Even after 25 years of relative success, They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh can't help but slip into a little momentary paranoia about the positive feedback he and musical partner John Linnell have gotten over their new album, The Else.
"It's a very exciting moment for us just because it's getting such a good response," says the hyper-caffeinated Flansburgh in a phone interview. "In the past couple of months, people that we work with have pulled us aside and said, "Really good album,' in this sort of conspiratorial way, which only makes you wonder if they've been lying to you up until now. It's like, "But you said you liked the other one...' But we invested a lot of time and money in this album, so we were trying to do something exceptional, something notable."
A lot of advance notices on The Else have singled out the high-energy album as a return to form for the Giants, a reference that Flansburgh has a bit of trouble grasping. For a band that has successfully mixed rock, folk, jazz, klezmer, pop, blues and Himalayan throat singing (feel free to include your own ridiculous music reference here) in varying degrees, how exactly would you define their standard form?
"You know, I don't think that's even possible," says Flansburgh. "I wouldn't know how to sum up our previous form. We're not a band that has a consistent arrangement style or approach. We're sort of, by definition, undefined. To be perfectly honest, if that makes people intrigued enough to check out what the album's about, I'm all for it."
Flansburgh and Linnell have been notoriously unconcerned with making premeditated decisions about the Giants since the high school chums began working together in the early '80s, and The Else is hardly the exception to that rule. The one guiding principle that drove the process of The Else was to work without considering a specific deadline and to allow the album itself to determine when it was complete. The band's recent success in television (providing the delightfully manic "Boss of Me" and incidental score work for Malcolm in the Middle, commercial work and contributions to Jon Stewart's Daily Show) and children's recordings (2002's No! and 2005's Here Come the ABCs) gave the duo the leverage it needed to spend better than 18 months working on The Else.
"We don't start projects thinking that we would ever have a deadline because the deadline seems so far away," says Flansburgh. "Inevitably, all sorts of things intrude on our ability to finish an album. The way our lives are structured, writing songs is something that there is never a time afforded to that idea. If you look on our calendar, you'd be like, "Wow, these guys are busy,' but you'd also notice that in all those dates that are filled in with things to do, there's never a day that says, "At home writing songs.'"
If there was one other conscious motive behind The Else, it was the use of the Dust Brothers as outside co-producers. Flansburgh says he and Linnell wanted to challenge themselves by employing boardsmen who would bring something unique to the Giants' impossibly inclusive table.
"Just the idea we were working with the Dust Brothers - producers that do something very different from us that we actually respect - and that the other songs we were working on were going to be heard alongside the songs we did with the Dust Brothers really upped the ante of what we knew we needed to achieve," says Flansburgh. "I know there are probably Odelay fans who are going to say, "I wish it sounded like [Beck's] Odelay,' but they probably said that about [Beck's] Guero as well. I can't speak to that. This is definitely a They Might Be Giants album; it's not like we've been recast. We didn't just rent ourselves out."
And therein lies the wirewalk for a band that has been doing exactly as it pleases for the past quarter century. The success TMBG has achieved over the course of its long career has been modest by most measures, fueled by a relatively small group of rabid loyalists who've followed the band every step of the way. The trick for Flansburgh and Linnell has been to alter things enough within the Giants repertoire to keep themselves engaged without alienating the core fans that have propelled them along an odd career trajectory, from their salad days in New York's East Village and their early Dial-A-Song telephone service, to their initial albums on Bar/None to their major label deal with Elektra (resulting in the platinum album for 1990's Flood) to their shift to the Internet, podcasting, a smaller scale indie-label deal and even more grassroots dissemination of their music. The Giants have managed to create a semi-popular and lasting legacy without compromising their artistic spirit.
"That issue speaks to the problem of being a band for as long as we've been one," says Flansburgh. "You don't really know how to get people to reassess what you're doing. There are some tried and true formulas, but they're all really jive. There is this sort of "reinvention by press release' thing that happens in rock music where people make major changes to their sound or their approach in a more fashionable or controversial kind of way and that always rang false to me. We're in an unusual position where we actually stand behind everything we've ever done. I feel like it has been our good fortune that we've trimmed ourselves in a way that our stuff holds up. It's not a given that a band that's been around for 25 years can look back on their catalog and go, "Well, that worked.' And I feel like we're there. We want to do stuff that stands up."
The Else certainly fits within TMBG's timeless construct. It is an edgier album than the band has made in quite some time, which may be inspiring the return-to-form comments (perhaps it's more a return to Flood). Whatever the opinion, Flansburgh says he and Linnell are more than happy with the outcome.
"There's this aspect to this record that's a little bit strange which is that it's very tough sounding; it's not a very cozy record. It's definitely foreground music," says Flansburgh. "Our audience is very wide and what they want from us is hard to sum up. There are people who really like the cozy, friendly side of what we do and people who like the ugly, strange side of what we do, and they all claim to be our first and biggest fan. So [The Else] affects people differently."
Regardless of the side the Giants choose to display at any given moment, they've created an interesting paradigm for themselves. While it's true that they haven't achieved the kind of superstar success that is marked by multi-platinum sales figures and arena tours, neither have they been railroaded into following a callously commercial muse for its own gilded but empty reward. Flansburgh and Linnell enjoy a comfortable living, are allowed to do pretty much whatever creeps out of their insatiably creative minds, and have been able to do so for an amazing 25 years.
"As I've gotten older, I realized there are things about our situation that we can be grateful for," notes Flansburgh. "We were certainly vulnerable to the kind of success that ends up feeling like a strange, gloomy shadow over a band, which is like having the breakthrough song that chases you around wherever you go. Even though we've had modest hits throughout the years, they haven't become bigger than the band. The idea of the band still looms larger than any given thing we've done, and that's a much more dynamic place to be than being "the band that did that song.' That's one of the main reasons we've been able to carry on. To a lot of people, it's like, "How can you be in a band for 25 years?' Not only has it been kind of easy and pretty much fun, it's gone by in a flash. The reason for that is the fact that from the second we did our first show, the audience just seemed to be into it, and that's been the fuel that has made getting through everything else easy. We've been lucky in that regard. What we do has kind of an instant appeal. You can get on it really fast and stay on it for a long time. It's an unusual combination, and that has made things a lot easier for us."