John Flansburgh (guitar, glasses) and John Linnell (keyboards, sax, accordion, no glasses), usually known as They Might Be Giants, started rocking freaky nerdy rock-pop in 1982, with nods to science, chemistry, rockets, retro-futurism, office furniture, and Shriners. More recently they've started sharing the stage with "The Avatars of They," two sock puppets who refer to TMGB as their opening act and endorse products not found in this time-space continuum. They visit the Belly Up May 3. Flansburgh took some questions over email.
What are your most memorable experiences in San Diego so far?
I must be honest. I love the Belly Up. The crowd is really rowdy and alive. We have played at a lot of fun clubs in San Diego, but for structural reasons it seemed there was always a little distance--the stages would be a little tall in the old heavy metal way of hoisting the band way above the crowd, the sound was never that good and you couldn't really feel the energy of the band, and the venues had a lot of rules about what you can and can't do. (We have had some long boring arguments about confetti--what problems can people really have with confetti?)
The Belly Up is just a happy, loose gig. The crew is considerate and respectful. It's an energetic place--you are really right up against the crowd. You can play quiet songs and it means something, you can improvise and people can track what's evolving in front of them, and you can pound out a hypnotic song and really move the crowd. It's just great. In too many clubs these days, the frightening afterbirth of grunge lives on with clubs lost in six-foot-tall barricades and bouncers enforcing photo policies with the death penalty. It is creepy and out of scale to the shows, and really dismantled the most persuasive part of a club show, which is proximity to a spontaneous musical performance. But fortunately that is going away, and is nonexistent at the Belly Up.
You've described both you and the other John as "kook magnets." Any memorable recent kook encounters?
They are all memorable, and all unprintable.
How do you meet the "Dial-A-Song" challenge of producing a new song every week of the year?
It's a lot of writing and a good amount of rewriting, a lot of studio hours, a lot of coffee. It is the opposite of glamorous.
How close have you come to a nervous breakdown trying to produce a new song each week?
We embarked on the Dial-a-Song project in earnest in the early fall, and figured out pretty quickly that we'd need to have an interval of time to coordinate the posts after a song was finished to get the song processed through the iTunes system, and to get the videos put together, so we are typically six weeks to two months ahead of any week's release date. There is some grace in that, but unlike just plugging in a new song each week no matter what shape it's in, having to organize the songs so far in advance invites reexamination and improvements, which just generates more work! And we already had enough of that!
What were the agonies and ecstasies of producing Glean?
I don't think we have sequenced an album so close to an actual release date, and that was exciting. But because the songs were really cherry-picked from the first four months of the Dial-a-Song service, the song quality is really high. And as unlikely the manner in which it came together, through the Dial-a-Song project, I think this is song-for-song one of the best albums we've ever done. It's pretty focused and intense. There is nothing sketchy about the tracks.
If you could pick one TMBG song to play for aliens who'd just landed on the White House lawn, which would you pick and why?
I would like to write an original number. Maybe something like, "Can You Help Us with Climate Change?"
If you could pick a TMBG song to play to Kim Jong-un to persuade him not to blow up the world, which one would you pick and why?
I would put together a medley of "The Auld Triangle" by Luke Kelly, moving into Cream's "I Feel Free." Both strong arguments for life and liberty.
Any hope for a record from your longtime benefactors, "The Avatars of They"?
They have done a lot of ambient recordings in a long-distance collaboration with Brian Eno, but that stuff is really unlistenable. They did release a seven-inch EP of songs a couple of years ago, but it is too strange for my tastes. They need to ease up on the drugs and focus on melody.