Other than the things with John Hodgman, what did you do to promote yourself in the early stages? In other words, how much of a following did you have before Baby Got Back, and how did you get them?

April 29th, 2011

I didn’t do anything to promote myself on purpose, other than blogging. I played here and there, with Hodgman but also at the PopTech conference before all of this started. I wouldn’t say I had much of a following at all before Thing a Week, some fans certainly, but not really something I would call a “fanbase.” I wish I could say there was some trick to it, but it’s like starting a fire without matches. Small things first that burn easily, blow on it a bit, wait for it to get big enough so you can add bigger pieces of wood. Sometimes it doesn’t catch and then you start over, maybe you use different materials, maybe you move to some new spot. It’s not like you can throw a switch - the stuff I did with Hodgman started in maybe 2000, and from there it took me years of various kinds of trying and not trying to get traction like Baby Got Back. And when that traction did happen, I had a catalog of stuff waiting for people to discover.

Is "Want You Gone" going on the new album?

April 29th, 2011

Don’t know yet - maybe, if I record a different version. See my recent blog post on the subject: http://www.jonathancoulton.com/2011/04/29/faqs-about-the-portal-2-song/

Thing a Week 32: Till the Money Comes Just so you know how bad…

April 29th, 2011



Thing a Week 32: Till the Money Comes

Just so you know how bad this monkey problem of mine has gotten, every time I type the title of this song my fingers want to type “Monkey” instead of “Money,” which would make for a very different song. This is more on the theme of “asshole sings a breakup song,” in this case his assholism is that he is a scrub, the kind of guy who can’t get no love from the lovely ladies of TLC.

I should also mention, by popular request I have made available a huge honking box set – it’s at the top of the songs page, it costs $50, and it gives you everything but the current Thing a Week album in one big zipfile. If you’ve been waiting to jump in and purchase, this may be the place to do it…

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This is one of those songs that I basically haven’t thought about since the day I posted it, nor do I really remember writing it. I was just now surprised by the lyrics in the 3rd verse, which I could swear I’ve never heard before. Also: hey, this one has a bridge? Obviously it’s not one of my favorites. I do like the backing vocals in the chorus, though I sure wish I had resisted ending the chorus on that m7b5 chord, which you JoCo scholars will recognize as JoCo Harmonic Crutch #217. As a concept it’s OK, but I feel like it didn’t quite come together enough to transcend the jokes and become something else - think about Skullcrusher Mountain, funny, but there’s a lot more going on in that song. Here I think the concept gets you to the jokes and then leaves you there with not enough change in your pocket to take the bus home.

I also would like to complain about the arrangement (do NOT like the percussion loop and the way it fails to work with the croony acoustic vibe) and the mix (muddy! should have sharpened those chorus vocals a little) and the form (that bridge was a terrible idea, I can tell I was tacking it on to add something, anything, to what is just kind of a dull song all around). This song feels like part of the calm before the storm - we’re just a few weeks away from where it started to get really interesting.

This is exactly the kind of song you need to write and then LEAVE OFF THE ALBUM. Of course I didn’t have that luxury given my Thing a Week concept, which was just to release everything in chronological order, in its current state of completion, and regardless of quality. In that way the whole Thing a Week collection is less an album and more an archive of my creative process that year, which is interesting, but a very different beast.

I guess I really haven’t done a proper album since Smoking Monkey in 2001 (or something). The one that I’m working on now feels in many ways like my first album ever, which is weird given the fact that I’ve been doing this professionally for six years. I have to say I’m enjoying it quite a bit. In contrast to TAW, it’s all about diving deep, spending LOTS of time working on a song until it’s everything it can be. There are quite a few songs that you will never hear, because they are not good enough in my opinion. But it’s a great pleasure to not have to compromise based on how much time I have before Friday, whether or not I can play the banjo, etc. While I think there’s great value in something like TAW where you just go and go and never look back, it doesn’t leave any space for any consistency of vision. As I’m stepping back now at the end of this album process I’m finding that the whole of it is taking a shape, and telling a larger story. It actually seems to be “about” something, and that’s very exciting.

On the business and career front, this was the week when the PopSci Podcast launched - great fun to do, but I very quickly ran out of time to do it. I also started selling the Box Set of mp3s, which was the entire collection for $50. That’s been a really important part of the business, it’s a great deal and it gets people to listen to LOTS of stuff (even bad songs like this one, oy). Spiff’s WoW videos were starting to pop up on YouTube, and in general it seems like things were really buzzing out there. I’m almost certain that Code Monkey was the catalyst for this particular bump - all the little bits and pieces of my career were out there in a trail of breadcrumbs, and Code Monkey was the flashing neon sign at the trailhead.

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

FAQs About the Portal 2 Song

April 29th, 2011

Much to my delight and relief, people seem to be enjoying the song I did for Portal 2. There’s no question that Still Alive was a hard act to follow, not necessarily because the song was so great, but more because the overall experience of the game turned it into such a well-known and widely appreciated cultural moment. Thank goodness I didn’t totally blow it!

I’m getting lots of questions on Twitter and in emails, so this is an attempt to answer some of them in one fell swoop. Ready?

Can I buy this song anywhere?
Not as of this writing, and I don’t know when you will be able to. The song and the recording are owned by Valve, so I’m not at all involved with what happens to it next. I happen to know that they’re planning on putting out a sound track, more than likely it will be on iTunes and Amazon and other places just like the sound track for the first Portal. But I don’t know when that will be – I’ve heard them say “soon.”

What about Rock Band? A karaoke version? Source tracks for remixes?
See above – not up to me. I hope that Valve will do all these things though.

This is under Creative Commons like all your other stuff right? So I cover this song? Create a parody? Make a video?
It is not under Creative Commons. Technically you would have to get permission from Valve to do something with it. In the past they’ve not seemed to mind all the crazy things people did with Still Alive, so if I had to guess (and I do), I would say that as long as you weren’t profiting from it in some way, they’d generally be supportive of fan-created stuff. But this is not legal advice, and I certainly can’t give you (or refuse you) permission to do anything.

Are you going to release your own version with you singing, the way you did with Still Alive?
I might. In fact I have permission to do that from Valve. I’m not yet sure what form that would take – the new song is so much more dependent on the arrangement and all the electronics that I haven’t quite figured out another way to make it work. But you’ll be sure to know when that happens, because I will tell you. I am finishing up a new recording of Still Alive that I did in the studio with the new band, with guest vocalist Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara, keyboards from Loser’s Lounge superstar Joe McGinty, and professional thereminista Dorit Chrysler. That version will go on the new album, I don’t know yet if there will also be a version of the Portal 2 song.

Are you going to play this song live at shows?
Eventually. For now I think it’s a little too close to when the game was released. It’s debatable whether or not the song contains actual spoilers, but it is certainly true that hearing it outside the context of the game will be a different experience. So I want to make sure I’ve given people plenty of time to buy and play the game before I start forcing it on them at shows. I don’t know exactly when that will be, sort of going to play it by ear.

Did you play the game before you wrote the song?
No, they created the game based on a song I made up based on nothing. <–joke. Yes of course! I spoke at great length with the writers as they were finishing things up, and I had an early version of the game that I was able to play through. I thought a lot about GlaDOS and her new experiences, what she was experiencing in this story, and there is a lot of new stuff that comes to light. Much later when it is less spoilery I can talk with more specificity about what things mean and what I think is going on in her head. But certainly I tried very hard to hit the moving target that was the story of the game, and a big part of that was playing it – it’s really the only way to know how the player is going to feel by the end, what they’ll know, what they’ll expect, what will make them go aha!

Did you write any other music for the game?
No. The song that plays through that radio you find is by The National, all the great turret stuff is by Valve composer Mike Morasky.

How did you make this recording?
I wrote it on guitar, made some scratch tracks of synths and drums and things, sort of worked it out from there. The opening musical idea was inspired by a drum loop that Flansburgh sent me, part of a giant “inspiration pack” of drum loops to help kick start some songwriting for my album. It just seemed to fit what I was doing with the Portal song, so I tweaked it and stuffed it in. I took a demo version with my scratch vocal to Valve to go into a studio there and record Ellen McLain singing it. We did the processing of her voice back in the Valve offices. I took that track and all my instrument tracks back to the NYC studio where I had been working on my album, and John Flansburgh and Pat Dillett and I messed with the arrangement. So really it’s the same producer (Flansburgh) and sound engineer (Dillett) team I’ve been working with on the new album. We took out a track here and there, changed a sound here and there, mixed, EQ’d. It was Flansburgh’s idea to drop out the instruments on “Oh, did you think I meant you?” which still gives me shivers.

I think that’s most of the main questions, but I’ll update here if I come across more. Thanks for all the positive feedback everyone, I feel very lucky to once again be involved with something as wonderful as Portal 2.

Thing a Week 31: Just as Long as Me I wrote this song for a…

April 28th, 2011



Thing a Week 31: Just as Long as Me

I wrote this song for a documentary a friend is working on about being tall (and in case he is reading this: yes, I certainly do owe him a phone call). Some people fake the funk, me, I fake the bluegrass. And this feller in this song, you see, he’s extremely tall and he would like to find a tall woman. I like the vocals and I’m pretty proud of the word play in the chorus, but I think this song could be much improved by the addition of a little fiddle – any bluegrass fiddle players out there?

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It would be interesting to track the “day late and dollar short” index of the songs week to week from the original Thing a Week against the same measurement for these Redux posts. I am late a lot! It’s touring that does it to me. Short bursts of travel preceded by a stretch of planning and followed by a period of recovery and catching up. It amounts to a black hole, a dark, timeless void where I cease to exist - I become merely a shadow that smells like an airplane and only wants to fall asleep in front of the hotel television. In case it isn’t clear (it isn’t), this post was meant to happen 6 days ago, so if I want to get back on schedule I will post again tomorrow. Blargh.

ANYWAY. This last week (that is to say, last Friday’s “this last week”) was when Hodgman’s Apple ads started running. I thought I was becoming famous, but what happened to John as a result of these ads was another thing entirely: TV famous, very different from Internet famous. It was thrilling to watch, and I was very happy for my friend. Did I really call Justin Long “the guy from Jeepers Creepers 2”? Yes, I did.

Those were heady days! Code Monkey Tshirts first went on sale this week at CafePress, the beginning of my merchandise empire. MySpace was still a thing. And I, well, I failed to write a new song. Just as Long as Me was from the reserve tank, I think that I may have added a verse and tweaked a lyric or two, but it was mostly a repurposing of something I had already made. No excuse this time. Maybe too busy, er, watching Apple ads? Dunno.

I would later acquire a fiddle part from some kind internet person - I can’t locate that post right now and am too lazy to keep looking. It helped a lot with the bluegrass flavor. You may be wondering if I play the banjo this quickly. The answer is yes, for short stretches of time, like Wile E. Coyote running in the air right before he falls off the cliff. Thanks to digital editing capabilities, it almost sounds like a guy playing the banjo.

The song is a little too gimmicky for my taste now, I’m not as interested in writing these kinds of songs as I once was. There are some good jokes in there though. And YE GODS do I love three part bluegrass harmony, I don’t know why exactly. It’s like, the way my brain is wired, bluegrass harmonies are a direct line to the very center of pure musical beauty to me. Sometimes just the sound of it makes me tear up. Probably a tumor.

I also wrote an Al Jolson style number about being tall for the same documentary, and likely I used the same jokes there too. And the same banjo. Not sure if he ever finished that thing, I should ask…

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.