Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton may not be widely known outside of geek circles, but he's a bona fide nerd rock star, revealing he pulls in a cool $500,000 a year thanks to appearances at video game conventions and smart songs about Pluto's moons, Rick Springfield and IKEA. His latest album is Artificial Heart, his first with a full band. It was produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants and boasts appearances from Suzanne Vega, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara and the Weekly's own John Roderick. We caught up with Coulton via phone from his Minneapolis hotel room, where he told us about the record, his "deep connection" to Seattle and his ignorance of all-things Lana Del Rey. Coulton plays the Showbox Market on June 22nd.
It seems like a perfect partnership, he and you. Had you been a long-time fan of They Might Be Giants, and if so, how did you come to know them? It was Flood that first turned me on to them when I was in college. Somebody down the hall in the dorm was playing music and cackling and I went down and said, "What is going on?" She said, "I'm listening to this album and there's this song about these guys who wear prosthetic foreheads over their heads." And I was like, "Oh that's dumb." But then I listened to that song. It's called, "Everybody Wants a Rock," and it's about -- I don't even know what it's about. But it's this catchy pop song that is kind of funny and maybe kind of dark but you can't really tell. I listened to that album and it was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I've been a fan of theirs ever since and listening to them over the years taught me that you could have songs that were funny but also dark and that you could write about things other than boy meets girl in a way that could still be moving and interesting.
It doesn't seem like there's as big of a crossover between geek culture and music as there could be given the popularity of geeky things in the mainstream these days. While Iron Maiden might sing about swords and sorcery, they aren't associated with geek culture. Why aren't there more nerd rock stars? What you see in the landscape is that there are bands that geeks like who don't identify themselves as geeks, like They Might Be Giants or Barenaked Ladies. I think it comes down to a stigma associated with the word geek and associated with content that gets created on the internet. We have this deep-seeded trust of the standard tastemakers that we've been relying on for decades and even though the landscape has changed quite a bit in the last ten years, I think there's still a stamp of approval that comes from being associated with a non-internet thing. Every time you read my name it says "internet musician Jonathan Coulton," and that's going to cause some people to dismiss things.
But it does seem like there's this double standard where it's OK for Radiohead to use the internet for distribution but not ... Well they're cool. [Laughs.]
When you heard Lana Del Rey's "Video Games" did you feel like she was encroaching on your turf? I have to confess I don't know that song. The fascinating thing about the rise of geek culture in popular culture is that it really has drawn some lines in the sand and it's really turned the word geek into a political thing. People are spending a lot of time trying to determine how authentically geek something is. Once a subculture gets absorbed by popular culture, people start to say, "Well what is this?" If you're a metal fan and there's a new metal band, everybody is going to try to decide, is that band really metal? Are they the right kind of metal or are they pussies?
Do you have a favorite song on Artificial Heart? One of the songs that I'm most proud of is called "Glasses." It's right in the middle of the record and it's a meditation on being old and being in a long-term relationship, which is not the sexiest thing you can write about when you're supposedly a rock star. [Laughs.] So many of the songs on the record are about people who are dissatisfied with their lives or their jobs or who they are. And that song "Glasses" is one of the few rays of hope on the record. It sort of celebrates the process of aging and lives getting difficult and finding beauty in that. The song is very personal and I sing about my wife and our lives and it feels like a deep thing.
Can you tell me about the cover and the concept behind it? And what is that on the album's cover? It's an artificial heart but you should not put it in your body. It's meant to look like a poorly designed and poorly constructed version of an artificial heart. The designer that I worked with is named Sam Potts, and he's been a friend of mine for years. He and I got together after all the songs were done to talk about what the design was going to look like. The larger conceit of the design was this idea that this album is one piece of material from a collection of self-help materials that you can get to deal with your problems. So that object is a thing that Sam actually built from parts that were purchased from hardware stores and it is designed to be the kind of device that is meant to aid you but is probably really going to hurt you.
You seem to have a lot of connections to Seattle. You covered "Baby Got Back" from Sir Mix-a-Lot, you hooked up with Valve after a show here and there's a song on the album by the Weekly's own John Roderick. What comes to mind when you think about Seattle? I have a deep connection to Seattle. Seattle is the first city that I played my own show in outside of New York when I was first finishing Thing a Week. I was going to be there for a weekend for something else and I wrote on my blog, "Hey, if anyone can find a venue that seats about 100 people, I'll do a show." And people found an open place and I played.
Do you remember where it was? It was the Jewel Box Theater and about 75 or 80 people showed up. It was really the beginning of realizing that there were fans out there that were willing to come see me. Over the years, Seattle has always been a great town for me to play in. There's some tech industry there as you know, so there are a lot of nerds. And for the past few years, I've always played PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo. It's just a great town. I love New York City because it's a real high energy place, but every time I get off the plane in Seattle, it's a little gray, a little misty and the air is soft and cool and I'm always like, "Aw." I just feel better when I'm in Seattle and the fans have always been great there. It's one of my favorite places to play.