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Interview: Jonathan Coulton On 'Still Alive', PAX Style

We talk to Jonathan Coulton about the geek-friendly musician's upcoming PAX appearance, his attitude to creating art, and some recent Japanese performances of his classic Portal theme 'Still Alive'.

September 2, 2009

12 Min Read

Author: by Jeriaska

[We talk to Jonathan Coulton about the geek-friendly musician's upcoming PAX appearance, his attitude to creating art, and some recent Japanese performances of his classic Portal theme 'Still Alive'.] Jonathan Coulton's closing credits theme to Valve's Portal, sung by the disingenuous artificial intelligence GLaDOS, has gained widespread recognition since the game was released in 2007. The track was made available as a free download on Rock Band last year, and is making its way onstage for two game-related live events this season. Featured at the 2009 Press Start Symphony of Games concert in August at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro, "Still Alive" was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and sung in Japanese by vocalist Mariko Otsuka. This weekend, Coulton will play the song himself at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. In addition to performing live, the musician is scheduled to participate in a panel on developer Harmonix's Rock Band Network. The service is meant to facilitate independent artists in adding their songs to the playable catalog. For this game-related interview, Coulton offers his perspectives on the unique appeal of music titles like Rock Band and the reception of "Still Alive" from Portal. The discussion provides a novel perspective on the intersecting artistic aims and issues of digital property rights shared by both the current music and videogame industries. "I Crush Everything," live at Temple Bar in Los Angeles Harmonix will be presenting its panel on the Rock Band Network at PAX, which you are scheduled to attend. Do you have any thoughts on what potential exists for the service? Jonathan Coulton: I think it’s a great idea. It makes perfect sense to make this a market for independent content, like everything else on the internet. As someone who is relatively proficient in both playing actual musical instruments and playing videogames I can say that Rock Band simulates both those things very well. In particular the drums are amazing: As you’re playing the drums, you’re kind of playing the drums! On top of that, my wife is not a huge gamer, nor does she play any musical instruments, but she can have a blast in Rock Band. It’s always fun to watch a group of people at a party get together and have that experience of playing in a band. For people who wouldn’t otherwise get to know what that’s like it’s a great experience. How many of your songs are looking like they will be on Rock Band in the near future? “Still Alive” and “Skull Crusher Mountain” are on Rock Band. Now that they’re doing the Rock Band Network so that indie musicians can get their stuff up there, I’m going to be putting a lot more up. A number of your songs have a Creative Commons license attached. Is copyright an issue you feel is important to musicians working in digital media today? As a musician I think a lot about this. The changing nature of the music industry is something I have to pay attention to. I do think that this is transformative: the internet, the mp3, all these portable devices. It’s always been the truth that new things are based on old things, and the difference with digital content is that now we can create things that are literally reusing pieces of old stuff, as opposed to just being based on it. Maybe not all of us, but millions of us feel it’s okay to trade music with each other, and to ignore that fact just seems like lunacy to me. That’s one of the things I like about Creative Commons. It allows you to acknowledge that fact and embrace it. It’s a way of saying, “Please share my music.” Derivative works are also part of the license that I use. This is how we make art now—by reusing other pieces of art. The rules have changed, I think in a very positive way. It’s a beautiful vision of creativity to say: I put this music out not just to be enjoyed, but as ingredients for new things. Do you find it inspiring to be able to witness your work being reinterpreted or utilized by others in the creation of new artistic products? Oh yeah, it’s incredibly flattering. For someone to care enough about your music to edit together a four-minute music video for it is remarkable. And also, it’s really inspiring to think that you somehow enabled more creative work in another person. This guy named Spiff creates machinama music videos using World of Warcraft. He’s done like fifteen of them, and they’re great. They sort of take the story that’s in the song and expand on it in really interesting ways. They’re funny and they’re technically really impressive… I don’t even know how he does it. They’re all on YouTube, and the amazing thing is that some of them have been viewed literally millions of times by people. There is a whole community of people that really likes to watch World of Warcraft machinama videos. It’s a niche I never even knew existed and one that I would never have in a million years thought to market my music to. But that’s exactly what has happened in this very organic, natural way. This guy Spiff is into it and also is a fan of my music. It’s sort of a perfect example of why Creative Commons is a great thing. Spiff's Machinama music video of "Code Monkey" The other one that I’ll mention is there’s a woman named Kristen Shirts who plays the ukulele and who lives in New York City. She entered and won a remix contest that I was having for a song called “Code Monkey.” She stripped it way down, just used the vocals and added a ukulele part. The original song is this very fast rock song, and it became this sad, quiet piece. It got to the heart of the song in a way that I failed to do when I originally recorded it. Since then, the way she plays it is the way I play it when I play it live. In fact, whenever I play it in New York, she plays it with me. How well do you know the organizers of the Penny Arcade Expo? I think the first time I met Mike and Jerry was the first time at PAX. They’re incredibly talented and they’re running this event that 40,000 people attend. It’s just nuts how big it is. You expect when you meet people like that, they’re going to be these huge Hollywood assholes, but they’re not. Last year the Minibosses, a rock band that does covers of retro videogame themes, performed at PAX. Were you able to check out any of their set? Yeah. It’s sort of an amazing spectacle to see that music in that style. It’s fascinating to me that there’s this whole body of work that was created for videogames over the years, having various different technical requirements and limitations on how many voices you could use. I started with a 2600 and have been interested in gaming for as long as long as there have been games. Could you see yourself writing a full soundtrack to a videogame? I don’t think that writing instrumental music that would support the action and events in a videogame are where my skills and interest lie. I’ve never done anything like that. “Still Alive” for me was a nice opportunity because I could write a pop song that a character would sing. Has there been music from games that has stuck with you over the years? I have to say the Mario Bros. music. It’s sort of an obvious example, but it’s amazing that I can still sing all of those all the way through: the above ground music, the underground music, the “I just got the invincibility star” music... It’s this quintessential example of what you could do within the technical limitations that they had at the time, and still one of the most effective pieces of game music. Those songs from the original Mario were arranged for the orchestra for the recent Press Start concert in Tokyo and were performed alongside “Still Alive.” (laughs) That’s fantastic. I love it. How did it sound? It sounded great. It’s the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. (laughs) That’s great. For the Press Start concert, Masahiro Sakurai, the director of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl series, got on stage with a 360 controller to demo the Portal gun for the audience. The translation of your song's lyrics into Japanese was by Kazushige Nojima, a famous game scenario writer in Japan. That’s awesome. Did anyone give you a call? Perhaps to say, “Hey, the Tokyo Phil's going to perform your music this year for Press Start.” No, I don’t think I heard about that. The song actually was a work for hire from Valve, so they own the copyright on the song. It’s not Creative Commons, although Valve has been pretty supportive, or at least non-litigious, about people doing things with it. There was sort of an explosion of people covering it when it first came out and I know that the Valve guys were excited to see it happen because it meant that the game was catching on with people. Did you have a lot of details about the story of the game and the character of GLaDOS before you composed “Still Alive?” Yeah, I did. I had extensive conversations with the writers and the Portal team before I did the game. They shared with me a lot of the backstory that they had written that does not actually appear in the game. We talked a great deal about GLaDOS, who she was and what she wanted, what she would be feeling at the end of this game. Jonathan Coulton Sings "Still Alive" - AT&T Tech Channel Do you find her to be a sympathetic character? I do find her very sympathetic, because she’s limited. It’s true she’s trying to kill you, but not out of malice. She believes that she is doing good work and it pains her when you work against her. She’s only that way because we made her that way, so you can’t really blame her for being a murderous psychopath. I think one of the reasons that the game is so successful is that it’s a character you understand very well by the end of the experience. The compelling thing about her is she feels painfully human. She’s passive aggressive, her feelings get hurt, and she can’t say that her feelings are hurt. That’s how the rest of us are. I do a lot of character-based writing and I think some of my strongest songs are based on a character that is complicated. Like Sir Mix-a-Lot, for example? Like Sir Mix-a-Lot... or the self-loathing giant squid. To me, that’s a compelling character. I love to start with something like that and see where it leads me. You have also performed “Still Alive” at PAX? I don’t think I would have been able to get out of there with all of my limbs if I had not. Last year at PAX I was fortunate enough to be joined by Felicia Day for that song. That was really awesome for me, because I have been a huge fan of hers since “Dr. Horrible." When she was coming to PAX I very shyly asked her if she would join me. She was totally game, and I knew it was one of those things that would just make people’s heads explode. Has performing at the Penny Arcade Expo been a positive experience previously? It’s still far and away the biggest crowd that I’ve ever played in front of. It was something like 8,000 people last year. My shows are generally four to five hundred tops, so to go up another order of magnitude, it really changes the experience. Even though it’s me playing gentle songs on my acoustic guitar, the sheer size of the crowd makes you feel like a huge rock star. Is it bizarre to receive an enormous reaction from a large crowd to the subtler acoustic pieces? My first reaction to any enormous arena rock sort of response from a crowd is that I find it funny. I have this song called "I Crush Everything" about a depressed giant squid, so I introduce the song by saying, “This is about a giant squid that hates himself,” and the crowd goes wild. Who will be accompanying you onstage for the expo performance in September? This year my good friends Paul and Storm, who are a funny singer/ songwriter duo are also coming to PAX and doing their own set on Friday night. We tour together often and they are always kind enough to come up and sing background vocals for a bunch of songs. Do you have an idea of what you’ll be bringing to PAX this time around? There’s a few songs that didn’t exist the last time I was at PAX that I’ll do. I’m working on a kind of cool surprise, and we’ll see if it happens. The interesting thing about having Paul and Storm there is that it opens it up to doing the kinds of songs that I might not choose to do in front of this crowd. Also, it sort of changes the nature of the songs. I’m really looking forward to having them there, because it means that it will have a section that’s new and exciting and fun for everyone. [Images courtesy of the Penny Arcade Expo. To learn more about Jonathan Coulton, visit the JoCopedia, "an entire Wiki dedicated to the wild, wonderful universe of Jonathan Coulton."]

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