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Catching Up With... Jonathan Coulton

July 2, 2009  |  8:00am
Catching Up With... Jonathan Coulton
Although the music blogosphere isn't fawning over him, Jonathan Coulton is one of the most successful truly independent recording artists ever.  He cultivated a devoted web following by offering his music for free on his website and he has an abundant knack for melding pop melodies with comedy.  After the success of his ambitious Song a Week project, Coulton wrote the song "Still Alive" for Portal and secured his cult status. His first DVD, Best. Concert. Ever. just hit store shelves.

Paste: This is the first time you’re releasing content that’s only available for sale, right?
Jonathan Coulton: That’s a new thing for me. It’s actually, it is a bit of an experiment, I will admit. You know, I have wanted to do a concert DVD for awhile, just because I’m very proud of how the live show turned out, because I’ve only recently in my life begun actually playing live. So, it’s definitely something that I wanted to do for a while. I like the way the live shows go. I like the way the live versions of the songs are different from the studio versions. And, video is a little bit behind audio, I think, as far as people being able to acquire it digitally and having the devices to watch it on. People still buy DVDs more so than people still buy CDs.

Paste: Have you had to deal with a DVD distributor, or is it being released independently through your website?
Coulton: It is being released through a distributor, and that again was my choice, sort of an experiment. Having done so much distribution myself over the internet, I am aware that there are plenty of people in the world who buy their entertainment at stores. And so a distributor is one way for me to very easily get into that. I’m also tired of having boxes and boxes of things in my house.

Paste: Has dealing with a big corporation for the first time affected your process here, or did you just deliver the content and let ‘em have at it?
Coulton: I’m just basically delivering the content. The only thing that has changed is the actual process of getting ready to release it, because this is not just a video you can make and throw up on YouTube and then you’re done. So, there’s a press push that we’re doing, and then after that it’s gotta get into the catalogs so that wholesalers can buy it, so that retailers can have access to it. That whole supply chain needs to be fed. And that takes a little time. So yeah, it’s taken a little getting used to, but as far as the content goes, no that’s still been all me. Nobody else, really, had any say in what goes on with things.  It’s kinda nice… kinda.

Paste: How big was the audience you recorded with? I know from personal experience how widely your crowds can vary.
Coulton:  It’s a place called the Great American Music Hall, and that holds about 400 people, and it was a sold-out show. Four hundred and change. But it’s a beautiful room. It’s an old theater, and the sound’s great. And the vibe in there is so nice, especially being in San Francisco which is one of those cities that, for whatever reason, my fan base is strongest in.  I was nervous about it because it was such a one-shot deal. I was spending all this money getting all these cameras set up, and then we were just doing this one show. So I really hoped it would be good, and uh…

Paste: It turned out okay?
Coulton: Yeah, it turned out great. It was one of those great shows where there’s a lot of crosstalk with the audience and sort-of running gags that invent themselves throughout the evening.

Paste: I’ve heard that you don’t play in New York too often because the shows just don’t sell nearly as well as when you’re playing in the West coast. Do you know what that’s about?
Coulton: I don’t know what that’s about. It’s less true now. The last time I played in New York there was a pretty big, excited crowd. New York still does lag behind San Francisco and Seattle and Boston, not that I’m laying any blame you understand. It’s just that these are just the facts. But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that New York is one of those cities where there’s just a lot going on, it’s very difficult to just be a geek and it’s also, I think, the geek factor… New York, and L.A., I think, is the same way: They’re cool cities, you know? And people wanna be cool.  And…there are plenty of geeks here, but I think the geeks here do not let their freak flags fly.

Paste: How different does it feel for you when you’re playing in front of a massive audience, like when you had your sold out show at the PAX Expo, versus when you’re playing over at Joe’s Pub in New York?
Coulton: Oh yeah, it’s very different. I mean, that PAX show was the biggest audience I’ve ever played for. I think they said there were maybe 8,000 people in there. And that was a big, big number. I get very different things from crowds of those different sizes. The thing that I like about a smaller crowd, several hundred, is that I can actually hear what individual people are saying, and so when people shout stupid stuff out, I can respond to it directly. And I enjoy it; I enjoy doing that. Even as an audience member when I go to see live music, I love when the performer talks to the crowd. That’s why you see live music in my opinion, and so, that’s a really great thing. But the rush that you get when you’re in front of 8,000 people is amazing. I can’t imagine what it must be like for one of those huge arenas. In a way, I’m very spoiled by my niche status. I can parachute into some city and do a show for 400 people who are really excited. And I’m a small enough operation, just me and my goofy guitar and whatever other doo-dads I bring with me, that I can make that a profitable night without having to be on the road for three weeks at a time.

Paste: Do you just have intermittent shows without touring because you need time with your family? You ever feel that desire to get in the bus and head around the country?
Coulton: There is a part of me that would really like to do that. You know, a lot of it is for my family, so that I can be with my family and not be an absent dad. And that goes back to one of the reasons that I left the day job and decided to actually pursue music, was because I wanted to set a good example for my kids. And I also wanted to be more available, in terms of being a happier, more complete person, and also in terms of having more time to be around.  To then turn around and decide that I’m gonna be on the road all the time seems to me counter to the spirit of why I did this originally, which is to be happy.

Paste: Has your daughter finally reached the point where she understands that what her daddy does is a little bit different?
Coulton: No, I don’t think so. She’s only three and a half, so…she just barely gets that I play the guitar. I mean, she knows that’s what I do and she’s seen me do it, but I think the concept of work is still sort of a mystery to her. A lot of times I leave the apartment in the morning and go down the street to this coffee shop and sit there and steal Wi-Fi and answer e-mails and stuff, and sometimes the nanny will walk past on her way somewhere else with my daughter, and so my daughter thinks that I work at the coffee shop.

Paste: Has it become easier for you to write now that you’re on your own schedule, not having to produce a new song every week?
Coulton: It was easier to produce songs when I had a deadline and people waiting and expectations. Now it’s very hard to. I guess it’s a motivation thing. You know, the creative process is difficult for me because I usually hate the things that I’m working on for a long time, until they get pretty far along, and so it’s really easy to bail out of an idea. And that’s my MO, that’s one of the reasons that I did Thing a Week,  to learn how not to do that, and the joke is, I didn’t learn my lesson at all, you know! I’m still doing it. And even though every week it was like that: hate it, hate it hate it, got it, oh, I love this!  And now, I’m back to my old tricks. That said, when I say "easy," I don’t really mean "easy." Thing a Week was just a torturous process…

Paste: You were on songwriting hiatus for a while after the Thing a Week project finished.  Everything you’ve written since then has been just a random smattering of songs. Have you thought about writing a traditional album?
Coulton: So, you’re talking about an old-fashioned concept-album?

Paste: Kind of. I mean, for example, the Beatles’ albums had a certain level of coherence within them without being concept albums.
Coulton: They’re a “thing,” right. There’s…yeah, again, I’ve done all this new stuff, distribution models, sorta forgetting about the album and just putting up individual songs, but I grew up with albums, and I love albums, and so there’s a part of me that will never feel like a real musician ‘til I am making records and touring for a long time with a band. That’s still in my head what it is to be a rock star.

Paste: So you go up on a house and claim you’re a golden god, and…
Coulton: Right, you’re a golden god…you do a lot of drugs and you write a sad song about how hard it is to be on the road, and maybe you play that with your bandmates when you’re riding in the back of the bus from Tucson to wherever. So yeah, albums, that would be a fun thing.  If I had a concept, I would do it. So far I haven’t. Nothing has really occurred to me that I think would sustain itself over the course of an entire album.  I do think it would be fun to do a kids’ record, sometime. I would like to do that.

Paste: Have you listened to the They Might Be Giants kids albums?
Coulton: Oh, of course!  And it’s one of those great things where you realize that most of their music is already kids’ music.

Paste: Almost all of your really popular songs have been funny. Even if it’s not laugh-riot all the way through, they’ve definitely been humorous. But some of the things you write have just been sweet melodies and just interesting ideas. Do you feel much pressure to always return to comedy?
Coulton: I certainly feel the pressure. I know that everyone would love another, say, “Skullcrusher Mountain.” So yeah, with my heart I feel that pressure but with my head I know that you can’t really make that stuff happen. And, if Thing a Week taught me anything, it’s that I am a very bad predictor of what is going to be a hit, and what is going to be a failure.  And I think, for me, when I try to write something that I want to be perceived in a certain way, I can’t do it.  It makes me freeze up. So the only thing I can do is write what comes to me.  Right now I have a couple of song ideas in my head, and they’re both kind of sad and depressing. And I feel like I’ve done a lot of sad and depressing songs, and I really would like to do something happier, but it’s just not in me right now. So, I have to write through it, and on the other side, maybe there’s another “Code Monkey” or “Skullcrusher Mountain,” but I can only get there through the stuff that I have now.

Paste: Have you considered doing anything more with your friend John Hodgman?
Coulton: John and I have done a bunch of small collaborative things. And it’s certainly an intriguing proposition. We’re good friends and we live very close to each other, so we see each other frequently. And, I think it’s just a question of the right idea and the right project coming along. I know that I would certainly jump at the chance to work on something with him that was a new thing that was just ours, and I think he would probably say the same.

Paste: Have you been approached by Valve yet about Portal II?
Coulton: I have not yet. Shortly after the Portal I smash success, there were some very preliminary discussions about, “Hey, do you wanna do this?” Since then, I don’t know, I haven’t had a lot of contact with them. I don’t even know what the status of the game is, when they’re planning on releasing it… I’d certainly be interested in working on it.

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