Thing a Week 30: The Presidents This is a song that I wrote…

April 15th, 2011

Thing a Week 30: The Presidents

This is a song that I wrote last year for a Presidents Day edition of Little Gray Books – one small fact about every US president (thanks Wikipedia). Some of you more dedicated Coulton scholars may have already heard the live version in episode 7 of the Little Gray Books Podcast. Back then I performed it with the Hungry March Band, the most energetic stoner marching band I’ve ever seen. They played the Hail to the Chief part in between verses – since I have no marching band here, I had to make do with toy instruments. This new recording may be a little rough because there are men hammering and sawing and drilling in my kitchen all week, not exactly the best thing to have on the other side of the studio wall. You may hear some of it here and there, but hey: this is Thing a Week, people.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Right, jeez, this is when there were four contractors in my two bedroom apartment for a couple of months. My studio stuff was all in my daughter’s room. She was still just a dumb baby for the first part of Thing a Week, but it got harder to keep my stuff in her room the more she turned into an actual child. We had this enormous kitchen, and since at this point it seemed like this was going to be my job at least for a while, it made sense to steal some square footage from it and make a little studio room. It was tiny, about 4x8, but it was a room with a door and there were no babies in there. Before that was done, a lot of the tracks were mixed with my daughter sleeping in a crib a few feet away, and I remember at least a couple of times when I was trying to finish up some background vocals on a Friday afternoon, holding her in my arms, hoping she would stay quiet while I sang into the microphone.

This was was particularly rough weekend in the renovation - dust, noise, people. It’s even harder to write when you’re afraid someone is listening to all your bad ideas. So I grabbed something from the catalog and gave myself an easy week. The song is OK, it’s a little bit of an easy target I think. Musically it’s not that interesting (OK, one good modulation), and it steals pretty heavily from the soup of country novelty songs that’s always simmering in my head. I still can’t remember all the lyrics, they just run together in my head for some reason, and I’ve done it wrong live enough times that I fear I know the mistakes better than I know the correct version. That’s always part of the fun though, at least that’s what I tell myself.

Mistakes that are built into the lyrics include the Garfield assassination date (1881, not 1882), and referring to George H. W. Bush as “George Bush Senior” which makes no sense because he has different initials from W. I have corrected one but not the other in my live lyrics, at least when I sing them correctly.

When Obama was elected I changed the last lines a little bit to reflect that. At first I did it in a way that was kind of snarky toward George W., and when I played it that way in Texas I got a few angry emails from people in the audience who said they were so offended that they weren’t going to be fans anymore. I find that a little silly. I mean, OK, but…really? Mostly I was amazed to encounter people in my audience who looked back on W’s presidency and thought he had done a great job. It just goes to show you what a liberal bubble we have here in NYC. It’s also yet another example of how polarizing red/blue issues have become. These people were really upset, more upset than anyone who’s ever emailed me to complain about anything. They did have one good point though, which is that if the last line is “I don’t like to make political statements” then maybe I should not make any political statements dum-dum. Evolution of the lyrics has been like this (according to my own wiki):

W’s legacy’s a work in progress.
That is all the Presidents so far

After Obama was elected:
W’s reign of terror is finally over
Obama’s been pretty excellent so far

After the Texans got angry:
W decided he was the decider
(not sure what the next line was, maybe the same as above?)

For Hodgman’s audio book, and this one stuck because I liked it:
W decided he was the decider
Obama has a peg-leg and a scar

I think that walks the line quite nicely thank you very much. Obviously it doesn’t reveal a lot about Obama’s presidency in a historical context (EXCEPT THE TRUTH!), but we’ll have to wait and see what happens, won’t we? Unless you read this as a satirical backhand slap to the Birthers and the other crazies who think he is not a citizen, that he is a secret Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, that he is a terrorist, that having him in power threatens our nation to the extent that we might have to get a bunch of guns and start killing people, etc.

You are, of course, free to read it however you like, because this is America.

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

Since you are collecting songs to release in a single, monumental blast, you must still abide by the notion of an "album." Why not release songs as soon as they are finished? Do songs released individually lack the power associated with a massive tune cluster motherlode?<br /> <br /> (Of course, if you’re cooking up a modern-day Winterreise, never mind.)<br /> <br /> No matter what, I’m really looking forward to hearing "Je Suis Rick Springfield."<br /> <br /> Thanks!

April 13th, 2011

A fine question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, since I’m currently working on a thing that is an album, a bunch of songs that nobody hears until they hear the whole bunch of songs all together. Why am I doing that?

I grew up with albums, and while I too am sometimes only interested in a song at a time, I still like to sit down and listen to entire albums by certain bands. I think there’s something great about an album, even if there’s no theme or concept or consistency, it still represents the stuff that an artist was working on at a particular period of time. And so the whole of it takes on some kind of meaning that way.

When I finished Thing a Week, I was pretty sure the album was dead. I had just released 53 songs one by one, and some of them did really well, and everything was moving along fine without the album construct. Except that Thing a Week WAS a kind of album. A long one to be sure, but even if I didn’t sell it as a single physical object (I do), I think it still would be possible to experience it as one big thing. It very powerfully represents quite a bit about my life and creative work and general freak outs at that time.

After Thing a Week I was tired. It took a while, but I eventually started releasing songs again in a slow trickle. I like a lot of them, but I feel sad that they don’t LIVE anywhere. I group all of them under the heading “The Aftermath” but I’m not sure how much that means. Maybe because they’re too spaced out in time to feel like they belong together.
Working on this new album has meant a lot of intense and fast writing, a lot of thinking about the larger picture: the album title, the mix of styles, the track list, the artwork. It feels like a large important thing, and there’s something kind of thrilling about knowing I have 15 recordings that nobody’s ever heard, and someday soon they’re all going to leave the nest at once. It’s just more fun, and it just feels more normal to me.
Shorter version: I am old.

UK Trip in the Works

April 13th, 2011

Stop asking! I am working on it!

In fact, I can give you some details right now. Unfortunately due to various travel and recording schedules, I have to do a kind of shortened trip this year. I am extremely sorry and PERSONALLY DISAPPOINTED to tell you that I will not be coming to Ireland, or Glasgow or Edinburgh. I love all those places, but I couldn’t make it work. That’s the bad news. I swear that once this new record is out I’ll have more time to plan a longer and more extensive tour in the future, and just try and stop me from coming back to those cities when I do.

The good news is that I will play acoustic shows with Paul and Storm in Bristol on June 9th, Manchester on June 10th, and London on June 11th. I think I’m also going to be able to sneak in a first time ever Amsterdam show (!) on June 13th. I’ll post the specifics here and on the twitters and to the mailing list when I have them, which hopefully should be sometime soon.

Houseboat, emmer effers.

Still Alive Clarifications

April 10th, 2011

On Wednesday and Thursday I was in the studio working on a new recording of Still Alive for my new album. John Flansburgh was tweeting up a storm while all that was going on, and some of the actual facts got all crazied up by the internet. I kind of like to watch that stuff happen, it means that people are super excited (as am I) about the new album, about Portal 2, about John Flansburgh, about theremins, etc. But I feel the need to state some facts that are true. Ready for true facts?

The new album will probably come out this Summer, not in 2013 as John Flansburgh joked on Twitter. I don’t have a precise date yet, but we’re nearly done. Really.

The new version of “Still Alive” is not for Portal 2, or for Portal 3, it’s just another song that will probably go on my record. Portal 2 is being released in a matter of days, and all jokes about Valve time aside, they’re not THAT behind schedule. Portal 3 isn’t on anyone’s radar as far as I know.

I did write a song for Portal 2, a new song, and you’ll have to wait until you get the game to hear anything else about it.

The collaboration on this new version is NOT with They Might Be Giants, though I admit that part is confusing because Flansburgh tweets using the @TMBG account. But only Flansburgh is producing my record, and of the two Johns, he is the only one involved in this new version of Still Alive. Also confusing, Flansburgh snapped this photo of me and John Linnell and Joe McGinty (who DOES play on the new version of Still Alive) in the studio. I’m recording in the same studio TMBG is recording in, so I arrived when Mr. Linnell was leaving (he insists on me calling him “Mr. Linnell <--joke). New version of Still Alive includes: Marty Beller on drums, Chris Anderson on bass guitar, me on some things, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara singing the lead vocal, Joe McGinty of Loser’s Lounge (and, like, everywhere else) playing keyboardy things, and Dorit Chrysler on the new theremin introduction I wrote. I have to say, it’s incredible to be working with all these talented people, and it’s really fun to take this song that’s been kicking around in my repertoire for so long and breathe some new life into it. I hope you will like it as much as I do. We also shot a video while we were recording, so we’ll see what happens with that.

I hope that sets the record straight. Now, back to work on this John Hodgman one man musical about lobsters.

Thing a Week 29: Code Monkey Yay, monkeys. This is not…

April 8th, 2011

Thing a Week 29: Code Monkey

Yay, monkeys. This is not autobiographical, but I did indeed used to have a job writing software. VB! MS SQL! I affectionately referred to myself and my co-developers as code monkeys, especially when a client asked me a question that I didn’t want to answer (“What do I know? I’m just a code monkey.”). Now this part is important: tomorrow morning I leave for a week long vacation in a sunny place, and I don’t know how easily I’ll be able to access the internets. I think it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get anything posted, so I’m giving you notice now: I’m taking the week off, I think. If I am in fact unable to post anything, I’ll refund a dollar to all you paying subscribers. The rest of you will just get nothing for nothing, which seems fair.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: The four weeks ending with this one included Re: Your Brains, When You Go, and Code Monkey (let’s just ignore Madelaine for a second shall we?). That’s remarkable to me. In my head the good ones were more spaced out, but clearly they clumped together pretty closely sometimes. This was the glorious Summer of Thing a Week, I can hear my carefree attitude in the writing and recording. The financial picture was starting to improve and the story that I was telling was getting some traction out there on the internet. There was nothing to worry about anymore - OR WAS THERE?

Next to Baby Got Back, Code Monkey was the biggest and fastest explosion. This song best exemplifies the synergistic advantage I had over anyone else trying to do something similar: I wrote funny songs about geeky subjects and distributed them directly to geeks over channels that only geeks were using. This was by no means A PLAN, it was rather a happy accident that resulted from my actual interests and aptitudes. I used to be a software guy, Code Monkey is about a software guy, and other software guys heard the song because they subscribed to my RSS feed, or because they read slashdot, or because they knew how to use torrents once my site got snuffed out by all the slashdot traffic. You notice that this did not happen to When You Go, also a pretty good song. People who wrote about “JoCo as Master of the New Music Economy” often overlooked this phenomenon, and I myself failed to recognize or understand it at the time either. And I’m not just being modest here, I really think this wouldn’t have worked without all these pieces in place, reinforcing each other. In the case of Code Monkey, the content fit the story fit the delivery system, and suddenly everyone who had a job working with computers was hearing this song and forwarding it along to their geek friends and co-workers. 

Luckily, I was on vacation while all this was happening. I went to the island of St. Martin with my family and a group of friends. We ate croissants every morning by the beach and didn’t have the internet, which was great. Sometime mid-week I went to an internet cafe and tried to use the weird French keyboard to catch up on some of the emails that were flooding in, but that wasn’t fun so I stopped. The week prior to this Len Peralta started doing his Visual Thing a Week images. The week after this I got slashdotted, wrote some music for a bit John Hodgman did on the Daily Show, and discovered that someone was selling Code Monkey merchandise in CafePress. It was all getting kind of nuts.

I’ve said before that a successful song usually sent me into a tailspin, that writing a good song would make me start second guessing myself in a way that made it hard to write anything good for a little while. I’m looking ahead a bit and detecting a little quality valley coming up, and I’m guessing this was the first of many “death by success” moments in my career. A good problem to have, to be sure, but no less frustrating. I will complain about it in detail in the weeks to come, do not worry.

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