A Talk with JoCo, Part 1 (Early life)
First in a five-part series of interviews conducted by Jinx and Bry, on June 23, 2008. This was actually the second part to be taped; thus, Bry suggests at the end that the interview will continue with Thing a Week, which actually occurs in part 3.
Bry: Hi, I'm Bry, admin for the Jonathancoulton.com forums, and you're listening to my introduction to my introduction to part 1 of Jinx and my interview with Jonathan Coulton, singer-songwriter and Internet superstar, conducted in Brooklyn on June 23, 2008. Enjoy this moment, because it's the last time you're going to be able to understand what I'm saying for at least forty minutes.
Bry: Well, I'm Bry.
Jinx: And I'm Jinx.
Bry: We're both longtime members of the jonathancoulton.com fan forums, and today, June 23, 2008, we're here in Brooklyn talking to the man himself, Jonathan Coulton. Hello, Jonathan.
Hello, Bry and Jinx.
Bry: We know you've been a very musical person since childhood, but how did music become such a big part of your life?
I had a very musical family. My mother and father were both singers and I could play guitar and a little bit of piano. You know, there was always music in the house, and I took piano lessons, and my mom and I used to sing harmonies in the car together. She was teaching me to sing harmonies before I could even speak. So it was just a family activity, and I always remember being interested in songs. I remember always asking what songs were about, because I could never understand anything anybody said.
Jinx: So what kind of music did your parents love? Did they play certain things a lot? Did they have their own music?
Yeah, my dad -- a lot of my musical tastes come from my dad, I think. He was very into the Beatles and Billy Joel. He used to play me Whiffenpoof records, old Whiffenpoof records from his era.
Bry: Was he one (i.e. a Whiffenpoof) himself?
He was not, but he was at Yale. He was in a different a cappella singing group, called the Bachelors, which no longer exists. And I think a lot of that comes from him. I went through a period where I would get cassette tapes from him, and that would be all I would listen to, before I was actually buying my own music.
Jinx: He was kind of oriented to classics in a way. Did he like contemporary music from his era?
Yeah, Billy Joel was contemporary at that point, you know, we're talking in the seventies and early eighties. And there's some other stuff that he was into -- probably Steely Dan, and -- I don't know, it's very hard to remember now. But certainly their tastes influenced mine, as I think it does with most children.
Jinx: What do your parents think of your musical career now? Were they surprised?
JoCo: (straight-faced) They hate it. No, they -- were they surprised? No, I've always talked about doing this. I fell into a very long period of time of not doing it, but I've always expressed interest in doing this, and spoken as if I was going to do it. So I don't think they're surprised, exactly. They're delighted. As I am -- surprised and delighted with where this is all going.
Bry: What was it like for them when you first started out, when you quit your job and started Thing a Week?
Well, you know, by the time that happened, I was thirty-five, so they didn't have a lot to say about it at that point. (laughter)
Jinx: You're on your own, kid.
Yeah. I think they were pleased. Everybody around me has been very supportive of me. I think they were probably glad to see that I was pursuing what I was interested in.
Bry: Where were you, musically, when you started high school? What were your musical interests at that point?
When I started high school? Well, I'd been playing drums in the junior high and elementary school band -- that was my instrument of choice in school. Snare drum, mostly - there wasn't any stage band, or jazz band, until high school. But in high school I did continue playing drums - I did snare drums in the concert band, snare drums in the marching band, and for the first couple of years I played jazz drums. I was not a very good jazz drummer as a high school student.
Bry: And now of course you have no real drums.
Now I don't have any actual drums, yes. And also at that point I was sort of playing stuff on the piano, not really reading music -- 'cause that took too long -- but playing by ear, stuff on the piano. And I had been learning guitar at that point, sort of playing through various song books, learning chords and practicing playing and singing. And at some point in high school I just sort of transitioned from drums to guitar, because it was easier to carry around and more interesting.
Jinx: Did your musical tastes sort of define you in high school? Did you get pegged? We're asking kind of because people get their identities sometimes from where they're going musically, or where they're not going sometimes.
No, I don't think so. I mean, high school was really the point where I -- I had an awkward period in junior high. I mean, who doesn't! But I felt really geeky in junior high, and really out of place, out of step, and ugly and awkward, and all that stuff. And at some point, in maybe eighth grade, I started parting my hair on the side, and started rolling my sleeves up, and got contact lenses instead of glasses, and -- you know -- became a butterfly. (Laughter.) And that was sort of the beginning of my emergence from that awkward period. So high school was about leaving that behind and sort of becoming more comfortable with myself, and part of that was certainly helped by the fact that I was playing guitar and writing songs and gaining the confidence to sing them in front of people. Because it's pretty cool. People think it's cool when somebody plays the guitar and sings songs. So that was a big part of my high school years, yeah.
Bry: So were your musical tastes influenced by your being able to play certain things on the guitar?
Yeah. Well, I did a lot of Dan Fogelberg and Simon and Garfunkel, Lord knows, and James Taylor. But I've always been a sucker for slow, sad, soft songs. So those were the things I was listening to, and those were the things that I sort of liked the most musically, and so that was the stuff that I played a lot on the guitar.
Bry: You didn't really rebel against your parents' tastes or anything like that?
No, there didn't seem any need.
Bry: You've said before you wanted to be a rock star in high school. What did you imagine that to be like?
I'm not sure I had a clear idea. The way I used to describe it was that I had this attitude in high school that popular music was corrupt. I thought a lot of things were corrupt when I was in high school. I think that's what you do when you're in high school. (imitates high schooler) "This is just -- this is bullshit! Sure! Go along with the crowd!" Very anticommercial, very snobby about independent films, stuff like that. Now, of course, I love a big-budget action film as much as any other American, but then it seemed important to run counter to that, so I was always talking about how I was going to be known as the man who gave rock and roll a kick in the ass, which is -- you know, no pressure. (laughs) I had big dreams. (Discussion question: But isn't that what he's doing with his opposition to DRM and support of Music Industry 2.0? -- Bry) I didn't know exactly what that meant, except I think it probably meant that I was going to write music that didn't suck, because I thought all music sucked.
Jinx: But now you tend to say that you don't plan to release those high school songs, because you don't think they were any good. What was good and bad about them, as you look back at them?
Well, I think anybody who thinks about -- anybody who's not in high school, anyone who's sort of a few years past college -- who thinks about the earnest artistic work they did in high school, it probably makes them squirm. And that's how I feel about those things. But I was not as good as I am now at writing songs or recording songs - every song's got a few lines in it that I think are terrible clunkers, and recorded in a way that is sort of embarrassing, and my guitar-playing was bad, and my voice was creaky and, you know...
Jinx: Best left in the past....
JoCo: Yeah. I'm sure it will surface one of these days. You know, I was making copies of tapes for all of my friends in high school, so if they held on to them I'm sure they will turn up one of these days.
Bry: What was your interest in tech stuff at the time?
I was definitely more interested in the math and science classes in school. I did learn some BASIC programming.
Bry: BASIC the language or basic in general?
BASIC the language. I had a TRS-80, I had a Commodore 64, I had one of those TI-1000s, I had the Atari 2600 basic cartridge.
Jinx: So you had more memory than you knew what to do with.
I had 1K of memory. (Laughter.) So I was always interested in that stuff -- you know, science fiction, I was reading science fiction. Trying to think what else, I had a subscription to Omni magazine and later Games magazine. Yeah, and you know, I liked chemistry sets and erector sets and like all of that mechanical, sciencey stuff, always have.
Bry: Even after you started parting your hair on the side and rolling the sleeves?
Oh, sure, even as I became cool, I continued to like that stuff. I mean, that's part of becoming a comfortable person, is like, you know keeping the stuff that interests you instead of thinking of it as some kind of shameful thing, keeping that part of who you are, and being honest about it.
Bry: So you've mentioned that your dad went to Yale. So what made you decide to waste your time at some fancy college?
Well, my dad and grandfather both went to Yale, so I had visited the campus a number of times, I had heard the Whiffenpoofs many times, I was sort of in love with the whole idea of going to Yale -- and it wasn't because anybody put pressure on me to go there or anything like that -- it was just, you know, my father and grandfather both spoke of it as a really fun place to get an education, and it definitely seemed that way.
Jinx: Was it your safety school?
(laughs) No, it was not my safety school. I will say, however, that I did not apply to Harvard because they had five essay questions on their application and I was like, "Fuck you, Harvard! I am not writing five essay questions."
Bry: I didn't apply to Yale for the same reason, actually. They actually had one essay question, but I didn't really feel like writing it. (I can't think why I felt it necessary to bring this up here. --Bry)
Yeah, no, I think that's valid. I think that's valid.
Jinx: So when you went there, what were you like as a freshman? Do you remember that far-off time?
Yeah, geez... what was I like as a freshman? Y'know, I remember in the first couple of days that I was there I somehow ended up playing guitar in my room, and like all the people in my dorm were, like in my room as I was playing the same old, like, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel songs...
Jinx: So they were soft rocked by you....
They were soft rocked by me in the first few days of college. And then I sort of expected that to be a big part of my identity and I imagined, 'oh, I'll start a band,' but I never really started a band in college. Too busy having a good time. I did continue writing and recording although I didn't do a lot of public guitar playing. I was really just writing and recording and still giving copies of my tapes to girls.
And then of course freshman year was when I got involved with a cappella singing and I joined a group called the Spizzwinks(?). You know, a cappella at Yale takes up an awful lot of time, as it does in many colleges. You have rehearsals twice a week or three times a week, and frequently you have gigs on the weekend that you have to drive to? No, it's a pretty time-consuming extracurricular activity. So that sort of became the focus of my public musical life. But I was still writing stuff in college and recording it in my dorm room.
Jinx: Was the a cappella singing the first time you did vocal performance on stage, or had you done that before?
No, I'd done that before.... you mean on stage, though, I guess not really on stage, but certainly publicly. Actually the summer between high school and college I had a... I would weekly, every Thursday or every Friday or whenever it was I would go to this restaurant and play an hour of James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel songs. I actually opened for Art Carney's son, who was a piano player and singer, I can't remember his name now... something Carney. (Paul Carney -- Jinx) And the name of the restaurant was....can't remember. Josh (Donoghue) will know.
Jinx: And we're right in thinking that a cappella singing really influenced you in ways that affect your music now?
Yeah, I think so, I mean I've always loved harmonies and voices singing together as a part of popular music. But certainly...yeah, the a cappella stuff was sort of where I learned, because I'd also been studying music theory for awhile, and so that was where I learned to hear that stuff in its natural state. Because I understood what the concept of a flat nine was, but then, you know, to hear it used in context, and to actually be a part of singing a note in that chord and sort of hear how everything came together I think was very instructive in making the theory make sense, contextual sense.
Bry: Were you involved in any arranging at the time?
No, not really, I think I tried a couple of times. I had a song called "The Lunch Lady," which was a funny song (air quotes on that) "funny" song about being in love with the cafeteria lady, that I wrote in high school, it seems very juvenile to me now, of course Adam Sandler did something like it several years later on Saturday Night Live, which just goes to show it is juvenile. [laughter] But anyway, that song was arranged for the Spizzwinks? on a bus, by a guy named Chris Beck, with me sitting over his shoulder telling him how the song went. And Chris Beck is now a film music composer living in Los Angeles who is now very successful. But he was the "pitch" -- he was the musical director of the Spizzwinks(?) at the time. We were touring with the glee club, we were on a bus, and he and I arranged that song together, him doing the writing and me telling him what to write.
Bry: I think that's the one song that Kerrin most wants to hear, I believe, right? Isn't that what he's been saying? For ages and ages.
It's bound to be...I'm sure there is a Spizzwinks(?) version on mp3 of that song floating around somewhere on the p2p sites. I would not be surprised. Cause I mean, it was on an album so I'm sure it'll turn up eventually.
Jinx: Were you always set on majoring in music? Was that from the beginning? Did you have other options?
No, I thought I was going to be some sort of science major -- on my application I wrote "Chemistry." (laughs) I can't imagine being a chemistry major now.
Jinx: You'd be having fun, though....
Yeah, but I took some science courses in college, of course, freshman year, when that's what I thought I was going to do, but they were so hard, you had to do so much work -- really, like, you had to go to class and you had to do lab and all the other science kids were like, super science kids and it sort of freaked me out. I was like, 'Ahhh.... maybe I should do something a little more mellow!' I was an Italian major for awhile... I don't know, it was college, you know, you do whatever you think is interesting, what you're supposed to do.
Jinx: At the end of your time in college, how close do you think you were to the person you are today? Did that sort of finalize parts of your personality, or was it just four more years?
Yeah, sure, I think so. Pretty close. I mean I think the natural rate of change in your life decelerates as you get older and older, I think, at least that's been my experience so far. The difference between high school and college seems vast, but the difference between college and four years after college, not so big, really. So yeah, I think I was most of the way, most of the way there to who I am now. And certainly by the end of college my friends, many of them are still my friends today and live in New York, so yeah, in that way it certainly feels like I can draw a direct line back to that time.
Bry: And one of your friends in college was John Hodgman. How did you guys first get to know each other?
Yeah, we were in the same dorm freshman year. And, I don't remember where we met, but he used to... he lived in a different suite with a bunch of other guys. We had scaffolding outside our dorm because they were like redoing the bricks or whatever? And he used to climb out his window and climb down the scaffolding and then climb into our suite window into our common room, and bring whiskey and Billy Bragg tapes, and make me listen to Billy Bragg and Tom Waits. So it was funny, he was sort of very alternative in college. He had very long hair, and he wore leather jackets and stuff. Skull rings. And he would do crazy stuff like "oh, let's take our arm chairs down to the quad and sit in the quad in our armchairs." I don't know. He was sort of a wacky guy, and now his character is sort of a straitlaced....expert.
Jinx: Other than senses of humor, what else did you feel like the two of you have in common? What pulled you together?
It was largely sense of humor, I think a lot of my relationships are based on that. Based on being able to riff -- riff on an idea. And that's what we spent most of our time doing, all of us, in college -- sitting around, you know, making jokes. But I don't know, also we were sort of interested in the same things artistically, I think. I sound like an ass when I say it that way. Really what I mean is that we thought the same songs were awesome. Like he would play me a Billy Bragg song and I'd say, 'That is awesome.' We had a sort of a shared aesthetic sense, in that way, I guess.
Bry: Were you guys writing anything or working on anything?
No, we weren't doing anything then together. We talked about it. He always wanted to start a country band, and just do country songs.
Bry: On clarinet?
[laughs] no, I think he was going to sing. He actually has written a couple of country songs. He'll kill me for saying that, but he's written a couple of country songs, yeah.
Jinx: Shall we leave that off the wiki?
No, no, you can put that on the wiki.
Bry: Did he always want to be a writer as well?
I don't know, I don't know. I think he was a Lit major. His senior thesis was on Borges. But I don't know, I'm not sure. I don't remember him saying what he wanted to do. I guess he did want to be a writer -- because I think after college he was toying with the idea of going into a writing program, but I and all of his friends convinced him to come to New York instead.
Bry: So you got to New York before he did?
Yeah, he took a semester off to travel, so he graduated later, and by that point I was already in New York living with all his friends, so I think there was a big draw.
Bry: Why was it New York for you?
Um... that was where my girlfriend was living. (Pause) Period. That's the end of the sentence.
Jinx: Did you feel like it was a place that you wanted to settle down? Did it seem comfortable for you?
I don't know, I didn't think in those terms, really. It was just like after college, "Oh, shit, now what do I do? I guess I'll go here, for awhile, see what happens." I didn't have any grand plans, although I'm sure I was like "Oh well, it's a good place to be a rock & roll star. It's as good a place as any."
Bry: You've talked in other places about a few of your early jobs, and about working with Supergroup and the Little Gray Book lectures. But what do you see as the major milestones between here and the Thing a Week time, more or less?
Well, my first real job was assistant to the director of A&R at Angel Records, which I had for a year, and did a terrible job at. Because I am not a details person and I'm a terrible, terrible assistant. I was always forgetting to do things and forgetting to write things down, and I never knew where my boss was or when he was coming in to work. So they sort of hated me there and I didn't like it very much either. I left to 'pursue other interests,' after a year.
Through doing that, I met a guy named Jim Boggia, who's a musician, songwriter, a very talented one, at that, and he was working for a company called Ensoniq, which made keyboards, and the like, other musical -- electronic musical things, and he got me a job working for them as a beta tester. So they would send me equipment, and I would test it and report bugs. Which sort of tapped into my sort of computery brain, because to be good at that you had to really think about what the computer was doing, to know, like the details of what happened. Because it wasn't just like 'Oh, I got this error message,' you had to create repeatable steps that would make the error happen again. Because that was the real trick, it's like seeing something weird happen and saying 'Oh, I wonder what that was,' and make it happen again.
So I did that for awhile, and at the same time I was working for this coffee shop. (Cooper's Coffee -- Bry)' And between the two of those jobs, I did not make enough money, I didn't have health insurance, wasn't saving anything, I was just very... I went into some amount of credit card debt... and then I left the coffee shop job because the beta testing job was getting bigger, I was doing more of that, and then I got laid off from that and I had nothing.
And I had various schemes -- for awhile I was going to tutor kids in calculus, which I had long ago forgotten all my calculus. I was going to... what else was I going to do? Who knows? I had all sorts of crazy ideas. I really didn't want to get a job. But then the friend of a friend had a software company and they were looking for somebody to answer phones at the front desk, and maybe do some programming, which was kind of weird. But I went in to talk with them, and they... it was never called an interview so I didn't prepare a resume, I don't even think I dressed up or anything, but I just went in to talk with them and then they were like, "Oh, so, yeah, we'll hire you," and I was like "OK, I guess I'll do that." And that was the software job I had for about nine years, and so I started answering phones at the front desk. And they dropped a book called "Teach Yourself Access 2.0 in 28 Days," on my desk, so I learned that, and at that time, they were moving / porting their product from Access 2 to Access 3, or maybe they were calling it Access 97, I don't remember what it was called. So that was the beginning of it, and I went on from there and learned more and more and the company got bigger and bigger. And then in '05, I quit and started Thing A Week.
Bry: Were you doing much new music between during these jobs, (during that time period)?
It varied. You know, after college, and while I was doing the beta testing thing, yeah, there was quite a bit of music going on, because I spent all day at a keyboard, you know, so it was only natural that song ideas would come out of that, and Supergroup... Supergroup was probably around then.
Jinx: When and how did that form?
I don't remember. You know, somebody asked me that -- Josh I think asked me that, and I don't know if it's made it on to the wiki by now, so whatever the wiki says is true. Now I don't remember what I said. My friend Darin, who's an author, was the lead guitarist of Supergroup.
Bry: Want to plug his new book here?
Yes! He has a new book out which is fantastic, "More Than It Hurts You." But he's a terrific writer, he really is a great, great fiction writer. This book appears to be the one that's going to explode him, so I hope that happens.
Yes, so I was doing some music on the side, certainly while I was beta testing and doing the coffee thing, but the more I got involved with the software job, the less music there was happening, because I was, you know, tired at the end of the day -- it takes up a lot of your time, having a full time job! (laughs) I was also thinking of myself more and more as a software guy, like "Oh, I guess this is my career now." And then it was when Hodgman started doing the Little Gray Book lectures, that I really started to come back to it again.
Bry: How did the Little Gray Book lectures work?
How did they work? Well, we did them once a month, sort of. And John would come up with a theme and invite a bunch of authors, four or five people -- authors and other kinds of people, presenters of various sorts to contribute something. He would write a little introduction, and he would host the thing and one by one people would come up to the podium and do their little thing, whether it was just reading, or sometimes a PowerPoint presentation, or sometimes musicians or performance artists -- we had cooking demonstrations, we did a Spelling Bee, we had an auction, we had dogs -- there was a dog show once....
Jinx: Did you write a song for every Little Gray Book lecture?
Mostly, not every one, but most of the time I did, yes.
Jinx: And were you involved at all in the planning?
Somewhat -- not in regards to choosing the other performers, that was really John's thing, he was all about the content. But -- you know, I would help with various stunts, like "Oh, we should have a confetti cannon," or "Oh, we should use the Roomba to make a ouija board," and of course, you know, once he would know who was going to be there, we would talk about what musically was going to happen.
Jinx: So that was your sort of first creative collaboration with John Hodgman?
Jinx: And what was that like? Was it comfortable for you to work together?
Yeah, as I say, it was mostly John's stuff. I really did not contribute that much. And I guess as time went on, it became... our sort of onstage schtick became... something. Which of course grew into what we then did on his book tour. But yeah, you know, I was sort of the Paul Shaffer to his David Letterman.
Bry: How much scripting went into that, or how much rehearsing?
Not a lot of scripting or rehearsing. I mean, he would write the things that he would read; but we never really did that much rehearsal. If stuff required it, we would do it, but most of the time it was just sort of, you know -- there wasn't a lot of pre-planning stuff.
Bry: How did you guys manage the publicity for that?
Again, it was mostly John's thing. I think he... some of it sort of happened, because he... It was an interesting idea, and it was sort of the age when that kind of thing, I guess it's still happening, I guess there's still this kind of readings going on. It sort of grew out of his experience with McSweeney's stuff. He likes to say the genesis of it came from, he saw a writer named Arthur Bradford read a short story and play accompaniment on guitar and then smash the guitar and he was like "THAT is what a literary reading should be." You know, I think it was the kind of thing that people wrote about -- and, because it was authors, all these authors, so many people working in magazines in New York City, you get something into those circles and it ends up in magazines. (Laughter.)
Bry: So both you and Hodgman came out of those Little Gray Book lectures into life-changing events that made you both famous. What do you think went into that?
Well, I think that John of course took what he had been doing with Little Gray Book and realized that it could be a book, and pitched this idea of a fake almanac. And I had sort of discovered my songwriting voice I think doing Little Gray Book, whatever it is, however you would describe that. And it was also I think through doing it, we both had developed a fan base, kind of, but we had proven to ourselves that we could write things and perform them and that people would pay money to come and see them -- so that was just mostly a vote of confidence. (Discussion question: To what extent was LGB primarily significant as a way for both Hodgman and Coulton to discover their respective voices and personae? -- Bry)
Jinx: You issued your CDs somewhere during that period, before, after or during...?
Yes, Smoking Monkey came out during the Little Gray Book period, while I was still working.
Jinx: What made you decide to do that?
I had enough songs. I had decent recording equipment at home. It was like, I could suddenly see how it was possible to do. It had been possible for a few years, but I was light years behind on the technology front. I sort of switched over to hard disc recording and thought, "Oh, this is how they do it in studios, it's the same thing, so why don't I put these onto a CD?" It cost about a dollar a CD to print them up and I thought "Oh, this is attainable, I can do that." It seemed stupid not to do it at that point.
Bry: What about Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow?
That was more -- I don't know, I was still thinking in terms of album cycles then, and it had been awhile since Smoking Monkey and I had some new songs, and also they were all kind of sciencey, and I was going to Pop!Tech again, and I was like "Oh, wouldn't it be nice if I had a science-theme CD that I could sell at Pop!Tech?" So that sort of pushed me to get that finished.
Bry: Is it ever going to be reissued?
Yeah, I think so. I probably will not sell it at live shows, I mean, the problem is it only has five songs on it. It's just a question of the expense of carrying it and shipping it to places -- you know, if you can only charge five dollars for it, and it costs a dollar something to make, and maybe another dollar to ship, by the time you're done shipping it to me and shipping it out to the place that I'm performing at, it's just not a cost-effective thing.
Jinx: Yeah, but if you make just a few of them and offer them on eBay for big bucks...?
(laughs) Right, right. No, I actually think I will print some more of them and sell them on CDBaby again, but just not sell them at live shows, I've been thinking about that, because really what I want that to be is a longer, more inclusive CD at full-sized, full price, which I think is coming, I think some kind of compilation introduction-to-me CD should come out.
Bry: Looks like a good time for a break, not only because I think I need to use the restroom (laughter), but we're going to launch up again at the beginning of Thing A Week. Sound good?
Okay, sounds good!