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.
Today John reveals Jonathan’s new song, “Redshirt (the theme from the novel Redshirts)”! Inspired, as the title says, by John Scalzi’s newest novel Redshirts, which is out next week, June 5th.
Below, John talks to Jonathan about “Redshirt.” Audio, chat transcript, Scalzi-style karaoke, Jonathan Coulton being badass on Brooklyn streets, and shenanigans included.
To reiterate one final time: Every morning for the past two weeks, John has talked 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? Check out the index to see. It’s a hell of a tracklist!
Debuting “Redshirt” by Jonathan Coulton!
John Scalzi and Jonathan Coulton talk about the new song “Redshirt.”
SCALZI: Hello, folks. It’s John Scalzi for Tor.com. I’ve been, for the last two weeks, talking with Jonathan Coulton about his music and science fiction. And today on Tor.com we’re debuting a new song from Jonathan Coulton that I don’t have to be shy about anymore. Or coy. I can tell you what it is. It’s “Redshirt (the theme from the novel Redshirts).” By who? Who is that novel by, Jonathan?
COULTON: That’s by John Scalzi.
SCALZI: I hear he’s a hack.
COULTON: He’s kind of a hack. He’s—you know what, it’s fun, though.
SCALZI: That’s good. That’s really important. So, yeah, the big surprise, Jonathan Coulton wrote a song for me. And I can’t actually begin to describe to you just how jazzed I was that you did that, Jonathan. I know I actually haven’t been able to geek out about it to you in person yet, but the fact that when I pinged you about it and asked you if you wanted to do it and you were like, “Totally.” I sat there and I like literally squeed in my house. I’m not ashamed to say that I actually did that.
COULTON: Well I was delighted to have been asked because, a little bit of logrolling here, but I am a huge fan of you as well. And I think the book is great and a very compelling read. One of those things that when you asked me I said yes immediately, and then when I read the book I was really grateful that I had said yes immediately, because I was like, “Oh, this is a good book and I know exactly how I’m going to write this song.” And it was just one of those things.
SCALZI: Excellent, well we’ll get to that in a minute, but first I wanted to go back a little on our joint personal history to note that this was not the first time that I’d asked you to write a song for me. Do you remember the first time?
COULTON: Yeah, I do, I said no.
SCALZI: Yes, you did. Yes, you did. I’m not bitter about that at all.
COULTON: You know—
SCALZI: Let me give the background to it first.
COULTON: Yeah, you tell the story.
SCALZI: Okay, what happened was, I guess it was about seven years ago now, I wrote The Android’s Dream. And this was right around the time that Jonathan Coulton started getting known for his music. And I thought, “Hey, here’s a guy who does geeky science-fiction themed music. He’s sort of up-and-coming. He’s brand new and probably financially desperate. Why don’t I try to take advantage of him in some way?” So I sent him an e-mail going, hi, you don’t know me, because I only have one novel out and blah blah blah blah blah. But I have this book coming called The Android’s Dream that I think would be really excellent if you did some songs for, and maybe like a three- or five-song cycle and I’ll pay you. And it was some ridiculously low sum, which I don’t want to admit right now because I’m kind of ashamed. But I figured at the time, it’s like yeah, you know, that might be a lot of money to a starving artist in New York. And so your response was: nothing. And then I spent the next like three years going, “Oh, shit. I’ve completely offended Jonathan Coulton, and even though I love his work, and we will never, ever, ever be friends. It’s so sad.”
COULTON: Did I not respond to you at all?
SCALZI: You did not respond at all. And, like I said, I’m not blaming you, because basically, you know—because every once and a while, to be quite honest…I realize that I did that thing that I tell people not to do. Which is to be the sort of overbearing fanboy, and ask something ridiculous. Because I occasionally get the e-mails that go, “Hey, would you like to collaborate on this book with me and it will be awesome and then we will be cool and best friends forever.” And my response generally to that is just to go, “Huh,” and sort of walk away from the e-mail. So my assumption was that I’d crossed that line which I’d, like I said, warned people not to do. And I just, you know, “Well, it’s different for me when I do it.”
COULTON: Right. Well, I’ll tell you that’s not for off the mark. I hadn’t read you, I didn’t know who you were. I didn’t know how great a writer you were. And, in fact, what happened was that. I got that e-mail from you, and I’m like, “Oh, who’s this guy?” And you know, I think you included a PDF of the book.
COULTON: And so, rule number one when you’re e-mailing a busy person is keep it very short.
COULTON: Because they won’t have time to read the whole thing. You and I both get a lot of e-mails, and I’m sure it’s the same for you. Do you get an e-mail that’s five paragraphs long? You’re like, “You know what, I’m going so skip this. I’m going to deal with it later. I don’t have time to read it right now, I’m going to answer the two-sentence ones, with a two-sentence e-mail.”
COULTON: Because I can get of bunch of stuff done. And so that’s what always happens. And so when I got this thing that included an entire manuscript to a novel—
COULTON: —I was like, well, yeah, you know, I’ll respond to this guy, but first I should read a little bit of it. And then it just sinks to bottom of the inbox and disappears. And then, of course, years later I read Old Man’s War, and I was like, “Oh, no.”
SCALZI: No, but you know it was an entirely rational response, and like I’ve said. I do absolutely the same thing myself which is just like, I’ll get back to that, and then…I literally get hundreds of e-mails a day, right? A lot of it’s spam, but even like real e-mails. And sometimes it’s like even the important e-mails that I need to get to immediately—because you also get that thing where if you got a mailbox of like 60 or 70 important e-mails every day, you just look at it and you’re like, uugh. You get the ennui.
COULTON: You get completely jammed up. You can’t do anything at all.
SCALZI: Right, exactly. So, all that sort of stuff. So, all that was back in the past and then we finally met and we actually realized that, you know, we liked each other and all that sort of stuff. And so when it came time to—I had a book called Fuzzy Nation just before this that I’d asked Paul and Storm to do a song for, and it had actually worked out very well. They executed perfectly. I’d asked them for a complete Michael Bay, overblown sort of closing credits thing, right?
SCALZI: And it was gorgeous and they did a really great job with it. And so when Redshirts was done, I actually knew that this was a particular book—there was something about it, which we’ve discussed previously, the idea—it’s very funny, but if you read it, and this kind of relates to you, there’s a little bit of a thread of melancholy running through it because, you know, the life of a redshirt is not easy.
SCALZI: And so when I was re-reading the book and was like, do I want to do a song related to it, or do I want to have someone try to do a song related to it, and this was the one that just screamed, you know, Jonathan Coulton. Get Jonathan Coulton for this, and so.
SCALZI: So, yeah, when I came to you and asked, and you were like, yes, I was like, excellent, and sent it along. Now, all that as sort of preface, the thing about the song is again, you do that thing that you do, which is, and on the surface it’s a very—it can be a very funny song, you know, it’s like the chorus, “They said this air would be breathable,” which really exemplifies, I have to say, the entire redshirt problem, is like, you know, we’ve been told that this…
SCALZI: You know, and now we’ve gotten screwed. But at the same time the entire chorus of the song, you begin to realize that this redshirt, somebody’s got to be sacrificed, it’s going to be this guy and, for him that’s actually fairly important fact.
COULTON: Yes. And for no one else. Thinks that it’s important. And yeah, it’s the tragedy of knowing what’s coming. I mean, for me that was the concept of “Redshirt” that I liked so much in your book, is that you took what is—
SCALZI: Remember to be careful because it’s a week before it comes out so we don’t want to have any spoilers.
COULTON: Oh, no. I won’t say any spoilers. But the conceit of taking something that we all know what that means…
COULTON: It’s a shorthand for a certain kind of character in a piece of fiction, and then it’s sort of turning it around and—because it is, you know, the redshirts are by definition the character that you care the least about.
SCALZI: Right, exactly.
COULTON: And so to then suddenly care about them I think is great fodder for fiction, for telling stories. You know.
SCALZI: I will tell you a story. I was the script consultant for Stargate Universe. And it’s been a couple of years so I feel comfortable telling this tale. I get a script, and there’s this scene that takes place in a hallway, right? And it has a character walking down the hallway but the way it’s notated by the screenwriter is “Redshirt walks down the hallway.” And I was just looking at that and going, he’s not going to make it to the end the hallway. And then of course, off he goes. So I think that you’re absolutely correct. It’s a shorthand, everybody knows what a redshirt is. When I did my Fuzzy Nation tour I read from the Redshirts prologue chapter. And I said to people, “I’m not going to tell you what the title of this book is. See if you can tell me what the book title is at the end the reading.” And so I read them the prologue chapter, which is available online to read at Tor.com, and there are various other places, as a preview, and I get to the end of it, and I’m like “Okay, raise your hands.” And every single place got it. It’s Redshirts.” And it’s like, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”
COULTON: Yeah, that’s funny. That’s funny.
SCALZI: Now for you, the song is not necessarily based on any specific incident in the book, though.
COULTON: No, it’s not. I guess it sort of takes its cue from the same things that maybe you take your cues from, which is sort of building out that idea of a redshirt and the thing that that is shorthand for, and then expanding that universe a little bit.
COULTON: And, yeah, it kind of expands. It’s like we started from the same state and expanded into slightly different universes.
SCALZI: And I actually, to be quite honest with you, I actually really like that because it’s one of the things that—and I think this is actually a little bit of the difference between the commissioned songs for the Portal universe where you were definitely working with a specific character and having to deal with her as a part of the continuity and you were writing something that would be something that, for example, GLaDOS would be thinking and saying and here, where it’s not any specific redshirt that, for example, is in the book, but it’s a generalized redshirt which in, of course is almost exactly what a redshirt should be anyway.
COULTON: Right. And we talked about it early on. Do you remember I had my—before the song was written but I had some ideas—I was kind of expecting it to go more in a metaphorical direction.
COULTON: And I was going to use redshirt as a way of describing a guy who realizes he’s in a doomed relationship.
COULTON: But I was maybe going to make that metaphor one of the classic Coulton, extremely complicated metaphors where you’re not entirely if it’s a metaphor or not. But the more I wrote it the more I realized, this is not a metaphor at all. It’s just actually this guy.
SCALZI: Dude. This dude.
SCALZI: Although I like the idea of emotional redshirts because I certainly, I know people who’ve been serial relationship-ists, if you want to call it that way.
SCALZI: And in some ways it doesn’t even matter who it is that they’re dating because it’s like, “I know I’m not going to see you next week.” Right?
COULTON: Exactly. Exactly.
SCALZI: Right. So.
COULTON: And yeah, I think that there’s still room—if somebody else would like to write a song about redshirt as metaphor for a doomed relationship, I think that’s a good idea. In fact, I almost did it.
SCALZI: It’s not that it’s not a good idea. It’s just that it’s a rich vein to mine, as it were.
COULTON: It is. It is.
SCALZI: So, for you—I mean this is actually the first time we’ve talked about it in any sort of depth at all. For you, where do you think this kind of goes in the spectrum of Jonathan Coulton songs? I mean…
COULTON: Well, it’s very—in a way, you know, we were just talking yesterday about Artificial Heart and how there were not a lot of science fiction themes there, or specifically nerdy themes—that in many ways it was an exploration of different stuff.
COULTON: And so, in a way it was great to be back. It was like I was putting on a pair of comfortable shoes. And it was like, “Oh, right. I remember these shoes. These are great shoes.”
COULTON: So, it was, I think it’s pretty solidly in the camp of Jonathan Coulton science fiction songs, but it’s also of the later variety when the melancholy was in full effect.
COULTON: So there’s not—this is not jokes about zombies.
COULTON: This is sad giant squid, basically.
SCALZI: A sad giant red squid, yeah.
COULTON: Giant red squid, yeah.
SCALZI: I have to say, I mean—and obviously I would say something like this purely for marketing purposes—but this is actually true, that it is actually one of my favorite songs of yours. And part of it is, to be entirely selfish, this is one of the few songs that you’ve written that doesn’t have really complicated chords that I can’t do on my ukulele. So, for me I might be going on tour bringing my ukulele and playing it in lieu of a reading or something like that.
COULTON: Oh, I wish you would.
SCALZI: I may in fact do that. I may actually have to get a red ukulele. For that specifically. But, so that’s the one personal thing, but the other thing about it is that it really does exemplify what my favorite Jonathan Coulton songs have. Which is very sharply-observed character, you know, who is telling a story, who is not someone who is just inconsequential or is having inconsequential thoughts but is actually someone that you can relate to. And I mean, and all the things from “The Future Soon,” to “I Crush Everything,” all these songs that sort of speak to me as a person, it’s very much in that same sort of vein, and I think that, as far as it goes, it’s really kind of an extension of the stuff that you’ve always done, independent of the science-fiction aspect, although that’s cool. It’s again part of the whole thing of Jonathan Coulton, Storyteller. And that, I think, is what I was hoping for that you would hit and what I think you actually hit. Yes, completely, completely biased, observer here, but I think it’s one of your best.
COULTON: Oh, thank you very much. That’s very nice of you to say. And thank you for asking me to do it. I’m thrilled I got a second chance.
SCALZI: Excellent. Now, actually I have to ask you again out of my own personal selfish interest, is this a song that you guys are thinking about playing while you’re on tour?
COULTON: Absolutely, we’ve already rehearsed it a number of times and it’s great. It’s very fun to play. We were talking at the last couple rehearsals about how, you know, when the band and I were opening for They Might Be Giants we had thirty minutes, so we would do this set that was just eight or nine loud rock and roll songs. Very quick. Very high energy. Very fun to play. But not a lot of dynamic range. There just wasn’t room for it.
COULTON: And so we’ve been focusing on adding stuff to the repertoire that’s softer and slower and sadder and with some different instrumentation. And this song I’m grateful to have in the set list because it is such a different feel and a different vibe from a lot of the other stuff, so it’s nice to have this color in my palette for the show. So I’m really looking forward to playing it.
SCALZI: Excellent. And I think it’s also fun for people whenever you go on the road if you can give them something new for, you know, the first time that people will be hearing something. I think that’s always a thrill for them as well.
COULTON: Yeah, and it’s a nice way to give life to a song, is by running it through its paces in front of the audiences, because you learn a lot about it and the song itself changes as you learn to play it and learn to play it for people. I’m excited about that, too.
SCALZI: I’m excited about it, too, I can’t wait to see the inevitable YouTube shaky video of it being placed.
COULTON: Yeah. Should be a few. Should be a few of them.
SCALZI: Excellent. All right, well, Jonathan Coulton, thank you so much for talking to us for basically two whole weeks. About—
COULTON: It’s been a long two weeks, John, I won’t lie. Thank you very much for talking to me. I appreciate it. I’m a huge of your work and I think that the new book is fantastic and I’m glad we got a chance to, you know, collaborate on this thing. It’s been fun.
SCALZI: Excellent. Thank you so much. And thank you all the rest of you for listening to me and Jonathan talk about science fiction and science fiction songs. For Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you again soon. Bye.