A Talk with JoCo, Part 3 (Thing a Week)
Bry: Bry here. Here's part 3 of the interview with Internet superstar Jonathan William Coulton, the Colchester Kid, that Jinx and I did on Monday, June 23, 2008. Our goal throughout the interview was not to ask any questions he'd been asked elsewhere. This section is about Thing a Week, and I don't know how we managed to come up with thirty minutes of material.
Bry: All right, we're here with Jonathan Coulton, gentleman-songster and internet superstar.... (laughter) (Trivia: What about my introduction was humorous to Jonathan? Answers on a postcard to the forum thread about this interview -- first correct answer gets 10 points.)
Bry: So, When you quit your software job to write music, you were kind of feeling sidetracked in some way; what was your idea of the path you really wanted to get back onto?
I didn't have much of an idea for a path. The best way I could express it is I wanted to be making music, and I didn't know what form that was going to take. I mostly imagined that I would get some ancillary music job where I would be writing music for commercials or for television or TV shows or I would be writing jingles or maybe even writing funny music, you know, as part of some other thing. I imagined it would be music that was paid for because a company was making a thing and they needed music for it. I never really imagined that I was going to be making a living, you know, selling my stuff.
So, that's as far as I'd thought, and mostly my experience with the way things work, at least in the Manhattan ecosystem when it comes to jobs and careers, is that you just kind of put out there what you want to do and you wait for things to happen. That's not the most ambitious way of looking at it, I know but like, that's always the way I got jobs. Like, I would not have a job for awhile, and I would tell everybody I knew that I needed a job and somebody would say "oh, my brother-in-law knows..." You know, it's the same way that you find an apartment in New York, you tell everyone you meet that you're looking for an apartment, and hopefully somewhere out in that network of people there's somebody who has an apartment available.
So that was sort of my thinking, And in the worst case scenario, it was that I do whatever I do for a year. Even if I sit around playing X-Box all day, I can always go back and get a software job. You know, I have a skill that I could use in a job, if I wanted to - I just don't want to right now. So those were the two things I was thinking: I don't want to have this job any more, and wouldn't it be nice if I could somehow move into a money-making scenario with music.
Bry: Did it have anything to do with Hodgman's starting his book and kind of putting an end to doing Little Gray Books? Did you need another outlet?
That was part of it. It was actually more about seeing John Hodgman's rise to power and also... you know, accompanying him on the book tour was a great source of exposure for me, because as he became more famous and more and more people would come to his readings, more and more people would get exposed to me. And you know, they would mention me in the press about John, it was like John Hodgman is touring with a troubadour, and I would appear on radio and television with him, so it was like, I felt that there was something happening there, and it was really that I could attract attention in that way, and that maybe that would lead to... something.
Bry: So, looking back, do you see any points in your career before that that seemed like missteps? Do you think that they were in any way important in getting you to that point?
It's hard to see any missteps when you look back, I think, because it all seems to make sense. Because it's of course how you got to where you are, and you can't really think of any other way that you could have gotten to where you are. I was asked to speak to a bunch of college students, who were in a group -- I can't remember the name of the organization, but they're in a club that's basically like, "Relax, you will have a career eventually" .... you know, that should be the name of the club -- the You Don't Need to Know What You Have to Do Right Now ... Club ... and so they went on a tour, going around to all these people whose careers they admired and whose path seemed off the beaten path, so they asked to speak to me about how I got to where I am, and one of the things that I pointed out to them was that during my nine years spent at that software company, over the course of those nine years, podcasting happened... MP3 happened... widespread acceptance of broadband happened... blogging happened. Like, these were all things that did not exist when I got that software job. So if I had attempted to do this then, it would have failed. Or I don't know if it would have failed, but it would have been very different.
And also in those nine years, I learned a lot about computers, and how to make websites and, you know, a lot about installing software and finding hacks for existing software and, like, all the things that are essential to running my own home studio, so looking back, even the Ensoniq thing, which was this dead-end job getting paid not very much money to test this equipment for a company that eventually went under, even that was sort of essential, because I was learning a lot about how to use these instruments, so it's hard to look back and say that any of it was a mistake, although certainly at the time it didn't seem like I was going anywhere, because of course I wasn't planning anything.
Which I think is a very common experience. I think most people who have established some sort of career in life will look back and say "Oh, of course! Of course this is where I am, and everything I have done has led up to here, but I never in a million years could have planned it that way."
Jinx: When you started Thing a Week, you've talked about it being sort of an idea generator, and a way to generate new ideas, and you did some cover songs but you did them in your own way. How did you approach that when you were covering other people's songs?
Well, my thing with covers is that I always hate covers that are just the same song again. I love covers that transform the song in some way. I never like doing anything the same way. There's a woman who did a cover of... uh...
Bry: Straight Outta Compton (not safe for work: language), is that what you mean?
Yeah, that's a great example. Yeah, that's Nina ... what's her name?
Nina something. (Nina Gordon.) I should know, but anyway, that wasn't what I was thinking of. I don't know this woman's name either, but she did a cover of the Rolling Stones song, Satisfaction. (A little research persuades me Jonathan was thinking of Cat Power. --Bry) She did a cover of that that is slow and sad, and it totally changes the song, and I love, I love a cover like that. I love a cover that sees something in the song that you wouldn't necessarily see. So when I would choose a cover song it was never... It was always about something more than just liking the song, it was like ‘Oh, there's something in this song that is not apparent yet, alsothat I can make more apparent.'
Jinx: And did you try to do the same kind of thing to the songs that you'd written previously? Did you put things into them that weren't there before?
No, that was more about, the songs that were on there that were already written were mostly just never recorded, not realized at all or they weren't realized in that way. Or they were sort of unfinished. There are a few in there that were half written. So it was not about reimagining them, really, it was about imagining them for the first time, really.
Bry: Part of the finishing process, I guess, was that not only did you write them and record them, but you also released them. Was that an important part of the process?
Well, that was -- that was, of course. The whole point of it was to force myself to do it which is why I made a declaration that that was what I was going to do, so it was very hard to back off from that, for me. And it was also, you know, a way of attracting attention. I wanted them to float as freely as possible so that they would find their way to as many people as possible. It didn't seem.... you know, the exposure was more important than the money making at that point. My whole thing was like, let's get as much exposure as possible over this year, and then figure out how to make money.
Jinx: Were you ever tempted to change a song after you had released it?
No, you know I don't... I don't feel that impulse very much. There are a lot of people who have suggestions about songs - ways they could be improved. Sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don't, but I never feel like going back and doing it again because.... it's like, No -- that's the song, that's the song -- it's done.
You know, Soterios Johnson was a significant exception to the rule, because I do feel like it's improved -- the new version with Terry Gross is an improvement over him just going back to work, but it's also ... that song was... I was literally writing the lyrics to the third verse for that, sitting on the sidewalk outside the Little Gray Book lecture in the twenty minutes before it was going to start, because there was a band supposed to play that night, and they didn't come, so at the last minute -- I had this song I had kind of been working on, but it wasn't finished, and at the last minute I had to finish it. So that seemed like it was never really finished to begin with. And of course it hadn't been ... well, I guess I had an acoustic recording out, but yeah... I kind of feel like the song is - that's what it is and that's what happened when I wrote that song. And so... I don't like going back and rewriting things.
Jinx: What would it feel like when you hit "Send" on those Thing A Week songs?
Sometimes it felt very good and sometimes it felt very bad. There were a lot of times where I was not at all satisfied with how it turned out. But that was part of the point of it, is to worry less about whether or not what I was doing was good or not.
Bry: And what kind of audience response were you were kind of expecting (in the first few weeks you were doing this)?
Oh, I didn't know what to expect, I mean, I was very surprised by the Baby Got Back response, of course -- that was overwhelmingly large, and unexpected. And of course, after that, ...that's what I was expecting every week... you know, so I mean, anybody who's ever had a taste of the Internet Spike will be familiar with how obsessed you get with the numbers, and the hits, and the traffic, and how can I make that traffic happen again?
You know, I heard Ze Frank get interviewed on The Sound Of Young America by Jesse Thorn -- Ze Frank became internet famous when he had this thing called How to Dance Properly, which was a bunch of videos of him dancing stupid, that he had made for friends, and it went viral, and got millions and millions of hits, and he's said that all the other things he's ever done have never gotten anywhere close to those numbers, and his whole thing is trying to reach that point again and I know exactly what he's talking about, and it's something you can't predict.
And, you know, like most things with the internet, the best thing to do is just put stuff out there and see what happens. You can't really plan for it.
Bry: This is a hard question to answer, you know, but what do you think it would have been like if you hadn't had that big spike five weeks in, if you'd gone even longer without a viral hit?
Yeah, It certainly would have been more disheartening, That was definitely a thing that helped me go on in the weeks when I thought it was stupid. But even so, there were periods through January and February where it seemed like it was not going well and it was a terrible mistake and I would probably have to get a job again. So... yeah. My confidence waxed and waned.
Jinx: But a lot of those people who were drop-in listeners during that period were turning into fans, and it seems like the whole process of building a fan base has really been central to what you've done, how you've succeeded. How did you see that, what was your feeling about how to handle fans?
Again, I didn't have a plan, I didn't have a grand vision so much. I just... The one piece of vision I had was Creative Commons licensing. I really felt like I really did want and expect people to create stuff based on the songs. And that was very important to me in terms of whatever strategy I thought I had in my head, which was not much of a strategy at all. But that was certainly part of it -- the idea that people could do things and that stuff might attract attention. And on top of that, the licensing itself was kind of an interesting story, something that people could talk about. But you know, on another level, it was like, well, this is what it is, you know, this is what we're all doing with our stuff anyway. It's great to get a fan letter from someone, but it's even more amazing to get a video that they've made. It's incredible, it's an amazing feeling to think that they care enough about the song to spend their time being creative doing something themselves. As far as how that relates to building a fan base, you know, I don't know if I was thinking in terms of building a fan base necessarily - it was just something that happened... people would write me and I would write them back.
Jinx: How early did the JoCoPro project show up?
Gee, I don't remember when that started, exactly. Kerrin will know, obviously. But I feel like it was pretty early, honestly I don't remember, but I thought it was great, I was thrilled, you know? It was kind of like "Ah, finally! Here we go...." There's a trickle of things at first that people would do. And of course, if you go back in the history of my blog, I used to post every thing like that that people did, I'd post everything. But then I ran out of time to do it. And now I can't even watch and listen to everything that comes in, it's crazy.
So yeah, so whenever JoCoPro started, that was about the time when it felt like there was a critical mass happening as far as people knowing they could create things and actually doing it and sending them in.
Jinx: And being inspired by other people who were doing it.
Exactly, and that was sort of the watershed moment, when it became something that a lot of people were doing.
Bry: Knowing that this many people are listening to your music, does that affect your songwriting at all?
Yes, absolutely. It's hard not to think about what the fans are waiting for. And I think that's probably one of the reasons I've had kind of a fallow period for awhile, and it's a lot of pressure. I mean, I know that people will be nice. But I also know that everyone would LOVE for there to be another Skullcrusher Mountain, and so would I. But you know, Skullcrusher Mountain was an accident; they're all accidents, and it's very stressful to think about trying to do something instead of letting it happen.
Bry: If it makes you feel any better, we've noticed, there's a kind of large spike of people on the forums especially that are around your age range, and they aren't there just for the geek stuff.
Well yeah, that's true. The geek thing is one thing, and it's definitely one side of it, but there's another side to it. I like that both sides work. Because they're both part of who I am. I like sad songs. I also like songs about robots, and I especially like sad songs about robots. But you know, it's also -- the "funny music" thing is a tricky line to walk because you don't want to be thought of as a novelty musician, but how can you NOT be thought of as a novelty musician? So it's weird.
Bry: But looking back on something like Smoking Monkey, you know.... it's quirky, it's funny, it's intelligent, but it's not really all that air quote "Geeky."
Yes, that's true, and the geekiness came later.
Bry: So how do you think you became the troubadour for the internet generation, or the guru of the geeks, or whatever? (Trivia 2: Which of these descriptors is original, and who originated the other one? Answers on a postcard to the forum thread -- twenty points for the first correct response.)
I think Code Monkey is probably the main reason for that, .... Well... no, that's not true, I guess, ... being Contributing Troubadour for Popular Science Magazine helped, and the Pop!Tech thing helped, because that was a group of well-connected people, and bloggers and such, who saw me do a bunch of geeky songs in a geeky setting.
And then I was the contributing troubadour for Popular Science Managine and then I also wrote the song Code Monkey, and then it was all podcast, Creative Commons and so on....
And you know, to be perfectly honest, it's an angle that I've recognized as being useful to me from early on, and I mean... not that I've been dishonest about it - it's pretty accurate, you know - it is who I am.
Jinx: Or a piece of who you are.
Yeah, or a piece of who I am, so I don't think I've been pretending to be geekier than I am or something like that, but I am certainly aware that it's an angle that works and that people like to write about. It's why my publicity photos have me in a lab coat with a soldering iron, that's not an accident.
Jinx: Do you feel pigeonholed by it at all? Squeezed? Like it's keeping you from breaking out into other areas?
Well, no, not really. Because again it doesn't feel accurate to me. And, like you say, there are plenty of people who like the other stuff. You know every time I play A Talk With George, which is one of my favorite songs, at a show, somebody comes up to me afterwards and says "I'm really glad you played A Talk With George." And that's the most reassuring thing in the world when that happens. So I mean... I feel pretty confident that... you know, there's a fan for every song, even the ones that suck. That's what I learned in Thing A Week.... You know, somebody told me their favorite song is Resolutions. [burst of laughter] I know! It's hilarious! Why would that be your favorite song?
Jinx: Maybe they just like your computer voice.
Bry: Well, you talked about being pigeonholed as a funny musician, is there any comparison to that (in being called a geeky musician)?
Yeah, I mean the one thing that mitigates that is the fact that I am able to go and do a concert on my own terms. So... people buy a ticket to go and see me, and/or Paul and Storm. But you know, the point is that it's different, you know.... like when I'm asked to go and play (in a parking lot at the opening of the new Brooklyn store) at IKEA, for instance, the experience is very different. Because I'm not playing for my fans. I mean, guess why I was asked to play at IKEA? Because I have a funny song about IKEA. There's an expectation there about what I'm going to do in that performance. But when I have a concert, I do my own show and my own fans come to my show, guess what? I'm in charge. So if I wanna do A Talk With George five times in a row, I'll do A Talk With George five times in a row.
Bry: Aside from the point, how did you come up with your setlist for your IKEA performance?
I picked the songs that were upbeat... not offensive, and not too weird.
Bry: Do you remember what they were?
Jinx: You know that all your fans are cursing because nobody's posted any video on YouTube of that performance....
That's part of the plan.
Jinx: Do you feel like you're a perfectionist - do you see yourself as a perfectionist at songwriting?
In some ways, yeah. It's one of the things that gets in my way,... ah... one of the things that keeps me from being more prolific. Or more comfortable when I am prolific. I mean I guess you could say I was prolific when I was doing Thing a Week, but it was a struggle for me. I think there are people who are just naturally like that, who just do write songs every week.
Bry: I'm not so sure there are, actually....
Yeah, I mean maybe, I don't know... (pauses, thinking) No, I think there are....like ... Rivers Cuomo from Weezer is supposed to have like a back catalog of a hundred and twenty songs that he's never released, or something like that. And..you know...yeah, I think there are people like that. Not that it's always good, you know, but again, that's not the point. I mean, I would love to be a sort of idiot-savant songwriter. Somebody who writes because he doesn't know any better. You know, but instead, I am sort of always trying to do stuff that is good when really I should just be trying to do ... stuff.
Jinx: But when you were doing Thing a Week you were really balancing that perfectionism on the one hand with the pressure to produce on deadline on the other, and you did it successfully.
Sometimes, but sometimes not so successfully I think. You know, there were a lot of clunkers in that collection, but yeah, that was the point, to write clunkers. Really. Honestly,... or to let myself write clunkers. Or in this case, to force myself to write clunkers.
Bry: Do you find that external challenges like that in general act to kick-start creativity in some way?
Shhhh.... Yeah! I mean, having a deadline like that is a great way for me to become creative, because it lets me avoid it for a long time and then work on it very hard at the last minute, which is ... how my brain works most of the time.
Bry: And having song ideas set out by Hodgman and Adam Sachs?
Oh yeah, I mean it's always helpful to get a suggestion that clicks with me. Because that's the biggest hump to get over, I think, is the finding something that you like, that you want to write about, and so when somebody says "You must write about this," like -- that problem's solved. Because you have to.
Bry: Do you find that there are things that really don't click with you? I mean, you must get a lot of e-mails.
Yeah, I get a lot of song suggestions. Some of them are good and some of them are not so good. I mean -- but that's a value judgment, though, which I don't really mean, because some of them make me think "Oh yeah, I should write that song," and some of them make me feel "I don't really want to write that song."
Bry: What did it feel like when you were done with Thing a Week?
It was a huge amount of relief. Primarily relief. It got really excruciating by the end of it. I was getting busier and busier with other things, and I was running out of time, and running out of ideas, and I was tired of always being on edge, and always having that Friday deadline. So I was mostly relieved. But you know I was very proud of what I'd done, and I was of course thrilled that so many people had come along on the ride and I was also a little bit sad that it was the end of it, and very grateful for all the success that had come to me through it.
Bry: It's interesting to hear you say that you were so low on ideas but even so, some of your last songs were among your most intricate songs.... Drinking with You (actually on TAW 3, I'm mortified to say, and I think Jonathan was a little thrown off by my error -- Bry), Make You Cry, Pull the String, Summer's Over....
Oh, yes! Well, I would say that, Thing a Week Four is my favorite out of the four, although it was not, when I was writing it. And really, I've said this before, that looking back, I don't even remember writing those songs... and... those were the ones that were most sort of out on the edge of my being able to internalize them as I was writing them. I was really just like in a fugue state, because it was Thursday, and there were also a lot of things I wasn't 100% behind when I would start writing them, it was like "Shit, this is going to be my idea this week." So, I don't know, I think there's a valuable lesson there which maybe I haven't entirely learned. I mean what does that mean that that was when I was doing what I think now was my best song writing? Do I always have to be in that state to write something good? I don't know, maybe.
Jinx: Do you think the process of the Thing A Week changed you? I mean, changed you, musically?
Yes. I think that I learned a lot about playing the guitar. I think I got a lot better with playing arrangements on the acoustic guitar, which I was never that good at. And that's one of the things about Thing A Week 4, like ... Make You Cry, that's a kind of a heavy guitar part there, and I don't think that's something that I technically would have been able to do at the beginning of Thing A Week.
Bry: How about as far as your own attitude -- Do you think that it changed at all?
I wish I could say I had solved all of the problems I was trying to solve, but I don't think I have. I think I pushed them away for a little while, but I still am blocked in the same ways that I was before I started Thing a Week, and I still have the same perfectionist attitude that gets in my way. That doesn't change, That's just who I am as a creative person, I think.
Jinx: Did it expand your sense of songwriting, did it give you more a sense of permission to do things differently with structure and that sort of thing?
Yeah, I think so, it forced me to do things that I wouldn't have otherwise done, at least not formally ... Yeah, the completely musical bridge, the song with only two sections, the minute and fifteen second song, the... you know, whatever it was. There are a lot of things that I was forced to do by circumstance, that I wouldn't have otherwise chosen to do but it was nice to have those in there.
Jinx: It gave you this big backlog of songs that made it possible for you to tour, so once you finished with Thing a Week, touring was a real option, so what did it feel like, and how did you start when you started to tour?
The hardest part was learning how to play those songs on acoustic guitar, because they had all been arranged for whatever instruments I used when I recorded them. Learning which ones worked well, and also learning which ones audiences really liked, and how to introduce those songs to audiences, you know. Like, a song like Talk with George is one that I think people like, and to some extent look forward to, but it was not the most popular Thing a Week song when it was out. But doing it live has a different impact from listening to the recording.
Bry: It's interesting, because as far as the arrangement goes, it's not that different (from the TAW release).
No, it's true. That's true. Or like, a better example is maybe... Creepy Doll, I think, has really grown a lot as a live song. It's very slow -- the recorded version is very slow. And it's...I like it better live now, than I do the recorded version. Especially when I have a ukulele army behind me.
Jinx: Oh my god! They were so good on Saturday!
Bry: Do you think it'd be possible kinda to divide your energy between touring and songwriting?
It's hard; part of the problem with it is that the kind of touring that I'm doing ...This is why bands go into a studio, record an album, and then tour, and then stop touring and do another album.
It's because it's very hard to write and record while you're on tour. And I'm basically on tour all the time, except it's every couple of weeks. So it's.. I have a very fragmented life. Like... a tour for me means even if it's like a weekend tour, it means I've gotta plan ahead of time. After the thing gets booked, I've got to post the blog, I've got to send the email (email blast to the mailing list), I've got to make sure the ticket link is right, I've gotta buy the plane tickets, rent the car, I have to order enough merchandise so that I have it in hand a couple weeks before so that I can ship it to where I'm going to be, to email so that they ship it back to me when they ship it home at the end of the weekend.... You know, all these things to plan, so it's not just the weekend, it's all that's leading up to it.
Then when I come back, there's all this accounting I have to do, I've gotta count my remaining merchandise, I've got to make sure I have enough for the next trip.... it's a constant To Do List. So, either I'm traveling, I'm about to travel, or, I've just finished traveling. It's hard to find a quiet spot to write.
Jinx: But all that and you've still been producing songs for us.
Yeah, very erratically, but yes, here and there.
Bry: You've been listening to Part 3 of A Talk with JoCo, the (first? --Bry) forum interview of Jonathan Coulton. We'll pick it back up after this awkward artificial break with Part 4, in which we ask him about life after Thing a Week. (muttered) Really need outro music...