BUT THEY MIGHT BE GENIUSES, TOO They Might Be Giants

John Flansburgh spills
the beans on quirkiness and accessibility, on kids records and their new rock
album, and, oh yeah, on who’s the REAL brains behind Fountains of Wayne.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

There are a multitude of adjectives that might best sum up
They Might Be Giants’ MO, and while quirky, zany, wacky and off kilter often
come to mind, so do such descriptions as melodic, tuneful, inventive and infectious.
Indeed, over the course of a 25-year career, this impetuous duo – childhood
chums John Flansburgh and John Linnell – have concocted the kind of offbeat
offerings that manage to define the very essence of genuine pop perfection.
More often than not, they actually overreach, with rock, pop, folk, vaudeville
and even circus sounds tossed into the mix for good measure.

 

One of the indie scene’s early success stories, They Might
Be Giants first mined that DIY approach on the early ‘80s with a strategy they
dubbed the Dial A Song service, a phone line that spotlighted a series of songs
written and recorded to garner record label attention. That led to a deal with
Bar/None records and a burgeoning following that grew proportionally with every
release. Their self-titled debut effectively established them as geek gods, a
distinction they’ve proudly maintained ever since. Their next album, Lincoln,
and its accompanying single “Don’t Let’s Start,” honed that slapdash style,
affirming their status as the darlings of the college crowd. A signing to
Elektra Records provided the potential to elevate their cult status and bring
them into the mainstream, a possibility that came close to fruition with their
first label offering, Flood in 1990.
The album went gold and yielded the terrific twosome “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
and “Istanbul
(Not Constantinople).” Both songs went on to become staples of the band’s
catalogue, outstanding examples of the irreverent, infectious and utterly
irresistible sound that’s been the band’s stock and trade from the very
beginning.

 

The band never scaled the heights of unadulterated stardom
that clearly seemed their due, and indeed, after those early landmark LPs,
their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. However, that hasn’t negated their
popular appeal. A series of children’s albums, DVDs and soundtrack
contributions have turned They Might Be Giants into unlikely family favorites,
a parallel career they still pursue. However, it’s their new album, Join Us, that has fans excited. A return
to the clever signature sound that stamped Flood and Lincoln, its 18 tracks return them to
their trademark sound. From the effusive opener “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”
through the sunny good vibes of “Old Pine Box,” “Spoiler Alert” and the
riveting rocker “Let Your Hair Hang Down,” and on to the final bizarre freak-outs
of “You Don’t Like Me,” “Three Might Be Duende” and “2082,” Join Us is as enticing as its title
implies.

 

Flansburgh recently spoke with Blurt and offered to share his insights into They Might Be Giants’
oftentimes unlikely trajectory.

 

***

 

BLURT: You’re so prolific – is it ever a challenge coming up with new ideas?
How do you avoid repeating yourselves?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: We have discussed how we’re
running out of nouns. Probably time to move our focus to adverbs. 

        I
wouldn’t want to assume we haven’t done a certain amount of repeating, but it’s
probably not a bad idea for a creative person – especially songwriters – to
give yourself permission to at least repeat some aspects of how you work. Good
songs are often bold and simple, and it would be a mistake to say “I’ve
already done bold and simple. Gotta move on to fragile and fussy.”

 

When it comes to the songs, how closely do you
guys collaborate in their composition? Can you give any insight into the way
the material is conceived and how the arrangements originate?

We both have home production set ups and write
separately for the most part, but we are the first audience for the other. The
collaboration kind of expands and contracts around the individual songs and
where we’re at as a band. We’ll hand things off to the other. We have written
various things in the traditional music dude/lyric dude way, but we’ve done
things a lot of other ways too. I seriously don’t want to speak for John here,
but personally I’ve always sensed that there is an abstract idea of this band
They Might Be Giants — after years of talking about what we want and don’t
want that band to be about musically — and we’re writing for that concept.

 

Where do you come up with some of these unusual
subjects that form the core of your songs?

When we started, we had a lot of big ideas
about avoiding stock ideas. No solos, just arranged breaks. Short intros. No
fade-outs. We weren’t too big on writing about love, but we were also probably
pretty shy about the topic too. Just staying away from clichés was the main
thing, and while we have given in to the pleasures of intros, solos and an
occasional fade-out, it’s still the goal. When we started, we weren’t that far
past the new wave moment and short, sharply structured songs of any kind —
whether it was the Residents to Elvis Costello — were infinitely more
appealing to us than the baggy, jammy songs of progressive rock. 

 

How challenging is it to replicate your songs
on stage, given the unlikely instrumentation and unusual arrangements that
grace the studio versions?

We feel like what we gain is always more than
what we lose playing songs live. But while we put a lot of energy and thought
into how we put songs together live, I’m not certain we always actually have
such profound insight in to how any given arrangement really lands. I mean,
audiences clap at the end of most songs — and we all know that can be
deceiving! 

        One
song we have talked about over the years is “Ana Ng.” It was a popular early
track for us, and when we recorded it, we had probably had seven cups of coffee
apiece and were jazzed at being in the studio and working with a new drum
machine. We just kept pushing the tempo up and up, and ended up recording the
song a bit fast. I don’t want to say too fast, because it’s a very successful
recording sonically. But needless to say, in the fullness of time as we have
performed the song hundreds of times, and we came to the conclusion that at a
more moderate tempo “Ana Ng” actually feels much groovier. Now here’s where I can’t help but wonder — if you see a
bunch of old dudes playing their old songs at a slower tempo — doesn’t it seem
likely that as an audience member you’re gonna think, “They’re tired!” Either
bored of this song, or just too damn old to play it at full speed? Now of
course, at any given moment we are all that too — but what we’re doing in our
performance in “Ana Ng” for musical reasons I suspect, could scan in an
entirely different way to an audience member. But who knows?

 

Early on, you built up a tremendous cult and
college following and with your signing to Elektra. Yet, afterwards, it seemed
like your possibilities for broader success never really reached full
potential. Any thoughts about what transpired?

Well, that really defines a half empty/half
full way of looking at your career. Most bands don’t last five years even with
hits, and I could name two dozen bands that had much bigger hits than us back
then who are now 100% married to that time, and in a sense are forever cast as
an oldies act. We could have definitely worked harder at some key points, but
we could have also broken up. We toured for a solid year behind Flood, and that certainly made some
registers ring, but we were aging like presidents.

 

Your songs have always been both quirky and accessible.
How do you maintain that balance? Had you opted to write straight pop songs,
you might have been fixtures on the pop charts. 

There is a real generosity in the idea that
we’re just holding back on being a more mainstream band out of restraint or
taste, but what we do is our
mainstream stuff. I suspect it’s because TMBG songs are often melody-driven
that people feel like we’re hiding some kind of musical WMDs. But that final
layer of a super-sincere lyric or the chant-along chorus really does elude our
best efforts. 

 

After signing to major labels, was there ever
any pressure to downplay the quirkier subject matter and focus on becoming more
commercially viable?

I think it would be a mistake to categorize the
pressure there was to make us a “straighter” act. Quirkiness would be
fine by them. If you really quizzed the smartest folks there I suspect they
would’ve said They Might Be Giants really needed to be a bolder, more current
package: dress in a more costumey way, be more outspoken or outrageous, and
have songs with catchphrases in them — that is the standard “shape”
of a hit band.

 

Of all the many albums in your catalog, which
do you have the most fondness for?

As we were making The Spine in 2004, there was a real overabundance of spiderwebby, Halloweeny
kind of songs. Some were manic, and some were more pastoral — but as a group,
it seemed like a bit much to put them all on the album, so we left a lot off,
and the overflow became the EP The Spine
Surfs Alone
. When I listen to it now, the EP is wonderfully, if
unintentionally, cohesive and so damn paranoid — it’s a real song cycle.

 

What inspired the detour into children’s
music? 

John and I had both done side project albums,
the movie “Gigantic” was getting made and a box set of our first twenty years
was coming out on Rhino, so it seemed as if TMBG was really finally established
in the culture. It seemed like we could do a one-off without people thinking
the band was forever changing course. So we made the album No! (our
first kids album) during the off hours of doing incidental music for “Malcolm
in the Middle” and “The Daily Show,” and the process was a very low-key,
pleasant diversion compared those far more public gigs. Of course, the
commercial success of No! was the part we hadn’t anticipated. 

 

Did you ever consider making kid’s music your
path entirely and abandoning the adult audience altogether?

No, although it certainly was available to us.
Even though we were pretty upfront about it — and always kind of hid behind
puppets or animated avatars of ourselves — taking the leap into being full on
children entertainers somehow always loomed in the back of our conversations
with Disney. But you can’t blame ’em — there aren’t many faceless kids acts!

 

Will you continue to make children’s albums? 

Probably, but who knows? We have done enough
kids albums to do a pretty compelling kids show, and it seems the existing
albums just go and go with new generations of kids. If we were to go right back
to it, it would be nice to get away from the education part of it. As efficient
as it is to write on a topic, it’s fun just to write songs in a more wide-open
way.

 

Do you have any soundtrack projects in the
works? Is that still a lucrative area for you?

Movie stuff is often more interesting, but
being based out of New York
we don’t get a lot of offers. Most of the incidental music we’ve done has been
for television and advertising. It’s okay money and I think we’re actually
pretty good at it, but often it’s just a huge volume of work, and typically
delivered on very hard deadlines, so it’s really just a high-pressure,
well-compensated job. 

 

You’re about to embark on a big tour. When was
the last time you played out so extensively? Any thoughts on returning to the
live arena? Any apprehension?

The album is very strong so everybody is very
confident about the quality of the new show. We have a great band and crew, and
the audiences are always fantastic. While it’s tough being away from home and
the show is physically very demanding, touring is also a way to feel fully
alive, so it’s hard not to feel excited.

 

You seemed unlikely rock stars – in both your
image and your approach. And yet that became your hook of sorts. Any thoughts
about what it was like to evolve as sort of “anti-rock stars?”

We are in fact very often rock-star-style
unreasonable. We are complicated and by standard measure, our goals are often
very abstract. We can be very “just so” about how we’re presented.
While I wouldn’t say we are self-destructive in that typical “Behind the
Music” rock star way, there are many things — like money for instance —
that simply will not be enough to motivate us to do something we don’t want to
do.

 

Any final thoughts?

I recently flew to do a show in Toronto and had to take
my guitar on the plane. The car service driver was as chatty as I was
exhausted. He couldn’t stop talking about Santana and Jimi Hendrix and guitars,
guitars, guitars. He asked me what band I was in, and I begged him off.
“You don’t know my band,” I said. I just couldn’t get the energy up
to describe the band to a stranger one more time. But he wouldn’t let me off
the hook. As he went on and on, I thought — what would other guys do? — and
my mind drifted to Brian, the drummer in Fountains of Wayne. Brian is a great
practical joker and notorious fibber. So I broke down and told the guy I was a
sideman — the ringer lead guitarist — in Fountains of Wayne. He hadn’t heard
of us! But he wanted to know more! I told him about “Stacy’s Mom.” Told him how
we got our name. Told him I do all the recordings too, “To keep ’em tight —
but I’m not in the pictures.” 

        It
was so liberating not having to tell the truth, and so pleasant pretending to
be someone else. I think next time another interview like this comes up I’m
going to do it as a sideman in Fountains of Wayne.

 

[Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez]

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