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 “Re: Your Brains.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Re: Your Brains.”
SCALZI: Hello, everyone. This is John Scalzi for Tor.com and I am talking to you today from the future. No, I’m lying. I’m actually talking to you from the past. These are done and then we’ve moved forward. But that’s not important now. The important thing is that I’m talking to Jonathan Coulton, master songwriter, and we’re talking about his songs that have an interesting science-fictional bent. And today we’re talking about one of his classics, the zombie hit, “Re: Your Brains.” And Jonathan we were just talking about whether or not, it should be [pronounced] “Ree” Your Brains or “R-E” Your Brains.
COULTON: Yeah, yeah, of course it comes from a—I say “Ree,” but I’ve heard people say “Ray,” and I’ve heard people say “R-E,” because, of course, it comes from an old tradition, which was memo writing. Before we had e-mail, the way we communicated in offices was we would write memos to one another on pieces of paper.
COULTON: And that was the subject line, basically, was “Re:” It stands for “regarding.”
COULTON: And of course, now people think it means “reply,” because that’s where it is used in e-mail.
SCALZI: There are so many little weird artifacts, because also “cc:” Right?
SCALZI: Which means “carbon copy,” which absolutely makes no sense whatsoever with today’s world, but basically it’s a business tradition.
SCALZI: Sort of like how your e-mail: (A) you call it e-mail, and (B) the symbol’s a little envelope.
COULTON: Right, right. Exactly.
SCALZI: Seriously, what the hell? But —
COULTON: They should call it, instead of “carbon copy,” they should call it “silicon copy.”
SCALZI: Right. “Sc: Your Brains.” “Sc: Re: Your brains.” None of that’s important.
COULTON: The important thing is: zombie uprising.
SCALZI: Zombie uprising. Which is different from the robot uprising that you write so often about.
COULTON: Yes, and I think—it’s an interesting counterpoint, this song, as zombies are an interesting counterpoint to science fiction that is based on technology and trying to create order, because, of course, the zombie’s all about chaos.
SCALZI: Sure, sure. They can’t help themselves, they have no brains.
COULTON: Exactly, and which is why they want them so much. And this is a classic, classic move of poetic license. The song is sung by a zombie, so he’s actually pretty well spoken —
COULTON:—for a zombie, and has some complicated thoughts, which is a sort of nontraditional way of looking at a zombie.
COULTON: It’s unclear how he reconciles that with his monstrous tendencies.
SCALZI: I don’t think it’s actually a problem for him. Here’s the thing, and this is just me because when I hear one of your songs, I often—because you write very good characters—I often think about the characters outside of the scope of the song, right?
SCALZI: And so this guy, Tom? Is it Tom or Bob? I’ve always confused the two.
COULTON: It’s Bob. Bob is the zombie. Tom is the —
SCALZI: Bob is the zombie. I think that Bob in his previous nonzombie life was really one of those go-getters, strivers, you know, did the jargon, just did it all. And in some ways what he’s doing now as a zombie is almost like muscle memory.
COULTON: Yeah. That’s a good way of looking at it. He’s like the zombies that, they still kind of remember where they live and so they hang around their houses —
COULTON:—or they find a CD player and they kind of know what it does, but not really. They’re putting a human brain inside, trying to close the drawer.
SCALZI: That’s exactly right. And that’s kind of where I see him at, I mean, is that he’s just like, [zombie voice] “Take a memo.”
COULTON: Yeah, I guess that’s probably how I think of it, too. He’s doing —
SCALZI: [zombie voice] “Synergize.”
COULTON: Right. Exactly, which after a while is how office jargon starts to sound when you’re in it.
SCALZI: This is actually why I think the song is so hugely popular. I mean, one, zombies are big, and lots of people work in offices, and it is a soul- and brain-deadening thing. So, it’s the peanut butter and chocolate mash-up that everybody loves. But I think that, again, you can absolutely, if you spend enough time in an office—because I used to work at—because I kind of came in the same place that you did. I worked in a technology company for a while. I used to work at AOL back when AOL was still Google, if you know what I mean.
SCALZI: Uh-huh. And we would have these meetings, and they would go on for hours and hours and nothing would ever get done, and then at the end of six months you would have a total company reorganization. I was there for two years and they had four reorgs while I was there, and each of these occasioned more meetings and more jargon, and more discussing and….Six Sigma was, I think for me, sort of like horoscopes were for the 70s.
SCALZI: You know, it’s just a word that people threw out there, and they thought it meant something. It’s like, “Oh, you’re doing the Six Sigma, too? We should sleep together.”
COULTON: Yeah. And it’s funny how the trappings of that kind of speech, they take over. Even because it’s a language. It’s a jargon, but it’s also quintessentially bad writing.
COULTON: When you transcribe what people are saying to each other in offices, there are so many clauses that you should just cross out and throw away and never use again, and yet people continue to use them because it’s the language. It’s how we speak to one another in that environment.
SCALZI: It’s the language, it’s sort of like, here is the ritual, you know.
SCALZI: And we’re going to through this ritual. It’s stupid, but we all know it. We all know when to stand. We all know when to sit. Let’s go ahead and “prioritize” and “think outside the box” and “work together as a team” and just, you know, yes. So, I think the whole point of you making that a setting for a zombie—it just made perfect sense for everybody, right?
COULTON: Yeah. It did for the zombies and for the office workers.
COULTON: Yeah, and I don’t think I really thought of that level of it while I was writing it. I mostly just wanted to write—I just mostly thought it was funny to have this zombie who was using office-speak, and who was just trying to make his case in a very rational way.
SCALZI: Right, yes. Well, and I think that’s actually to the heart of what I think is really good storytelling. Which is—there’s a lot of times where I’ll be at a science fiction convention, right, or at a reading or something like that, and people will come up and they say, “Well, I have a theory of why you did this,” right? And they’ll spin out this huge theory that involves me knowing so much more than maybe I actually do, and part of me is—my stock response was, “Yes, of course, that’s exactly why I did that.” But I think more to the point, which is that there’s a lot that’s going on in your brain as a songwriter or as a storyteller that your conscious brain isn’t actually aware of. I mean, I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons why you wanted to write a story about zombies using office-speak is because somewhere in your brain that connection was made and even if it wasn’t conscious there was something about it that was so satisfying that, you know, it almost feels—I mean, did you—was this a hard song for you to write? It seems like it would be a fairly easy song.
COULTON: No, this was one of the easy ones. This is one of the few that actually came to me almost as a fully formed idea. I was just outside running errands or whatever, and I had the part of the chorus where he says, “All we want to do is eat your brains. / We’re not unreasonable, / I mean, no one wants to eat your eyes.”
COULTON: And that line came to me, and I immediately knew who he was and what he was about, and I found him to be very funny. And I don’t think, I think that it’s true that the reason that I find him so funny is because of that combination of office speak and zombies, but I don’t know if I could have articulated that.
SCALZI: Right. Well, and like I said, but I think that that’s actually part of storytelling where so much of what you do as a storyteller, whether you’re doing music or whether you’re doing writing or even video games or movies or whatever, a lot of it is what clicks together in your subconscious or unconscious, and it just comes out and then you look at it and you’re like, how the hell did that happen? Because I don’t know, and yet —
SCALZI: And yet it’s perfect.
COULTON: And yet here it is.
SCALZI: Here it is, and it’s awesome, and I will take all the credit for it, in fact.
COULTON: Yeah, Even though I don’t really feel responsible.
SCALZI: Right, right. Exactly. It’s the whole—there’s a psychological term for it from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he calls it “flow.” Where you’re just in the sort of the flow of things and you’re not really working consciously and just out it comes. But I don’t think you even have to psychoanalyze it too much. It’s just, you’re in a groove.
COULTON: Yeah, exactly.
SCALZI: Now, I’m going to close this up by asking you a personal question. Have you ever actually, and it clearly doesn’t have to be human, have you ever actually eaten brains?
COULTON: I don’t think I have. Not on purpose. Have you?
SCALZI: I have. I have. I will tell you the one time that I’ve ever eaten brains. It is when I was in college and I was doing a college trip to Israel. And Israel is very beautiful, scenic country, yet everything about it is really interesting, but the food that we were getting was extraordinarily bland. It was like cucumbers and bread, right?
COULTON: Right, right.
SCALZI: And so our college group was going through basically protein withdrawal, and we were, “You have to actually feed us real food or we’re not going anywhere else.” Right? So one night they took us to this really excellent restaurant, and everything was spectacular. The steak was spectacular, the lamb was—just everything was wonderful. And so we would get these little plates and we eat what’s on the plate and it would be spectacular. And the next little plate would come and it would be spectacular. And then I get this one plate and there’s this golden patty on it. And I, for the life of me I don’t know what it is, I can’t place it. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever eaten. And so I look at the waiter and I’m like, “What is this?” And he goes, “It’s calf brains.” And I immediately, like oouhg, but I’m like, you know what, everything else has been so good, it was just really so good that at least I need to try this. Right? Because who knows. It may be spectacular.
SCALZI: So I take a bite and I put it in my mouth and, don’t ask me how I know this, it is the exact consistency of ear wax —
SCALZI:—and it has absolutely no taste and it’s just coating my mouth and it’s just the most horrible thing I think I’ve ever put in my mouth—and I’ve put a lot of horrible things in my mouth—so. I get my napkin and I spit it out, right? And then I look up and the chef is directly behind me staring at me while I’m spitting out his brains in my napkin. And he kind of looks at me. He goes, “You do not like the brains.” And I immediately go, “Look, I’m sorry. I’m clearly the ugly American here, but I just can’t eat it.” And he just gives me this look like four thousand years of cultural disappointment and he just stomps off, and I’m sure is that everything else that I ate that night had spit in it.
COULTON: That’s terrible. It’s very strange that everything else would be objectively so delicious and then, that would be so awful.
SCALZI: Brains are horrible.
COULTON: Yeah, I guess that there’s a reason why we don’t often eat them.
SCALZI: People did, though. You know, up until very recently, over in Indiana, which is the state right next to Ohio, one of their big sandwiches there were brain sandwiches where they would fry up these big chunks of calf brains or cow brains, or something like that, and put them on a bun. And I think that those were eaten for the same reason like people in Colorado eat prairie oysters and shit like that. It’s just sort of where there’re just very much of, we’re doing this to show how insane we are.
COULTON: Right, it’s to show how tough you are.
SCALZI: Because I do think that half of all foods initially started as a dare.
COULTON: Yeah. Well most foods are pretty gross when you think about it. Eggs are disgusting. Milk is kind of disgusting.
COULTON: I mean just conceptually.
SCALZI: Yeah, yeah. So brains, you know —
COULTON: Not that much more disgusting than anything else.
SCALZI: Yeah, but if and when I become a zombie, I’m not going to last very long because there’s no way I’m going to eat any more of them.
COULTON: Yeah, yeah. Well luckily you won’t starve to death because you’re undead already.
SCALZI: That’s true. And on that note we’re going to close up on “Re: Your Brains,” or “’Ree’ Your Brains,” or “’Ray’ Your Brains.” However you want to say it. And tomorrow we’re going to talk about “Betty and Me.” So for Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. See you tomorrow.