He's not a 'code monkey' anymore
November 29th, 2011
12:39 PM ET

He's not a 'code monkey' anymore

Who’s that bearded guy in the glasses and untamed auburn hair singing with thousands of fans in zombie voices?

That’s geek rock star Jonathan Coulton. You may not have heard of him, but to his fans "JoCo" is as much a household name as CoCo. Coulton got that way by writing songs about zombies, coding, gaming, math, technology and science fiction.

He’s got a new album out, “Artificial Heart,” which turns out to be a bit of a departure from his claim to nerd fame. Instead of zombies eating brains or creepy dolls that follow you, Coulton has been thinking a lot about turning 40. The result is a set of songs that are more mysterious, even to Coulton himself, than what he’s written in the past.

“It’s about the complicated nature of adult relationships and work and self-image,” he told us at Dragon*Con in September, with Paul and Storm (the opening band at many of his concerts) seated beside him. “It’s about being a grown-up. It’s about being a sad, old, not very relevant grownup.”

“Geeks can be grown-ups, too,” Storm chimed in.

And geeks do grow up, but they're never too sad, old or irrelevant for a Caribbean cruise. The JoCo Cruise Crazy II (where he and other geek performers will accompany tourists on a weeklong tour of the Southern Caribbean) will set sail this February.

“The cruise is still happening, in spite of all the other things that would satisfy any normal human as Enough Things Happening Already,” Coulton recently wrote on his website, in his usual, cheeky style.

One more thing happening: fellow nerdy musician, They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh, (who also produced “Artificial Heart”) will be DJing some dance parties on the cruise. Coulton and Flansburgh are keeping busy in the mean time by making videos for “Artificial Heart” songs.

JoCo: The early years
Coulton was singing from the time he could talk, and played the snare drum in marching band in school.

“From time to time I imagined what it would be like to have a career doing this. Probably by high school, that was my declared intention to everyone,” he said.

At Yale University, Coulton sang with two a capella groups while pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in music. But after college, Coulton moved to New York and became a software developer, writing database software for executive recruiting firms. He “just sort of forgot to be a rock star.”

But Coulton did do some creative projects on the side, including collaborations with John Hodgman (an author and humorist who is probably better known for his turn as a correspondent on "The Daily Show"). In 2003, Coulton released an album called "Smoking Monkey". The same year, he performed at Pop!Tech, where he learned about Creative Commons licensing that would become his standard for releasing music.

Coulton quit his job to pursue his love of music in September 2005. He started a project called "Thing a Week" that would yield some of his most popular works. Beginning September 16, 2005 and ending September 19, 2006, he wrote and released one song every single week. The result: four albums.

Probably the most-beloved song that emerged from "Thing a Week" is “Code Monkey,” about a software developer who hates his job. It's a song that has become a geek anthem. When he wrote it in 2006, Coulton posted on his website:

Yay, monkeys. This is not autobiographical, but I did indeed used to have a job writing software. VB! MS SQL! I affectionately referred to myself and my co-developers as code monkeys, especially when a client asked me a question that I didn’t want to answer (“What do I know? I’m just a code monkey.”).

Another song, the ridiculously catchy “Mandelbrot Set,” has become factually outdated. It assumes acclaimed mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who died in October 2010, is “still alive and teaching math at Yale.”

“ ‘Mandelbrot,’ when I perform that live, the joke about him not really being dead, I leave those lines out. I just don’t sing those lines. It just goes “Mandelbrot’s in heaven” and then there’s a little moment of silence, although it is filled with music,” he said.

Despite such geek themes in some of his music, Coulton never sat down to deliberately write nerdy songs. And whenever he’s tried to intentionally write a geek hit, he fails, because it’s not fun, he said. The songs he writes are just what he happened to be thinking about that day; themes he happened to want to explore and talk about.

“I really think that if you’re going to create something, it has to be something that you care about and want to create. It’s a mistake to pigeonhole yourself and target a particular thing because it’s marketable,” he said. “You just have to do what you do.”

“Artificial Heart”
Coulton lost songwriting steam for a few years, but came out of that rut after he opened for a few concerts with They Might Be Giants in March 2010. He also ended up with Flansburgh as an album producer.

“It was very much taking me out of my comfort zone, because it was with a band in a studio with a producer,” Coulton reflected. “I was playing the electric guitar a lot more than I normally do.”

Coulton had a hard time gearing up to write again. The creative process is ultimately painful; there’s a lot of self-doubt and self-loathing that keeps you from getting started, Coulton said.

“Once you overcome it, it is a wonderful experience, but the 90% of it is overcoming that starting thing,” he said.

In this case, Coulton got moving when Flansburgh would demand three songs by the end of the week. Coulton would waffle “Eh, I can’t,” but Flansburgh coaxed, “Just write three songs.” And Coulton would just do it.

Besides the more “grown-up” themes, there are some goofball songs, such “The Stache,” about having a mustache, and “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” which Coulton assures us is about a guy trying to convince two French ladies that he’s Rick Springfield.

But don't worry, there's still a bit of nerd on“Artificial Heart.” The album includes Coulton’s two songs from the “Portal” video games: “Still Alive” from Portal 1 and “Want You Gone” from Portal 2.

Coulton’s children know what he does for a living, but he doesn’t make a habit of playing his whole catalog for them. Still, when he was at PAX in August and called to check in on his family, his 3-year-old son asked if he was playing “Good Morning Tucson,” a track off the new album.

And his 6-year-old daughter is a big fan of “Code Monkey."

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soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. george washington

    it is all geek to me

    ancient geek, isnt that a dead Language?

    old geekers + 40 =
    old geezers

    November 30, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • Nasir

      It's terrible that you have bieatd breath it must stink! Might I suggest a mint, or a correction? *Bated breath. (:I feel like you'd see this comment moreso than the ones on your videos, so here it goes. My parents like you. They heard your video for Crazy and Only You and loooove that you did so well with the covers. I think they're waiting for some more old stuff.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  2. jj

    Code monkeys are cute

    November 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  3. Donovan

    Love the Portal songs ....

    But the need to bring back the TV SHOW "Code Monkeys" as well .......

    November 30, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  4. Jaeden

    This was a triumph...

    November 30, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  5. VFP Guy

    As soon as I lose my last VFP client, I'm dedicating an entire album to slamming M$ (that's "Microsoft" to you non-nerds). Then, I'm taking a shower. Btw: cut my teeth on Assembler for a Commodore64. You don't get any geekier than that. I play 3 instruments and sing. I'll blow that guy away, after the shower, of course.

    November 30, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  6. GB

    This is a triumph!

    Love JoCo. Big fan. Seeing this story made my Wednesday.

    November 30, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  7. karrie_pgh

    In our house, we heart JoCo very much! Going now to CD Baby to get new album.

    November 30, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • karrie_pgh

      And now I have Code Monkey stuck in my head. Song bombed myself!

      November 30, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • Mrs Marvel

      I love Shop Vac myself. So poignant and ironic with such a great melody. JoCo is king here too.

      November 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  8. Shannon

    Search YouTube for his "First of May" song. Fun!

    November 29, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  9. Mrs Marvel

    I think John Hodgman is more famous for his role as "...and I'm a PC..."

    November 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  10. the_dude

    Did this guy invent the iphone or something? I never heard of him...

    November 29, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Meg

      Fail. Look him up now.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • kaiser1778

      http://lmgtfy.com/?q=jonathan+coulton

      November 30, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Frank

      Unless you stumbled upon the Internet only last week, you've heard some of his stuff already, you just don't know he's the guy behind it.

      November 30, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  11. Mike

    Yes, all us 'code monkeys' have jobs.

    November 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • BJuarez

      And boring meetings.

      November 29, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
      • Andrew

        With boring manager Rob...s.

        November 30, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  12. tam

    everyone knows Coco is Coco Channel..

    November 29, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bert

      You mean, Coco Chanel?

      November 29, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  13. Tim

    VB & MS SQL are hardly geek a factor/programming. It's okay for silly little things and shopping lists. Plenty of clueless people mess around with that stuff and some get paid for it, which is amazing, but it's hardly geek.

    November 29, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • JeramieH

      Don't be so hard on the little VB guys. Remember, everybody gets a trophy for showing up.

      November 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • MC 900 Foot Pen 15

      Probably why he said he wasn't really a programmer.

      November 29, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • bitsinmotion

      VB is lame, but MS SQL is as good a database server as is out there.

      November 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • SlimJim

      LMAO let me guess you’re a C++, Java or maybe an objective C guy? You guys always say VB is week, nothing new there, lol. I've been using VB and MS SQL for 10 years professionally doing allot more than building shopping lists and selling what we built. I would never go to C for what I'm doing. I've used C and I know how powerful it is across platforms; I've tried and really dislike the structure of objective C in the Apple environment and don't even get me going on Java. It's all about what you’re developing for. If you don't need something going cross platform and are sticking with a Windows environment; why bother wasting time with anything other than VB (C#, or even ASP :-) ). Hell VB6 (1998?) is still powerful (although you have to create allot of API subs/functions) and can run in the Win7 Environment with little to no updating the code. It all comes down to what you’re building the application for and on what platform, not the language so much.

      November 29, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
      • ROFLSTOMPED

        Well, I guess that settles that.

        November 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • CHow

      If you use VB to make shopping lists, you're definitely a geek!

      November 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  14. Drew

    Why doesn't this article just outright say how he got so popular? He wrote the infectiously catchy credits songs to "Portal" and "Portal 2", known as "Still Alive" and "Want You Gone" respectively. They are great and undeniably his claim to fame.

    November 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Drew

      (Pfft. Missed the little mention towards the end there, my bad. That should have been paragraph 2 at the latest! Those two songs elevated him to a level of anyone caring about the rest.)

      November 29, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
      • pmiddy

        Correction. He wrote the end credit song to Portal. THAT elevated him to a level people cared about. Then his other music (Code Monkey, Ikea, etc) elevated him to the point where a lot of people cared/knew him. THEN he wrote the end credit song to Portal 2.

        His new stuff is good, but bums me out, mainly because I relate to it. Old, sad, not very relevant grownup indeed.

        November 29, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
      • Steve

        ACTUALLY actually, Code Monkey, the Baby Got Back cover, Skullcrusher Mountain, and other viral hits came before EITHER Portal song, and were what got Valve's attention in the first place. The Portal songs certainly gave him an extra fame boost, but he was already doing music full-time with plenty of devoted fans before them.

        November 29, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  15. Angela

    I believe you mean "Good morning Tuscon."
    Great article!!

    November 29, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • pie

      *Tucson :)

      November 29, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  16. chuckcreig

    "..but to his fans "JoCo" is as much a household name as CoCo."

    Uh..."CoCo?" Yeah, never heard that in my life, brah. Wasn't aware it was a "household name." But good try though! Maybe next time?

    November 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Team CoCo

      http://teamcoco.com/

      November 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
      • chuckcreig

        yeah, exactly my point. NOT exactly a "household name." NEXT.

        November 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
      • Guest

        I had to click the link to remember myself

        Conan O'Brien is the most famous ginger since Ron Howard

        November 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
      • bitsinmotion

        Maybe not a household name if you live in a hillbilly shack.

        November 29, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • MightyMoo

      Allow me to help you with a possible CoCo reference.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRS-80_Color_Computer

      November 29, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
      • MC 900 Foot Pen 15

        Booyah!

        November 29, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Kyle

      I heard that "Drake" was a household name. I'm glad I'm not such a tedious old b@st@rd that I have to make a post to make myself feel better about it.

      November 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  17. Taloolah

    He was great in The Hangover!

    November 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Tom

      +1

      November 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  18. Grothnar, Troll King

    First!!! I hereby claim this spot for trolls and troglodytes worldwide!

    November 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Genie

      I hereby grant your wish.

      November 29, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Spot Remover

      You can have it until about nine pm, then I'm wiping it out. Be warned.

      November 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
      • Grothnar, Troll King

        No, don't wipe it out. Everyone loves the first post troll!! Look how much traffic and discussion it's bringing to the article!

        November 29, 2011 at 5:10 pm |