Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.
Every morning at 9 AM from now to May 29, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth and possibly out of his depth about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!
Today John talks to Jon about “Skullcrusher Mountain.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Skullcrusher Mountain.”
SCALZI: Hello, everybody, it’s John Scalzi for Tor.com. And once again I’m talking with Jonathan Coulton, songmaster extraordinaire, nerd extraordinaire, and rocking quite the extravagant beard, if I do say so myself. And today we’re going to be talking about, I think, one of his early hits, I guess you might call it: “Skullcrusher Mountain.” And that’s from your album Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow. Is that correct?
COULTON: That’s correct. It was a five-song EP. It’s a song from the perspective of a supervillain who cannot find love.
SCALZI: It’s so hard to find love when you’re trying to destroy the earth.
COULTON: Well, it’s very complicated, for sure.
SCALZI: I think a lot of it has so do with scheduling.
COULTON: That’s true. You have a lot of minions who can do your work for you, but there are certain aspects of your job that you need to keep in charge of, and you need to keep on top of.
SCALZI: Let’s face it. Administrative work is actually still work. It sounds like a lot of, “You do this. You do this. You do this.” But frankly, somebody has to keep on top of these minions.
COULTON: That’s right. And you think this death ray is going to build itself? It’s not.
SCALZI: It’s not, it’s not. And even if it does, they will put the antimatter chamber in backwards and then all of a sudden you have matter. What the heck?
COULTON: That’s right. And if you get that next to your antimatter, that’s very bad news.
SCALZI: It’s very bad news. So, it’s a lot of work.
Now, this is kind of music nerdery, but one of the things that, if I remember correctly, on Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow what you do is that it goes from “The Future Soon” and it segues into “Skullcrusher Mountain” sort of directly. Now was that an intentional thing? I mean it was intentional, obviously, because you did it. But I mean, was it an intentional like, “this is where the character ended up?”
COULTON: No. Certainly not when I wrote the songs. I think you know, now I don’t remember which one I wrote first. I was going to say definitively that I wrote “Skullcrusher Mountain” first, but I’m not so sure about that. I think when I was putting that EP together I knew which songs were going to be on it, I had the recordings and then when I realized you know, it’s always fun to do that thing where you have two songs in same key next to each other and you have them bleed into one another. And when you have the added bonus of them being thematically related, I think it’s a fun thing to do. I certainly didn’t write them with that in mind, I don’t think I thought of them as one song being a sequel to the other, but I recognized after the fact that they were certainly related.
SCALZI: It made sense to do it that way. And this is an example when we first started talking, we were talking about the idea of characters and the challenge of taking a character, making them interesting, and also still making them accessible. And in some ways I think this is an example of you doing that; where you have a character which is really a stock character. You’ve got a mad scientist, he’s got his assistant, Scarface, who is your Igor, and all that sort of stuff, and he’s doing his planning to build that big laser, and so on and so forth. So he’s a stock character everybody’s familiar with, and yet you have to do something to give him a little bit of a twist.
COULTON: Yeah, I think it’s when you have such a character that is that stock, you need to find a new way of looking at him and, what else am I going to do but the sort of heartbroken, lovelorn, hard-to-understand character of the mad scientist. That’s my favorite thing is that a monster who nobody understands.
SCALZI: Right. Right.
COULTON: Who is sort of he feels that the world just doesn’t get him. I think that’s a very charming bit of pathos to put into any story.
SCALZI: But he’s also in many ways sort of a quintessential nerd. And one of the lines that got me, which I mean because it’s funny but it’s also sort of perfectly nerd, is when he’s like, look, I’ve made you this half-pony / half-monkey monster to please you, but you don’t like it. What’s—? You like monkeys. You like ponies.
COULTON: Right. He’s a sociopath. This is his problem is that everything he’s done makes perfect, logical sense but, of course, it is monstrous if you are a human being. It’s a terrible thing to have done.
SCALZI: It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do, and yet, I know for a fact that of all the creations that you’ve had, this is the song that has inspired the largest number of stuffed animals.
COULTON: Indeed. I often receive, at shows, half-pony / half-monkey monsters that people have made by purchasing monkey and pony stuffed animals and cutting them to pieces and sewing them back together.
SCALZI: Now, let me ask you this, and this is going to sound like that maybe possibly a sociopathic question, but just go with it for me. Generally speaking, are there monkeys up front and then horses in the back, or are they horses in the front and monkeys in the back?
Note creative handling of pony / monkey problem.
COULTON: The nice thing about this kind of experimental surgery is you can make up your own path. There’s no right way to carve up some undisclosed number of monkeys and/or ponies and sew them back together, so I’ve seen all varieties. I’ve seen pony-based half-pony / half-monkey monsters. I’ve seen monkey-based legs, tails, manes, they all get tangled up and confused. The nice thing about it is that frequently once you’ve reassembled the pieces into one monster, you have a bunch of left-over pieces that you could use to make the other monster.
SCALZI: Right. Right. The sort of complimentary set, as you were.
COULTON: Exactly. The monster and the antimonster, if you will.
SCALZI: The fluffy bookends to a library full of horror.
COULTON: That’s right. And, you know, I’m amazed at how this song doesn’t seem like one that would really speak to people necessarily, but I can’t tell you how many people fancy themselves to be mad scientists, evil geniuses that nobody understands. People tell me all the time, “this was our first dance at our wedding.”
SCALZI: All right.
COULTON: Or this is the song that he played for me that made me realize that I loved him, and I’m like oh, wow.
SCALZI: That’s how we knew we were “us.”
Music is truly the universal language.
COULTON: That’s right.
SCALZI: Well, like I said I really do feel, and whether intentionally or not, I feel like in some ways it is the flip-side to “The Future Soon” where because if you get one you get the other. You know what I mean?
COULTON: Of course, yeah.
SCALZI: It’s all part of the whole it’s a part of the spectrum, if you will, and so that actually makes perfect sense to me. Now I actually now have to know, what was the first song at your wedding?
COULTON: You know, I’ll tell you, we tried very hard to pick a song that we could dance to, and then we realized that neither one of the us wanted to do that because we just felt too weird about picking a single song, and also we didn’t want to dance in front of everybody. And we actually told the DJ at some point we said to the DJ, “Okay, so now everybody’s here, food has been served, people are drinking, I think you can go ahead and start the dancing. There’s not going to be any first dance thing, so just start playing the music.” And then we walk away and seconds later we hear him saying into the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be no first dance this evening.” And everybody’s like, “Boo!” Why did you do that? Just put on the music, for God’s sake.
SCALZI: Our first dance, and then we’ll close this up and move on, but our first dance was actually two songs. We started with Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love,” which I’m sure you know is nice, very romantic sort of lush song, and at the very end of it we segued into Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.”
COULTON: That’s a statement. Of some kind.
SCALZI: You know, “Head like a hole / black as your soul / I’d rather die than give you control.” You know, because that’s what you think when you think marriage: the conjoining of souls, so. And you know why we did it. We did it for the same reason that you said there was no first dances. Because it’s our wedding, dammit.
COULTON: That’s right, that’s right. We’re going to do whatever we want. Suck it, audience.
SCALZI: All right, on that note we are going to close out “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and tomorrow we will go to, I think, what is probably, currently, your biggest hit ever, “Still Alive.” So for Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. We will see you tomorrow.