They Might Be Giants

Pop Culture Press, Winter 2001/2002 by Nic Ramirez

Preconceived notions can be a bitch. And not many people know this better than John Flansburgh of the infamous band They Might Be Giants. Just the name itself brings a sort of imagery of an almost cartoonish duo with a legion of geek rock fans. Not exactly hidden under that mainstream knowledge of the group is a vast array of talent and notoriety. Chances are, most of us have been enjoying TMBG in our lives and not even realizing it. The John boys have been feverishly busy on a number of side projects, with everything from writing background music for television shows to releasing a new studio album entitled Mink Car. Not to mention the expansive theater tour they are doing this fall. These, among other things, were the topics of discussion when I had the opportunity to speak with John Flansburgh from his home in New York City.

PCP: It's been quite a while since They Might Be Giants has released a full-length, traditional album. So, why Mink Car? And why now?

John Flansburgh: I think it's got sort of a glorious pop album quality to it, so, it's a different way of making a record - maybe a little more old-fashioned. I don't mind the rough ride of a psychotic record. I think that is probably what Mink Car is. We've been working for 19 years now, so by rock band standards, we're so far past the kind of sophomoric slump or whatever mark a career could have. We made a live album a couple of years ago that actually had new material on it, but this is our first studio album in five years, and we've been doing a lot of other kinds of projects - a half dozen other things that would qualify as real, major time-consumers. We did this CD for McSweeney's, this spring we recorded a children's album that's going to be released next spring. For the last couple of years we've been doing incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle, which has been a really huge undertaking; in spite of its relative cultural anonymity, it's been a lot of work. And we did this Internet-only release as well, this thing called Long Tall Weekend, and we have been working steadily with Emusic on that kind of stuff. So, we've actually been super busy. And none of those things are like good-paying gigs, so we've also been touring relentlessly. So, between those things, there's never been a point in the last five years where it's like, 'When are we gonna get off our lazy asses and make another studio album?' It's always been the opposite. It's been like, 'I can't live with this many deadlines. I can't pretend to work a straight job and be in a touring rock band and also try to write new songs. Doing incidental stuff and jingle stuff, and all that kind of work is perilously close to the non-Peter Pan existence I can barely tolerate.

PCP: Where did the songs for Mink Car come from?

JF: That's such a hard question to answer. There are sort of two aspects to writing a song. One of them is this craft part of it, which is just like a shoemaker or something, where you know how to put a song together or arrange a song, and there's a lot of different ways you can do it, and there's a lot of different kind of aesthetics to how you do it, and that, I feel like I can really, easily converse about. And then there's this other part of it that is so abstract, which is probably the much more interesting part, which is where you get your inspiration from, or what ideas spark your imagination, or what your goals are. And that's much harder to sum up. For me, a lot of times writing a song, I'm trying to figure out another way to write a song. In all honesty, it's almost like some low-level mental illness. It's like a mania, writing songs. I think once you kind of get the bug, it's something that's hard to turn off. I can't tell you how many times I've walked into an elevator, the elevator doors have opened, and I've been singing, and I'm thinking of some idea, and the person comes on the elevator, and I'm just like, completely mortified. I've been busted doing this thing that is outside of regular behavior. It makes you look like a total nut. I've kind of grown accustomed, but it's also hard to feel comfortable with it.

PCP: You and John Linnell take on most of the songwriting. But recently, you've had a lot of influence and input from other people, like Doughty (former Soul Coughing frontman). What's that like?

JF: Well, I've recorded a couple of tracks with Doughty, and it was definitely kind of a set collaboration, in that, I was putting together the tracks, and he was doing the lyrics. So it was kind of like I was doing the Johnny Marr part for his Morrissey part, because I was thinking of him, and the kind of direction he wanted to go with the stuff. So it wasn't like I was pushing myself on him. To quote Mike (Doughty), I built his house. Which is how he describes making a track for him to work within. It was a really interesting challenge, because he's really into a very specific set of things. He doesn't like tracks to change. He doesn't like things to have big transitions. He likes things to just kind of groove along in a monomaniacal way. So, it was really a challenge for me to create a track that was interesting enough for me to feel like it was worthwhile, but also simple enough to meet his aesthetic. It took a little casting about to find something that really clicked.

PCP: What about the Dans, your backup band? What kind of influence have they had on you guys?

JF: Well, we've been working with them for about the last three years, and we did a lot of things for Malcolm ... together, so we spend a lot of time in the studio together. And I think something that we've come through together with this project is, unlike a lot of records where you are just out on the road. And then you come in and you try to figure out how to record and capture the sound of the band, and make it click that way. I think we are very lucky in that, we're already completely ensconced in the studio. We've been doing all sorts of different recording projects, and had spent a ton of time working together, so there was no trouble figuring out how to make something that sounded really extreme. I think we were arriving at the process of making the record having done a lot of work already. At the risk of making it sound pedestrian, it was really efficient. But I think what I really mean to say, beyond just being efficiently done, we were very purposeful about how to get the sounds we were going for. We didn't have to cast about, because we already had a lot of studio time under out belts very recently.

PCP: What's the word on NO!, your forthcoming children's album?

JF: It will be out in the spring. One way or another, it will be out. It's sort of strange, to have made a record that's been delayed like that. It wasn't like a 'controversial children's album,' you know. It's the first thing we've ever done that's actually been announced and then withheld. But we got into a weird fight over whether it would say 'music for children' on the record, which seems like a bizarre thing to argue about. It's suprisingly complicated. It just has to do with where the record gets put in the record store. I think any record by They Might Be Giants is going to end up in the They Might Be Giants bin, but there is a lot of concern that things get marketed the right way.

PCP: TMBG contributed to McSweeney's, a literary journal, fairly recently. What was that like, and do you plan on doing another issue in the future?

JF: I would love to work with them again. It was very wide-open. The way the project worked is, it was the Arts and Music Issue, and we contributed a CDs worth of music to the issue, and all the tracks correspond to stories that were written for it. One thing we didn't realize when we started was that, we did the first ten pieces for the ten pieces of artwork or writing that were being contributed, and they were relatively full-length songs, like three-minute long or longer pieces of music; then we realized that there were going to be about 40 pieces in the issue. And there are only 70 minutes on a CD, so it really kind of changed the project midstream. It was a very psychedelic experience. It was not like anything I've ever done before, because it was based on this other material, so there is something very impressionistic about it. You wanted to do something that complemented the stuff that was already there, which is a very unusual way of writing. In some ways, if I hadn't done incidental music, I think it would have been even a more difficult challenge.

PCP: What's going on with the upcoming documentary? What's that going to be about?

JF: Well, it's all about us. It's very strange, because it's kind of like we're doing stuff for the documentarian, but we don't really know what his master plan is. So it will be interesting to see how it comes out. I hope we come across well. It's very scary to have something that is presented as a summation of what you do. I feel like, in a lot of ways, as a band, we don't really exist in that much of a social context. And I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing. A lot of bands that I really admire are very much a product of their time and place, and a lot of bands and musicians that I admire, really, there is no place on the planet for them ever. So, I think you can be an important musician either way, or even just a valid musician either way. I think sometimes being important with a capital 'I' is the least important thing about being a musician. I think doing interesting work is really the key, because you can never tell what things are going to endure. Most things that are really worthwhile have a harder time in the moment than other things that people understand more easily. Which is to say that, making this documentary has made me talk about what we do in a really different way than I ever have before. I don't really think of the band that philosophically that often. It's something that we started for fun, and we're kind of ambitious about, but we don't really ... I don't know. It's a very strange thing to have a documentary made about yourself. It makes you feel awkward.

PCP: They Might Be Giants as a band seem to have wholeheartedly embraced the Internet as a way to get the band's music out.

JF: Well, it's really good for us. We've always been very proactive about getting our music into the world. Dial-a-Song was the first thing that got us noticed by a lot people, and still to this day gets us a lot of notice, because it's so off-the-cuff as an idea of what can be done with a song, that I think it's just intriguing to people. And it suits us because our songs are kind of graphic and wordy and short and immediate, so putting one of our songs on the phone is probably better than putting a song by Phish on the phone, or something. Our stuff isn't really about texture so much. It's a little bit more about melody and lyric. That was the medium that made sense for us. And in some ways, the great thing about the Internet, for us, is that, we've always gotten the impression that there are a lot of people out there who are really dissatisfied with regular pop culture, but still liked rock music, like pop music, but they just thought that it was either pretentious, or shallow, or vapid. There's a million different ways that rock music sucks. And I've just always known that it's a good thing, if you can get your record into the mall store. It's good for the culture. As a kid, being able to find a Captain Beefheart record meant that I could hear that song in my suburban town, whereas I probably couldn't even have gotten a John Coltrane record in that record store. You have to seek out good music, and what's great about the Internet is, it allows a lot of open access to explore things. You can hear about something, you can go online and find out a lot more about it very quickly. And unless you are lucky enough to live in the center of some city where there's all sorts of culture coming at you, there's something kind of wonderful about being able to have this kind of equal access through the web.

PCP: How's Linnell these days? Do you guys have any side-projects going on independently?

JF: We're pretty much overwhelmed. I think we've expanded the horizon of the band so much, that we're just at a point where we basically don't even have any free time, so it would be interesting to have some free time. But taking on the McSweeney's thing, and the children's record, those things are such big departures for us. And, we also did the incidental music for The Daily Show. In fact, we're also doing the theme for this PBS show called Life 360. And that's kind of like 20th century art music. It's all strings: cellos, violins and violas. In some ways, we've expanded what They Might Be Giants does so much, that I don't think we even really think of what we do as just one thing anymore.

PCP: You guys seem very proud to be from New York City. How much of an influence has the city had on you as a band, and can you see it happening in any other city?

JF: Well, it's interesting. Being a local band from New York, is like, it's the shittiest place to be a local band in the world. First of all, you're competing with every national act, every night of the week. So it's not like you can be the king of your town, because the real kings are rocking your town every second of the day. And then beyond that, everything's really expensive, everybody's really jaded. You can't find other people to work with, and if you can, they probably want to get paid to rehearse. So, it's a perfectly inorganic place to try to make it out of. But that said, bands from New York tend to be great bands. I forget what the song was called, but I think there's some truth to it. It's like: the crowds are really tough, the environment's really tough. And it challenges you. You really have to get your act together, really fast. I remember playing in the East Village when we were starting, and, there were audiences that just wouldn't applaud. You definitely had to do something really interesting to get them involved. So, I think, it's not the easiest place, but I do like the energy of New York. I wasn't born in New York, so I'm not a native New Yorker in that sense, but I do feel like, from the second I got to New York, it all kind of made sense. I started drinking coffee right about the same time, so they're inexplicably linked. But I'm curious why you'd say that, because, I agree with the idea, but I'm wondering how you perceived it, or picked up on it.

PCP: I think its because of the fact that you're in New York that there is such competition. Maybe in a way it forced you to do things that under normal circumstances, you wouldn't do, in order to be known and to be 'unique.'

JF: The part I'm leaving out, that's actually really great is, once you have some kind of notoriety, everything kind of comes at you gangbusters, because a lot of people in your earliest audiences are people who are connected to national media. So there is an upside, once the ball gets rolling. Do you know about this band, the Moldy Peaches? Or the Strokes? They're like, a good example of a band that is obviously, because they're coming out of New York City, enjoying a lot more press exposure. I think if they were from Providence, Rhode Island it would be very hard for them to get the momentum that they've got going at this point. One thing I can guarantee you is, whatever they say they're feeling now, they won't feel that way two years from now. New York is a very cool city. It's a very cool place to hang out. I like it.