“Ahhhh… at my age I don’t know what’s relevant! I grew up with albums. And when I was working on this I thought a lot about the ‘big’ concept albums that I had grown up with - Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975) which was really a big influence on me. I remember being a kid and listening to my dad’s copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and looking at that sleeve and trying to figure out what the hell was going on! These guys in costumes and the songs are kind of linked together! What was it about? The light of that larger work encompassing all those smaller works – I didn’t really set out to make a concept album. I just started to write songs and somewhere along the way it kind of became clear that they were thematically linked at the very least – and then it was Christian who said ‘oh you should take Solid State and do a reprise at the end’ – maybe there was a story, some kind of an arc, at some point I wrote all the song titles on little pieces of paper and moved them around and tried to figure out ‘what is the story being told, who are the characters?” Johnathan Coulton
Here we are in the year 2017 and musicians of every shape, size (metaphorically speaking), and artistic disposition are in a quandary: what to do about the album format? For rockers, jazzers, folkies, rappers, and composers of all genres, the art of recording is essential. From reel-to-reel to cassette to digital spanning Elvis Presley to Costello and on to Lady Gaga -the deed of pushing PLAY/RECORD is a sacred ritual. It’s a fixation - fetish for which there is no cure - nor should there be. When musicians depart this mortal coil, the tapes/sound-files go with them into the afterlife for remixing, I assure you.
Yet streaming has threatened the very existence of the album format like no other technology before. Sure, cassettes brought about the dreaded “mix tape.” And CDs afforded the sacrilegious option to the listener of altering the running order of an album. However I would be forever haunted by the ghost of Chris Squire (or strangled by Rick Wakeman’s cape lining) if I dared interchange the orderliness of “The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn” with “The Ancient – Giants Under the Sun” on my digital edition of Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans!
Enter recording artist Jonathan Coulton and his producer Christian Cassan. Coulton, aptly described as a “techno-utopian” on his website, is living proof that musicians can survive -and thrive - outside what was once known as “the record industry” by way of the internet. Jonathan’s career goes back to the dark ages in New York City wherein musicians plastered promotional gig flyers on structures known as “telephone poles” and various flat surfaces in the era before ad companies bought every inch of space. (I’m sure I covered his posters with my bands’ posters and vice-versa. In my book, you’re not a real musician unless you’ve stapled a few fingers together, glued an eyelid shut, choked on cellophane tape, and convinced your long-suffering girlfriend to hand out free passes - all in the name of promoting the show!) Coulton is the real deal.
Christian Cassan is that rare cat that does everything right. He’s an exemplary multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, collaborator, and song / soundtrack composer. Cassan’s studio is The Secret Garden located in – where else – Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s worked with a few Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and noted film-makers - to be discreet. I first heard of Christian’s existence by way of a gem of an album by Julia Brown entitled Jubilant Newborn Alien Haze (2000) which should have made her household name – and a killer world beat reggae slab by Louis Atlas entitled Beat of the Heart (2001) which I reviewed for Allmusic.Com. And Christian looks like a producer – the facial hair, the threads.
“I love his writing” proclaims Cassan. “Jonathan’s songs are great, but I thought that his records needed to be more ‘consistent’ and more focused. Jon was trying to get away from the guitar format. Songwriters go through that stage where they want to reinvent themselves. So I wanted to make the record more personal – and a little more sophisticated than the other records…so I put more attention into the little details. We both love records…we have that in common. Jon might be more advanced in what is happening today on the business of things, but we both come from a record album perspective of consuming music!”
Among the Solid State guests include Aimee Mann on harmony vocals, guitarists Dave Gregory and John Widgren, pianist Bennett Paster, Kenneth Rampton – trumpet/flugelhorn, and Christian’s late brother Roberto on accordion.
Despite my rapt attention, I could not figure out the Solid State storyline of a concept album “about the internet, trolls, artificial intelligence, and how love and empathy will save humanity.” And though the accompanying graphic novel – written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Albert Monteys is visually stunning. I didn’t get it - which is perfectly is fine with Jonathan.
“It is a little oblique,” Coulton assures me, “you wouldn’t get the story at all if you just listen to the album. Even reading the graphic novel, it is not entirely clear what is going on. Part of our plan was to leave it a little bit ambiguous.”
He continues “the story of the book is that there are these two guys both named Bob separated by several hundred years of time. And one of them brings about this massive amount of technological change by creating this artificial intelligence that is able to read all of our secret innermost thoughts, and then disappears for several hundred years. (Laughter). And it kind of brings about this apocalypse - and in the meantime, the humans that survive are kept safe in this walled city by machines and technocrats. And at some point far in the future one of them stops taking his pills, starts to freak out a little bit, and escapes! The two Bobs may be distant relatives…they may be dreaming about each other at times. (Laughter). The basic arc to me is that there is a kind of ‘out there’ theory about the internet which is that we are creating this massive ‘brain’ – all these connections that we are making are creating this artificial intelligence. And one day, it’s gonna wake up! And that idea is terrifying!”
Relax. On Solid State, the songs reign supreme.
Jonathan Coulton’s Solid State is out now on SuperEgo Records.
For music, news, merchandise and all things Jonathan Coulton: www.JonathanCoulton.Com
For music, news and all things Christian Cassan: www.ChristianCassan.Com
Photographs of Jonathan Coulton are by Pieter M. Van Hattem
Photograph of Christian Cassan by Sabine Scheckel