McGinnis: Jonathan Coulton finds laughs in unique subjectsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Most musicians have moments where their audience will sing along with them. But comic musician Jonathan Coulton may be the only one who has to give the crowd pointers on how to properly behave like zombies while they do so.
“That’s awesome, that sounds great,” he told a crowd at the Penny Arcade Expo. “In fact, it sounds a little too good. It doesn’t really sound like zombies. If you really were a bunch of zombies…”
His adoring crowd immediately responded by dropping their jaws, waving their hands and crying for brains. “That’s too real! That’s too real!” Coulton replied in mock terror.
Just par for the course for the 39-year-old singer and songwriter. Coulton — JoCo to his many fans — thrives on composing and performing pieces that are wonderfully unconventional, no matter the subject matter. He’ll write one song finding something odd in a normal situation, and another finding something normal in an odd one. And they are all written with sophistication and intelligence.
“It needs to be good. It needs to be really tight, lyrically and musically. If there’s a tiny piece of it that you just treat as a throwaway line, then you have failed to finish making it, I think. It’s not going to be good,” Coulton said in an interview. “Comedy music is constructed, and it needs to be a solid construction or it’s not going to work.”
For Coulton, the experience needed to make that construction was learned over many years. He had been involved in music from childhood, and studied it at Yale in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts degree. It was there he met longtime friend John Hodgman, best known from his work on “The Daily Show” and as the PC in the Mac commercials. Hodgman would play a big role in Coulton’s evolution as a musician.
“He essentially quit his day job as a literary agent to become a writer, and he started doing freelance writing for magazines,” Coulton said. “And it was just very audacious and bold, maybe even seemed foolish before it already happened. And then to watch him build that into exactly the career he wanted was really very inspiring.”
Coulton had already released a 2003 album, to limited success, when he quit his own job as a computer programmer in September 2005 to pursue his music full-time. He soon launched a project called Thing a Week — vowing to release one new song every week for a year.
“It was a trial by fire. Which is exactly what I had intended it to be. Part of the spirit behind it was, ‘Okay, sucker, you want this to be your job? Guess what? Get to work!’ And I think without that, I could have easily flitted away six months or a year without really doing anything. The real trick of it, when you’re trying to be a real creative person, is that you need to create things. And it’s very easy to get distracted by all the other things you need to do.
“It was excruciating in many ways, because it was relentless. I was so tired of writing songs by the end of the year. But so much great stuff came out of it — not just in terms of the songs that I was able to write that I would not have chosen to write otherwise, but also growth in terms of my own talents and confidence, that I could do this.”
From that year’s burst of creativity, many songs which helped establish Coulton with online fans came forth: A hilarious cover of “Baby Got Back,” the semi-autobiographical “Code Monkey,” zombie anthem “Re: Your Brains” and more. But perhaps the biggest milestone came in 2007, when he recorded “Still Alive,” the ending theme to the smash hit video game “Portal.”
“I don’t think any of us had any idea how big that was going to be. That really amped things up and exposed me to a wider audience — still of the same general neighborhood, gamers, but now worldwide. I mean, that game was huge,” Coulton said.
Coulton confirmed that he will be involved with the eagerly awaited “Portal 2.” “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be yet. Sometime soon I will actually play through an early version of the game, and I’ll have some discussions with the writers about the plot. Yeah, I will be writing some music for that game.”
Revisiting “Portal” is just one of many events on the horizon for Coulton. Between his regular touring schedule, the upcoming “JoCo Cruise Crazy” Caribbean cruise featuring music and performances from a number of comic luminaries, and a new album produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, Coulton’s musical career continues to flourish.
With milestones like these, more and more people are getting to know who Coulton is. But he insists that breaking into the “mainstream” is never the real goal.
“The point of me doing this of this is to make a living creating the music I want to create,” Coulton said.
He then added, with a laugh, “Mission accomplished!”
For more information, visit Coulton’s website.
Coulton on his most popular Halloween songs
“Blue Sunny Day” This up-tempo ditty sounds like it would fit right in on a Beach Boys album, but its subject — a depressed vampire who longs to see daylight — probably wouldn’t.
“I was actually trying to write a happy song about a sunny day. That was my challenge. I had this music and I had the line, ‘blue sunny day’ somewhere. And then I realized that the word ‘blue’ has two meanings. And maybe, it was somebody who was sad about a sunny day. And then I realized, the person who would be saddest about a sunny day is probably a vampire. And once I had that, I couldn’t escape its gravity.”
“Creepy Doll” Almost a musical “Twilight Zone” episode, this scary song deals with a children’s doll that slowly drives its owner mad.
“I remember the moment. I was sitting on my couch, on a Tuesday or Wednesday, trying to think of song ideas for that week’s Thing on Friday. And across the room from me was my daughter’s doll, sitting in a very bizarre, slumped over position. And it all sort of came to me at once.”
“I Crush Everything” What’s more terrifying than a giant undersea monster? Maybe nothing — especially if you’re the monster itself. Coulton said this sad song about a self-loathing giant squid is one of his favorites.
“I was performing at a conference called PopTech in Maine, with a lot of thinkers and scientists and people speaking about really interesting things. One of them was an inventor, and he’d created these submersible vehicles that were really cool. And he was talking about giant squids and he was saying that it was no wonder that we’ve never seen one — at that time we hadn’t — alive, because when we go looking for them, we have these giant machines with these bright lights. And for all we know, the giant squid is a terribly shy creature. And I thought that was really interesting, to have a giant sea monster who was afraid of things, and was actually a very delicate creature.”
“Re: Your Brains” Imagine the annoying guy down the hall at work who can’t understand why everything isn’t done his way. Now imagine that guy as a zombie. One of Coulton’s most popular songs.
“It was a good example of a song that came nearly fully formed to me from the kernel of an idea. I don’t know where it came from, but I was thinking about a zombie who was trying to speak in a very rational way about his condition, his predicament. And the line that came to me first was, he’s explaining that all he wants to do is eat your brains. And he doesn’t think it’s unreasonable. That idea was sort of the foundation of that song, and once I had that, it sort of wrote itself.”