John Flansburgh

Stay Thirsty, January 2009
by Kent Brown

My mission was almost complete. I ventured out into the cold, harsh elements to chronicle a performance and interview with the second of the two giants that might be. They Might Be Giants was a late addition to the Metro's Repeal Day celebration in Chicago, a city with an extraordinary historical attachment to the prohibition years. A burlesque variety show featuring the Chicago Starlets fittingly began the evening as a crowd of alterna-rockers anxiously awaited the headliners: They Might Be Giants. Around this time last year, I caught the Giants at the Vic, and the second time around was just as exciting as the first. They started the show with their own homage to Istanbul, (not Constantinople), and ended it with confetti and an up-beat tune about America's eleventh President, James K. Polk. I was fortunate to chat with John Linnell last January, and as 2008 was nearing its end, I spoke with John Flansburgh on a variety of topics ranging from Grammy nominations to Jethro Tull to Broadway musicals, Sebastian Bach, as well as cape-wearing local bands.

John thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We definitely appreciate it.

No problem.

Congratulations on your recent Grammy Nomination.

Oh, it's very exciting. It's, you know...I was actually planning to come out to Los Angeles to do these meetings anyway, but it's a really pretty awesome "Hey, what have you been up to" kind of line to lay on people. It's like, "Oh, well...I've been nominated for a Grammy!" It's a real legitimizer.

This would be the second one, right?

It's our second nomination. I don't want to jinx it.

Right. Okay. Gotcha. I was at your concert in Chicago, (in the bitter cold), and you described your nomination as a "mind fucker".

Yes. Well, you know, I mean...I guess having grown up watching the Grammy's on T.V. and just, you know, seeing those Simon & Garfunkel records with the big gold sticker smooshed on them, and you know, Crosby, Stills, and Nash and whatever else. I mean, it always was basically this sort of like the music that the T.V. approved of, you know; there was something very conservative about it, but there was always just something, you know, it was a different time than now, I mean, music in general was more counter-cultural. Like, to have this award that just was, you know, the official stamp of approval of the mainstream was a weird phenomenon. I mean, I laughed heartily when Jethro Tull was nominated for "Best Heavy Metal Act" along with everybody else. It's not the Pitch Fork awards.

Right. I appreciated the Jethro Tull comment at the show. I like Jethro Tull though...

Well, Jethro Tull are a very interesting band. You know, I think about all the bands...and ultimately, in some way, They Might Be Giants might be, we might be the Jethro Tull of the twenty-first century. Bands that don't, that are kind of "beyond category" or "beneath category". How would you give an award to Jethro Tull, you know? Best faux-medieval, Ren fair, flute playin', hard rockin', guitar driven band?

I think that's a fairly apt description.

(Laughter) I think there should be a category for that.

I agree. I have to say about the show at the Metro--it was a great show by the way, I really enjoyed it.

Thank you.

You guys have also been playing album shows, right?

Yeah, well we're doing this stand in New York where we're actually playing in the same venue every month, so it kind of behooves us to change up the show for those people coming back. And that has made us basically learn a lot of our lesser played repertoire.

I've always kind of wondered what the process is for selecting songs that you're going to play at different shows.

Well, we think about how the show goes together pretty hard. It's definitely something that is important to us. We do some very specific things. When we're coming back to a town we'll actually reference the previous show that we did there and really make sure that there's a huge percentage of the show that's different from the previous show. I guess that's just one of the things you get to do when you have a big bucket of songs to grab from. It's hard because there are certain songs that sort of have their own velocity--whether they're, like, popular songs or they're just up-tempo songs or they're just crazy songs. A song like "Older", which is just this very unusual song in terms of its arrangement, it does something in the show that not a lot of our other songs can do--it sort of slows down time, but it's not just a slow song. So, we're ambitious about changing it up, but it's hard to change it up as much as we want to and still have an effective show, and I guess that's the...will forever be the push/pull of how the show works.

We've seen enough bands that...A lot of bands have very elaborate self-destruct mechanisms; you know...they're some of my favorite, favorite song writers have the ability to just leave their audience in the dust over and over again. They're not trying to do that, but something about the way they're approaching their presentation, they feel like whatever their emotional response is to their material is is the only thing that matters. I think they feel like they're transparent or something, so they'll very honestly go, "I'm bored of this. This is more challenging to me. I'm going to play a whole bunch of songs that no one has ever heard before.", or something along those lines...or they'll play a whole bunch of cover songs or slow songs all in a row, or whatever. To me, I can see past that a little bit. It doesn't have to be perfect for me to concede that it would actually work as a show. I can be a little bit bored with myself and realize that there's going to be an upside to playing "Birdhouse in your Soul".

Right. You're a very exciting force to see onstage...

Well, that's a very flattering thing to say!

You guys both have a pretty amazing chemistry together onstage...

It's really a space walk. There's a thing about our show that is very specifically spontaneous. There are many musical parts of the show that have sort of have this built in improvisational aspect to them, and then there's just this part of the show that's really just yakkin' –and that stuff, when it's cliquey, when we're both chatty and the coffee's kickin' in--that can be pretty entertaining in a Smothers Brothers kind of way.

It is. It's very entertaining...

The thing that's scary about it for us is that because it's not scripted in any way...because there are portions of the show that are in no scripted, scripted or scriptable, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's very hard to nail down.

It's always an interesting thing to analyze--what works for you, or what you think might not work for you, that an audience will just completely absorb...

This setup works for us, I think, just because we're...we want to be kind of rigorous about it. I feel like the rock show, as a thing, seems often very lazy-headed. I'm proud to do a show that actually has a little bit more thought put into the pacing. There are not a lot of shows that are actually fast-paced.

You've done a lot of different types of shows, not just rock shows. In 2004, you performed in "People Are Wrong!" an off-Broadway musical.

Oh yeah! Right.

I'm curious as to what that experience was like for you.

Well, I was working with a lot of people who had a lot more of that kind of stage experience. In many ways, doing a stage show...it's sort of creating a performance and then freezing it, which is a strange thing to do, and sort of the opposite of what a They Might Be Giants performance is. Because we're constantly trying to make it new every night, you kind of develop certain strategies for that. Performing in "People Are Wrong!" onstage, we're in the same theatre; you're part of an ensemble where you really, literally have to make your marks and do all this stuff or the show will just fall apart. So, in some ways...there was the rehearsal process before the show went up, but then once it's up, it is a performance without this sort of level of improvisation--and that's a different test. The whole stage show thing is just a different--it's really taxing on you physically--you're performing like eight shows a week. It's just a different thing. It's a variation on a theme, I guess.

I guess you sort of felt like Sebastian Bach in "Jesus Christ Superstar" maybe?

I don't know how disciplined Sebastian Bach is about anything he does. I'm not trying to cast dispersions...he seems to make the point of telling everyone he's not to be relied on... to anyone who will listen and or film it. I guess maybe I'm starting the They Might Be Giants/Sebastian Bach feud. You Sebastian Bach stand accused of being unrigorous! (Laughter)

No...I have no idea. That whole trend of person...Ricky Gervais actually had a very interesting sort of monologue on this on "Fresh Air", so I'm just sort of chiming into his thing. But we live in a very strange era where there is a group of public people who are famous for being famous, and even though they might be singers or actors or dancers or some other thing that kind of got them through the door, it seems like they're all these vehicles for their freaky form of...I mean it's not...what is being presented is sort of this strange form of public narcissism. I mean, all these reality shows; there's no other topic besides their image in the mirror and their image to themselves and their weird psycho-drama.

I couldn't agree with you more. You did something on Friday at your show that I had never seen before. You played one of your staples, "Why Does the Sun Shine?", and then you went on to explain the song's apparent inaccuracies scientifically...

Yes, yes.

And you went on to play a new, scientifically accurate song called "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Plasma".

It's scientifically more accurate. Years ago, we started covering a song from the fifties from this science record that actually was at the public library in the town where John (Linnell) and I grew up in called "Why Does the Sun Shine?". It's this epically long title, "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)", and it was written by this guy Hy Zaret who was a big song writer in the fifties. It was just basically, kind of a campy thing in our show; it reminded people of educational songs that have that weird, ponderously overstuffed, vitamin enriched quality that educational songs can often have. The lyrics to that song are literally from an encyclopedia; after the first couple of lines they don't rhyme. We recently embarked on making a children's record and it's really kind of the first seriously, fact-based record we've made in this series of kid's records. We've made the "1, 2, 3's" and the "A, B, C's" records, but they're for very young kids, and the information in them is just common knowledge for adults. This album--this is Peter Principle in action at the highest level--basically, I flunked high school science almost completely. It basically almost got me kicked out of high school because I just couldn't...I was like Fred Flintstone with the toothpicks in my eyes trying to stay awake for physics. But when we embarked on making this record, we knew that we didn't want to generate a million angry letters on glossing over facts. So, we hired a science consultant, and one of the things that came up in our conversations is the fact that really, the very first scientific song that we ever did was really not the state of scientific thinking currently. To make a long story short--the gist of it is that the sun is made of plasma, which is excited gas, which is distinctly different than regular gas. And I don't know...I'm in no way an expert on it. But in a universe that is broadly defined as being made from solids, liquids, and gas, the sun is an enigma because it is not in transition. The plasma that is what we know as the sun is not changing to a solid or a gas, it's just this blob of plasma.

And this is going to be a part of your next science album?

Yes.

It started with the "A, B, C's" then the "1, 2, 3's" now it's "Science".

The science project is actually...from the very beginning of working with David Agnew at Disney, who is really the reason we're at Disney, he always wanted us to do a science record. He's a big science fan and just thought it's a very interesting topic and so in many ways, this is kind of the fulfillment of his dream for the band.

I think it's safe to say you guys dig the children's albums.

The children's albums are really interesting challenges. It's open-ended in a certain way that writing a rock album is not, but there are things about working in children's stuff that is confusing. I think people even just wrapping their minds around the idea that a band can do more than one kind of material makes things complicated for us, you know? It's a drag when people show up with little kids at a nightclub at 11:30 at night and don't understand why we're not playing a children's show.

It's very rare for a band to stay together as long as you guys have and produce music for as long as you guys have in sort of an uninterrupted way, I know that you had Mono Puff in the mid-nineties...

Right.

The relationship...you guys must not let your egos get in the way of each other or just have a tremendous amount of respect for one another I suppose?

Um, you know, it's hard to sum up. Think of any relationship that you've had in your life for twenty, twenty-five years--it's just about that complicated. I think that we've evolved as people, and we've certainly been through a lot of stuff together. But I think we were lucky that we had a lot of--we shared a lot of formative stuff. We did a lot of things as teenagers that affected us. We worked on our high school newspaper together and we had a group of friends there who had a lot of...you know, it was a smart alecky, sarcastic group of guys basically. But there was an honesty to a lot of those conversations that were pretty formative and certainly cast a long shadow over what we do as a band. You know, I'm always impressed about, like, home-town bands that can somehow re-invent themselves as cape-wearing, make-up wearing people. Because I would think, like, what do you tell your younger brother? "I'm gonna start wearing a cape" or "I've got a cape". You know, people who can still work out of their hometowns but completely re-invent themselves in some theatrical way, to me, that's much more difficult. Because I would just think that all your peers would...they would just completely mock you over putting on that kind of costume.

I imagine that would probably be the case.

There are a lot of bands in that ilk.

When you're writing, do you ever say, "You know, I think John (Linnell) should sing this one", or vice-versa?

Oh sure. I mean, we write separately, but I think we're very aware at what the other person can bring to the project. Whatever the thing we're doing, the other person is kind of the first audience for the song; not that we're necessarily trying to conspicuously impress one another, but we are aware that it's going to be put into this project. A lot of times the impulse is to kind of just stretch out what the project is doing. They Might Be Giants as a concept is not like a set thing, and maybe that's really the reason we've been able to write for like twenty-five years and not just feel trapped. I mean, twenty-five years is a long time to work on a project but it's interesting for us. It is a challenge. There's a healthy competition, but I think there's also this desire to just keep it moving forward musically, in a very basic way. It's hard to say that and...I don't mean to sound too pompous about it...at its core it's essentially an artistic thing.

Linnell told me in our earlier conversation that one of your influences was the Residents.

Yes, yes absolutely.

Are you privy to their identities?

I have talked to...a guy who was introduced to me as their manager, (but I think everyone knew that he was one of the guys from the Residents, he talked like he was from Louisiana)...

Ah.

(Chuckling) And he talked just like the voice on the Residents' records...I mean, the Residents were interesting on a couple of different levels for us. Just the fact that they were faceless at time when it seemed like the only thing you couldn't be was faceless was interesting to us. The actual aesthetic to their music was very appealing to us because it was electronic but it wasn't conspicuously rocket-scientisty. There was a lot of popular electronic music of that era, made by white people, had this sort of--Kraftwerk being the best example--cheese ball "I am a scientist" vibe about them if they were using electronics. The way the Residents used electronics was just a universe unto itself and that appealed to us tremendously. There was something profoundly mysterious about the Residents and that mystery was completely wrapped up into their music. They were a real "music first" project and that was intensely interesting to us. They also made records that--there weren't really drums in the traditional sense on those records, they had rhythms and they were very rhythmic but they didn't rely on drums.

They're a very interesting band.

Yeah, I sort of feel like the Residents are coming back into people's consciousness all of the sudden. People have mentioned the Residents to me in interviews like this much more often in the past year or so than ever before. I'm not sure what that's coming from. They're a very singular band and I'm really glad that they existed because I don't think we would've felt brave enough that there was even a place for us in the world if it wasn't for the Residents.

That's a very flattering thing to say. I'm sure they'll appreciate that.

I think they know we love them.

Who were some guitar players that motivated you to pick up the instrument?

I started playing the guitar when I was seventeen years old in 1977. And it was the year of punk rock. When I was 16, the idea of playing the guitar--it was already too late for me to learn how to play the guitar. Because to play the guitar meant you had to be very, very good at playing the guitar and so you had best learned how to play when you were eleven and studied real hard or you weren't going to make the cut. The arrival of New Wave was kind of like this enormous amnesty day for the lesser talented, more artistically minded wannabe guitarists, and I was definitely in that group of people who rushed out and learned how to play for the fun of it. I, you know, I loved all of that whole first generation of bands from New York and Boston from the Real Kids and Mink Deville and Blondie and the Tough Darts and the Talking Heads and the Ramones and Television; all those bands are so different from each other but they were all part of this outcast group of under-popular/popular music acts. It just was an interesting...the thing that most of those bands had in common was that they were interested in the song, you know, a short song. That appealed to me having kind of grown up on pop, I really liked the brevity of the New Wave stuff.

So, you guys are releasing "Here Comes Science" soon.

Yes.

Will there be any adult albums any time soon?

That's like what we're working right now. That's like the next thing in our inbox. I think we sort of have the inclination to do a much more home-brewed album and not have it be quite so traditional in its structure. After recording "The Else" with the Dust Brothers, and Pat, which was kind of a big production, I think we want to get back to kind of a simpler, home-recording work. Just, in part, so it sounds a little bit freakier. I think we need to raise our freak flag higher.

Some down home tunes from They Might Be Giants.

Yeah, yeah.

One last question. You guys are from Massachusetts but you're New Yorkers. Who do root for, the Red Sox or the Yankees?

Oh...that's a good question. That's a contentious question. John (Linnell) and I are indoors men...we're the most un-jock people. Our drummer is from Long Island and is a passionate, passionate Yankees fan. And he's one of those guys who would like have a very difficult time hanging with a Red Sox fan. Basically, it was a real non-issue for a long time because the Red Sox traditionally lose. We would just be like, "Yeah, you know, we're from Boston" and were kind of passively supportive of the Red Sox because for so long they were just so pathetic, you know, it was like being friends with a stray dog...you just feel that sorry for it, you know...

The Cubs are here, I know...

Yeah right. Exactly. It's exactly like being a Cubs fan, it's like a thankless thing. But then, as they started to win...I think we basically had to hide our affinity towards the Red Sox because it was just totally unacceptable to Marty because he's very passionate about it. He'd probably start a fight.

Well. I don't want to start any fights. I really enjoyed it, John. Thank you for taking the time.

Thank you. Cheers.

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