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 “Still Alive.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Still Alive.”
SCALZI: Hello, everyone. This is John Scalzi. I’m here at Tor.com to talk to you about an up-and-coming new musician that you may not have heard of called Jonathan Coulton. That’s a lie. You’ve all heard of him before.
COULTON: Well maybe. Maybe. You never know.
SCALZI: There might be a few. And I don’t know what those people have been doing with their sad and pathetic lives to this point, but we’re here to educate them. We’ve been talking about science fictional-based songs of Jonathan Coulton’s, and today we’re talking about his, I think his number-one hit so far, the one that the lighters come up for, as it were, which is “Still Alive,” the theme song to the video game Portal. So, I actually don’t know the story behind this one yet. Did they get hold of you? Did Portal get hold of you? Or did you approach them? Because occasionally people will approach musicians and go, “Hey, will you do this for me?” So.
COULTON: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. I was doing a show in Seattle, and Kim Swift, who is actually the lead on the Portal team at Valve, came to the show and came up to say hi afterwards, and said, “Hey, would you ever think about writing music for video games? I work for Valve.” And I said, “Well yeah. Sure.”
“Still Alive,” over the credits to the Valve game Portal
SCALZI: So you didn’t do that thing like, “No, man. I’m a musician. My music is pure.”
COULTON: No. Well, my music has never been very pure, so there was no danger of that.
COULTON: And I went into their offices and met them and played through an early version of the Portal game, and it became pretty clear immediately that exactly where our sensibilities aligned was with the character GLaDOS. And we decided that that was what we are going to do together, is that I was going to write that song for that game.
SCALZI: Song from the point of view of GLaDOS.
COULTON: GLaDOS, who is a murderous, passive-aggressive artificial intelligence.
SCALZI: I love GLaDOS, I got to tell you. She’s just a fantastic character.
COULTON: She is a great character, and I say all the time that this song was not hard to write. And I give credit to the writers and Erik Wolpaw—I worked with him in particular. We had an almost daily phone call where I would call and we would talk about GLaDOS. He had so much backstory that he had written about her just in order to understand her better so that he could write for her.
COULTON: And it was very helpful to have a character that was so clearly defined and so strong.
SCALZI: Right. Is this the first song that you wrote that was going to be sung, at least initially, by someone else?
COULTON: Yeah, probably. I can’t think of a time before then that I did that. Yeah, yeah, that was interesting having to think of somebody else’s voice doing it. But it was fun. I mean, it was another interesting challenge that made it a vibrant process and not something stale. It was something that I hadn’t done before.
SCALZI: Well, it was really helpful, I guess, that—was it Ellen McLain is the …?
COULTON: That’s right.
SCALZI: She sings, right? She’s done this before.
COULTON: She does. She’s a trained singer and she was “of the stage,” and so I think that comes across in her performance. It’s just very believable and, I don’t know, she’s the nicest woman in the world, so I don’t know where the mean stuff comes from, but it was funny going in to—Sorry, go ahead.
SCALZI: No, no, no. Well, I was just going to say that it’s the nice people that you have to look out for, right?
COULTON: Yeah, right.
SCALZI: Because, quite frankly, they’re the ones you never see coming, and I’m—part of it is, just voicing this character I’m sure she was sitting there, and she’s like, “Oh, I can totally…” Because you seem nice, right? I mean, don’t get me wrong, but you really are when you meet you in person, Jonathan Coulton. You are nice and polite and friendly and all this sort of stuff and out of your brain hole comes songs about monsters and evil scientists and homicidal computers, so…you tell me.
COULTON: That’s true, well I guess the nice people spend so much time controlling their inner monsters that when it comes time to actually express those voices a little bit, there’s a lot of stored-up monsterism. That’s one theory. But it was funny going into studio with her because I had written this song and sent it to her and went to Seattle so she could sing it, and she was doing a couple of pick-up lines from the rest the game before she sang the song, and I was amazed at how little they had to do to her voice to get her to sound like GLaDOS. She was just—it was just creepy seeing that voice come out of her.
SCALZI: They did a little bit of autotuning but that’s pretty much it.
Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS, performing “Still Alive” with her husband, live at Anime Midwest 2011
COULTON: Yeah, that’s really mostly it. And the rest of it is her expressing these emotions in this very flat—this creepy flat way.
SCALZI: Yeah, yeah. And I think this is again going back to the whole issue of character, I mean, one, Valve has been spectacular with writing anyway. They have ever since the first Half-Life—Marc Laidlaw, who had been a novelist before he went to work with Valve, wrote the story for that, and one of the things that I always say to people is that Half-Life and Half-Life 2 and all the rest of them, these are video games that I like to reread. Because there really feels like there’s a story there and that you’re really making sort of a progression. And I think that the secret sauce for Valve is what the secret sauce is for novels or what you were talking about with the secret sauce for your songs as well, which is, frankly, you get a character, you put them in sort of a bizarre and extreme situation, but you make them feel enough like a human that whoever’s listening to, participating, or reading really can’t help but put themselves in that sort of position.
SCALZI: I mean, hopefully they’re not relating too much to GLaDOS.
COULTON: Well, that’s the thing. I think by the end of that game, after she has tried to murder you, she tries various ways of getting you back. She tries begging, she tries making you feel sorry for her, she tries getting angry, and I think you start to really wonder who is this GLaDOS person and what—she’s very human for an artificial intelligence, sort of tragically human.
SCALZI: Well, we’ll actually discuss that a little bit further on in our thing because the sequel to this one, the song “Want You Gone,” is part of our thing, so let’s not get too far ahead of that. One of the things I do want to know is, this is the song, I think, that there are more sort-of different authorized versions than almost any other. There is the original version, which is in the game. There are the versions that you have done live, where obviously you’re singing instead of GLaDOS, and then there’s the version on Artificial Heart where you have Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara taking a turn on the vocals as well.
“Still Alive,” the Artificial Heart version, performed by Jonathan Coulton, with Sara Quin singing lead, Dorit Chrysler on theremin, Joe McGinty on keyboards, Marty Beller on drums, and Chris Anderson on bass. Video directed by John Flansburgh.
SCALZI: So, is it just that—are you doing just because there’s so many different ways to sort of approach that song, or is that just you fiddling to fiddle?
COULTON: Well, I think, the fact that this song was always designed with somebody else in mind to sing it, I’ve never felt quite comfortable for that reason, I think. And it’s also because it is probably my most well-known song, that I am now required to have it at every show.
SCALZI: Right, right.
COULTON: And that’s just, you know, that’s the job. You have to play your hits.
SCALZI: You gotta play the hits.
Jonathan Coulton and Felicia Day perform “Still Alive” at Pax 2008
COULTON: You gotta play the hits. And I don’t know, for me it helps to keep it interesting. I like that there are all these different versions of it. I like that you can do it kind of rock and you can do it kind of sad and quiet. I like exploring its various sides.
SCALZI: Right. The final thing I would say about this song is, much like the video game itself, it is basically a rich vein of internet one-liners. You know?
COULTON: It is. It’s a meme factory for sure.
SCALZI: “This is a triumph.” “This cake is delicious and moist.” And I got to say, it makes you feel good when someone’s saying, “I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS,” right?
COULTON: Oh, yeah. It’s amazing. To be related to anything that catches on in that way is really thrilling.
SCALZI: But, on the other hand, do you ever, after the forty thousandth time someone says, “I’m making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS” . . . Go on. You can say it.
COULTON: Well sure. It’s like anything else. Success doesn’t scale very well. And it’s like the internet itself. Individually, everybody is wonderful and charming, but if you take what the internet says all at once, it’s kind of awful. You know? It’s the opposite of the wisdom of crowds. I’m grateful for any attention at all, and I really….As they say, I’m very proud to be associated with something that clearly has as much resonance as it does. This game and this character and this song, it’s just…I’m very proud that I was involved.
SCALZI: Excellent. All right, on that note we’re going to close up for today. Tomorrow we’re going to go with your seasonal classic, “Chiron Beta Prime.” So for everybody, tomorrow bring your Santa hats and get in a frosty mood, and we’ll see you tomorrow. This is John Scalzi for Tor.com.