Either you've forgotten them or were convinced you had been forgotten. Those purveyors of eccentric folk rock; they, who were weirdos before Ween; they, the linguistic court jesters playing the cabaret kings; they, who might once again be musical giants, leading us from every evil and into pop nirvana, that salvation beyond three chords and a hum. They might be giants? Well, they're bigger than a breadbox anyway.
"I think people have come to realize that we have some sort of staying power," says the ever-smiling John Flansburgh, one-half of the core of They Might Be Giants, once pop music's class clown and now almost ten years old. "I could tell when we first hit the scene that people were very suspicious and that if they did like us, at any moment we could do something that would profoundly embarrass them. Over time people have realized we're not going to turn into some novelty project."
Their music's no knickknack on a shelf. Most of America's relationship with the two Johns, as the TMBG frontmen have become known, began and peaked with 1990's FLOOD, now gold because of hook-line-and-sinker catchy songs like "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Birdhouse In Your Soul." The former tune won a MTV Breakthrough Video Award and the latter a top ten national chart hit in the UK. Those who stuck around after that TMBG deluge were treated with the B-Side compilation release MISCELLANEOUS T in '91, then their last album, APOLLO 18 in '92.
But that's all history, and since the budding process which made them a two-man band back in '86, the two Johns have rewritten their part of it-the part that has the Replacements teaming up with the Three Amigos for some noon-hour fun. The here and now, though, is a new album called JOHN HENRY.
The scenery is not very rock 'n roll (the cars all look completely wind-up from this elevation, and I see no famous L.A. chaos), but for that matter neither does Flansburgh in his khakis, polo crew and clean-cut college grad-looking hairstyle and specs. He realizes this and points out that his partner, accordionist John Linnell, might better look the part. However, a quick glimpse of Linnell being led by an Elektra exec down the hall to some interview brings to mind an escaped convict being reeled back into court. Well, at least that's kind of rock 'n roll.
There's lots to talk about with Flansburgh - a new band, a new album, former Pixie Frank Black (once called Black Francis, with whom both Linnell and Flansburgh have collaborated) announcing he'd join the band-even if only in jest, it might still be fascinating. The exciting thing about this album, Flansburgh says, is the absence of the basement science experiment feeling. This, unlike their strictly dual previous releases, was a whole band project.
"We started working as a full band about a year and a half ago, then sort of on an experimental basis on the big tours for APOLLO 18," comments Flansburgh, "We really took to it. It just seemed like a whole other world. Not only was it just a whole lot more social and more fun to be on the road with a bunch of people, but we could do stuff in the show that was very different than any other shows we'd done. On this record, we wanted to spotlight what the band could do as an ensemble."
So who is this band we speak of? The ensemble? Well, remember alternative music when it really was? The '80s (eek!) On drums we have Brian Doherty (Silos, Freedy Johnston); on bass, Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu, Bob Mould); on sax and keyboards, Kurt Hoffman (Ordinaires, Band of Weeds); and on trumpet, Steven Bernstein (Spanish Fly). This new,mostly permanent line-up strikes a new chord on JOHN HENRY, Flansburgh says-most recognizably its anchorage in his and Linnell's own restless stylings. "I know we have a reputation for being, like, style-mongers," Flansburgh says. He remembers bonanza tunes like "Minimum Wage" and "Letterbox."
"We did a lot of rehearsals and demos for this record and that was definitely a departure. We're very craft-oriented when it comes to songwriting. We actually played probably half the songs in shows before we recorded them and that was a good thing."
"We just kept going on quick little short tours and learned songs as we went along, working them into the show in a very organic way," he says. "That's very gratifying. It's really nice to not be thinking about what chords are going be when you record. All we really were thinking about was if it sounds cool enough."
And what could be cooler than alternative accordion music. Flansburgh says of his partner's instrument, "People respond to the accordion in a positive way because it says, 'It's party time!' We're the thinking man's party band." After a brief pause, "I just thought of that phrase right now. I don't even know if I like it."
The songs on the new album are quick and witty like "Subliminal," funky and sparse like "Snail Shell," driven and playful like "I Should Be Allowed to Think," but all sound more like rock 'n roll than a barbershop quartet with instruments. "It is a lot more of a rock album, yeah," Flansburgh agrees. "I think it probably reflects our show more than our previous albums in certain ways. It might seem like a departure in the amount that it rocks. Our previous work would often be more about the sonic adventure than presenting any sort of band style."
Concluding the interview, Flansburgh laughs, "I think compared to the straight world we're always gonna seem kind of strange, but I feel like there is a depth to what we're doing."