Four years ago, Jonathan Coulton quit his “code monkey” day job to pursue a career as a professional musician. His songs about laptops, supervillains and aspiring cyborgs quickly made him geek culture’s favorite troubadour, and this year he released his first concert DVD, brazenly titled Best. Concert. Ever.
h+: You write such a wonderfully weird assortment of songs on such a wide variety of topics. What reaches out to you to choose a certain topic for a song?
JONATHAN COULTON: Well, many years ago, I got a little bored with writing songs about the same old stories. I wrote a lot of break-up songs and love songs in my time. And after awhile, there’s not a lot of new ways to say what you’re trying to say. And I’ve always been interested in songwriting that tells a deep story or reveals a complicated character or something that has maybe a puzzle aspect to it. And I end up writing songs that are about, I guess, unusual subjects because it’s sort of a challenge for me to get inside the head of a giant squid, and not only to get inside the giant squid’s head but to empathize with that giant squid and to find the sort of humanity in there — the thing that we will recognize as ourselves. And it’s just more interesting for me that way, and I guess probably it’s easier for me to write in a kind of personal way when I pretend that I’m not writing about myself.
h+: So when you wrote “I Crush Everything” was the idea to write a song about a giant squid?
JC: I remember writing that song and I remember that I had a couple of lines. I think I was just feeling kind of sad that day, and so I was writing about sad things, and I had a couple of sad lines and a sad chord progression. And I was sort of fishing around for who was talking, which is often how it happens. I get a line of dialogue that somebody is saying, and I have to figure out who it is. And I’d recently seen a talk by a guy name Graham Smith who was a deep sea explorer of sorts. He makes these awesome underwater submersible vehicles that sort of fly underwater. At some point, he was talking about giant squids — and at that point we’d never seen any live giant squids. And he said, “Well, no wonder, because when we go down to look for them, we have these bright lights and these noisy machines, and they’re actually very shy, retiring creatures.” And that image sort of stuck with me — what is essentially a sea monster but who actually turns out to be very shy and afraid of bright lights. And that’s why we never see them. I guess that idea came back to me as I was fishing around for something to make a song about and it seemed to make sense. So that was the character who was sad: a giant squid.
h+: You’ve written songs as companion pieces to very forward-looking experiences: for Popular Science articles, for the PopTech conference. What is your sense of how your music adds to those experiences?
JC: I think it gets the wheels turning, sometimes. In a way, it does the same thing that science fiction does. Any time you tell a story about the future, you’re sort of telling a story about the present or about the near future. So, yeah, I think any time you tell a story like that, you’re going to make people think about those possibilities. There’s this song called “The Future Soon” that is a sort of a revenge fantasy that a thirteen-year-old boy has when he’s rejected by the girl he likes. The revenge fantasy involves him becoming a cyborg and losing all the stuff that makes him not fit in, basically using technology to fix those problems. I know we’re all working toward that. And I didn’t really write it as a transhumanist manifesto. I have heard from people who say, “I believe that this is the actual future.” And maybe they’re right, but who knows? We’ll have to wait and see. And once we get the singularity, all of those who are alive will find out.
h+: Do you hope that your music encourages people to embrace their inner giant squids?
JC: I hope I’m not nurturing an army of supervillains without knowing it. But in some sense, I do think that maybe the “death ray” is a metaphor for the project that is crazy and that everybody thinks is a waste of time. You believe it’s really awesome, but it’s going to be very costly to you to do and that’s why you haven’t gotten started yet, then absolutely, we should all immediately go to our basement laboratories and start tinkering, because it’s an amazing time to be alive and a creative person. We all have the opportunity to make that “death ray” in our spare time for very little money and publish it to massive numbers of people. Just, if you do make a death ray, make it open source, because that’s the most stable way to do it.
h+: A lot of people became familiar with you through “Still Alive,” the theme song for the Portal videogame. And now there’s a version of “Still Alive” on the new Rock Band release. Do you feel that video games are going to be the way that people learn about new music and new artists?
We all have the opportunity to make that “death ray” in our spare time for very little money
JC: I think that video games are certainly going to be part of it, and games like Rock Band are a great example — it’s really a brand new genre of game and it’s a brand new genre of entertainment. It’s this really weird mixture of this participatory experience, where you’re part of creating the thing, and also the standard consumer relationship, where you’re enjoying a piece of art that already exists. That’s a very exciting thing and a kind of collaboration, really. That’s ultimately where I think we’re headed — this kind of mega-collaboration on a global scale. When you think about the trend in music and post-modern art, it makes sense. You’re incorporating parts of other pieces into the pieces that you’re making. And now this is a thing that children grow up knowing how to do, because they have computers that come with software that allow them to create videos and music. So, yeah, I think it’s part of a trend. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like.
h+: So your goal is just to be sampled on a massive scale?
JC: Yeah. I just want to be part of the DNA of all future entertainment. Is that too much to ask?
Lauren Davis is a freelance writer living in San Francisco and assistant editor for the science fiction blog io9.