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Witty Tunes Are Jonathan Coulton's 'Thing'

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Witty Tunes Are Jonathan Coulton's 'Thing'

Witty Tunes Are Jonathan Coulton's 'Thing'

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

You may have heard of comedian and actor John Hodgman. You know, he's the PC incarnation of a man in the new Mac commercials. Or you might have seen him on the Daily Show. Well, Hodgman runs this oddball lecture series slash variety show called "Little Gray Books". It covers everything from matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological.

Mr. JOHN HODGMAN (Comedian and Actor): Lobsters, squirrels, eels, haircuts, Utopia - what will happen in future and most other subjects?

Mr. JONATHON COULTON (Musical Director, "Little Gray Books"): (Singing) Most other subjects from you having asthma, to being in fancy (unintelligible). Terrible haircuts, Dungeons and Dragons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: The guy singing right here is Jonathan Coulton, the musical director for the lecture series. And Coulton has another oddball project called "Thing a Week." He wrote a song every Friday for the last year.

Jonathan Coulton joins us with his guitar in our New York studio. Hi.

Mr. COULTON: Hi, Andrea. How are you?

SEABROOK: Good. So you wrote a song every week?

Mr. COULTON: I did. You know, sometimes I actually couldn't write one, so I had to do a cover.

(Soundbite of song, "I Like Big Butts")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) I like big butts and cannot lie. You other brothers can't deny when a girl...

Or I had to do an old song. But for the most part, yes, I wrote a new song every week.

SEABROOK: And let me just start with my first devastating question in this interview - why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: Well, that's a very good question. I was asking myself that question quite frequently after about song six or seven.

SEABROOK: Got tired, huh?

Mr. COULTON: Yeah. It was very hard. I quit my day job a little before I started doing that. I've been doing a lot of music in my spare time. And as soon as I quit my day job, I found that I had a lot of my time on my hands. And it seemed like a good way to occupy myself and keep the wheel spinning.

SEABROOK: So play something for us.

Mr. COULTON: All right. This is actually a song that I wrote about my day job experiences. It's not directly about them, but it's sort of inspired by them. I used to write software for a living, and this song is called "Code Monkey."

(Singing) Code Monkey get up, get coffee. Code Monkey, go to job. Code Monkey have boring meeting with boring manager Rob. Rob said, Code Monkey very diligent, but his outputs stink. His code not functional or elegant. What do Code Monkey think? Code Monkey think, maybe manager will want to write that login page himself. Code Monkey not say it out loud. Code Monkey not crazy, just proud. And Code Monkey like Fritos. Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew. Code Monkey very simple man with big, warm, fuzzy secret heart. Code Monkey like you.

Code Monkey hang around at front desk and tell you sweater look nice. Code Monkey offer buy you soda. Bring you cup, bring you ice. You say no, thank you for the soda because soda make you fat. Anyway, you busy with the telephone. No time for chat. Code Monkey have long walk back to cubicle. He sit down, pretend to work. Code Monkey not thinking so straight. Code Monkey not feeling so great. And Code Monkey like Fritos. Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew. Code Monkey very simple man with big, warm, fuzzy secret heart. Code Monkey like you.

SEABROOK: Do you have a favorite of this year of songs?

Mr. COULTON: Oh, a favorite - that's very hard. You know, I'm very proud of "Code Monkey," just because it was just a huge Internet hit. It was by far the thing that was linked to and downloaded the most. And it's just reached so many people.

SEABROOK: How many people?

Mr. COULTON: You know. I don't know. A million people have...

SEABROOK: You must have the metrics, come on.

Mr. COULTON: Yeah, I haven't looked in a while, but I'm sure it's - beyond a million people have downloaded that song.

SEABROOK: So do you make any money at this? I mean, you quit your day job. You're self-publishing albums. You've had this fantastic Internet hit - did you even make $0.99 per song on that?

Mr. COULTON: Well, no, because, you know, it was freely available as a podcast. And so some people paid for it because they couldn't figure out how to get it free. Somebody paid - some people paid for it because they wanted to. And other people got it for free and gave me a donation later. So, you know, I have a number of different ways that people can choose to compensate me or not. And the answer is, yeah, I actually have been making some money. And I'm continually surprised. But, you know, I track the numbers, and every month the numbers go up. And I'm certainly not making as much as I was as a software designer. But then again, it's only been a year, so...

SEABROOK: You know, something else that I've noticed about your songs is that they're really visual. They really set a scene right in the beginning. I'm going to quote here from the song, "Shop-Vac." The first lines are, we took the freeway out of town. We found a place to settle down. We bought a driveway, a swingset and a dog.

(Soundbite of song, "Shop-Vac")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) You've got your very own bathroom. I've got my very own workshop in the basement. Sit around staring at the wall, the wall. Take field trips to our favorite mall. Waiting for the day when all the kids grow up and leave us here. If you need me, I'll be downstairs with the Shop-Vac. You can call but I probably won't hear you, because it's loud with the Shop-Vac on.

SEABROOK: Do you start out with a scene in mind, or do you just start playing with words? Or how do you write?

Mr. COULTON: You know, it varies. And there are so many different versions of the process over that year-long period. But on the best songs, the situation is that I can see the character, and I know exactly how he's feeling and where he's coming from and what he's about. And then the song just sort of unfolds itself out of that. Sometimes that doesn't happen, and I really need to fish around to find it. But yeah, I think eventually the successful songs are based on something extremely visual.

SEABROOK: So looking at the list of instruments you used - and you list a very fancy, mod baby crib and a diaper pail in your list of instruments?

Mr. COULTON: Yes. For a long time, during the year of "Thing A Week," - I forgot that was still up there - for a long time during the year of "Thing A Week" songs, my studio was actually in my daughter's room. You know, so she was, I don't know, eight months, nine months. And so, yeah, there were actually some tracks that I recorded, say a backing vocal with her in my arms, which was not the most convenient way to do it, anybody will tell you. But yeah, so I include that as part of my studio setup, because it was in my studio.

SEABROOK: Oh, I see. So you didn't use them to make noise. They were just in your studio.

Mr. COULTON: They were just in my studio, yeah. Sort of an ironic comment there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: There was this wonderful song that made tears well up in my eyes. It's called "You Ruined Everything." But it's also you ruined everything in the best way, and it's about having a young baby.

Mr. COULTON: Exactly, yeah. And this is - you know, it's a wonderful experience being a parent, but there's something that people don't tell you, which is that there is a moment early on when you say to yourself, my God, what have I done?

SEABROOK: Absolutely true, especially in the first three months. You're sort of, you know, like...

Mr. COULTON: Right. And nobody says that. Nobody warns you. But it's a perfectly natural - because it's like your old self dies, and a your new self has to rise from the ashes.

SEABROOK: Can I hear that song live?

Mr. COULTON: Of course you can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: Don't cry, though.

SEABROOK: I will try not to.

(Soundbite of song, "You Ruined Everything")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) I was fine. I pulled myself together just in time to throw myself away. Once my perfect world was gone, I knew you ruined everything in the nicest way.

You should know how great things were before you. Even so, they're better still today. Now I can't think who I was before you ruined everything in the nicest way.

Bumps in the road remind us the worst of the best behind us. Only good things will find us, me and you. Things will be clear and sunny. We're going to need more money. Baby, you know it's funny. All the stories coming true. Despite my better efforts, it's all for you. The worst kind of cliché.

I'll be with you till the day you leave. You ruined everything in the nicest way.

SEABROOK: It is so true that it is so cliché and trite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: I know, right? And it sort of bugs me. My wife and I are both the same. You know, we're - before we were parents, it bugged us the way people always speak in the same way about how wonderful an experience it is. And then it's so awful. You become a parent, and then you start talking that way. And you're like, what happened to me?

SEABROOK: Yeah, it's totally true. I mean, I found myself saying - today, words that, like, it's completely indescribable. Because you're trying to avoid all the clichés, you know, and so you end up saying exactly the same thing people always say.

Mr. COULTON: And then even that's a cliché and it's - yeah, it's terrible.

SEABROOK: It's a funny thing, because it's so universal and so indescribable.

Mr. COULTON: Yeah. That's very true.

SEABROOK: It's a funny thing. But do you birthday parties? Since you remind me a little bit of Dan Zanes now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: You know, I haven't done a lot of birthday parties. But people do tell me that, you know, I get a lot of e-mails from people who say, you know, my son is crazy about your song about zombies. Or my 3-year-old will not stop listening to your song about Ikea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: So I think, occasionally, I do tap into that preschool mind in a very powerful way. So it's not outside the realm of possibility that I might do a children's album at some point in the future. I think that would be very fun.

SEABROOK: Four CDs released after one year's work. Musician Jonathan Coulton played. This project is called "Thing A Week," and he joined us from our studio in New York. Thank you so much.

Mr. COULTON: Thank you, Andrea.

(Soundbite of Song "Re: Your Brains")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Hey you Tom, it's Bob from the office down the hall. It's good to see you, buddy. How've you been? Things have been okay for me, except that I'm a zombie now. Really wish you'd let us in. I think I...

SEABROOK: More Coulton tunes, the graphic art they've inspired, and videos of random people dancing to "Code Monkey" are at npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

(Soundbite of Song "Re: Your Brains")

Mr. COULTON (Singing) But here's an FYI. You're all going die screaming, all we want to do is eat your brains. We're not unreasonable. I mean, no one's going to eat your eyes. All we want to do is eat your brains...

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