A Talk with JoCo, Part 2 (Undocumented Songs)

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A Talk with JoCo
1. Early Life - 2. Undocumented Songs - 3. Thing a Week - 4. The Present - 5. The Future

Second in a five-part series of interviews conducted by Jinx and Bry, on June 23, 2008. This was actually the first part to be taped. Released to the web in this forum thread; audio here.

Duration: 0:29:50


Bry: Bry here. Recently, on June 23, 2008, Jonathan Coulton, Internet superstar and world's easiest interview, graciously agreed to let me mumble inarticulately at him while he gave clear, thoughtful responses. Here's part two of our interview, in which Jinx and I ask him about the origins of a whole bunch of songs.

Jinx: We have a list here of songs that haven't been documented, in terms of where they came from, in the same way that the Thing a Week songs got documented on the blog. So we're interested in finding out just a sentence or two about each of them, what prompted them, what was their origin story, and so forth.


Jinx: So if you could just go ahead, the first one we had was, John Hodgman Theme Song (Sweet Information).

Yes. There were two versions of that. The first one was something that I wrote for, I believe it was for, we were doing a Little Gray Book lecture in Philadelphia, as part of some sort of literary festival weekend or something, and we were recording it, because at that point we were thinking about the idea of pitching that as a radio show, so we were recording it in such a way that it could be edited as a radio show, and I think it was John's suggestion that we have a theme song for the show. So I wrote that. And later on, when John's book ("The Areas of My Expertise") came out, and we did the book tour, we sort of adapted it to be a theme song for the book, so that's why there are two different versions, one about the Little Gray Book Lectures and the other about the book.

Jinx: Was that the same recorded performance where you modified Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance?

Yeah. That was also the place where the new lyrics for Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance came from because it was going to be in Philadelphia, and it seemed a natural to work in Terry Gross, because she started at a local NPR station in Philadelphia, and of course nobody there knows who Soterios Johnson is, because he's a New York public radio personality.

Bry: What prompted you guys to go to Philadelphia?

Ummmmm, I don't know. I think John was asked to do the Little Gray Book lectures there, and there was a venue there that was set-up to do this kind of recording, and like all these things came together and somebody said oh, that should be, you should do like a radio show recording there.

Jinx: Now we have the Other Experiments collection from your website, which never made it to a physical CD. But there's a list of songs, and I'm just going to read them out.


That is, I think for a Little Gray Book lecture called "How to Negotiate All Sorts of Deals and Contracts," or something like that. Obviously, unsuccessfully in the case of this song.

Bills, Bills, Bills

That is, of course, a cover of a Destiny's Child song. Which, I don't know, it was one of those songs that was getting a lot of airplay around here, and I really sort of loved it. It's a very funny song.

A Laptop Like You

I wrote A Laptop Like You because it was, I think, the second time (later confirmed as the second time, in 2004[1][2]) I was asked to perform at Pop!Tech, which is a Futurist conference in Maine. And yeah, they asked me if I would write a song to sort of unveil at Pop!Tech, so that seemed like a pretty good theme for that crowd.


Bacteria was, you know, I just found some audio on the internet from an old Kentucky Fried Chicken training video. (The waitress arrives with the table's food orders.) (My corned beef hash and eggs seem to be here, thank you. No, I think we're good, thank you.) So, yeah, I found a whole bunch of KFC training videos, maybe from the fifties. This one was about sterilization and cleanliness, and, you know, this was back when they would do these long audio plays as training videos. There's one guy teaching the Kentucky Fried Chicken seminar and the other guy who seems sort of doubtful that bacteria is really a problem.

Bry: Any chance of it showing up on a Zendrum anytime soon?

It's a thought. (Laughs) It's a thought. Yeah. You know, the thing about it is that there's actually no singing at all, and I'm not sure that --

Bry: -- you can just stand there with your mouth closed for the whole time?

Yeah, I mean, there's me just pushing buttons for the entire song? Is maybe less interesting than me pushing buttons and singing, I don't know, there may be a way to do it. I do think it's time to see what else we could do with the Zendrum; I've been doing Mr. Fancy Pants for quite some time, so-

Jinx: Did you use this (song) for anything -- like was it related to the Little Gray Book lectures?

No, I just did it for fun. I mean, you know, before Thing a Week, I used to write songs just to write songs. So that was one of those.


Brookline was another Little Gray Book lecture song, and it was for, the theme was "Brookline," which is, of course, the hometown of John Hodgman, and it is sort of strange the way you keep running into Brookline, or I feel as though I keep running into Brookline in various ways, and even people in Brookline find it to be true as well, it's one of those coincidences that once you start looking for it, it does appear to be everywhere. And of course, my circle of New York friends is, sort of based on, sort of, focused on several Brookline residents; and they would always be pulling out the yearbook and talking about Brookline, so after a while, it, sort of, felt like I had grown up in Brookline as well.

Bry: On the wiki, on JoCopedia, MitchO -- you met him on Saturday (at the Highline Ballroom concert, June 21, 2008) -- tried to explicate one of the lines in that song, the one about 'a talk show host, an author, a president, a king', and came up with three or four -- well, at least two possibilities for every one of them.

I'm not so sure about president and king. I made those up. There may very well be, though.

Bry: I think Kennedy may actually have been, something around there. (John F. Kennedy was, in fact, born in Brookline.) And Mitch pulled it to King Gillette, of the razors, whose first name was King.

Yes. That's who I was thinking of. (Laughs.) For the record.

Beds Hurt My Booty

Beds Hurt My Booty is based on more audio. That audio was actually part of a documentary that someone that I know was working on, and they had audio of this woman giving birth in labor. And so she kept saying, "Beds hurt my booty," which was a very funny phrase, and she was making a lot of funny noises. Which you do; when you're in labor!

I Crush Everything

That was also a Little Gray Book lecture: "The Animals: Are They our Enemies?"

Bry: It's interesting, actually, because... with a lot of your other songs, where it isn't very clear who the subject of the song is, if it's a Thing a Week, you get some kind of an explanation, like with Under the Pines, of who the character is. But with this, you have to look at it a couple of times before you realize it's a giant squid.

Yes, yes. And I think when I was originally writing it, I don't think I was settled on a giant squid. I was sort of thinking more like some sort of sea monster. And what got me thinking about it was, again I was at Pop!Tech, there was a guy there who was talking about some kind of, submersible vehicle he had made, which was basically like some kind of one-man underwater flying sled, which was kind of, a crazily maneuverable thing, and it doesn't use buoyancy, it uses wings to move around that way, and it can also leap out of the water like a dolphin, and it's crazy. And at some point, he was talking about this vehicle, and he was talking about various kinds of undersea exploration. And he said that the giant squid was a good example of what was wrong with the way we are exploring the ocean, because we go down there with these lights and these noisy machines, and it's actually entirely possible that the giant squid is a very shy, and retiring creature, even though it is a giant squid. And, of course, we haven't seen one, because like, we go down there with a brass band every time. And so that image of the giant squid who is afraid of loud noises sort of stuck with me.

All right, and we understand that Skullcrusher Mountain came from a Little Gray Book lecture called "Evil Genius?"

I think it was actually called "How to Measure Evil Genius," which doesn't even make any sense.

The Future Soon

Little Gray Book: "What Will Happen In The Future?" That was also the Little Gray Book where we made an ouija board out of a chalk drawing on the floor and a Roomba vacuum cleaner. (Laughter.) (This was also mentioned in the segment we released as Part 1. Of course, but again, this was recorded before that part, which is why we laugh here and not there. -- Bry)

Bry: What was the message from the spirits?

I don't think it was intelligible.

Jinx: It was probably in squid.

Gambler's Prayer

Also Little Gray Book: "How to Gamble and Win."

Bry: Kind of the reverse of the other one (in Screwed).

Camp Bachelor Alma Mater

Hmm. My friend Adam was getting married.

Bry: Ah. Adam Sachs, by chance? (This was a total guess.)

Yes, Adam Sachs. (amused shock)

Bry: I'm sorry, Josh Donoghue has been telling us about him on the boards a little.

Yes, Adam Sachs was getting married, and for his bachelor party, he rented a kid's summer camp, and all the bachelors spent a weekend there, sleeping in cabins and doing activities -- playing sports and, you know, drinking around a bonfire, and I sort of thought, it would be nice to have a camp song, and so I wrote a sort of you know, camp song but for a bachelor party.

Jinx: In advance? Performed with an a cappella group there?

No, I think I just played the recording once, which was a little awkward. Nobody really wanted to hear an a cappella recording of a camp song at that point.

Bry: Mitch actually played poker, back to Gambler's Prayer. And he was saying that some of the lyrics to Gambler's Prayer are confusing to him. Was there actually any poker knowledge that went into that?

Umm, yes. Why, did I get something wrong? What did he say?

Bry: Debatable. He was just saying that he had some quibbles with the line, "straight to an ace, Lord, or even a pair" -- it's "a pair", not "two pairs?"

Um, "a pair," yes. That's a poker hand, a pair of cards...

Bry: -- he was just having trouble imagining any poker player hoping for a pair, I guess.

Well, if you don't have anything.

Bry: If you don't have anything.


Bry: All right.

That's why I say, "Or even a pair." I would settle for a pair.

Bry: That's for you, Mitch.

So shut up, Mitch. (laughter)

Bry: Good luck getting him. (laughter). We're going to cut that out in post.

Jinx: Okay, how about your first CD, Smoking Monkey?

I'm Having a Party

You know, this was back when I didn't have to have a reason for writing a song. You know, just writing songs. I don't know, it comes from memories of a kid's party, sort of when the parents turn the rec room over to the kids and there are bowls of Cheetos and stuff like that.

Bry: How young were you imagining the protagonist?

I guess probably kind of like a fifth-grade area - so like, there is interest between boys and girls, but it's still sort of a new thing, and they're co-ed parties but not makeout parties, exactly, but there is a sort of tension there. But you're sort of like between kid and not-a-kid. That's why there's that weird bridge section about, you know, 'sexy sleepover time.'

Bozo's Lament

That actually came from... I used to have a job at a coffee shop - it was like an espresso, you know, fancy coffee place. I was working there with a friend of mine from college whose name was Adam - different Adam. He was also a musician and singer/songwriter, and somehow we convinced the management of the coffee place that it would be a good idea for us to play music, play guitar there? And so we did, and we would do like improv songs where we would ask for a subject - and somebody shouted out "the Circus!" and then I sort of improved a couple of lines that I liked; I think the first line was "Because my name was Bozo, I was destined to be a clown" and "it sucks to be a clown" and something about "pie in my face" and then later I went back and worked it up into something that made more sense. I liked the ideas, and it took a little rewriting to make it fully...

Bry: Were there a lot of Yale musicians working at Cooper's at that time?

Oh, you already know it was Cooper's Coffee?

Jinx: It's on the wiki...

Bry: We've done our prep... (This is laughable. It's patently obvious I didn't do a lick of prep for this segment -- Jinx compiled the list of songs, handed me a copy, and off I blithely went. -- Bry)

No, it was just, his name was Adam Stein, and he was the reason I was working there, he was a Yale guy, and he was working there first, and I was looking for a bohemian job.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Again, I'm not sure what inspired this exactly, but I sort of liked the idea of the narrator, who's totally wrong. Not totally, but pretty confused. He's either a liar, or I'm not sure what his problem is, but I love the idea of a completely, really inaccurate narrator - I mean, that's a sort of a classic trope, but then to make it an inaccurate historical narrator.

Bry: You mentioned way, way back in the forums that you were trying to do something like Dylan's Lily, Rosemary and the King (sic) of Hearts...?

Yeah, that was what the song was modeled on was the, yeah -- what's the name of the song?

Bry: I said "Lily, Rosemary and the King of Hearts", but I might be completely wrong... (See what I mean about prep? --Bry)

"Jack of Hearts." Yeah, like a really long neverending story song, ballad, yeah. So it was sort of...once I decided the confused narrator thing, I thought that was a good form to use.

Bry: And yet it makes more sense (than those songs), somehow....

Yeah, well, based on historical events.


The genesis of that was, I was driving home from an IKEA, and I'd just bought an Ingo table.

Jinx: So what was it like to sing it at 6:30 in the morning (at the opening of the Red Hook/Brooklyn IKEA on June 18, 2008)? I mean... it's terrible to sing anything at 6:30 in the morning.

Yeah, it was.. it was fine. There were a few people who were paying attention and who seemed to like it. You know, I don't know. It was such a weird crowd.

Jinx: You were singing it to the line in the parking lot?

Yeah, singing to the line in the parking lot, and some people had been camping out for days to get into the IKEA.

Bry: If they'd opened up the store, they could have furnished their tents. I mean, was it just, you show up, sing your song, and then...

I did about four or five songs. And they had a whole string of entertainers that morning.

Jinx: And you were playing outside, rather than over the PA...?


I Hate California

Breakup song. I had a girlfriend who was an actress and who was doing a long stretch of time living in California, working on a show, a musical, so it was kind of the tail end of our relationship, as it turned out, so yeah -- that's where that came from.

Christmas Is Interesting

Again, sort of a confused narrator. I think the phrase, "Christmas is interesting," came to me first - just the idea of a... I thought about "Christmas is interesting," which is really, a sort of a non-... a meaningless phrase -- what are you talking about, "Christmas is interesting?" and I just took it and went from there, but, as I frequently say when I play it, I'd intended for it to be funny, but it ended up really dark and sad.

Bry: It's interesting to compare it to Paul and Storm's "Easter Song"....

Yeah, it's the same kind of thing, all kind of mixed-up imagery. It just goes to show you; I am dark and sad, while they are funny.

Over There

Little Gray Book. Something about Europe. I don't remember the title of the Little Gray Book lecture; it was something about Europe.

Bry: What was it like playing that over there?

It was awesome. You know, I was in London, and it was my first time playing out of the United States actually, and I actually opened with that song. It seemed pointless to avoid it, and it also seemed like a kind of a rock & roll thing to do. And they loved it.

Bry: (Indecipherable) (Seriously, I have no idea what words came out of my mouth here, but my meaning was, was anyone really offended? -- Bry)

No, no, the thing is, people in the UK sort of look down on Europe, Europe, the continent, you know, in some ways, so in many ways, it was not- I think a lot of people didn't find that it was directed at them.

Bry: Little did they know....

Yeah, Americans don't make the same distinction, I think.

Bry: I mean, it's not just a song against the Europeans as much as against the ugly American notion....

Of course, it's also sort of a satire on the, you know, I actually, I played that somewhere in an informal setting where a bunch of people were playing guitar, and I played that, and when I finished that song, one fellow shouted out, "Go back to Europe, Hippie!" (Laughter.) He really, completely misunderstood what I was going for, I think. And I don't even understand what he was talking about, Hippie!?

Millionaire Girlfriend

Millionaire Girlfriend, I don't think that was based on, I don't think that came from anything in particular, except just what it is, a love song that's actually by a loathsome person. Although, it was one of the songs that has led to interest in the polyamorous community.

Jinx: Yeah, that was a great rumor!

I get a lot of airplay on polyamory podcasts.

Bry: Were Paul and Storm aware of that before they did the Wild Adventure video? (See 4:33 in the video. -- Bry)

Yes, yes, they delight in perpetuating the rumor that I am polyamorous.

Jinx: You just need one for them, while you're trash-talking.

Bry: And while we're on the subject...First of May.

Yeah, that's the other one. That was performed at a Little Gray Book lecture, but now I don't remember, oh! It was a Little Gray Book lecture on the First of May, and it was Hodgman's suggestion -- Hodgman said you should write a song called, "First of May, First of May, outdoor fucking starts today." And, of course, that is a saying that goes back very, very far, and I don't think anybody knows its origins, but my grandfather used to say it. It was actually "Hooray, hooray, The First of May, outdoor fucking starts today." My grandfather used to say it, and I think it goes back to medieval times or earlier. So, classic joke!


De-Evolving. A suggestion from my friend Adam Sachs, who suggested: "you should write a song about a guy who is de-evolving into a monkey, and his wife is very angry at him, and he's trying to explain to his wife why she shouldn't be angry." He was very focused on that aspect of the song, that it was about explaining why she shouldn't be angry. And he actually gave me a couple of lines, "I'm keeping the thumb, but I'm getting dumb," was his. And he also recommended that I end it with the line "I'm a coal miner's daughter," I still do not know why.

I'm a Mason Now

Again, just back when I used to write songs for fun, you know, just the idea of sort of overestimating the power of the Masons these days. Somebody who's finally become a Mason, and now he thinks he's special, and that the Masons will take care of him and destroy his enemies, you know, which is maybe not the point of Masonry.

Bry: How did you come up with the (7/4) time signature for that one?

Just happened, I don't know. That riff was just in my head, I think.


Also, an Adam Sachs suggestion, he, what part of that did he give me? Oh, the first line, "Once in a while, I go out of my way to kill you a little." That was his line. I was just walking around one day, and I just wrote it as I was walking around. The use of Overhead throughout the verses was just; I don't know. And that was an experiment in writing a song without meaning. I mean, it's clearly some kind of angry breakup song, which I knew, from that line, but that line doesn't really mean anything. Or does it? I mean, it's hard to say; it's sort of evocative rather than descriptive.

Jinx: It'll be on the wiki.

Yeah, good, good.

Jinx: Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow has several songs that came out of the Other Experiments songs, that we've already touched on, but how about Betty and Me?

Betty and Me. I think I wrote that one for another Pop!Tech, appearance, actually. Yes, I did, yeah, actually that was the second time I appeared at Pop!Tech, the third time I did A Laptop Like You. (later deduced to be the first Pop!Tech appearance, in 2003, the second being the one where he did A Laptop Like You[3][2]) And again, it seemed the subject matter was appropriate to the setting.

Jinx: Did it relate to the theme at Pop!Tech that year?

No, not, in particular. I mean, there are many themes going on at Pop!Tech, people speaking on all sorts of subjects - scientific and philosophical.

Jinx: It's a neat conference.

Yeah, it's a great conference, yeah. Really, really fun and interesting stuff. Sort of like an East Coast TED (Technology Entertainment Design conference).

Bry: Did you take the idea of that one from anything? (I had in mind JoAnn's discovery in this thread of Cecil Jacobson. -- Bry)

I don't think so. Just, you know, I wanted to do a genetic engineering song.

Bry: ...that wasn't really.

Yeah, and that's where it happened.

Mandelbrot Set

Mandelbrot Set... That was another Little Gray Book lecture song. The theme was, I think it was "Things That Are Named After Other Things," or something like that. Or "Things That Are Named After People." And so, that's what I thought of. And again, it was like the idea of trying to write a song about math as if it were important. Which, of course, it is.

Bry: Do you have time to talk about One More Score? (I ask because it wasn't on our list, and also because this was the first part taped and we weren't clear how much time we'd have. We still weren't clear by the end of the interview, of course. --Bry)

Yeah, that was a Little Gray Book, Adam Stein and I wrote that together. And he was reading, I don't recall what it was called anymore, but he was reading something about shoplifting, so we wrote a stealing song.