If you've ever played the video game Portal or listened to NPR's puzzle game show Ask Me Another, then you've been exposed to the nerdy musical stylings of Jonathan Coulton.
A prolific singer-songwriter whose wry wit, attention to detail, and voice recalls the work of XTC genius Andy Partridge, Coulton can sing about office politics as easily as he can sing about robot wars and aperture science gone amuck. Coulton possesses a gift for writing songs about zombies, mad scientists, and prison colonies that are as funny as they are heartfelt.
The singer-songwriter makes a rare stop in Arizona this week, playing his songs and acting as a one-man house band for NPR's Ask Me Another. The puzzling radio show will be hitting the Orpheum stage on Thursday, April 6, to present an evening of brain-teasers and head-scratchers. New Times talked with Coulton about his upcoming performance, his creative process, and why he keeps writing songs about murder-happy robots.
New Times: I wanted to start off by asking you about your creative process. Are you one of those songwriters that has to write something every day, or do you tend to only work when inspiration strikes?
Jonathan Coulton: I probably should write every day! To wait for inspiration — it’s just not going to happen. You can get inspired, but you kind of have to be in the office to receive the phone call. I’ll go through periods like right now, where I’ve got this album coming out so I’m not in a writing mood. I don’t have to be writing anything at the moment, so it’s more important to be in Business Mode and stay on top of phone calls and e-mails. When I’m in a cycle where I’m working on an album, the only way I can do it is to wake up every day and write, whether I’ve got an idea or not.
Your songs have really vivid narratives and a strong sense of story. When you're writing songs, do you come up with the idea for the song first? Or do you kick off things off with riffs and melodies, and the story grows out of that work?
It’s rare that I will get a fully formed concept for a song first. Usually, my process is that I’m noodling on the guitar or on the computer making noises. I’ll come up with a snippet of a musical idea that I like, and I might sit with that idea for awhile and try to expand on it and see where it goes. Once that idea’s taken some roots musically, I’ll think about what it’s about. Is it sad? Is it happy? Who might be singing and what are they saying? That’s kind of how it spins off from there. Music comes first, and then ideas start to float to the top, like alphabet soup.
Are songs like "Code Monkey" and "RE: Your Brains" autobiographical? The level of detail about office culture in those songs feels like something that's been experienced firsthand.
They're loosely autobiographical. I did work in a software company writing software. The idea being a code monkey, a cog in the machine, came from that. I mean, it was a small company — maybe too small a company for me to be a cog… And certainly the office lingo in "RE: Your Brains" came out of working in that world. I’ve worked in a few offices in my life and I’ve been a few different corporate environments and it’s a really strange, surreal place. You're interacting with humans but based on this other set of rules that’s outside the standard rules we use when we relate to humans. It's all very contrived and weirdly formal but has its own areas where you can escape that formality, if you want. And you've got a bunch of cliches that you can rely on, but only in that environment. If you talk like that outside that environment, you’ll sound like a weirdo. Those songs aren’t telling a story so much as they’re expressing a feeling that I have about my time working in offices throughout my life.
How did you become involved with NPR's Ask Me Another?
Art Chung, who’s the show's producer now, was part of the team that was developing Ask Me Another. He and I had gone to college together. And at some point in their discussions about what the show was going to be like, one of them said, “maybe we could have a musician guy,” and Art thought of me. It clicked in a very nice way — I’m a fan of puzzles and word games, and I think they liked my quirky approach to stuff. It was a match made in heaven.
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How is the new album coming along?
It’s coming out on April 28. It’s a much more ambitious project than I thought it was going to be. What was originally going to be just a few songs about how the internet kind of sucks now became this bigger thing ... it’s got a companion graphic novel now, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Albert Monteys. The album and the novel combined tell this ambitious, multilayered science fiction story about humanity, the internet, and how technology reveals who we are and changes us. Just this idea that we’re in a state of cultural upheaval because of the internet, and asking questions like what does that mean; where is this leading us; how should we behave as we get there; and what are the stakes? And there’s some artificial intelligence mixed in there, and some standard science fiction stories about apocalyptic endings. It became this really heavy concept album, which is way more work than I had intended when I started on it. But I’m very happy with it. The story and the message of it is really meaningful to me, especially now that our government has been taken over by internet trolls.
How did the collaboration with Fraction and Monteys come about? Whose idea was it to turn the album Solid State into a graphic novel?
While I was writing this album, my producer Christian Cassan (who’s also the drummer in my band) said I should take the title track and do a reprise of it at the end. I said sure, but then I thought, wait a minute — that sounds like a musical! So I thought there might be a story arc between those two points. I started taking the songs and putting them in various orders, trying to see if there was a story there. Are there characters here? Whose voice is speaking in these songs? I sort of built a story on top of it, and wrote some other songs to fill in the gaps. At that point, I realized I had a concept album. I knew Matt from Sex Criminals, which I just loved. I loved his sense of character, how believable and human they are. He has a specificity that I really wanted to use to pull out some more details from the story. What I came up with was really general, so I wanted him to fill in those details with his special Matt Fraction juice. He and Albert took this thing that I had conceived of in a very general way and really breathed life into it.
Do the characters and stories in your songs inhabit the same universe? For example: In the song "The Future Soon," you've got a mad scientist who creates a race of robot warriors. In the song "Chiron Beta Prime," you've got a world that's overrun and ruled by robots. Are they the same robots from "The Future Soon"? Is there a Jonathan Coulton Shared Universe?
I didn’t write with that in mind, but I think what happens is that I’m riffing on a bunch of existing science fiction tropes. I’ve always been interested in futurism — I read Omni magazine as a kid and I read Ray Kurzweil now. I like thinking about where our current technological and social trends might lead us in 10, 50, 100 years from now. So the ideas of robot uprisings, prison colonies on asteroids, and evil geniuses — these are all things that are constantly floating around in my head. I mean, I think the answer is that you can see that I don’t have many ideas because you could pick a handful of my songs and they all sound like they're about the same universe, which I think is the universe we live in now plus 100 years.
Jonathan Coulton will be performing in NPR's Ask Me Another on Thursday, April 6, at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.