From the Archives: The Jonathan Coulton Interview

by Wanda Waterman

The Voice Magazine, Volume 15 Issue 40 2007-10-26

Describe the development of the Thing a Week experiment.

I had just left my day job to pursue music full-time, and this seemed as good a way as any to pretend that writing songs was my job. I also wanted to challenge myself a little, push the envelope of what I thought I was able to do. And of course there was the stunt element as well–I thought this might be a good way to attract some attention.

How and with what equipment do you record your songs?

I record using a Mac Mini and a Digi 002 with Pro Tools LE. I also spend some time using Ableton Live, Apple Soundtrack, and GarageBand when necessary. In addition I’ve got a bunch of boxes that do things: a dbx pre-amp strip, a Line6 Pod Pro for guitar sounds, a Behringer bass amp simulator, and an Ensoniq MR-Rack that I still own from the days when I used to beta-test equipment for Ensoniq. And piled in the corner of the room are a bunch of guitars: a Martin acoustic, an American Strat, a Deering Goodtime banjo, a couple of cheap acoustic and electric basses (I play bass badly), a uke, a mandolin, a lap slide guitar, a dobro, etc. And then all sorts of ancillary stuff: an accordion, a few harmonicas, shakers, flutes, toy instruments.

What music do you listen to besides your own?

Some of my favorites these days include Jon Brion, Radiohead, Super Furry Animals, OK Go, Brendan Benson, Jason Faulkner, Jim Boggia. But I grew up with a steady diet of Beatles and Billy Joel, which later expanded a bit to include Steely Dan and XTC, so those guys are all in there too. Not to mention a parade of gentle 70’s/80’s music: Simon and Garfunkel, Dan Fogelberg, Gordon Lightfoot and so on.

Do you ever need to unwind, and if so what do you do?

Almost always. I’m a pretty social person, and my work days are solitary (sometimes I don’t even leave the house), so one of my favourite ways to relax is just to hang out with friends. Having a 2-year-old changes your life in lots of ways, not least of which is the incredible amount of time I no longer have just to hang out somewhere, drinking coffee and chatting for no reason at all. I was walking around the East Village the other day and couldn’t believe how many people were just sitting around and talking. Crazy! These days any chance I have to go out for dinner or have a drink at a bar is a huge luxury. But I play poker too. And I like video games.

I hear you’re getting busy. What would it take for a huge corporation to buy a piece of you?

I’m not opposed to selling out for the right price and the right project. The song I wrote for Portal, a new game that was just released by Valve, was really fun to do. I’ve always been a fan of their games and I could tell they had some really creative stuff going on with the game when we first talked about doing something. So I was thrilled to have the chance to work on something that would contribute to the game. For me that’s the whole point of being a creative person–make enough money so that you can stay alive and feed your family, while still having the luxury to work on projects you actually care about.

Can you describe what it is about a project that makes you care about it and motivates you to complete it?

Usually for me it’s about seeing the big picture and trying to figure out how to get there through the details–if I can turn a song into a puzzle, it’s more interesting. So I might decide that I’m writing a happy little pop tune, but that gradually the character becomes less and less likeable until we just hate him by the third verse. So what does he say in verses 1 and 2 that make us start to dislike him, and what does he finally get to that pushes us over the edge? And of course all that action has to fit the rhyme and rhythm I started with–all that stuff can really drive the process for me.

Do you enjoy watching the reactions of surprise from live audiences when your sweet music and lyric openings morph into scandalous lyrics?

Yes, although I’m still waiting for the time when someone gets really mad and walks out. Hasn’t happened yet though–I usually have a pretty good idea what the audience can take, and if it’s a kid-heavy crowd I’ll think twice about what I’m doing.

Have you received any criticism regarding these lyrics?

Yes, every now and then I’ll get an email from someone who wishes there weren’t any curse words in my songs. I always explain to them that the only reason they’re there is that I think that’s what the characters would say, how they would speak. There’s no gratuitous cursing in my opinion (except for “First of May” which is of course all about gratuitous cursing). I respect those people’s desire to not hear cursing, but I hope they recognize they’re fighting a losing battle–lots of people swear after all.

For you, what are the ideal conditions for creativity?

Lots and lots of free time–large stretches of nothing to do. Driving is great for that. And of course I can always use idea fuel–news stories, pop culture stuff, other people’s music, really anything that can get chopped up in the blender and reassembled.

Is there any question I could ask that would shock or offend you?

I’m sure there is, but you haven’t asked it, so I guess we’re still friends.

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