Leave it to They Might Be Giants to squeeze the most out of the calendar year. In 2015 alone, the cult-favorite alt-rock duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh had a to-do list that younger groups should best study up on: After eight years, the two brought back Dial-A-Song, their telephone hotline that had previously doled out brand-new tunes once a week. They released two albums, Glean, composed of the first four months of the latest Dial-A-Song numbers, and the continuation of their children's music work, Why? Add a yearlong monthly residency at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and a healthy smattering of dates across the country into the mix and you've got their last year in a nutshell.
This week, the two will play one last trio of shows in Williamsburg, starting with a New Year's Eve date complete with the "convivial, familial vibe," by Flansburgh's account, that's permeated throughout their yearlong residency. It'll be the capstone to what's been, by all accounts, perhaps the strongest year in TMBG history.
"You know, it's kind of gone as well as we had hoped," Flansburgh relays over the phone. "A lot of it just felt like getting shot out of a cannon: We've really been straightening out our collars as we get to each new thing. Every new thing [was] just like, ‘Whoa, we're just getting here!' But we've made all the deadlines--which is surprising--[and] I think there's been a lot of real interesting music and a lot of interesting shows."
Meeting those deadlines has paid dividends, as the resurrection of Dial-A-Song has re-engaged listeners new and old with its fresh rotation of tracks on the good old telephone as well as everyday online channels.
"I was actually sort of surprised to see that, evidently, our Youtube page has gotten an insane amount of subscribers," Flansburgh says. "Last time I checked, I felt we has something like 120 subscribers, and now it's something like 45,000, which seems pretty formidable. I was just sort of unaware of the idea of subscribing to a Youtube channel."
"I think the nice thing for us is that there's a whole bunch of active listeners that are apart of what's happening right now," he adds. "You know, we have lived so far past our sell-by date in music culture, [so] to actually be working and interacting with audiences so actively, it's just great. I'm just really glad our audience will have this year to look back on, like, ‘They did this crazy thing where they approached these new songs — it was really fucked up!" [laughs] Because what's better than that?"
Kicking off 2016, the two Johns will embark on yet another tour, this time in the UK, until February, followed by a run of West Coast and more US dates in March and April. And if you by any chance missed their residency in Brooklyn, you might be out of luck next year.
"I don't know when we're going to play another show in New York," Flansburgh laughs. "I don't want to scare anybody by saying, ‘We're not coming back!' but we're not going to be back for a long time. You know, how do you sort of half-ring that bell? But I'm really glad we've had a chance to do so many things in New York. I mean, the nicest thing about is is that we bring in all sorts of new material and learn the stuff that we kind of left behind at some point or another."
And as for new music, the two are still figuring out how to do something in the band's trademark original voice.
"We'll put out the final Dial-A-Song record in a couple of months, then be done with recorded stuff for some interval of time until we figure what the next thing is gonna be," he adds speculatively. "Undoubtedly, it's gonna be presented in a different way, in the opposite way--we'll just keep it a big secret. And then on Christmas Eve, you know, do a Beyoncé."
Most importantly, though, 2015 has proved to be a learning experience for Flansburgh, as the chance to perform some shows strictly as a duo again (with just a drum machine for company) offered an "incredible return" to form.
"When we started the band, I couldn't sing and play the guitar at the same time; I was just so inexperienced as a performer," he says. "I really learned how to be onstage in that [duo] set-up and it's very intimate. It's not too different from being in a folk act--there's a lot of silence between the songs. Enjoying that kind of lack of a fourth wall between the crowd is something we really grew accustomed to. When we brought the full band in, the hardest thing to adjust to was the kind of interruption of the high-velocity."
It's these types of trials and experiments that seem to have revealed what's most important to They Might Be Giants over the last year. As many groups can struggle down the line to find that creative spark that first set them off, TMBG are now firing on all cylinders by not keeping themselves too comfortable.
"It's almost like you make it hard on yourself by not challenging yourself, in a way," Flansburgh exclaims. "I'm always surprised to hear about somebody who doesn't change their setlist in fifteen years. That sounds like a prison sentence! That's when it really ends, when there isn't anything left to figure out. And also, the truth is, this is fun! I've parked cars for a living; I know what an un-fun job is."