As I walked towards the Juicy Café in the Washington State Convention Center on the Saturday of Emerald City Comicon to meet for my interview with nerd-rock icons Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm, brandishing my scarf/headband of the squid kids from Splatoon and my Omocat hoodie of the Pokémon Gengar, I couldn’t help but think of whether or not I would be making an ass of myself presenting myself this way in a professional interviewing environment. But then I remembered we were at Comicon, where its attendees are all but encouraged to express themselves in whichever unconventional methods they please, and suddenly I didn’t quite feel so stupid presenting myself in front of people I have so much respect for.
On the second day of Comicon, Friday, the 8th, lauded nerd-rock heavyweights Jonathan Coulton and his trusty openers Paul and Storm took to the Triple Door stage for two acoustic shows in one night, with the help of in-town locals Molly Lewis and Angela Webber from The Doubleclicks. I was at the all-ages show at 7:00, and it was one of the most communal live performances I’ve ever been to. The Triple Door is already a pretty intimate venue to begin with regardless of who you’re seeing, but throw in the amount of stage banter and unexpected, off-the-cuff detours thrown in throughout the intermission-free two-hour performance, and it was hard not to feel completely welcome and won over by what we in the audience were all treated to and a part of.
Following their pair of sold-out shows on Friday night, I met with Jonathan, Paul and Storm to ask them more about the thought process behind their live dynamic, their thoughts on the Seattle music scene, and the original edge of the annual JoCo Cruise.
NWMS: “So you guys played a couple sold-out shows at the Triple Door last night, right? How did those shows go?”
Jonathan: It was great. Seattle’s a great town for us to play. It’s a pretty nerdy town. *laughs* The Triple Door is a fantastic room, it sounds really great. I haven’t been doing a lot of touring over the last few years because I’ve been working on a new album, and prior to that I was touring with a band, so for me to be up there doing an acoustic show in a small-sized room was a real pleasure. I forgot how much I liked it. It’s a really nice sing-along vibe that happens.
Storm: It felt like old times. We used to tour quite a bit in the late aughts, and it was just nice to get out there. Seattle has always been the core of the fans. If we had to pick three cities that had the best enthusiasm, Seattle would always make that list.
Paul: It’s definitely one of our home bases, I’d say.
Jonathan: When I first started touring, Seattle was the city where I first – y’know, when you’re just starting as a musician, you play in the city where you live in all the time – Seattle was the first place I went to play where a bunch of strangers showed up to see me play and already knew my songs, and I was like, ‘What is happening?’
NWMS: “At the performance last night, there was a huge feeling of togetherness, where the people on stage and the people in the crowd were equals; nobody was lording over each other, and there was no barrier between the openers and the main event. How do you get that feel of unity, does it come from the power of friendship?”
Jonathan: *laughs* That’s a lovely question, and a lovely observation, thank you for saying it. I think that’s true. We are good friends, and as a fan of things and performances, I always enjoy myself the most when the people on stage are enjoying themselves the most, so I think that when I approach it, I really try to do what’s fun, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed” to do and what is expected.
Paul: You saw the “Walking on Sunshine” bit, didn’t you?
Jonathan: That’s obviously a thing that, some might say it’s a little misguided to launch into a completely improvised, sad version of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves in the middle of your show, but it sounds like the most fucking fantastic idea in the world to me.
Storm: And it’s all the sort of stuff we would do anyway just in the tour van back in the day, just mess around. We enjoy songs, we enjoy singing, and we enjoy messing around. We just put that on display; it’s not like we throw on some mask when we get on stage, we’re just ourselves out there, and we just do the sorta stuff we enjoy and hope that people enjoy it.
“How do you decide what songs you’re going to do when you go into a set? Because you have so many great songs, how do you choose out of all them which ones to do?”
Jonathan: Well, as you have pointed out, I bear the burden of having too many great songs to fit into one set. *laughs* I mean honestly, I do have to kind of pick and choose, because everybody has their own favorite, and I’m always thinking about the people whose favorite is a lesser-known song, because if I just did the top 10 most popular songs, then we wouldn’t ever get to the other ones, and those people that really like those ones would be disappointed.
The truth is, I have a soft spot in my heart for some of the lesser-known ones and some of the sad ones and the personal ones, so I like to do those because, y’know, in the middle of a show, when I pull out something like “You Ruined Everything,” which is a sad song about becoming a parent, that speaks to a small number of people in the audience who are parents and who know what I’m talking about, and as I start it and as I play it, I can see the people who are responding to it.
I dunno, it’s exciting to commune with a small number of people in that way in the middle of that big space, as exciting as it is to play something a little more “anthemic,” and have everybody sing along as zombies or whatever.
“For those who may not know what the JoCo Cruise is, give us a bit of background about how it got started, and what it’s like when you go.”
Jonathan: Well, we’re all musicians – I’m a solo musician, and Paul and Storm are a duo. We sorta found each other on the Internet in 2006, and we were both writing funny songs about silly subjects, and started touring together. We toured together for many years, and sorta developed this fanbase, and at some point, we decided to try doing this cruise thing, to sort of take what we do and the various other entertainers that we had met in the course of doing our own shows, and put them all on a ship together and have a week-long comedy, music, nerdery festival at sea.
Paul: So it’s a series of music performances, comedy performances, we have authors, game designers, and webcomic artists come on, and there’ll be panels and Q&A sessions and stuff like that. We like to describe it as, we wanted it to be all the good parts of a con. There are no lines – there are few lines—
Jonathan: *laughs* There are no rooms dedicated to lines.
Storm: Except for the line of people who just can’t get enough of that.
Paul: The people who go on it, they describe it as being less of a con, even though it has a lot of con-like aspects, it feels a lot more like summer camp, as there’s a great sense of community. In fact, a great portion of the event itself is this thing we call the Shadow Cruise, where we have a bunch of spaces and times reserved, and we let the attendees kind of plan their own events and schedule them, so some person will be giving dance lessons, and there’ll be a knitting and crafting group, and there’ll be people getting together to have a book club or throwing a puzzle hunt.
Storm: It’s sort of a gathering for people to do whatever they wanna do.
Paul: Yeah. You could have a song-circle or a Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along and all sorts of things like that, so it’s a lot of community-oriented events. Y’know, we’ll have dance parties and karaoke and that sorta thing, and it’s all built around this tropical vacation at the same time, so it’s sorta like, take a con and put it on a hotel that floats and goes to different islands and such.
Storm: It’s grown a ton since 2011, which was the first year, from 350 people being a group on a ship, to now, where we have a boat at our command that’ll be like 1,900 yards at sea.
“This year’s cruise came and went a couple months ago. How did this year’s cruise compare to the ones you’ve had in years’ past?”
Jonathan: It was the best yet. It was great. Everything went really smoothly. We’ve gotten really good at planning things out. This is our sixth year doing it, so I’m proud to say that we really know what we’re doing. It went very smoothly, and it was such fun. It always is, but there is a real spirit of community there that has just grown and grown and grown over the years. There are people that have been on every single cruise, and there are people who are just there for the first time, who are saying, like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this thing exists. It’s so fantastic.’
It’s the funniest thing, at the end of the cruise, there’s the last event, it’s this cocktail hour thing in this giant space, and we’re all there drinking and saying our goodbyes and taking photos and stuff, and people come up to me and over and over again, the thing that they say is, ‘Thank you for doing this. Thank you for setting this up and enabling this thing to happen,’ and I’m always like, ‘Don’t thank me. I work the least hard out of everybody on this.’ But also, I’m getting a lot out of it. It’s a very valuable experience for all of us.
Storm: We observe, we listen to people, we always get feedback from folks, and I think the reason why every year is better than the last is because we want to surprise everybody with fun, cool stuff. With the full ship, there are just gonna be so many ways we can do that.
“How do your shows on the cruise differ from your ones on land?”
Storm: The biggest thing is that we encourage the musicians to mix and mingle, to sit in on each other’s sets, to even include the comedians and the authors; also the fact that everyone is hanging out all week, it’s a certain vibe. The week goes along, everyone sorta locks in together, and they might take chances that they wouldn’t ordinarily, because they feel like, ‘Oh yeah, we all get it. I can try this thing or do this thing I don’t usually do,’ because they trust that the audience and their fellow performers are going to be with them on it.
Paul: We try and foster events like that, like things that won’t happen anywhere else, except on the ship. Like this past year, the last concert, we got pretty much all the musicians together to do a bunch of David Bowie covers in tribute to him, and it was this really incredible experience where we had Jonathan, Storm and myself, Aimee Mann, Ted Leo, Paul F. Tompkins came out and sang some songs, Jean Grae, a hip-hop artist who’s wonderful, John Roderick from The Long Winters, Jim Boggia, and just all these people – we’re all friends, we all enjoy each other’s company, but we very rarely get to all be in the same space at once and be able to do that, and then on top of that, put on this show of these songs that we’ve loved for years and years, it was really special.
Jonathan: Songs that we wouldn’t really get to play otherwise. Since I feel like my fans that are there on the cruise have maybe already been to a Jonathan Coulton show, I always try to do a mix of stuff – the hits that everyone expects to hear, but also some of the lesser-known stuff and some stuff that I don’t often play. I try to make it a special show.
“Have you ever had to deal with seasick people on the cruise, just like projectile vomiting everywhere? How do you deal with really sick people on the cruise?”
Jonathan: You’re asking us to talk about the many times people have projectile vomited on our cruise?
Jonathan: *laughing* I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone projectile vomit on the cruise. But the seasickness thing is, I know a couple people who’ve come who suffered from seasickness, and they don’t really have a problem with it. It depends on how sensitive you are, but the ship is very large, and they also have these stabilizers, these wings that are in the water, that keep it from doing too much rocking. But… take a little Dramamine, you’re fine.”
Paul: We truthfully don’t really deal with it much. The ship has various facilities and things you can take in varying degrees of intensity to help alleviate seasickness – it hasn’t really been a major problem at all.
Storm: People are surprised because they thought it was gonna be a problem and it’s not. Part of it too is, it’s always been Caribbean and this year it’s out of San Diego to the sea of Cortez; the cruise lines know not to take the ship to seas where seas are tossing a bunch.”
Jonathan: We aren’t crossing the Atlantic in February or anything. *laughs*
Paul: Yeah, we aren’t going down to Antarctica. Not this year, at least.
“Do you think you could ever see a JoCo Festival working on land, or do you think being on a ship is a big part of it?”
Jonathan: For me, the cruise is a big part of it, because you are captive in this place, and the place that you are captive has a bunch of swimming pools and hot tubs and unlimited food, and you keep stopping at beaches, and if you want, you can walk over to the side and look at the beautiful ocean. When you go to a convention on land, you spend all of your time in a convention center, which, you would never be in a convention center on purpose, unless there was a convention there. But a cruise ship is a lovely place to hang out, plus there’s a convention going on around you.
Paul: And yeah, we could do it, but it would end up being just another convention. What you do at a convention is well-worn ground, and yeah, it would be with us, but that cruise element makes it a unique event.
Storm: Never say never, but we certainly don’t have any plans to, just because we love the uniqueness of the cruise aspect.
“So you had what, 24 performing guests on this latest cruise? You had that many over 7 days. When they perform, do they get longer sets? You go to an average festival, and they have like a half-hour to 45 minutes at most, is that a big selling point, you think, having longer sets?”
John: There are a bunch of different kinds of events. We try to do one main show per day, which is usually two different acts doing about an hour each, and then we have a bunch of other smaller things that happen, so a panel might last an hour, or somebody might be doing like a hot tub hangout event that lasts for as long as they want. There’s a mix of low-key small events and the big main performances in the main theatre.
Paul: That’s part of being on the ship for a week. A music festival, maybe that’s two or three days, a convention, same thing, we have all this space and time to do unconventional things, in our convention. *laughs*
“Do you guys keep up much with the Pacific Northwest music scene at all? Do you have any local favorites that you’d like to bring out onto the cruise with you at all?”
Jonathan: Well, John Roderick from The Long Winters, who actually ran for Seattle City Council recently, has been on all of them. We’ve been friends with him for many years. Truthfully, I feel like we aren’t really a part of any music scene. We’re sort of nontraditional artists – we were never on labels and never part of that machinery, so I feel like we’re a little outside of that “scene” environment to begin with. Seattle is certainly a great town, with a lot of great bands that come out of here.
The 7th annual JoCo Cruise will be taking place from March 4th to March 11th, 2017. Booking and more information is available at jococruise.com.