Interview with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

Green Shoelace, March 17, 2010
by Michael Bradshaw

John Flansburgh is one half of the twenty-eight-year-old super-duo, They Might Be Giants. The band is credited with a Grammy, CMJ, Billboard, and blah blah blah. We won't waste your time. You know exactly who John Flansburgh and They Might be Giants are.

That said, you may be excited to learn that, at the moment, TMBG are on tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal album, Flood. Flansy talked to GSL about Flood, the TMBG universe, and everything else.

So this is the 20th anniversary of Flood...

I guess so! Yeah, we started doing these La Pouson Rouge shows like a year ago. Because we were playing every month, we started relearning Flood, some of which we only played maybe one or two times over the course of the twenty years. And once we kinda had it in our back pocket and it seemed like a successful show, we thought we'd wheel it out.

We have very little interest in becoming a nostalgia act, but the interest among our audience in the album is so great and it's sort of the starter album for a lot of people in our audience. So, out of respect for the sort of excitement the idea seems to generate, we've acquiesced.

And it's fun. It's kind of a cultural Trojan horse in some ways though, because it's not like we weren't going to play "Birdhouse in Your Soul" or "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", y'know? By playing this whole album, we're really wheeling out the freakiest songs of the record. Some of them are pretty strange.

Everyone loves the stories of how you guys started out and how you're able to stick around.

Bands coming out of New York are either shot out of a canon or they literally crawl out of New York. We were the latter. By the end of it, when things were really clicking, it all seemed so classically fabulous. But there were many years where our career was a rumor.

The phenomenon of Dial-A-Song was a very nice way to start our career because it framed everything we did afterward as being different. The record industry was riding high. So the idea of just kind of wrecking it by giving away your music on the telephone really bugged people.

That was a time when bands were discovered.

They had to be discovered because the cultural filter was so tight. It wasn't a secret where the record pressing plant was, but it was like unless you were famous, you could make all the records you wanted and no one would check it out. It was like, record companies had a big say and rock music seemed very culturally rebellious. I don't know. it's hard to say things have necessarily improved.

But if you just look at that roster of artists on Warner Bros. or Elektra in the 70's, a lot of those people are just strange. They're not pretty people. They don't have beautiful voices. They're basically strange looking people with weird voices. But what they have is a really strong point of view and a record company with enough muscle that they can actually steer the culture to look in their direction.

It's hard to tell a shallow person that they should care more about the feelings of the awkward and the alientated.

That's the whole reason They Might Be Giants even exists in such a large cultural way, there was someone at Elektra championing you, right?

Sue Drew at Elektra definitely did her best to make us fit into that world. But our situation is a little bit more of a chicken and egg thing because we were getting so much traction as an independent band. It's hard to say what would have happened if we had stayed with Bar/None.

I think we were just nervous as people. It was more important to us that we didn't just totally blow it than it was to be as big of a success as possible.

Can you give me a snapshot of what that time was like for you and Linnell when Flood was written? You both had day jobs even after Lincoln was released.

In 1985, we were playing every weekend at least once, maybe twice in Manhattan. That was incredible. Like, we didn't really play in tune. We often didn't sing in tune. There was something very rough about our act for a very long time. But our confidence level within our show was really really high. So we were very very carefree. We had our Beatles-in-Hamburg bootcamp moment in these East Village performance places. And from there we graduated to bigger places in the East Village and then CBGB's and then we started playing at the Village Gate where we actualy booked our own shows.

This is at a time, it's funny, when whatever the latest activity on S. 5th St. was, it would be covered in the New York Times and would be covered by the Village Voice and it would actually be heralded as the new thing that everyone should check out.

I have to tell you, when we started, the New Yorker and the New York Times, they actually had a policy of not reviewing shows in the East Village. Basically that was like, not on their beat.

It was as if Manhattan had been red-lined. It was like, we're not going to bother with things so obscure beyond this address, beyond this latitude or longitude on the island of Manhattan. That's just the way it was.

When we actually, finally, went to the Village Gate to do these shows in the West Village, we got an extraordinary amount of press that no other band coming out of the East Village scene got because the papers were free to write about it. There were all these young people, just like today, at these newspapers and magazines, who were perfectly aware of who we were. We'd probably been playing a block down their street for the last two years. Their friends knew us. It was a very neighborhoody scene, not that different from playing at, you know, Zebulon in Williamsburg today. But those shows just didn't show up on the radar. So, when we started playing at the Village Gate, we started getting the attention that a national act coming to New York would get and that was a huge booster rocket to our legitimacy.

And right around the same time, things started happening for us at MTV...

But that whole time we were working our day jobs...I was a freelance graphic designer. This was in pre-computer days. I had worked for newspapers and I had worked in print shop places and commercial places. I worked for all the different publishers McMillin, Random House, Scholastic. My last job was with Cande Nast, which was really a fantastic job and very frustrating to finally have a very high-paying job in a professional environment and then find myself leaving to go on tour all the time. I had great bosses there who very supportive of what I was doing.

Though, I had one weird experience when I was working at Random House. [There was an] article in People Magazine that came out and the woman I was working for was very high-strung. She very much wanted me to work double shifts if she needed me and we were playing out all the time, rehearsing all the time. And when I took the job, I said that I'd never ever be able to work nights. That was not cool with her. And then one day one of my co-workers saw the article in People and put it on my desk and, of course, she saw it before I did.

She was like how could you not tell me? I was like, well, I don't know anything about you...After that, I was pretty unceremoniously sacked.

This is clearly a point of transition. I'm sure you wanted to be sensible and keep your job, but at the same time it's like, hey, I just got a write up in People...

Well, you would think that, but there's something really untenable about it, because, you know, just because you want to be a performer doesn't mean a situation's going to arise to allow you to be a performer. We were getting paid a couple hundred dollars a show on a really good night. It just was not the kind of thing that would pay your rent. It's just what musicians deal with.

You just feel like you're kind of stumbling through life trying to do your day job and do this thing, your kind of abstract dream. I wish everything would have changed suddenly. Like, I'm in People Magazine baby! Fuck all y'all! But we never really even quit our day jobs. They just kind of evaporated as our touring schedule excelerated. We weren't making any money on tour either. It wasn't like we were coming back with big fat pay checks. We'd go out and get to sleep in a van. There were parts of it that were just awful. But it was a life.

And it wasn't like I was eighteen either. I was twenty-nine. People I knew had kids. They had houses. It was a very stupid thing in some ways to dedicate your time to. It's like what's going to happen? How much good news is there when you've already kind of sunk the better part of your twenties into this sort of lost cause? Dreamers take heart!

So, what was your writing process like? Not that there's some They Might Be Giants Mad-Libs game...

No, Mad-Libs is a great idea.

Great. I've just ruined They Might Be Giants.


Well then, where do your songs come from, writing-wise?

John and I are both writing out of a kind of classic pop songwriting tradition, which is one of the nice things about that tradition is that it's got a very freewheleing sense of rhythm and its' not really hung up in authenticity. It's kind of fearless in its musicality. And I think on top that sort of classic, pop sensibility we've brought in our own person aesthetic, which is just personal to us. That's what makes it very take it or leave it to us. And I think that's kind of an unusual combination. Most music that has a very personal sensibility doesn't have that wide open sense of arrangement. When we're putting things together we're not thinking how is this song going to connect to the last song. We're thinking, how can we make this song as different as possible from the last song.

But, in your lyrics there are all these syntactical impossibilities...

The lyric part is harder to sum up, I guess. There are a lot of non-sequiturs. There's a lot of unreliable narrators. It's hard to say what's real. Sometimes we'll just start with a title of a song or the first few lines of a song and try to amplify it. You know, we'll see how far that idea can go. A song like, "James K. Polk," is a song John put together with our mutual friend Mathew Hill. I was actually childhood friends with Mathew. They were having a conversation about like, why can't you just write a completely fact-based song? And "James K. Polk" is an example of really just pouring a bunch of kind of uninspiring historical facts into a biographical song. There's no editorializing in the song. They kind of left out the part about James K. Polk being evil. But that wouldn't have been true to the experiment of the song.

I think we're not making experimental music but we are experimenting with music. And we're experimenting with arrangement and point of view--and that's a pretty rich area to work in. Pop music is very plastic. It bends in a lot of different ways. We're just trying to see how many of those different ways we can go and still make it hang together.

It's incredible your staying power with that. You'd think that kind of thing would have been just a flash in the pan. You guys have been around for 28 years...

At the risk of sounding like Dolly Parton, we've got one of the best audiences in the world.