By Katey Khaos
I’ve talked all about the terrific upcoming games that were previewed and demoed at PAX East. However, I didn’t mention the concert that happens every year where all the gamers have a chance to nerd out to video game music and more!
I was lucky enough to speak with one of the performers at this year’s PAX East, Jonathan Coulton, more commonly known as JoCo by his fans. He is an amazing artist, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, a couple of his songs definitely will. “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone,” the ending credit tracks for Portal and Portal 2 respectively, are Coulton’s.
PULSE: What was it like performing “Still Alive” at PAX East 2012 and having everyone (myself included!) in the audience know the lyrics?
JoCo: It’s always such fun to play that song for an audience. At PAX in particular it has taken on this anthemic quality, with everyone holding their phones and Nintendo DSs in the air singing along. One year my ukulele-playing friends Molly and Kristen played a version of that song at the PAX concert, and somehow the tech failed and they weren’t amplified. But it didn’t matter because the audience knew and sang the whole thing, like we were around a campfire with 6,000 people.
PULSE: Jonathan, you are a self-proclaimed geek. What are some nerdy activities you enjoy in your spare time?
JoCo: I wish I had any spare time at all! My days are spent, um, working I guess? It’s hard to really define what it is that I do all day, but I sure do feel busy. And then when I’m not working I’m hanging out with my kids, who are still at the age where they actually want to spend time with me, thank goodness. One of the blessings and curses of being your own boss is that work and non-work zones bleed into one another; in my spare moments I catch up on feeds, read tech blogs, and play with the various software- and hardware-based musical gizmos that I’ve acquired for just such puttering purposes. I used to play a lot of games, but just don’t have the time to do a lot of hardcore console stuff anymore, and as a result I’ve gravitated towards more casual iOS gaming.
PULSE: What are some of your favorite video games, classic and current?
JoCo: I just got over a nasty Ski Safari addiction. I continue to think that Trainyard is the best puzzle game I’ve ever played. Right now I’m kind of in love with this music-making app for the iPad called Tabletop, and trying to keep myself from buying all the add-on effects and instruments all at once. Some of my favorites from the past include Portal (obviously), Half-Life, Braid. The whole Lego series has been a great way to spend time gaming with my kids.
PULSE: You had the wonderful opportunity to work on the ending credit tracks for Valve’s Portal (which is an awesome game, by the way)! What went into creating those pieces? Was there a different method to your madness?
JoCo: I spent a lot of time talking with Eric Wolpaw, one of the writers, about story lines and characters. They build a lot of backstory that doesn’t end up in the game in order to have a solid understanding of the characters and the plot, which is one of the reasons those games are so compelling. I wanted to do the same kind of thing, so that I really understood what GLaDos was about. After talking with Eric enough, and after having played through an early version of the game a few times, it wasn’t really that hard for me to hear her voice in my head. The songs came pretty easily after that.
PULSE: Did you have a chance to check out PAX East at all while you were there? If so, what were your favorite booths / games / cosplays, etc.?
JoCo: Unfortunately, I never have much time to really check out PAX. For me it’s a working weekend ~ I’ve got rehearsals and sound checks and time at the merch booth, and then suddenly it’s Sunday. It’s just as well though, because I’m apparently an old grumpy person, and when I do walk the floor mostly I just want everyone to turn down their televisions.
PULSE: Okay, enough about PAX. What made you swap from a computer programmer to a musician?
JoCo: I had been writing software for nine years, and it still felt like an accident that I had that job. I never really intended for that to be my career and then suddenly it was. A few things conspired to make me switch. The internet was coming into its own as a publishing platform ~ podcasts were brand new, mp3 stores were a recent idea, and blogs and social media were snowballing into something really big ~ so I felt like I could almost see an outline of something that might work. Also, I had just become a father for the first time, and when my daughter was born a lot of priorities fell into place. All at once it seemed a lot more important that I be the most whole person I could be, partially for the sake of setting an example, and that meant taking chances and doing scary things.
PULSE: How would you categorize your music?
JoCo: This is an impossible question to answer. I’m all over the map in some ways, and pretty predictable in others. I’ve always tried to write the kind of songs I’d want to listen to, so I end up playing in a lot of different styles from folk to pop to rock. It also sort of depends on the context you see me in ~ a few years ago I was only doing acoustic shows, but I’ve been playing with a band recently, which has been different and a lot of fun. One of the things I’m looking forward to on this tour is the chance to really take this new trio out for a spin. When we were opening for They Might Be Giants we had a really short set and I was pushing the new album, so we did a lot of loud and fast rock stuff. Now that we have a big set all to ourselves, we’ve been messing with different instrumentation, working on some older stuff for the catalog ~ it will be a nice well-rounded evening of songs.
PULSE: Which track ~ from any of your albums ~ would you say best expresses your personality?
JoCo: It’s hard to pick one. One of the most directly personal songs I’ve ever written is “You Ruined Everything” ~ about the complicated feeling of becoming a parent for the first time. I mean every word of that song. Something like “Skullcrusher Mountain” is much more a pastiche of a puppet of an imaginary impression of me, though I think if you read between the lines and figure out which lines are the jokes, and which lines are the serious ones, you might get a pretty good picture of who I think I am. Or not!
PULSE: If your famous last words were a line from one of your songs, what would they be?
JoCo: I don’t know, but on the day I die I’ll be surprised and disappointed if the words “still alive” don’t trend on Twitter from all the jokey RIP jokes people tweet.
Be sure to check out our HOT SHOTS section for photos of JoCo live!
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