After 30 years, "Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love" are busier than ever. They Might Be Giants was formed in 1982 and high school classmates John Flansburgh and John Linnell gained a national following with the release of the platinum selling album Flood , which included fan favorites Birdhouse, in Your Soul, Particle Man and Istanbul (Not Constantinople).
Since then, They Might Be Giants have taken home a Grammy for Boss of Me (From Malcolm in the Middle), performed The Daily Show's theme song and released a series of popular children's albums.
The Johns are currently in the studio finishing up their album and preparing for a nationwide tour that starts in February. I caught up with John Flansburgh during a break to chat about the band's latest milestone and much more.
30 years is an awfully long time to continuously make music as a band. Is it still as fun as it was when you started?
Well in a lot of ways it's a lot more fun just because we kind of know how things work. We made a very slow crawl out of New York City when we started. Are you familiar with the expression "a blind man holding the elephant's tail?" It's basically a way to explain you might have a sense of something but really not know what's going on at all.
I think early on in our career, we were very uptight and we were very preoccupied with trying to control things--a lot of the things that you really can't control. I don't know. We were very nervous people. So we're kind of in a better place now in a lot of ways.
I guess you probably appreciate it more now, right?
Well. (Laughs) I guess so. You know, it's a very strange life. I don't think either John or I are natural performers and yet we've ended up spending a lot of our lives on stage and spending a lot of time kind of in public. So it's been an interesting kind of adjustment.
But I think ultimately for us, the band as a project is just such an interesting experiment. I really feel like we found a way to say something in popular music that is really singular to us and isn't too often explored. I think wrestling a light-hearted sensibility to the ground and actually have it be worthy of repeated listening is a very difficult thing in rock.
How in the world has your friendship with John survived 30 years of working in this type of industry?
We get along fine. I think we're very lucky in that our ambitions for what we're doing are very very well aligned. Having seen other bands form and struggle and succeed and break up, it seems like the things that pull bands apart are not their regular temperament, but kind of what they want out of the band...I think we're just lucky that I think our goals are kind of the same and that's kind of unusual.
What's it like when you guys go on the road and is it different now than, say, when Flood hit big?
It's a lot more comfortable on just an immediate physical level. Probably for the first 10 years we were working, we really kind of just went where we were pointed and there wasn't much accommodation for almost common sense physical comforts. We spent a tremendous number of years of ours lives sleeping on the floor of a moving van and I am happy to say we are no longer aging like presidents.
Flood was obviously a game changer for you guys. What in the world made you choose to do a cover of "Istanbul" and did you ever think it would be such a signature song all these years later?
It's an odd story behind that song. We actually learned it essentially to extend our set. When we first went out on tour, we were suddenly playing in bars in the South and in the Midwest that would have much longer set requirements. (We would be) contractually obliged to play for two hours like a bar band might have to play. And this was back when we were still a duo and I would say our average song was like two minutes long. So we couldn't exactly jam.
So we had to very quickly learn all this additional material just to be able to do a full-length set by the requirements of the club. So we actually learned "Istanbul," which is two chords by the way. So it's a very simple song. And we learned this educational song called "Why Does the Sun Shine?" that has been a very popular song for us. So it was a fruitful effort just trying to pad out the show.
Our version of "Istanbul," the one that's on Flood, is actually quite different than the way it started. When it started, it was very very small. It was just kind of a little folk song and it just evolved into the baroque thing that we do now.
I'm guessing They Might Be Giants is one of those band names you've been asked about once or 2,000 times.
You know, we don't get asked about where it came from or what it means so much as we see every version of it in headlines. And photographers always want to have us hold some miniature thing or something. That's really it.
We have no perspective on whether it's even a good or a bad name. And I actually asked a friend of mine who's a rock critic by profession to just candidly tell me if it was in fact a bad name. Because...if you're a good band, you can kind of overcome a not-so-great name. I mean like The Beatles. It's sort of a dopey name for a band. But there's so much quality associated with the Beatles that you just think, "Well that's a fine name." It's sort of a cheap pun. It's not really the greatest name. But they're a great band...
I think the name They Might Be Giants has sort of served us well. I don't think we realized how optimistic it would seem as a name. Naming a band is the first thing you do so you really don't have much experience in how people will take in what you're doing. It was a pretty uninformed decision.
You guys call yourselves Brooklyn's Ambassador's of Love. We actually grew up right near each other outside of Boston. You've been in Brooklyn a long time though. I moved to Brooklyn a month ago so I'm sort of following you slowly...
Oh wow! Welcome.
Thank you. Why has it been so good for you and the band to be based here?
Well, it's certainly evolved as a place. When we started, it was just the cheapest part of New York City to live in. It was a really interesting, diverse, colorful place. Now it's very much the cultural epicenter of the city and that feels very different.
But New York City has changed so much since we started. When we first started performing in downtown Manhattan, none of the official (media)--The New York Times and The New Yorker--they actually would not even list shows below 14th Street which seems so prehistoric to me...And of course, the downtown rock scene of New York became the most important music scene of the late 20th century ...
I think people are paying a lot more attention to Brooklyn's music scene now than even the Manhattan scene when we were coming up so it's a little bit more vital. I think it's an exciting time. I think it's a great time to be in Brooklyn.
And you're in the studio right now working on They Might Be Giants' next album. What should we expect?
We're in the wig district of Manhattan right now, which is a very small district, I can tell you. It's a block away from the button district.
The album's coming out in the very beginning of March and we're pretty much finishing it right now. We started working on this album right after we got off the road so we were a little bit crispy when we started.
It's been a very exciting time just because we're such a cohesive unit. We've been working with the same band pretty much for 10 years and doing a tremendous amount of shows and a tremendous amount of recording. And we really have like a team. It's a great team effort. It's a lot of fun. We actually have a lot of fun on the road and a lot of fun making albums.
Sometimes, I feel like when I'm reading interviews with musicians, you're not supposed to admit that it's fun. You know, like that it somehow makes it seem less important. But you know what, it's a blast. Like a dream come true.
So it's been 30 years. How does it end? Or does it just keep going?
We get to do what we want now, so it's not so hard. We don't have to tour more than we want and that's lucky...There were times when we were very broke and that makes you end up having to do kinds of work that just makes you world-weary. I mean part of the problem was that there was an interval there when we were actually losing a little bit of money going on the road but all we could do was be on the road. So it was kind of a vicious cycle.
Fortunately, now we've kind of found a big enough audience. I feel like we've actually over the last 20 years of national touring, we kind of found a following that's very interested in what we're doing and they seem to be very loyal. So we feel very lucky that we get to go back to these places and reconnect with people who came out the time before and it seems like there's always more people there the next time. We've kind of clawed our way to the middle.