Horror. To some, the genre is that of cheap thrills, startles and nightmare fodder to allow entertainment to be entertaining without the need to turn on one’s brain. To others, Horror is a conduit that our deepest fears, anxieties and paranoia are visualized, hence why the community of horror fans has become as large, vocal and intertwined as any group in modern popular culture. Horror molds around our individual perceptions of shock and terror, and often times can be discussed with the enthusiasm and passion that may not apply to other genres. Therefore, Diabolique Magazine presents Talking Terror, a weekly column where we speak to actors, comedians and other public figures about their relationship to the world of horror.
The relationship between horror and music has been a fruitful yet wary venture, considering the varying legacies left in the wake of their combination. For every Rocky Horror Picture Show, there’ll always be a Monster Mash to remind us just how terribly things can go awry when humor, horror and orchestration come together with the best intentions. However, when these elements work, the effect is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle, as the artist can use gradual reveals, character motivation and mythological conventions to create memorable and endearing works of musical magic. It’s that difference that you can see in the work of the musician, separating those with a legitimate passion for horror and music alike to those grasping for a recognizable gimmick.
However, to make a musical achievement as such once is almost miraculous, but to make as many of those achievements on a regular basis as musician Jonathan Coulton does is incredibly stunning. Coulton, utilizing elements of empathy and relation between himself and the surreal subjects of the horror and science fiction world, has carved out a fascinating niche in the small world of satirical music and in turn has become somewhat iconic within the world of nerd culture. Clever, affecting and frequently hilarious, Coulton’s songs have turned previously impersonal metaphorical subjects into personally drawn stories, much in the way of previous satirist songwriters Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, and continues to thrive to this day as he continues to mine content from horror and science-fiction lexicon. Coulton spoke to Diabolique about his influences, his occupational songwriting hazards and his connection to the Mystery Science Theater crowd…
DIABOLIQUE: In the past, you’ve written songs about zombies, creepy dolls, robot overlords, mad scientists and other things that have roots within the horror genre. Have you always been a fan of horror culture?
JONATHAN COULTON: Yeah, actually. I guess a lot of my songs have been influenced by the crossovers between sci-fi and horror. But as a kid, I read a lot of Stephen King probably too early, and I remember when I read Salem’s Lot, that set me off on a two year period where I was afraid to be in the dark. I guess I’ve always been interested in horror and King was a big part of my interests during my childhood.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you have any favorite horror film growing up? Do you remember the horror piece that broke you into the genre?
COULTON: Well, Stephen King was certainly the beginning of it. I don’t know if this counts but I was watching The Wizard of Oz last night with my kids and was remembering how terrified I was of the Witch. I should say that’s not exactly a film in the horror genre, although I suppose in some context, it should be. I remember being a kid and being seriously, seriously scared and that was my earliest memory of that. That and Stephen King’s work, which was one of those things where I couldn’t stop reading even if I was terrified. I also remember seeing The Exorcist on television, and that scared the hell out of me as well. I’ve always liked being scared.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any recent horror favorites, whether it be a film, literature or otherwise?
COULTON: You know what? There aren’t any good movies anymore. They don’t make them. [laughs] My wife just reminded me. You know what’s good? Pitch Black. The one where the ship is marooned on a planet with creatures that come out in the dark, and Vin Diesel is a criminal who can see in the dark and is more of a killer than the creatures. That was fantastic. I remember being really surprised by how enjoyable that movie was. A film I revisited lately was The Thing which certainly isn’t from the last ten years but is really a fantastic movie. It’s a classic. That one is heartily scary.
DIABOLIQUE: What do you think is the biggest difference between horror culture that has been coming out today as opposed to the horror that you grew up on?
COULTON: Well, nowadays, I think there is a lot more shock in modern horror. I believe modern horror relies much more on shocking the audience than they used to. They seem to focus more on the gore and creating situations that are upsetting, like that whole torture porn subgenre. I’m not a fan of that subgenre and I feel like it’s a little lazy. My favorite kind of horror is the stuff that allude to terror, not that moment where you’re like, “Ah! That’s awful!” I feel that that’s an old fashioned way of making movies nowadays. “Hey, let’s tell a story that holds together, with characters that have depth and motivation we understand and all that stuff.” I feel that it’s a shortcut to turn on a chainsaw and throw blood around, and that’s just not pleasant.
DIABOLIQUE: A lot of the horror elements that you satire in your songs come from a science fiction basis. As someone who is considered a figure in nerd culture, what is it about science fiction that you think compliments horror so well?
COULTON: Well, they’re both about things that don’t exist that were metaphors for talking about other stuff. Whether it is zombies, vampires or space aliens, there’s always an element of something that you don’t have to approach directly. You can get to it through horror by talking about something else, and to me, that’s always been a more interesting way of telling stories and hearing things. If you think about Star Trek, that’s science fiction that really has metaphors that are painfully obvious. If you look back at the very first Star Trek ever, you’ll go, “Oh yeah, right. There’s a very obvious metaphorical message there that could be a little bit more sophisticated.” But for me, that’s been my connection to science fiction: in how they could talk about stuff indirectly.
DIABOLIQUE: What is it about music that you think works especially well with satirizing the conventions of both of those genres?
COULTON: I don’t know actually! The nice thing about song is that it works on a couple different levels. The music might make you feel one way, but the lyrics might be going in a completely different direction. It’s like the way films are really layered that’s really complex, but it’s got the structure of a joke where there’s a set up before the punchline where the ultimate meaning has been revealed but it’s all designed to mess with your expectations. That’s what I think both of those genres do and that’s what I do with my songs as well.
DIABOLIQUE: Your particular brand of music is really great because even though you’re singing about these ridiculous subjects, you keep it more or less grounded in a singular perspective and that can be both affecting and humorous. Do you develop your music from these perspectives or do the lyrics usually come to you beforehand?
COULTON: You know, it all kind of comes at the same time. Usually, there’s a musical idea to kick things off, but frequently I’ll think of a snippet of lyrics as to who the character will be who sings the song or their point-of-view. It’s not like I set out to write anything in particular beforehand. I kind of cast out for ideas and I pick the ones that are interesting. It’s almost like a survival of the fittest thing going on where the ideas that I don’t like don’t survive because I’m not interested in performing them. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: Is there any genre subject that you’ve wanted to tackle in the past but have had difficulty finding a perspective to approach it from?
COULTON: Well the danger, for me, is that I found in the things that I write, the subjects have a common theme that’s worked its way through all their perspectives. It’s hard to shake that one story that I keep telling again and again. The frustrating thing is that my song about a sad vampire (“Blue Sunny Day”) is basically the same as the one I wrote about the giant squid (“I Crush Everything”). They’re both about these sad monsters who know exactly why [they’re sad], although at the same time, for other reasons, they’re not.
After a certain point, it’s like, “Well, let’s go down the list. Let’s see…hm… werewolves! I’ve never done a werewolf song. Let’s do a song about a sad werewolf. How about a song about a sad Achilles? Okay.” So there are certainly corners to that trigger that I haven’t tackled but I kind of wait for inspiration because otherwise, I’ll start to repeat myself.
DIABOLIQUE: You have collaborated with Bill Corbett, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy a few times, both in your live appearance during their Plan 9 from Outer Space show and in your contribution for the Rifftax for Tron. What brought you together with that group of performers?
COULTON: What did bring me together with those guys? I believe I was doing a show in Minneapolis and I think Bill Corbett knew Paul and Storm, who are friends of mine and musicians whom I sometimes tour with. They may have introduced me to him, but at some point, we were doing a show together and Bill Corbett was in the audience and Paul and Storm had asked him if he wanted to do the lines of the “Chiron Beta Prime” robot, knowing that he was a professional doer of robot voices, and he did, so I got to know him that way.
Then they asked me to do the track for Tron, and they came on to the Joco Cruise Crazy and they performed, and I did the Plan 9 show with them. They’re great guys. I remember Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a mind-blowing, groundbreaking show, also in turn being an absolutely ridiculous concept clearly deep from the hearts of the people who were making it. It was like, “Really? We could come up with a really ridiculous idea and we can just do it?” Their career is a very inspiring one.
DIABOLIQUE: Would you ever want to contribute to another Rifftrax and if so, do you have any film in mind of which you’d like to tackle?
COULTON: I’d love to do another one! The funny thing about Rifftrax is going into it, you think it would be the easiest thing in the world, because we’ve all sat around watching movies and made fun of them. But thank goodness they did the writing because I couldn’t write a joke and make it funny. They make it seem so easy, and I’d love to do another one. It was great fun. I can’t think of one I’d do very well that they haven’t done themselves.
DIABOLIQUE: The horror genre actually is a very interactive theatrical experience in and of itself, considering the amount of emotion and attention you have to devote as a viewer. Do you have any memorable in-theater horror movie experience, for better or for worse?
COULTON: There is a thing in particular that bugs me that to this day the horror genre is more infamous for, for whatever reason, in terms of audience reaction. The thing that really bugs me at the movies that you get sometimes where someone who is near you keeps describing what just happened on-screen right after it just happened. For instance, a guy can transform into a werewolf and you’ll hear someone say, “Whoa. He just turned into a werewolf.” [laughs] Or someone will get shot and they’ll say, “Ah! They shot him!” I know! We all are watching the same movie. You don’t have to talk about it.
DIABOLIQUE: As someone who is in the musical field, do you find yourself more aware of the musical score for horror films?
COULTON: You know, I’m such a sucker for movies and I get so absorbed into them that I don’t notice the details about them. I don’t pay attention to the musical score, ever, and I’m not one of those people who tries to figure out what’s going to happen. The part of my brain that tries to analyze things turns off when I’m watching a film. Usually, I don’t notice the music unless it’s bad. That should be the goal of writing a score for a feature film. It should never get into your head; it should support what’s going on and still be interesting. You know, you’d think me being a musician that I’d be more in touch with that stuff, but I’m not. I just love watching movies.
DIABOLIQUE: So what do you have next coming up in the near future? Do you have any project currently in development?
COULTON: Yeah! I’m planning on touring for the first part of next year, and I’m trying to focus on creative stuff. I’m working on a few things and hopefully that’ll grow into some sort of new album eventually. Aside from that, the next big thing that’s coming up is the JoCo Cruise Crazy, which is coming up in February of 2014. It’s our fourth one and it’s going to be bigger and better than ever. I’m really excited about it and we’ll have announcements about the performers who are going to be with us later this month. Otherwise, the other thing that’s been occupying most of my time is the Code Monkey Save World comic book which is the Kickstarter funded project that I’m doing with my friend Greg Pak. It’s a four chapter graphic novel that creates this universe by pulling together characters from a bunch of my songs. That’s been really tough but it’s finally starting to take shape. The first of them should be up by the end of the month as well, with the rest to follow before the end of the year.
For more from Jonathan Coulton, you can visit his official website, check out his official Youtube channel, like his official Facebook page and you can follow him on Twitter: @jonathancoulton. You can find his music on iTunes, Amazon and his official web store. Furthermore, you can check out the official Kickstarter page for Jonathan’s graphic novel, Code Monkey Save World, here for more information on the project. As previously mentioned, you can book a spot on the upcoming JoCo Cruise Crazy 4 and learn more about the event itself here.
Remember, you can learn more about the evolution of horror comedy in Issue #17 of Diabolique, now available at the App Store, Google Play, Barnes and Noble and wherever horror magazines are sold! Next Monday, we’ll be speaking to stand-up extraordinaire and writer/lead performer of Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, Tom Papa!
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– By Ken W. Hanley