For anyone who knows their stuff when it comes to geek rock, there are few more appealing pairings than They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton.
TMBG have been entertaining crowds for close to 30 years with classics such as "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Cyclops Rock," while Coulton, an internet star of the highest order, is known for his contributions to the "Portal" video game series (his "Still Alive" was the closing credits tune for the 2008 original and he contributed "Want You Gone" to this year's "Portal 2") and his 52-song D.I.Y. "Thing a Week" project.
Coulton and They Might Be Giants will bring their epically quirky pairing to Asbury Park on Saturday for a show at the Stone Pony, and the singer/songwriter recently spoke with Metromix Jersey Shore and Asbury Park Press staff writer Alex Biese.
So you'll be down in Asbury Park with They Might Be Giants this month. How is life on the road with those guys?
It's great. You know, I've been a fan of theirs for a long time, and so it's a real thrill for me to be sharing the stage with them and hanging out with them. It's also incredibly instructive to me, because they've been doing this for so long and they just do it so well. They're incredible showmen, that's what always amazes me when I watch their show: they put on an amazing show, they really know how to get a crowd completely psyched.
Their work is in a similar genre to yours and they've been able to prove how they can make a career out of it for decades at this point, so that has to be inspirational as well.
Oh yeah, I've taken great inspiration from the music that they make and the way they are able to walk that line between something that's weird and funny and sad and moving and all of that stuff at once.
That's one of my favorite things about your writing: some of the songs may have out-there premises with sci-fi elements, but there's always an emotional core to the songs and an emotional truth to the characters, even if it is something like a giant squid.
Well you know, I find that I really write best when I take seriously what it is that I'm writing about, even if it's not a subject that you would normally take seriously. So when I'm writing about the giant squid (in "I Crush Everything"), I mean I suppose this is true for all songwriters, I'm kind of writing about myself and I'm kind of writing about people that I know or situations that I'm familiar with. Even if they don't seem personal, they're all personal on some level and yeah, I think that's the only way you can write a good song, you have to take what you're doing seriously, even if it's comedy you have to take it seriously.
And do you find that's something that might catch some folks who are unfamiliar with your work off guard, the combination of novelty and sincerity there?
It's a strange thing and people aren't always ready for the switch. In a way, that's one of the things I like about that song, particularly live. I can always tell how familiar the audience is with my work, because of course the first time you hear that song, it sounds like a funny song and there are a couple of laugh lines in there, but then the more you listen to it the sadder it gets.
You know, I can always tell when I play that song there will be patches of the audience laughing and other parts of the audience who are completely silent and I don't know, it's a really funny thing to watch. It's also great because I say, "Here's a song about a giant squid who hates himself," and then I start to play the song and people who don't know it are prepared for comedy, and then halfway through they realize, "Oh, this is a terribly sad song" and it's like this great sucker punch, I love it.
Your new record, "Artificial Heart," is produced by one of the Johns from They Might Be Giants. How was John Flansburgh as a collaborator?
He's great, he has a terrific sense for song, I mean he's a great songwriter in his own right but I found it really valuable to get his feedback on stuff as I was writing, because I would record a guitar/vocal demo for him and send it to him, he would listen and say, "You know, this would be great but this line is kind of bull shit," or he would say, "switch this verse with that verse" (or) "take these two words and switch them everywhere they appear in the song and then it becomes much more interesting." He had all these great suggestions and that was a real pleasure.
And then recording with him, the record itself is not as They Might Be Giants-y as one might expect when you hear that it's produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, a lot of it's sort of a straight-ahead rock record which, of course they've been playing rock for years, but it's also got these really nice touches. He was able to find just the piece that needed to be in each recording, I think, to make it sound interesting and compelling, so it was a blast, start to finish, I'm very proud of what we've done.
And this is really a first for you, because until this point you've really been a D.I.Y. guy and this is the first time you've really had a filter and a collaborator on this kind of level, isn't it?
Yes, and it was absolutely terrifying to open myself up to that, because I think anybody who does anything professionally has a lingering feeling their heart that they are a complete fraud and that some day everybody is going to discover that fact, and so yeah, it was pretty scary to open up my process to someone else, especially someone that I had such great respect for. But you know, the reason I chose to do this was because it was so scary; I've found often that the creative decision that makes you feel the most uncomfortable is often the creative decision that you should be making.
I read that one of the songs on the new record is a new recording of "Still Alive" with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara. How was it revisiting that song, which was so big for you, in this new context?
It was really fun. You know, I very much took a backseat in that recording. Sara was signing the lead vocal, she's got such an amazing voice that's got this really interesting character to it, and so having her sing it was wonderful and on top of all of these musicians playing, which is another first for me with this record. It was a thrill to have this whole group of people doing this song together and I don't know, it was nice to sort of claim it a little bit from the video game world and treat it more like a song that goes on a record, it was nice.
And do you know about when and how folks will be seeing this new record?
It's going to be out digitally some time in the end of August, so very soon, and you know, it'll be available through my site, it'll be available through iTunes and all the standard places you might go to buy music. I'll do a CD release later in the year, I think, and I'm also planning on doing a pre-sale package where people can spend a little more money and get a bunch of commemorative stuff, a poster and a signed copy and maybe a vinyl version. I'm still working all that out, but I think that's a really neat thing, to get a nice bundle of goodies, so I'll probably do that as well.
On your website you've been revisiting "Thing a Week," adding your current perspective to the material you did over that period. How has that been for you, seeing yourself develop as a writer, musician and performer over those 52 songs?
Well, it's been a little melancholy, to be honest. That whole year of "Thing a Week" was really important for me as a songwriter but also as a person, because I was going through this enormous life transition where I had left this career as a software designer and was starting this career as a musician, having no idea if it was going to work.
So yeah, it was a rough year for me in many ways. I've certainly had a lot of success and as I go back and listen to these songs I'm finding there's some clunkers in there but there are some gems that I had forgotten about, so I don't know, it's been really interesting, it's been like therapy for me, it's been nice.