Look at Us Still Talking When There’s Science To Do: An Interview With Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan CoultonWe have something of a cross-cultural DLC for you this week: Since a lot of Rock Band players are also fans of Valve’s game Portal — and vice versa — we thought we’d close the gap and bring Portal’s closing song, “Still Alive” to Rock Band—for free! Not only that, but our writer Heather Wilson recently sat down with the song’s creator Jonathan Coulton to discuss music, gaming, and the connection between his high school and pork products.


Interview by Heather Wilson


“We’re out of beta, we’re releasing on time.” I’m on stage with three fellow Harmonixers, belting out the lyrics to “Still Alive,” while glowing note tubes slide past my eyes to the right; when five people join the small group already gathered in front of the stage to watch our preliminary sound check. One of them looks familiar. Oh. It’s Jonathan Coulton, the guy who wrote this song. My voice quavers, I do my best to finish and when the song’s done everyone claps, including Jonathan. This isn’t the first time I’ve met him but shyness overwhelms me, probably because I think I’ve just finished a terrible rendition of one of his songs. He tells me I sounded good. Woah.

This is all in preparation for the Valve party at this year’s Game Developers Conference. We’re going to debut “Still Alive” in Rock Band for the first time. Most of Valve doesn’t even know it’s happening, and everyone at Harmonix wants to be at this party. Jonathan will perform alongside Alex Rigopulos (General Manager), Dan Teasdale (Senior Designer), and Sean Baptiste (Manager of Community Development). Thus creating a super geek quartet unlike any the world has ever seen. The performance goes well and Jonathan is super psyched to have helped create this experience.

Jonathan Coulton is geeky singer-songwriter whose works run the gamut from theme songs for Popular Science magazine to love songs dedicated to characters from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. From September 2005 to 2006 Jonathan’s creative experiment “Thing a Week” ran on his website. The experiment was a success garnering him a larger audience and a catalog of interesting, and sometimes amazingly inspired tracks.

I caught up with Jonathan two days later, right before his big show at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall where he will be performing “Still Alive” again this time accompanied by some blogging luminaries.

I loved “Half-Life” and so it was sort of one of those mutual fan experiences.

H: How did you get hooked up with the Valve guys?

J: So the beginning of my connection with Portal was long ago, now I’m not sure how long ago, but I was playing a show in Seattle and afterwards a couple of people came up to say hi and said that they worked for Valve. And I was very excited because I loved “Half-Life” and so it was sort of one of those mutual fan experiences. It was Kim Swift actually who came up to say hi, and she said “would you be interested in talking about maybe writing music for Valve or doing something with Valve?” I said “Yes, absolutely! Anything let’s talk, please let’s talk,” because I’ve always been a huge fan of their work. So at some point later they flew me out to their office and I got to play an early version of the game, which was very exciting because I had seen the little teaser trailer and I couldn’t wait for the game to come out. I have to say the Valve snack table is the best snack table I’ve ever seen at any tech company.

Eventually I talked with the writer, Erik Wolpaw, and it became clear almost immediately that our sensibilities overlapped in this really nice way. Where I was writing all these songs about passive aggressive monsters and here was this character in their game that was a passive aggressive monster, and that’s when we decided that that’s what we were going to do.

H: So how was the process of writing it with Erik and Kim, and how did you sort of work together on that?

“Cake. You should probably talk about cake."

J: I talked with Erik a lot about GLaDOS and who she was and what her back-story was. Because he’s got all this back-story in his head that’s not in the game about why she is the way she is and how she fits in with the rest of the Half-Life universe. So we talked a lot about her and where she came from and how she was going to feel at the end of the game after you had finished the game. And he also gave me a few suggestions “Cake. You should probably talk about cake. You should mention Black Mesa if you can.” And then it was, “Go ahead and write it.”

H: Yeah totally! You mentioned that it was good fit because of the type of songs that you write. Where do you get the inspiration for your songs from?

J: I think that there has to be a part of my brain that feels like this kind of character, this wronged, or misunderstood, or possibly slightly monstrous character, because it always comes up. Like the evil genius in love or the giant squid who crushes ships, but only because he loves them and feels bad about it. There’s a lot of guilt and alienation in all of the characters and I think that’s gotta be because that’s something in me that’s like that. I grew up, as all of us did, feeling uncomfortable in my own skin throughout my adolescence, and you know I’ve always enjoyed geeky subject matter, Sci-fi, and math, and science. And so I think all of those things, I think that’s also a common theme in that medium too.

H: It’s interesting that you mention growing up and feeling that way your album “Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow” that’s the Colchester town motto. So I really wanted to ask you growing up in Colchester, and what that was like for you, and how it affects you now?

J: Looking back I loved Colchester, my parents still live there so I go back to visit frequently. For those who don’t know Colchester, it’s this little town in CT and there’s a town green and a gazebo and a high school.

H: Named with bacon prominently featured.

J: Bacon Academy is the name of the high school, yeah. I lived out in the boonies of Colchester and I grew up in a house that was surrounded by woods. I used entertain myself by going out into the woods and knocking over trees and falling into ponds and stuff like that.

I do have Rock Band at home and I’ve been playing quite a bit.

H: John Drake [PR Coordinator] will kill me if I don’t ask you about Rock Band. If you’ve played it, how you find it, and what instrument you like to play.

J: To have to one of my songs appear on the list next to Aerosmith and Radiohead and whatever it’s this mind-blowing thing because I don’t feel like I belong on that list at all. And on top of that yes, I do have Rock Band at home and I’ve been playing quite a bit. It’s surprisingly fun, even for people who don’t play games or music. At a number of parties I’ve busted it out and people who don’t play anything at all you give ‘em the bass, you set it on easy, and they don’t know what they’re doing for the first twenty seconds but they feel like they’re playing bass guitar in a rock band. And it’s the craziest thing to watch, to look over at somebody who has no musical ability and they’re playing the bass. [You know it’s this game and it can be just played as this game, but it’s sort of crosses over into learning an instrument in a weird way. And you’re reading music; essentially you’re reading sheet music. I think it’s just brilliant that you’ve actually made that fun. Cause it’s awful. [laughing]

H: Cool, and I understand you actually like to play the drums.

J: I do, actually that was the first instrument I learned. I was a drummer when I was in junior high and some of high school. So yeah I haven’t played actual drums in a long time cause I can’t afford to have one in my Brooklyn apartment, for many reasons. But yeah I’m thrilled to have a drum set that I can play. It’s always felt a little special to be the drummer because it’s kind of hard to find drummers. And it’s the same thing at a party with Rock Band. So you just sit down there and play and people are “wow he can play the drums.’

I almost feel like my skill at playing the guitar is rather minimal in terms of being a professional musician. So, I often feel like my guitar parts are a little boring. But that’s your job you can make them interesting.

H: Yes! That’s what we do.

J: Even if they’re not written well you can make them harder to play than they are on the actual guitar.


“I Want My, I Want My DLC!”


The songs in Rock Band are only the beginning. Each week we’ll be rolling out more downloadable songs, essential tracks (and sometimes whole albums) from every era of rock history. Check the Rock Band website to find out what’s new.

Tracks will usually sell for $1.99 each; with three-pack specials costing $5.49. (On the Xbox 360, that’s 160 Microsoft Points per track and 440 per three-pack). Occasional special or discounted tracks may cost a dollar more or less.

Downloadable content for the Xbox 360 is available through the XBOX LIVE marketplace. Downloads for the PLAYSTATION 3 version of Rock Band are available through the PLAYSTATION Network Store. In each case, the songs are downloaded onto your hard drive.

If you’re playing solo, you can start rocking right away. For head-to-head or multi-player online, all players will need to download the song.