Tuesday, September 12, 2006

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THE SECOND LIFE OF JONATHAN COULTON-- AN NWN INTERVIEW

Interviewing_yonatan_coalcliff

It's all very nice to welcome Suzanne Vega or even Duran Duran to Second Life, but personally speaking, I'm more excited that Jonathan Coulton is performing in-world this Thursday.  Appearing in avatar form as Yonatan Coalcliff, Coulton is the "Contributing Troubadour" for PopSci (a co-sponsor of his SL appearance), the man who's managed to give songs about DNA and designer drugs a catchy alt-rock hook.  Songs like his beloved "Code Monkey" and "Welcome to Skullcrusher Mountain" speak wacky truth to the yearning geek in all of us-- if the guys in Office Space had a favorite rockstar, it'd be Coulton-- while his folksy guitar accompaniment to "700 Hobo Names" from surreal comedian/"Daily Show" regular John Hodgman helped turn the recording into a cult Net hit.  To top all that, Coulton is also a Creative Commons artist, making his music freely available and mixable to his many fans-- which is why CC-in-SL is also sponsoring his Thursday show.  (Disclosure:  I'm a proud part-time consultant for Creative Commons' office in Second Life.)

All the details you need for catching Coulton's 5PM Thursday appearance are available at the Creative Commons SL event wiki.  I had a chance to interview Coulton/Coalcliff last week, and catch him in-world for an impromptu photo shoot that was occasionally interrupted by a brain-hungry member of the undead. 

After the break, Jonathan Coulton on everything from writing "Code Monkey" to being a Contributing Troubadour and a CC musician, to collaborating with Hodgman, to creating his zombie anthem "Re Your Brains"-- and performing it with actual zombies onstage.

Yonatan_coalcliff

On how he came to Second Life:

As I remember it, I was on the phone with Popsci web editor Megan Miller, who happened to be chatting with her friend who works with Creative Commons and somehow the subject of Second Life came up. (You know, we often talk about the future, Megan and I. We work for Popular Science-- that's our job.) We thought it'd be fun to see if we could do a concert in SL, and then the wheels started turning.  I think Second Life is an amazing glimpse into the future-- hanging out in-game, you can just imagine how over the next decade or two, worlds like Second Life will become more and more integrated into our daily  lives. I love the way Second Life lets you own the intellectual  property you create in game-- I'm a big fan of Creative Commons, and it's nice to see a company who understands that locking down every  little bit of content is not always the best way to go. I'm also really into non-traditional ways of becoming a rockstar, and it's  thrilling to see that there's a whole world of artists and fans in  there.

On becoming PopSci's Contributing Troubadour:

I was performing at a futurist/technology conference in Maine called Pop!Tech and found myself at an after hours poker session with some Popular Science people. Someone suggested that I write a theme song for the magazine-- I thought it was the whiskey talking, but a few  weeks later when presumably everyone had sobered up, they told me they had put me on the masthead as "Contributing Troubadour." So I did a couple of podcasts for them, which incorporated some theme song-ish music, and then later they commissioned me to write a 5-song album to go with their September 2005 issue-- each song based on an article in the magazine. And now I do a weekly interview podcast for  them-- The Popsci Podcast from the Moon.

On the technical set-up for performing live in SL:

PopSci makes me do all the podcasts from their satellite office on the moon-- Lunar Base One. I guess they think it sounds futuristic.  But for the purposes of this concert, they've allowed me to return to Earth for a little while, so I'll be in my Brooklyn lair with a  couple of laptops and some microphones. I'll plug a mic and my guitar into a pre-amp, which will go into Garage Band on a laptop, and from there Nicecast will stream the audio out to the Internet. From there I don't know what happens, a team of experts is putting that all together, but I think it has something to do with wires.

On writing "Code Monkey":

About a year ago I quit a day job I had writing software for a small company in Manhattan. It was a fun job, but it was time for me to leave. I used to use the term "Code Monkey" when I was talking to a client who was asking difficult questions that I didn't want to answer: "I don't know, I'm just a Code Monkey." And there's something to the idea that when you're writing software, even though there's  room for creativity, you're still working within someone else's  parameters, trying to make this thing that someone else wants you to make. Sometimes you do feel like a monkey dancing to someone else's organ music.

But the song is VERY loosely based on the job-- I was never anywhere as bitter and sad as the song suggests, I was not in love with the receptionist, and I did not have a boring manager named Rob. My manager was never boring.

On putting his music and recordings into the Creative Commons:

It's gone very well for me. At first, even though I was all fired up about the possibilities of CC, I still had that panicky lizard-brain  fear about file sharing. I can understand why it's a hard thing for people in the industry to get over-- I totally sympathize. But at least for someone in my position, it's the best thing I could have  done. Every month I get more traffic, more donations/sales, and more fans. I'm quite certain that having a CC license on all the music has really helped that process. If someone who's never heard my music before gets a free mp3 (or twenty) and likes it, chances are they're going to pass it along to some friends, blog about it, maybe even  make a music video for it. Each one of those outcomes means more exposure, more fans, and more chances for people to pay me-- something that wouldn't have happened as easily if the music was all locked up with DRM and the full battery of copyright restrictions.

Yonatan_coalcliff_onstage

On whether he'd like to turn Second Life performances into a regular gig:

Absolutely-- it's always a pleasure to find a pocket of people who appreciate songs about math and squids and zombies. I'm sure the show on the 14th will be plenty of fun, so I expect that I'll be back soon.

On collaborating with John Hodgman:

John and I went to college together, and have been friends for many years. John created the Little Gray Books lecture series, a live reading series/variety show that we used to do in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, every month-- I would write a song to match the theme of each show. When he started promoting his book, it seemed like a natural thing for us to put together a little act that we could do instead of a plain old ordinary reading. John calls it a "two-man, one-man show." I wear a coonskin cap. We've also done some podcasting together, and of course the reading of the 700 hobo names that's floating around the web.

I think that a Hodgman appearance in Second Life is a great idea-- I'm sure he's waiting to see how this event works out for me. You know: always send the coonskin cap guy in first, just in case it's dangerous...

On the song line-up for his September 14th performance:

Well, I can tell you that a lot of the Thing a Week songs haven't made it into the live repertoire yet, just because some weeks I write  them so fast I don't ever learn how to play them. But the big hits will be there-- probably you will hear your favorite. Let's just say, if you are a fan of zombies you will not be disappointed.

We_just_want_to_eat_your_brains

On "Re: Your Brains", his song for zombie fans:

The first line of the chorus just came to me out of nowhere, along with the idea of a zombie who's just trying to be reasonable and doesn't understand why the living are so freaked out about having their brains eaten. The idea to make Bob the zombie an annoying former co-worker came a little later-- it just helped to make him extra horrifying, because you just want to punch him in the face.  Usually when I do this live I get the audience to sing along like a hoard of zombies during the chorus, but that obviously won't work in SL.

Zombie_and_yonatan_coalcliff

It was [event coordinator] Zenigma Suntzu's idea to get a couple of zombie avatars and have them shuffle around onstage, which I think is even better than a singalong.

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Zenigma Suntzu

Zombie Skins by: Ferran Brodsky
Zombie AO (Dances) by: Keiki Lemieux of Huddles
Zombie clothing by: kaia Ennui of Nocturnal Threads
Giant Squid by: Vudu Suavage of Gods & Monsters
Half-Pony Half-Monkey Monster by: Zenigma Suntzu, using parts left mod by (and with apologies to) Kristivon Kolache and Taylor Thompson

I <3 Brains!

kaia Ennui

I had the opportunity to hear a bit of jonathan's rehearsal and I'm definitely looking forward to the show.

btw, there will be a creative commons tee and a popsci.com jacket designed by me (nocturnal threads) as well as two neat SL books on hand at the show - FREE :) just look for the sign and pay it 0L.

I must say concerts and events of this nature occuring in SL are kinda exciting. weeeeeeee!

rikomatic

Super excited about this concert! Please perform "baby got back"!!! Pleasepleaseplease.

Frank Fuhr

Damn! I can't make it in world for this (still at work in RL) but I have tremendous admiration and respect for JoCo. You guys are gonna have a blast.

Adri Saarinen

For everyone who can't make it, we're hoping that machinma of the concert will be available-- so if you've got any videographer friends, tell them to get there and film the thing for you! :D

Creative Commons will be sponsoring a machinma contest for the CC licensed video that best captures the 'spirit' of the event.

MacGeekGuy

Great interview. I can't wait for the concert! :)

Tom Parker

Would someone care to pick times more Europe-suitable - that's a 3am start for me. If it was Saturday 3am, maybe, but that's Friday 3am...

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