's never going to be popular. I think it's because of the Internet, and because of the way the music industry has changed, that people are able to find stuff that they wouldn't have been able to find before. It's the same way you might say there's a movement of sort of cosplay and furries. I don't know if there's a movement so much as now people who are into cosplay and furries, who live in Texas, can find people who are into cosplay and furries and actually discover cosplay and furries even when they don't know they're into it. Nerdcore is a great example. I just played at PAX (The Penny Arcade Expo, a video game enthusiast's conference in Seattle - editor), back in August. It was crazy, there were 8,000 people at this conference. It was me and Freezepop and MC Frontalot and all this other nerdcore stuff, and the crowd was just crazy for it. And that group of people would not have been able to find each other without the Internet - that group of people, I'm talking about the audience. So then you have this sort of cross pollination between listening to this one thing, and then that thing is related to this other thing and they find that. It's just that the process of discovery has gotten a lot easier.

WW: Your covers have definitely played a part in launching you to widespread attention, particularly your "Baby Got Back" cover. How do you select these? Are these songs you really like, or are you choosing them for a certain irony factor or what?

JC: The "Baby Got Back" cover was definitely an ironic cover. It's meant to be this genre bending joke -- probably what drove me to do that one. Although I will say, I don't think it works, I don't think the joke would be as successful if the original song weren't so awesome. The lyrics are so clever and funny, but also, there's an important message there. It's not just abut somebody who likes asses, it's about somebody who likes big, big asses and that's great (laughs). I tend to cover stuff that I can actually feel. I really don't want to cover something that I don't -- I tend not to do a cover of something that I don't think is a good song, because I just don't think it works. I did a cover of "Don't Talk to Strangers" (Rick Springfield - editor) as well, which I guess is kind of ironic, but is also pretty straightforward and sad, reimagining it as a break-up song. It's really about songs that speak to me and that resonate with me in a way that I feel there's something I can add to them.

WW: You have a DVD called BEST.CONCERT.EVER coming out n February or maybe March, right? I gathered from your blog that's been a larger effort than you initially imagined.

JC: This is not just doing something with a webcam and putting it on YouTube, this is serious business. I've been, I guess I've been producing this thing myself - I guess that's the role I've been taking on. I've had a lot of help from friends and colleagues. Yeah, it's a huge amount of work. The setting up and everything, somebody else did that. Then I have all this raw footage, I have to work with the editor to get it all looking right, and we incorporated all this fan footage - people brought camera to the show and we incorporated all that footage. Then there's all these other mysterious things that stand between the final edit and the actual final DVD that you hold in your hands: color correction and audio mixing and post-production and authoring and artwork for the thing. It's like, it's a never ending maze of hazards. Yeah, it's very nearly finished, I swear to god, and I am very pleased about how it came out. There's a company called What Are Records that are distributing it. It will still be purchasable through my web site but it will ultimately go through that. I'm hoping we're going to get it into actual retail places and you'll be able to find it at any of the places you'd find any other concert DVD by any other Internet rock star.

WW: If Interscope came to you tomorrow and said, "We want to sign you, here's a big, old-style record deal with a million or two dollars up front, but this Creative Commons thing, it's gotta go." You tell them to shove it or say, "It's a deal"?

JC: (laughs) Well, you know, there's probably - everybody has a price, right? There's probably some amount of money that somebody could offer me that I would take and stop doing stuff with Creative Commons. In reality that's not going to happen because record deals just aren't that great. I also think that if a label did approach me, I'd like to think that labels are beginning to understand the value of this sort of thing. Maybe the lawyers at the label would say it wasn't a good idea, but I like to think that ... I would love it if that happened, because then I would have an opportunity to sort of evangelize and explain a little bit about what it is and why it's good. I don't do Creative Commons out of charity; it's good for me too. More and more you're seeing mainstream artists start to realize that some of these things do make sense. The Radiohead In Rainbows thing and Trent Reznor's thing. It's starting to seep into the mainstream a little bit and I  think it's a good thing.

I really think what it comes down to is that if a label approached me with some deal and said get rid of Creative Commons, I would say you really don't understand at all what I've been doing. It's such a fundamental part of how it's worked for me that I can't imagine that anyone who was interested in working with me would want o get rid of that.

WW: Anything else you'd like to say? The floor is yours, answer the question you've always wished you'd been asked in an interview and never have.

JC: The answer is "boxers." This is a tricky one. People always ask if there's something else I want to say, and no, not necessarily.

WW: People should read your blog, people should come to your show, all the obvious things?

JC: There are many ways to enjoy Jonathan Coulton, whether it's listening to the music, reading the blog, coming to a show, Twitter, please, sign up for all of these things and I will spam/entertain you.

WW: Ever been to Denver before?

JC: I have been to Denver before. The last time I was in Denver was with John Hodgman for one of his readings at, what's that huge bookstore?

WW: Tattered cover?

JC: Yes. It was literally 13 below zero. We were in this hotel and we had the night off and we were like, "Let's go see a movie" and we walked, which was a mistake, a few blocks to what looked like a mall on a map, turns out it was an outdoor mall. It was like, it was terrible. It was a really brutal visit. I only remember the dark and the cold. I am really looking forward to coming back in the day time.