Ever since they burst onto the national scene in the early '80s, Brooklyn's own They Might be Giants (affectionately known to their fans as TMBG) have enjoyed a cult following like no other.
Initially the quirky and inimitable Massachusetts duo of accordionist John Linnell and guitarist John Flansburgh appeared live with little other than an antiquated drum machine to provide rhythm tracks for their short, clever and unrepentantly intellectual pocket pop symphonies.
However, for the past 12 years, they've recorded and toured as a full rock band, and have ventured far beyond the geeky tongue-in-cheek novelty hits that made them college-radio darlings back in the late '80s when that still meant something.
Known by many as the band who anticipated the lounge and exotica resurgence in 1990 with their surprise hit cover of The Four Lads' 1953 Tin Pan Alley nugget "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," the group also nabbed a Grammy in 2002 for "Boss Of Me," the theme to FOX-TV's Malcolm In The Middle.
These days, TMBG's diverse concert audiences (known famously to include everyone from small children to grandparents) are just as likely to hear cuts from their critically-lauded kids album No! as they are such career-defining fan faves as "Don't Let's Start," "Particle Man," "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head" and "Doctor Worm."
The Two Johns enjoy an unassailable reputation for being both accessible and appreciative of their fans, and since their earliest days have operated the legendary Dial-A-Song service, in which anyone willing to pay the price of a standard long-distance phone call to Brooklyn can access a constantly changing string of exclusive songs and demos (which they religiously load onto an ancient, obsolete cassette-based answering machine). Always something of a maverick act in terms of embracing new technologies, their website (www.tmbg.com) is crammed with interactive media and copious downloadable music and videos.
Most recently, they have emerged at the vanguard of the nascent Podcasting movement, and their regular internet-only "radio programs" are some of the most popular in the world. That's not too surprising, as they're beloved by metalheads, indie-rock nerds, hot chicks and hip-hoppers alike. They represent the best that brainy pop music has to offer in 2006. We spoke with John Flansburgh during a break from their tour rehearsals. The following are highlights:
The last time you were scheduled to play here, it was cancelled because of Hurricane Floyd. Then, when you played Charleston a few years later, another hurricane was heading towards the coast. Please tell me you have a different opening act.
Oh my God, I remember that so well. You have no idea. Well, you probably do! (laughs) I'm sure it was a horrible time for everybody in Savannah. No, we definitely have a different opening act. He plays the ukulele, and he's fantastic. No wind. We promise we won't bring that particular hurricane back! (laughs) But, I want to remind everyone that all the facts aren't in on global warming, and folks shouldn't jump to any conclusions. (laughs) We're really looking forward to the show, and it'll be great fun. Even though we haven't played there a lot, I've been to Savannah a few times as a tourist and it's a beautiful place.
TMBG has always been prolific, but lately, your output has increased to an almost absurd degree.
We're just trying to keep up with Guided by Voices, man.
How's that going?
It's OK. I'll be perfectly candid: It's better to write good songs than a lot of songs. We enjoy writing them and sharing them with our audience. That leads us into all the different sorts of things we've been doing lately. There's certainly a lot of stuff being generated. But, our primary work as songwriters is just as difficult as ever. I think we've gotten a little more efficient in how we put songs together, and our success-to-failure ratio in terms of starting new songs is better. We did a lot of incidental music for TV shows about 5 years ago, and that's really the opposite of making a regular album. For example, right now, we're in the middle of making an album with the Dust Brothers, and a typical day with them is spending an hour just working on the guitar tone. It's an intense aural examination. But when you're recording 25 minutes' worth of TV music each week, you walk into the studio, and the engineer usually has everything pre-set, and you pretty much just play down all your little pieces of music. I think what we've learned in the last 5 or 10 years of our career is that there's something good about both approaches. We know now we can work quickly and still do great stuff. For uptight guys like us that was a huge breakthrough. We've been so precious about that for so long it's insane. (laughs)
So, you're still slaving over some things, but as often as not, you're crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, and keeping what works.
Yeah. Also, we have a really amazing bunch of sidemen -- really intense players that come on board with a whole set of skills. It's very efficient. We spend a lot less time in "the MIDI cave" wondering where the crash cymbal is gonna come in. And honestly, that was taking up a lot of our time. We're more focused than ever. Focused on the good times. (laughs)
How's the website?
We're doing this Podcast thing right now, and I truly can't tell you how excited we are about it. Not only because it's on the iTunes chart all the time and it's fun to see your name on a chart, but now we're reaching an audience of half a million people with this thing. I can write a song today and put it on our Podcast and half a million people hear it tomorrow! We do that every couple of weeks. For a songwriter that's an amazingly satisfying creative outlet.
Well, that's just Dial-A-Song taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Yeah! It's like Dial-A-Song without a busy signal. (laughs) You know, Dial-A-Song has always been overwhelmed by the public demand. This is available to anybody so easily. I mean, you click one button on the iTunes program and you receive it forever. It arrives in your e-mail every so often. It's like Christmas every couple of weeks! If you don't really know anything about the band, and you're interested, check out the Podcast. It's completely free, and it's made by us and only us. It's quite representative of the spirit of what we do. That sounds like a press release. "It's really representative of the spirit of what we do," said Flansburgh, smoking a cigar. (laughs)
Did you ever think back when this started, that you'd be touring internationally with a full band in 2006, and selling out most venues?
Well, my perception of what we're doing is probably the most unreliable perspective on the project! (laughs) When we started, I couldn't really sing and play the guitar at the same time. So, the idea of getting paid to do a show, seemed like we were pulling an incredible ruse on the concert promoters. Then a couple of years into it, I started to feel like we were really a full-fledged original rock band. You know, it was John on accordion and me on guitar, and a drum machine. And, in my mind, we were AC/DC! When we hit the stage and played something like "Ana Ng," it was like, "Here comes the ROCK, man! Deal with THE ROCK!" And, in retrospect, as an adult looking back with a lot more perspective, just the format of the band blew people's minds. (laughs) It was this completely odd, lopsided arrangement of stuff that might not have been that satisfying for the guy who truly loved AC/DC. But I work on a faith-based system, and I felt like what we were doing was 100% real. And, in a way it was.
What can folks expect in terms of the setlist?
Well, we're making an entirely new show for ourselves. We're previewing a bunch of songs off this new Dust Brothers CD. We're also playing some songs off our first couple of albums that we've not played in years. So, in a way, there's a schizophrenia to the show that's more extreme than usual. We're focusing on very early material and very new material. Part of it is that we want to give people who come back and see us often a new experience. And, it keeps us challenged. We're doing an awful lot of rehearsal for this. There's a half-dozen songs that we can't really leave out. I mean, I can't think of a show where we haven't played "Birdhouse In Your Soul" in the past 20 years. (laughs) Some songs we just have to do. The old stuff will make some people very happy. we're actually playing "Purple Toupee." I don't think we've played that since 1990.
Well, now that you've done kids albums and adults albums, you'll have to pull a David Greenberger and do an elderly person's album.
I think we're getting very close to that. (laughs)
Just by the fact that we're getting so damn old. (laughs)