A Talk with JoCo, Part 4 (The Present)

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A Talk with JoCo
1. Early Life - 2. Undocumented Songs - 3. Thing a Week - 4. The Present - 5. The Future

Fourth in a five-part series of interviews conducted by Jinx and Bry, on June 23, 2008, audio here

Duration: 0:29:32

[edit] Transcription

Bry: Welcome back to part 4 of A Talk with JoCo, the interview with Jonathan Coulton, Internet superstar and obscure dead organist (Easy trivia: What is this a reference to? Answers in the forum thread, please; five points for the first correct answer. -- Bry), conducted by Jinx and me, Bry, on June 23, 2008. Let me say what my next line is supposed to be, because what it actually sounds like on tape is a Beatles song played backwards, and I don't mean "Rain." "Now that you don't have the Thing a Week deadlines to write your songs, I'm sure you have a bunch of ideas. How do you decide which ideas to turn into songs?" (to self) That was easy, wasn't it?

Bry: Now that you don't have the Thing a Week deadlines to write your songs, I'm sure you have a bunch of ideas. How do you decide which ideas to turn into songs?

I don't know. The ones I like the best, whatever that means.

Bry: And what's it like touring with Paul and Storm?

It's a lot of fun. We met each other through doing this and they've become good friends. They're also old hands, you know, they've been doing this for a long time, so they know where to find good food. And Paul does all the driving, because that's just what Paul does. And you know, it's nice. It's fun. It's like a road trip thing, you know, three of us in a car for many hours at a time, I mean, getting milkshakes and cheeseburgers at one in the morning, so it's fun. I mean it's a lot of work, but it's really fun traveling with them. (This was really cool to hear, even though I never would've thought to ask specifically about touring life. Question left on drawing board: Does he envy their having been Professional Singing Persons all this time? --Bry)

Jinx: What kind of stuff have you learned from them?

Oh, I mean everything about how to tour, the nuts and bolts of how to do this. The whole thing with merchandise, how to handle that, and how to ship it to where you're going to be, and how to use the office center at a hotel at 1 in the morning to arrange for a FedEx pickup, like very practical stuff that I never would have known otherwise, so it's been very instructive being with them.

Bry: How about onstage? Have you learned anything about how to tour better, perform better?

I think that is something that, we're all, all still learning. It's an ongoing tinkering process. You try to reorder stuff, you learn what works for, how to read an audience and how to change it up if you need to, I don't know, that whole thing is kind of a mystery, it's an ongoing mystery to all of us.

(I'd like to ask more about how he got comfortable performing onstage. I think we had written some questions to that effect that got cut in our last pass through before conducting the interview. --Bry)

Bry: How is working with them different from performing with other groups?

Umm... (baffled) Well, I don't know. I don't know how to answer that question... I mean ...

Jinx: Is it at all like Supergroup?

No. Well, I mean every performing experience is vastly different. I wouldn't even say that they're any more different thing from... any experience is more different than any one thing from one other thing... It's always... Performing with other people is always more fun than performing alone, I think, because there's a shared experience that makes it more fun.

Bry: What about rehearsing and arranging and that things like that with them -- what's that like?

Well, Paul and Storm are both really musical. So our rehearsing consists of sort of running through things a couple of times. And they've worked with each other long enough that they have a shorthand. Like, I saw them, we were practicing Birdhouse in Your Soul, and I saw them like work up the vocal arrangement sort of spontaneously, and using hand signals, like Paul does this, he holds his fingers apart (holds hands one above the other, about a foot apart) and that means they sing octaves over what I'm doing. So like they do that stuff... hand gestures... it's really amazing to watch them them do that. So there's not a great deal of rehearsal that goes on. And of course, the most important rehearsal is the rehearsal that happens on stage. (laughter)

Bry: Had you done anything with Mandelbrot Set with them at all before Saturday (when, during an unplanned encore, Paul and Storm sang backup on that song for the first time)?

I don't think so, no. But you know, they know the song, and all three of us are capable of just dropping in and doing some harmony on things that we know.

Bry: How's it different from working so much on your own through Thing A Week?

It's .... it's more fun and less control. So there's tradeoff, you know. So their vocal arrangement is maybe not the vocal arrangement that I would have chosen. But I generally don't have strong enough feelings to care that it's not exactly what I would have done. Or if I do, I mention it and we do things differently. But it's great fun being with other musicians.

Jinx: How about your concert audiences: are they Jonathan Coulton audiences now as opposed to Paul & Storm audiences? Or have they evolved over time?

It varies, it varies depending on where we are. Because they have a fame of their own in certain parts of the country, from their appearance on the Bob and Tom radio show and actually you know, I used to go with them when they did Bob and Tom market stuff and I would open for them, but I found it too depressing. Because, now that I can play for an audience that has come to see me? I never want to do anything else. I just don't have the time or the energy to beat my head against the wall that is an audience that has never heard me before. If you're a fan, great! Come to the show. If you're not a fan, I can't help you.

Jinx: The newcomers always give a ripple of laughter at the laugh lines...

Yeah, That's true. And you can tell how new an audience is by how much they laugh. The newer audiences tend to laugh more at certain parts, and that's thrilling too, but I would much rather those people be friends of existing fans than people who have never heard me before and who have not chosen to come to my show.

Bry: Since starting Thing A Week, your audience has grown, but also the scene has kind of changed and evolved. Have you noticed any difference?

Well, they have become familiar with the show, and they've become accustomed to certain traditions that happen, like (singing along on) Re: Your Brains, I used to have to try to get them to sing, and now, everybody's all raring to go. And there are things they expect and there are running jokes, and now for me, and I think for Paul & Storm too, it's sort of about trying to subvert expectations when you can, and sticking a rickroll here and there, or adding a new song, or doing a new cover, or adding a ukulele army, or whatever it is. That's why people come to a live show -- it's to see something unique and special, and that happens regardless of whether you do anything new, because there's always a conversation between the audience and the performer, but it's fun to be able to introduce something.

Bry: And also interesting for you?

Oh, of course, that's what I meant. I don't really care about the audience.

Jinx: Have you ever thought of doing a different audience participation thing or song?

No, not really. That's the one that seems the most obvious. There's other stuff that has happened spontaneously, like people do the claps in (the chorus of) Shop Vac, but I'm actually not a huge fan of forced audience participation, because you don't need to do that to get the audience excited. I mean, I know there are some performers who do that for the purposes of like making the audience do something to bring the energy up, but I'm not a fan of that, I kind of feel like if the energy's low, then let's do some sad songs, you know?

Bry: What do you think makes you a good songwriter or a good musician?

Oh, god, I don't know! I have no idea. I mean, I don't even.... (grimaces)

Jinx: Could you answer that question about somebody else or about people in general?

Sure. Um... Who do you want me to answer it about? (laughs)

Bry: What makes a good songwriter, sort of philosophically?

Well, it's a question of taste, really. I mean for me, I like classic, formal songwriting. I like it when it tells a story and there's a character and there are vocals and a bridge, and ... and a chord progression that makes sense, that is based on the songwriting decisions. And I like when there is emotional content that's accessible and moving. And I like when there's multiple levels, where there's a hidden meaning or the joke isn't immediately apparent, or when it's not actually a joke, it's because it's sad. I'm always trying to write the stuff that I would like to listen to.

(I wish we'd pushed harder to ask Jonathan to comment on his own songwriting. Maybe next interview, haha... --Bry)

Jinx: Is that where all the narrative comes from? I mean, you have so many songs that are narrative.

Yeah, I think that's what drives me, drives me to write. I always I hate songs that are like, It's like, (singsong) "I feel sad, I feel sad, I feel sad, Verse two: Here's why I feel sad, here's a metaphor about how I'm sad, Verse Three: I guess I will always be sad." It's like, Okay, What happened there? Nothing. I like for some sort of revelation to happen in the course of the song.

Bry: Do you find it difficult to get into the heads of some of your narrators?

No, it's very easy. I mean, they all come from inside my own head anyway, so they're kind of me, in a lot of ways. Like the confused narrator, that's how my mind works, I'm not good with details, Like Kenesaw Mountain Landis is pretty easy, because that's how I might tell the story, actually -- like when the mafia says " You should be the guy who owns baseball" it's kind of what I think about. I mean, I don't know what they really said -- well, I do know, they said something like 'we'll give you money if you throw the World Series,' but....

Jinx: Plus you're really good at writing the affable monster songs?

Yeah. I'm sort of an affable monster, I think.

Bry: Which of your songs do you feel most satisfied with?

Well, A Talk With George I'm very proud of. I Crush Everything is one of my favorites. A lot of the the sad ones; the ones that audiences like -- Code Monkey, I like the slower version of Code Monkey; Skullcrusher Mountain I'm very satisfied with.... Those are the ones that really stick in my head, I think.

Jinx: How about Still Alive?

Well, yeah, I'm proud of it, but it's not one of my favorite songs. I think because it's externally motivated, to some extent.. But it's not really me -- because I'm writing on behalf of a character that already existed.

Bry: Are there any songs where you have a different opinion than the audience?

Where we disagree about what's good?

Bry: I mean, that you feel satisfied with, but haven't gotten as much recognition...(I wanted to ask two questions here: are there songs you like more than the fans do, and are there songs that fans like more than you do? I should've just said that, and not tried to be clever about it. --Bry)

I don't know.....

Jinx: Underappreciated songs?

Underappreciated songs.... I don't know, I mean, there are songs that I haven't really done live. And I think there are some songs I like but I don't play, but I think I haven't played them yet because I haven't figured out how to make the audience like them yet, I think.

Jinx: Like My Monkey?

Yeah, My Monkey was that way. I loved that song and for a long time I couldn't figure out how to do it. But I think we've got a thing that works really nicely now, and it has the intended effect, so I'm very happy with it, with the way it's turned out. But yeah, that's a recent addition to the set and that was a mystery for a long time, because I couldn't figure out how to do that. And so, anything that's not in a set, it's because I haven't figured it out. Except for Drive, which I hate.

Bry: Which of the four voices is left out in that song, we've had some questions about that? (I don't know if anyone on the forums had that question. That was really just for me. --Bry)

Various, it depends on which part I sing.

Bry: Okay. Well, you don't really talk about work in progress, is there a reason for that?

Yes, I don't want it to be influenced by anything. There's already enough going on to keep me from getting to the finish line. You know, when I do the live studio streaming I don't read the chat, because I don't want somebody to say "Oh, he should do this, or like, "oh that's not so good". I think that would fuck me up.

Bry: Is it a big change for you to do the live streaming (for JoCo in a Bubble)?

Yeah, it is. It's tough, it's hard to do. It's a little bit inhibiting. I'm not sure it's the best thing for me to do. But I enjoy it in some ways, but it's one more reason not to record, which I don't need any more reasons not to record at this point.

Jinx: On some of those sessions, it's been interesting -- there have been music students who've been fascinated with the process, people who don't necessarily know your music and who never would have run across you without that vehicle.

Yeah, and I like doing it in some ways, I'd like to think that there are people paying attention, because I know that I would certainly be interested to watch somebody go through that process, so I like to make it available.

Bry: How much of the songs do you have written before the point when you go into the studio?

They're mostly done. I might not know what the bridge is, I might not know what the third verse is, but they're mostly finished. The arrangement is another thing, I have a few ideas, I try them, maybe they work, maybe they don't -- That's what I make up as I go along.

Bry: Do you think you could have done JoCo in a Bubble for Thing a Week?

JoCo. Yeah. I think so. Well, I wasn't aware the technology was available, it might or might not have existed at the time, but yeah. And also it never occurred to me that it was a thing to do. But I think if I was doing Thing a Week now, I think I'd probably do it.

Bry: You haven't done much collaboration that we know about at least as far as songwriting goes. Any reason for that?

Yeah, it's a control thing, collaboration is hard because it's all about compromise, and it doesn't come up all that often for me. I'm not really a social musician. There are a lot of musicians who are out there going to each other's shows and playing in each other's bands and stuff like that. But I don't really do that; I don't really have a circle of musicians that I'm friends with. Well, Paul & Storm, but that's not really a circle, it's more of a triangle.

Jinx: Or you collaborate with game developers....

Yeah, exactly. But again, not a lot of musician collaboration comes up, or makes itself available.

Bry: What do you think about your website at the moment?

It's a little disorganized. Needs some work, I think. It's pretty good; it works pretty well for what it is. Essentially it's a blog and a music store, and the forums. And the wiki is a nice addition, I think. I'm actually hoping that the wiki can take over a lot of the functions of the website eventually, as we go forward, like I've always meant to set up a setlist database, and all that stuff, so now that it's surfacing in the wiki, it's a nice thing.

Bry: And you've added Twitter.

I put the little Twitter thing up there, yeah, it was just a question of finding the right plug-in (laughter).

Bry: How do you feel about all this new technology like Twitter, that is emerging now?

I think it's great. It's really transformative. I was just reading Here Comes Everybody, that book -- just finished it this morning, actually. And it's true. It's a whole new ballgame. We'll all look back on this time, I mean we're already looking back on this time... and saying that this is a serious transformation of our culture and I'm very excited to watch it.

Jinx: What other kinds of technology have you found or are you watching?

I don't know... Twitter's been the latest thing to really catch my eye. But I love this ecosystem of radio... like internet radio -- the fact that anybody in the world can set up a radio station that can essentially broadcast to the entire world podcasting empire. It's thrilling. It's thrilling that that's happening. But obviously I'm most interested in the music industry and how that's changing. But obviously I love it when anybody comes up with a new crazy scheme for that stuff. I love that.

Bry: In the new music industry, obviously, everything's songs. But I saw your Onion AV Club article, that talked about how you listen to the Beatles as albums. Have you ever thought about doing something like yourself? Do an album?

Yeah, it's never really occurred to me to have like a concept album or anything, because no concept has occurred to me. It'd be fun to do a larger-form project kind of thing. But I don't know, right now I'm just interested in the song as a thing, so that's what I'm doing.

Bry: As far as your blog is concerned, you've kind of left your personal life and your family out of things, was that a conscious thing to do that?

Yeah. They're not famous people, they haven't chosen to be famous people. I don't necessarily want to expose them to it. I mean not that I find it so awful.. But certainly for my daughter, she doesn't have the capacity to make that choice. And I don't know where this is going to go, you know.. and it's already weird enough that there are songs about her. So I like to keep that separate.

Bry: (Imitates the adults in the Peanuts specials) (Again, I can't quite tell what I'm saying, but my point was something confused about how Jonathan's blog, besides not giving personal details about his life, also doesn't say that much about his personal opinions aside from the music industry, giving the example of his post on Obama as a real exception to the policy. --Bry)

Well, a lot of it comes from... I don't feel smart enough to have an opinion about that stuff. So much of what I read has already said what I feel. I don't feel the need to write another post to say "He's the real deal, and he means real change," Because, like other people have said that more eloquently than I, so I would just be stealing phrases from them and saying the same thing they've already said. So I sort of focused on another angle of it. And also, you know, the blog is jonathan-coulton-dot-com.

And that post had so many comments. And like a lot of people were like "Oh, I'm disappointed you are a Democrat" And I'm like, "Augh, really? Do we have to have that discussion now?" I mean, forget about it. Forget I said anything. I'd rather this just be about ... a few things. You know? If I had strong opinions that I wanted to voice to the world, I'd set up a different URL.

Bry: Aside the point but on the subject of identity. How exactly did the JoCo nickname come up?

I don't remember. I would love for somebody to research that. (It looks like Jonathan himself coined it when looking for a way to be credited via CC, Jan 5th, 2006. --Mitch) Somewhere on my blog is probably the first mention of JoCo. But I don't know. I don't remember who coined it or where it came from.

Bry: I think I notice recently you've been posting on the blog, instead of JC, as JoCo.

Yeah, I have adopted it more and more as time goes on.

Jinx: And now you've got a theme song...

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Bry: Do you feel weird about hearing it said?

Yeah, it's weird. But it feels less and less weird as time goes on. And I get crazier and crazier. And closer and closer to the day when I seclude myself in a hotel room and surround myself with a close trusted circle of assistants.

Bry: Do you think you could actually get a bunch of assistants to do a lot of the stuff you've talked about that goes into touring and so on?

(Laughs) Well, I do have one. Scarface is helping out a great deal.

Bry: E-mail work so far?

Mostly we've been focusing on that, but other stuff as well -- getting gigs posted to the calendar and we're also working to make some live tracks available. So, you know, more and more stuff is getting shifted in that direction.

Website work -- I could probably use a website minion. I mean, Kerrin has done a lot of stuff, and you of course have done a lot of stuff.

Bry: Not so much, really.

Well, but, you know. But also the thing with the website, if I were to redesign it to do the kind of thing I'd like to do, even if somebody else was doing it, it'd still take a lot of work for me, I mean input, and reviewing stuff and so on. I just haven't done it yet.

Bry: That's actually been my philosophy as air-quotes forum administrator, working to keep you from having to deal with as much as possible. (Oh, I didn't realize this was time to talk about me! --Bry)

Yeah, I kind of feel like these things, especially with the forums -- like, it just is what it is. It's the definition of a community -- it creates its own standards and there are rules, and people say what they say and do what they do, and then the community reacts to that. And it's the same thing with like comments on the blog, I mean I'm not going to censor people. So, like, I agree with you. (I'm not sure he would still agree with me if he'd been able to hear what I said... --Bry)

Bry: Ever spend any time on the forums nowadays?

Every now and then I check in to see what's going on, but I just don't have enough time to keep up.

Jinx: What do you say to other musicians about your fans?

Well, I talk about the fans being... more Internetty than most, more familiar with blogging and forums and Twitter and all these things, more likely to subscribe to an rss feed, and you know I describe them as being very committed, which is very true, there are a lot of fans who are very committed to the cause... of me.

Bry: What kind of fan projects would you like to see more of?

I always like to hear cover songs. I like that. I've thought of doing another fan remix contest. I would like to make more of the source tracks available -- because that was really fun. I really like it when people take it far away as they can, from the original thing. That's what I liked about Kristen's remix so much, because it was such a departure from the original song, and yet it was its own compelling thing. So I love that kind of thing.

Jinx: Anything you wish your fans wouldn't be doing?

I don't think so. No, I mean... I don't even really understand the premise of that question. Your fans are by definition the thing that happens. It's not a thing that I can control or even have a right to have desires about. I'm thrilled that anyone at all is paying attention. And so I'm not going to say "Oh God, I wish my fans would do this or that, or I wish my fans wouldn't do that." You guys will do what you will do and it's awesome -- it's all great.

Bry: Let's take a break at this point. We'll come back and talk a little bit about the future. (This was not a planned break -- I noticed that we'd been recording this segment, which ended up getting split into parts 3 and 4 of this interview, for an hour, and I was just hoping we'd reach a natural pause point and I could pull this off slightly naturally. So this was a real relief. -- Bry)

(bonus footage)

Bry: All right.

All right.

Bry: Want to take a couple minutes' break?

Let me use the restroom, and then maybe -- I wonder, if it's not raining, maybe we should go -- I feel bad that we're sitting here all this time. Looks like the lunch crowd is coming in. (It was nearly 12:30 pm by this time.) Maybe we should go and sit on a bench for segment three. (Actually, since we broke this up into more parts, the next part ended up being segment 5, and it's my favorite of them all. -- Bry)

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