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Jonathan Coulton’s not merely the opening act for They Might Be Giants at the Lincoln Theater on Weds, Feb. 15. He’s been transformed by them. The troubadour is now fronting a power trio thanks to TMBG’s John Flansburgh work on his Artificial Heart album.
Coulton had been doing quite well as a one man band and selling his songs on the internet. He’s Contributing Troubadour at Popular Science magazine and composes music for projects by his Yale classmate John Hodgman (Daily Show).
His songs have been featured on Rock Band and Portal. He packs in big crowds at geek conventions that adore his “Code Monkey” song. He’s a success story without being on a major label or even an indie label.
Things changed a bit when Flansburgh came on board as producer for Artificial Heart. He talked Coulton into having a real band in a professional studio . Flansburgh’s work didn’t stop at the recording level. He served as director of the video for “Je Suis Rick Springfield.”
Raleigh Music called him up to as what it’s to open up for your producer? “It’s great,” Coulton said. “I’ve been such a big fan of theirs for so long that it certainly took me a while to feel not completely uncomfortable when I was around John Flansburgh. I was starstruck for a long time. Being in the studio with someone is like living in the Big Brother house. You get up close and personal pretty quickly. Once you spent a day in the studio with somebody, it normalizes and humanizes everybody.”
The record featured TMGB’s drummer Marty Beller . He’s not pulling double duty on this tour. “He’s busy with his other band,” Coulton noted. “Chris Anderson plays bass, but he’s got a fantastic heavy metal BeeGees-type band. They were both busy so I had to rehire everybody. Different bass player and drummer then are on the album. But they are also fantastic and I love playing with them.”
The audience and performer dynamics have been altered by Coulton going electric with his band.
“The solo acoustic show is a really different experience for the audience and for me than the band show,” he said. “This is not a secret to most of the world, playing loud electric guitar with a band behind you in front of an audience is one of the greatest things in the world. I’ve been having a great time. Which is not to say that I don’t still appreciate the solo acoustic shows. I’ve had an opportunity to do a couple of those since I started touring with the band. I was reminded how much more directly you connect with an audience when you’re doing that. There are good aspects to both and I hope to continue doing both."
Does this mean Coulton understands why Bob Dylan went electric at Newport?
“Exactly,” he declared. “Only a very selfish person would want an artist to continue doing the exact same thing that they’ve always done. People will tell you, when you’re a creative person, it’s your job to surprise the audience. Not to give them exactly what they want, but what give them what they didn’t know they wanted. That’s the real challenge.
“That’s the real trick,” he said. “To the extent that I have accomplished that with this new album and the new band, I don’t know. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people. It’s nerve wrecking to bring that new stuff. If you have a catalog of material that kills every time, it feels very foolish sometimes to do anything new at all. It’s also an essential component of what my job is. I’m glad that it’s gone as good as well as it has.”
The biggest change he’s noticed in his audience’s reaction to the power trio.
“The nice thing about this sort of transition I’ve made is that some of the old songs have taken on this anthemic sing-along quality. Which is fantastic,” he said. “The new songs are a lot more up tempo. With the band, the energy in the room is a lot more different. People are dancing at my shows now which is not something that used to happen.“
There’s a bit of a risk for an unsigned artist to take on the expenses of hiring a band, producer and studio since it comes from his bank account versus an advance on his royalties. Did Coulton have any fears of making such a step up?
“I had a pretty good feeling about how it was going to go,” he said. “I know what my fan base is like and I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from them: which is to say that they’re extremely supportive. I had a feeling that it was not going to be hard to cover the added expense of working in the studio and hiring musicians. Maybe it would mean cutting into my margins a little bit. It seemed like something worth paying for. Run the experiment and try something new and take on a bit of risk which is always an important component of creative work. I wasn’t worried about the profit angle at all. I was mostly excited about doing something new.”
The gamble paid off when Artificial Heart stood at the top of Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums. Even with his independent career, Coulton isn’t anti-record label.
“The economy of a label deal doesn’t necessarily make sense for me as much as it might for other artists. I’m not opposed to labels,” he said. “There are good people working at labels who care about artists and care about music. I think sometimes it’s great. When you have a label behind you, you have more muscle ,you have more smarts and more connections. That can be really valuable for a band in the right place. For me, I have so much direct response from fans. When I think in the most basic terms of covering the costs of an album or covering the costs of a tour, it’s not hard to see it working without me doing much of anything. I’ve been experimenting on spending money on marketing and press. The results of which is hard to measure. I think release of this album has gone very well. The more mainstream techniques I’ve been dipping into have been paying off in some way. There’s definitely a little juice left in the old model. I could easily make songs and put them on my website and send out to my mailing list to ask people to buy them. That would probably still allow me to make a living without having to go to the old school record business techniques.”
How have They Might Be Giants reacted to what Coulton has been able to do using the internet to reach an audience without signing to a major label?
“They do a lot of what I do anyway. They were among the first artists to start making MP3s of their music available way back in 1954 when the MP3 was invented,” Coulton joked. “They’ve always been really cutting edge. They have a great understanding between them and their fans. It’s more a stylistic choice and has little to do whether you’re on a label or not. They’re part of the label system because in those days you had to be. I don’t think they’ve seen any reason to break from it. It’s worked out well for them. They’re very hands on with many parts of their business. They think a lot about their fan connection. It shows. They’ve very loyal fans. If anything I’ve taken many cues from them.”
One of the lessons Coulton learned from TMBG was letting fans get to listen to your music for free. When Coulton first got serious about being a musician, he posted a song a week for a year on the internet. Back in the ‘80s, TMBG had their Dial-A-Song answering machine for fans to call.
“That’s the crazy thing about them,” he said. “They did the song a week before there was an internet. They didn’t let the fact that there wasn’t a worldwide network of computers or a thing call MP3s stop them from putting music out for free on a regular basis and making it available to the world. It’s kinda brilliant."
A major part of Coulton’s biography is how he quit his job as a software programmer after the birth of his daughter so he could focus on being a musician. How did he manage to find time to focus on music with a baby in the house? Most stay at home dads turn into zombies from lack of sleep and constantly taking care of the baby. What was his secret?
“My wife and I both worked fulltime when had our daughter,” he said. “We had already planned to set up a regular daylong childcare situation in the form of a nanny. That was in place anyway. The change was that instead of working at a job that was respectable and taking money, I’d be working as at job that was not respectable and taking no money. It wasn’t as if I was caring for my baby daughter all day and also writing music. I was pretending that I had this job. The babysitter was taking care of my kid and I was sitting in a room somewhere writing music. Before she was born I imagined myself being able to do work and take care of a child at the same time. It’s really just not possible.”
When it came time to quit his job, did he tell everyone he was pursuing his musical dreams. Or did he lie and claim he was taking contract work?
“I told the truth and it wasn’t always easy,” he said. “It felt at the time that it was a vain and foolish thing to do. But I couldn’t see any see any other way through it. For the most part people were supportive or at least pretended to be in my presence.“
Coulton’s first break out hit was “Code Monkey.” It broke down the sad life of a programmer who hates his job and lusts for the receptionist while downing gallons of Mountain Dew. The song became the theme to the sitcom Code Monkeys on G4. How did his old code monkey pals react to his success?
“I think some of them were offended especially my old boss because it’s a song about a software guy who hates his job and doesn’t like his boss,” he said. “I always take great pains to explain it’s not completely autobiographical. It’s based on a real experience, but that character is not me. I loved both my bosses. I had a lot of fun working at that job.”
One song on Artificial Heart that doesn’t sound autobiographical is “Now I Am An Arsonist.” Why? Because he was able to get Suzanne Vega to sing it. How did he hook up with the folkie legend behind “Tom’s Diner?”
“She’s such an iconic voice. Flansburgh had a connection with her,” he said. “They had been friends for a while. It was his suggestion that we put something together to feature her. It was a real challenge writing for somebody else. I don’t do that a lot. But I felt like it was easy in some ways because I know what Suzanne Vega sounds like. The funny thing is she came in to record her vocal. We chatted for a while and had some tea. She went into the studio room to tryout some microphones and started singing. And it was like, ‘Oh my God! That’s Suzanne Vega!’ I think she’s fantastic. That song is one of my favorites on the album. I don’t think it would come across the same way without her singing it.”
While Coulton’s music has mostly been bought as files on the internet, Artificial Heart has been packaged in various formats. Our conversation changed to the tactile nature of music. Are kids really connecting to music when it’s merely a file on their hard drive?
“There are some cases where the physical media becomes more of a souvenir than anything else,” he said. “It used to be the only way you could obtain the music was by buying some sort of a disc, cassette or 8-track. That’s not true anymore. The physical item is no longer the means of acquiring the music. It is something else. I think vinyl is having a resurgence because it is truly a beautiful physical medium. When you have that feeling that you do about some bands or artists where you just want to hold the object in your hands and read the liner notes, look at the artwork and think about it. It literally is a delicate thing that needs to be treasured and cared for.
“One of the things I did before we released it, I made it available as different special edition bundles. You could get a signed copy of the CD or signed CD, t-shirt and a poster. Or you could get a giant super box filled with stuff. I sold quite a few of those. The last few of those are shipping just now. My friend Sam Potts is a designer and did all the design for the CD, the box and all the objects in the box. Once I started making it beautiful, it was hard to stop. It’s a really cool thing to have. It includes a vinyl copy. I don’t have a record player, but I like special edition vinyl just because it’s a giant thing."
They Might Be Giants might be most famous of all for the theme and “Hot Dog Song” of The Mickey Mouse Funhouse. “The Hot Dog Song” has had nearly 140 million clicks on Youtube. Hipster musicians have snuck onto Nick Jr. with Yo Gabba Gabba and The Backyardigans. Is Coulton saving up any songs for when he plots domination of the Kiddie TV music market?
“The idea that I have enough songs that I could save any is hilarious,” he said. “I’m like the native Americans and the buffalo. I use every part.”
Spoken like a true independent musician who knows efficiency is the key to success.
They Might Be Giants with special guest Jonathan Coulton at the Lincoln Theater on Wednesday, Feburary 15th starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are sold out so consult your favorite alternative avenue.
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