In 1992, They Might Be Giants released Apollo 18, their fifth and most bizarre album. It featured over thirty songs, some of them only a few seconds long, and contained lyrics such as "Please pass the milk, please" repeated three times. Its beguiling nature left They Might Be Giants fans wondering how they would be able to top themselves with their next album.
It's 1994, and that album, entitled John Henry, has come. What did they do to surprise us this time around? They've recruited a full band and moved their sound to rock and roll. In short, they've become normal. Not to worry, though - for They Might Be Giants, "normal" is still pretty weird.
Axcess: This album strikes me as a bit odd because it isn't that odd. The sound is more rock-inspired and even a bit more tame. What's the story behind this change?
John Flansburgh: Well, I remember as a teenager in the '70s, there was this thing about Bob Dylan and David Bowie and about how with each record they'd be taking on a new angle of their sound. But I feel like we've always had a solid focus with every record that we've done. There is definitely a big sonic change to what we're doing, but the songwriting is actually pretty...similar. The process is certainly similar except for at the end we work it out with a band as opposed to a drum machine or some MIDI stuff. We spend a lot of time touring and doing a lot of shows. Even in our off-years we do about 75 shows. We'd just come off the Flood tour in 1990 and had done about 170 shows in that year, recorded Apollo 18, and were about to set off to tour for an equally long time. Anyway, we were trying to think of ways to change up the show. On the first tour of Apollo 18, for example, I played the snare drum, and we did a lot of offbeat instrumentation just to make the show a bit different. We try to make things roll along in the most exciting way as possible in the live show, and it just seemed like after having found a much wider audience in 1990, we didn't want to repeat ourselves. There was some new repertoire, but it really wasn't that much of a new show. So we jumped into having a full rhythm section. It was something of an experiment, we didn't know if it was going to be good or just make us like every other band in the world. We definitely had reservations about it. But we also realized it had another dimension to it that was really exciting and sort of brought our playing up a notch and kept us on our toes. Now we've been working with these new guys for a while and people seem to have taken to it.
Axcess: This wouldn't be so strange if it weren't for the fact that we're talking about They Might Be Giants. You guys have been a duo for so long. Are these members at all permanent?
Flansburgh: Well, it's not a democracy. We've been doing this for ten years and have established what we do and have a style for what we do. Every band needs a gimmick and our gimmick is money. We basically work with people as if they are going to be part of our band as permanently as can be in rock. But since diving into this thing so many years ago, I realize how much more volatile a band's situation is, even with people who are essentially hired guns. There is a whole range of social interaction that I never would have anticipated. I've been pretty sheltered, being in a band with my best friend from high school. So the social end of it is pretty jolly - we agree on a lot of things I never even thought about discussing. Like whether or not you should wear shorts on stage. It's something I've never thought about before.
Axcess: Hmm...what exactly is the issue with wearing shorts on stage?
Flansburgh: Well, you know, some shorts just don't look good on stage.
Axcess: Is this a hot-pants kind of shorts or a big, baggy shorts thing we're talking about?
Flansburgh: Sort of like a hot-pants thing. Speedo, boxer shorts...those are bad shorts. I mean, we've done a lot of festival shows where it's been like 110 degrees and everybody was wearing shorts. Nevertheless, I don't want to be somebody's boss but I also don't want to be in a band that doesn't look good. That's the thing. These are issues John and I never had to discuss. Another one is the whole shirtless-drummer thing. Personally, I think a drummer should wear some kind of shirt. You really have to go to great lengths to find someone who can work well with you and who knows the intent of the music...and who owns a shirt.
Axcess: Would you agree that JOHN HENRY is your least experimental album? The songs are more alike than not and almost have a Motown sound to them. It sounds like it could even be your first record.
Flansburgh: Well, the instrumentation is such that we could have recorded it in 1968. But I don't think it sounds like it could have been our first record at all. If it was a different band, maybe, but our first record is really schizophrenic and a bit nervous. I like it, but...I think that when you're working in an electronic environment there is a tremendous invitation to make a very filigreed arrangement because you're not trying to recreate any band's sound. It's not a limited palette...there's always a place to put that triangle solo. If that's what you've enjoyed about our music then, yes, you might find this record lacking. I mean, I see what you're saying. We did avoid the over-the-top production and approached it very differently.