They Might Be Giants are touring to support "Nanobots," the 16th album of their 28-year career. The beloved and enigmatic duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell are known for catchy pop songs, sophisticated children's albums and innovative approaches to connecting with their loyal fan following. They'll be in Detroit on March 19 at the Majestic Theatre. Flansburgh talked to MLive Detroit this month about his Motor City memories, the new album, and how TMBG appeals to fans of all ages.
The band's first appearance in Detroit was at St. Andrew's Hall in 1986. It was TMBG's second national tour and they'd earned buzz with "Don't Let Start" off their first album, "They Might Be Giants." Getting used to playing for 250 people a night, they were crestfallen to see no more than a dozen people in the Detroit crowd.
"We were playing for 20 people in a thousand capacity room," Flansburgh said. "To sum up for people who don't know how that feels, it feels (expletive)."
But Flansburgh said he took something from the experience, thanks to a gruff manager at St. Andrew's. After the poor turnout, Flansburgh complained to the manager about not promoting the show. The manager, who Flansburgh described as a "no BS kind of guy," laid things out for him.
"Look. I'm paying you $200 for tonight, and you'll come back and you'll play for 200 people next year and then you'll come back and play for 1,200 people. He said it in sort of an avuncular, 'I'm your dad,' kind of "why aren't you shutting up already?" tone."
"And," Flansburgh added, "he was right."
TMBG returned to play St. Andrew's in 1988 for 250 people - but they played the night after hardcore gore band Skinny Puppy had taken the stage. It wasn't a pretty scene on stage.
"One of the things (Skinny Puppy) are most famous for is covering the stage in fake blood," Flansburgh said. "It's like Gwar without a system. With Gwar, everything is covered in plastic and they clean things up. They're professional blood makers. Skinny Puppy? They're semi-professional bloodmakers. They made just an unbelievable mess of the stage."
TMBG is playing The Majestic Theatre on March 19, where they played in 2005 and 2011. Flansburgh remembered a great record shop--Peoples Records--next to the venue. Last time in town he bought The Beach Boys "Stack-O-Tracks" instrumental album and several others.
"They've got some pretty great records," he recalled.
Flansburgh reflected briefly on Detroit's rebirth, saying he's happy to see the city embrace its music and cultural history including Motown, bands like MC5, and its role in creating techno. He compared it to when he moved to New York in 1981, the year "Escape from New York" was released.
"The whole country had written New York off," he said. "When I got here I didn't think for one second that New York wasn't awesome. It was. Detroit has got some big problems, I don't know how a city transitions from a city the size it was to what it is, but I think the spirit of the place is really real."
TMBG is famous for its catchy pop tunes and innovative approaches to connecting with fans. In its early days, the band created the "Dial-A-Song," where fans could call a number and listen to tracks they were creating. Nearly three decades later, the band continues to innovated. They released a free app that streams a song a day and scored two hit albums of kids music, "Here Come the A-B-C's" and "Here Comes Science." They also have a song, "Istanbul," in the hit Wii game "Just Dance 4." Flansburgh said he hadn't played the game, but the band's music has been used in many things over the years. One of their big early breaks was getting a song included on the cartoon "Tiny Tunes."
TMBG's appeal to kids isn't calculated, Flansburgh said. "Some of it is thought out. Some of it is made up as we go along."
When the band was alternating between adult and kids music they would sometimes save hard-rocking songs for the adults, but eventually they set out to create edgy, even "acid rock, tinnitus-inducing" tunes for the younger set.
"I try to hold up this idea of doing an extreme rock song on a kids album as hard as we'd do on an adult album," Flansburgh said. "The kids like rhythm and they like full blown. The whole live children's music belief is that it has to be watered down. It's watered down to give the parents a break and keep the kids sedated. Kids love energy, exciting, crazy … it sparks their imagination. That's where it's at for kids."
The Detroit show this time around, though, is limited to 18 and up. Kids won't even be allowed into The Majestic with their parents. Flansburgh said the age limit is out of concern for safety.
"A week doesn't go be we're not reminded we work in bars," he said. "As long as we work in bars, it's not going to be a good environment for kids."
Calling the album "awesome," Flansburgh points out a number of bands have put out classic 16th albums. The Rolling Stones' 16th album was "Some Girls," which includes "Beast of Burden" and Stevie Wonder's 16th album was "Innervisions," which includes "Higher Ground."
TMBG's 16th features 25 tracks, including a number of extremely short songs, Flansburgh said.
"All of the songs kind of stand alone. When you listen to the album alone, it has this manic pacing to it with the short songs. It makes for a different kind of listening experience," he said. "TMBG is famous for their short songs. They're not usually this short."
Along with the album, TMBG is promoting its new app. Simple in function, the daily songs streamed through the app are designed for people not familiar with the band's work, Flansburgh said. It's the latest in the band's long-standing use of technology to connect with fans.
"For us, we're very aware of how unappealing we are, so it behooves us to get the word out on our own," Flansburgh said. "We had to find people who are interested in what we're doing. We work overtime to spread the word. Something like the iPhone app...it gives you a really healthy dose of what we do in a direct way."
"It's just a way to find people. We're not too calculated about it. I don't think anyone is going to say we're at the cutting edge of anything. We don't really have a big machine behind us. We just want people to have the ability to check it out whenever they can."
For long-time fans, TMBG takes to social media regularly interact with followers.
"Social media stuff is great for people already following the band. We have 250,000 people on Facebook, 40,000 people on Twitter, it keeps exploding. It's a lot to keep up with in some ways."