It was a cold wet and rainy night on Saturday, the kind of night where you would choose to stay indoors. The drive into Glasgow was fraught with peril and surface water, but nothing to deter this intrepid Ready Up! writer. I managed to convince my friend and forum member, Retro Boy G to accompany me to Oran Mor (a converted church, now bar, restaurant and venue) to see some guy called…Jonathan Coulton? Up until a short while ago I had never heard of the guy but here I was on my way to meet him and talk to him. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to his music and now I’m really into his stuff, I suppose for those of you like I was, not in the know, I should tell you briefly about him.
Jonathan Coulton has been making his own special brand of music for several years now, he describes himself as “Geeky-Folk-Rock”. Most recently he has gained critical acclaim for writing one certain song for a game called, “Still Alive,” yes indeed! He also did his “Thing a Week” project where he tried to write one new song every week for a year and was largely successful, only missing a few weeks. He hails from Brooklyn, New York, is married and has two children-plenty of inspiration for songwriting. Until now though, he had never had to experience the effect of a Ready Up! Q and A session, this could prove to be his toughest assignment yet, mine too for that matter.
After negotiating the locked door at Oran Mor we were ushered in to meet Jonathan, there he stood! Smiling, chatting and showing a genuine interest in the people round him, even though he had never met any of them before. I introduced myself and instantly felt at ease with his friendly presence and willingness to laugh at my, often humourless, quips. After going for a bite to eat, Jonathan came to get myself and Retro Boy and we headed off to the inner sanctum of the venue to have a talk. A Ready Up! tradition is to present our guests with some treats and tonight Jonathon was extremely gracious to accept a bottle of chilled Irn Bru, a bar of tablet, a Scotland mouse mat and a Lion Rampant flag, the ice was well and truly broken. As Jonathan sipped the delicious Irn Bru for the first time I started with my probing line of questioning. I was curious as to what his childhood passions were as he is only two years older than myself.
“I was passionate about music, playing the piano and the guitar. I really liked taking things apart and then rebuilding them again,” Jonathon told me with a hint of nostalgia. “I was interested in Video games from the moment I got an Atari 2600, it was very exciting. Like many Americans I spent a lot of time watching TV and whatever was on was the show you liked.” Pausing to think a little Jonathan told me that he listened exclusively to a diet of The Beatles and Billy Joel, who were his fathers favourite artists. At this point it felt like I was talking to an old friend we seemed at ease in each others company so I hit him with another deep question. I was interested to find out what he had aspired to be as a child.
“Certainly by the time I was in high school I was telling everybody I was going to be a rock and roll star, I was kind of half kidding, or maybe I just didn’t believe that that’s what I was gonna do,” he told me with a hearty laugh, ” I was in about 9th-10th grade when I had learned enough guitar to start writing and playing a lot of stuff.” Deep inside me I wanted to start firing off Portal questions but I still felt that it would be the wrong move so I refrained. As we sat talking Jonathan would reach for his Irn Bru and take a swig, this was possibly the start of a sugar addiction for him. Seeing as we share an interest in games I wanted to know how games featured in Jonathans’ youth.
“I spent countless hours playing them, my dad bought Pong I remember playing that with him and then the Atari 2600, I just remember bringing cartridges to friends houses,” for a brief moment I can see Jonathan’s mind wandering to a distant place then he says, ” My favourite 2600 game was Yars Revenge, fantastic game, maybe! I don’t know, I haven’t played it in a long time. That kind of segwayed into computers for me, at the same time my Grandad had a TRS 80 and I learned a little bit of programming on it. I actually had the Basic cartridge for the 2600, that was pretty bare bones but fun.” I’m still bursting to mention Still Alive but seeing as I was unsure I asked him about the time he spent studying at the famous Yale University. It turns out that Jonathan was going to study Chemistry but found the course to be quite intense so he changed to be a music major because that’s what he was interested in. I wondered how he had went from a course of life that looked like he would become a musician to being a computer programmer.
“After college I bounced around from job to job, then I accidentally got a job through a friend of a friend at a software company answering phones at the front desk and also writing code…it was a very small company!” he tells me in a happy tone, ” As the company grew I stayed there and became the oldest wisest programmer they had. Before I knew it it had accidentally became a career.” I wondered if it felt like the wrong career he was in after devoting so much time to music. “There was a part of me that felt it was wrong and every year I would say I gotta leave this job and do some music, but i could never see how I was gonna make any money as a musician.” Like myself, Jonathan is a father and it was with the birth of his daughter that he finally got the guts to venture into music as an occupation. Children can alter your life in many ways and for Jonathan it was the right thing at the right time. He decided to quit his job for a year and if the music didn’t work out he could go back to programming. As I looked at Jonathan I could see a sense of pride and maybe a bit of smugness as he told me, “Luckily it went very well and I haven’t had to get a new software job again!”
By now we had been chatting for fifteen minutes in a rock star-esque eight by eight dressing room, I felt that Jonathan was maybe tiring a bit so it was time for the Still Alive questions, hope he’d still talk to me. I wanted to know how it came about.
“People from Valve came to see a show of mine, they introduced themselves and asked if I would be interested in writing music for them. One of them was Kim Swift who was in charge of the Portal team so I said yes immediately. They showed me an early version of Portal and some of their ideas, the writer who created the Glados character said ” I’ve always wanted to have, basically a musical theatre number in a video game.” I said that that was interesting and that’s what we decided to do. It’s a set piece it becomes part of the story, the song itself is part of her character and part of the story.” Feeling buoyed by my success at the Portal questioning I cheekily asked if the song could become an albatross for him. He agreed that it was and wasn’t but that he is always pleased with success but sometimes the fame could be annoying, however he is happy at the point he is at in life. Sensing that I really should be wrapping up the interview we talked about the internet- he couldn’t have had his success without it- becoming mainstream- would rather stay as he is, he likes to walk down the street. Of course I asked him about his current games playing- he has an Xbox 360 and tries to play when he gets time but is finding it harder with all his commitments.
Finally I ask Jonathan what is next for him, he changes to a rock star swagger, takes a gulp of Irn Bru and comes out with the quote of the night, “Finish this bottle of Irn Bru, gonna do a rock show and tour the rest of the UK, ” we all laughed loudly. Jonathan is also working on a concert DVD due out next year which will be called “Best. Concert. Ever.” Sadly my time with Jonathon was now over and I had been privileged to have spent some time with a lovely, friendly person. He answered all my questions, didn’t shirk in any way, a rarity in a musician I could gush about him all night but you really should just go and see this amiable man yourself. After the interview I watched Jonathan perform on stage to a raptuous response from the small audience, he was fantastic, great audience interaction, great musicianship an absolute pleasure to see. I would love to give you a blow by blow account of the show but space does not allow, just rest assured if you go to see him you will come away happy. In summary I would like to say, Jonathan Coulton really nice guy, thank you.