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 “I Crush Everything.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “I Crush Everything.”
SCALZI: Hello, this is John Scalzi for Tor.com. I’m talking with Jonathan Coulton, and we’re talking about Jonathan Coulton’s songs, coincidentally enough. Today we’re actually talking about what I would consider a “deep cut,” actually, in more than one way, a song called, “I Crush Everything.” And part of the reason I would call it a deep cut is because it’s about a deep-sea leviathan, basically. Isn’t that correct?
COULTON: Yes. Some sort of undersea monster that’s big. Maybe a giant squid. Maybe something else.
COULTON: And he’s, of course, in the long tradition of Jonathan Coulton songs, he is very sad.
SCALZI: Jonathan Coulton, are you crying on the inside?
COULTON: I must be. I must be. Because when you crack me open that is what comes out: tears. Tears and regret. Yeah, this feels to me like a very personal song. I’m not sure I know in what way it is very personal, except that I feel as though I can kind of identify with this guy. He loves ships so much, but when he gets close to them, he tears them apart with his gigantic tentacles.
SCALZI: Right. How could he not?
COULTON: Well, how could he not? He loves things too much, I think, and so he’s exiled himself to the bottom of the sea and sworn off the thing that he loves the most.
COULTON: And, you know, that’s a giant metaphor for all sorts of things.
SCALZI: Tell me about the bunnies, George.
COULTON: That’s right. Yeah, of course. It’s a common trope: loving too much.
SCALZI: Loving a little bit too much. I have to say that you have a group of songs, which on one sort of sense are—this is a song about a leviathan or giant squid or some very large, bathyscaphic sea creature, but at the same time, as you mention it, it does actually feel personal and there is a connection to that. And you actually have a set of songs like that. The one song, which I don’t think is very science-fictional, but that always gets me every time I hear you play it live is “Always the Moon.”
SCALZI: The same sort of thing, that there’s that thread of melancholy to it that, while there are things in these songs that are fantastical or they’re sort of the shiny glitter that kind of gets you through it on a surface level, if you’re paying attention to them, sort of on an emotional level, there’s a lot more going on than you would necessarily expect if you were given a pr?is of the song, basically.
COULTON: Yeah, and that’s one of my favorite things about this song. When I play it live I can tell how new the audience is to me and to my music based on how much they laugh.
COULTON: Because it is—I introduce it as if it’s a funny song, and you know, when you summarize and you say this is about a giant squid who really hates himself, that’s hard to imagine how that would be a sad song.
COULTON: And there’re a couple of, I guess, kind of funny lines in there where he’s complaining about the dolphins and how they have phony smiles and—
COULTON: —so then it’s like the sucker punch where a lot of people don’t expect it to be so—take itself so seriously and to be so very sad. So some people kind of laugh, but then they’re not sure and by the end…if it’s an audience that has seen me perform several times and who knows the song, it’s just this dead quiet all the way through. So it’s interesting that it can exist on those different levels.
SCALZI: Before we go any further, tell me that you didn’t do “sucker punch” with a pun intended.
COULTON: I did not.
COULTON: I did not. That was the muse. That was the muse speaking through me.
SCALZI: But I think you’re absolutely correct, and this is—actually to harken back to storytelling—this is actually something that I think is really important. I mean I have books where people come up to me and they’re sometimes very surprised. It’s like, “Your books are funny,” because there are very amusing parts in them and all that sort of stuff. And that’s absolutely true and I put the humor in there for a reason, but the other thing that I put in there, it’s very infrequent, particularly with novels, where I will go through an entire novel where it’s all just funny, that there is something going on as well. And part of that is that the humorous parts are better if you have sort of a more of an emotional dynamic range. To go back to “I Crush Everything,” I mean, yes, you do the concept of, it’s a melancholy squid, which is a great band name, but it’s a melancholy squid, and it has those funny lines about the dolphins and everything else like that. But at the end of the day, what makes the song work is that it does actually have that entire dynamic range.
COULTON: Right. Yeah. It goes from fluffy and funny to extremely sad.
SCALZI: Do you think that surprises people? I mean, talking about your canon, as it were, that—because you kind of mentioned it yourself—you said, you crack you open and melancholy kind of comes out of it. Do you think it surprises people who come to you basically for the amusing stories of zombies and, you know, robot uprisings and code monkeys, that there is something else there?
COULTON: Yeah, and I can certainly understand why, when you lead with songs about zombies and robots, you’re not advertising that you are a deep, melancholy person. And so, when I follow up with that stuff and, of course people to come to that second. The first way they discover me is through “Still Alive,” or “Re: Your Brains,” or “Code Monkey,” or something that’s more “up.”
COULTON: Because those are the things that move farther and faster on the internet. Nobody’s looking at a bunch of sad videos on YouTube. And so they hear that stuff first, and I think they get a particular idea about me, you know it happens all the time that I’ll see on Twitter somebody will say, “Oh, my God. Jonathan Coulton writes a lot of sad songs.” Because they’re just discovering them and it’s surprising to them.
COULTON: But yeah, they all feel like sad songs to me.
SCALZI: Yeah. Come for the laughter, stay for the tears.
COULTON: That’s right.
SCALZI: All right, we’re going to walk away from “I Crush Everything” now, and when we come back we’re going to talk about your sequel song, “Want You Gone,” from Portal 2.
SCALZI: So for everybody still listening, thank you very much. This is John Scalzi for Tor.com. We’ll see you tomorrow.