They Might Be Giants Return to 'Adult' Rock on 'Join Us,' Praise Teachers and Unions

Spinner, March 14, 2011
by Dan Reilly

After the huge success of their children's albums, They Might Be Giants are returning to making "adult" music for the first time since 2007's 'The Else.' Before releasing the full-length, 'Join Us,' later this year, the duo will drop a four-song EP on iTunes on April 26, and fans can complete the album for no extra charge when it finally hits stores. Spinner spoke with co-mastermind John Flansburgh about how the band approached the songwriting, his love of playing for drunk fans and his support of unions and teachers.

What mindset did you have going into this recording?

In the last five years, we've done three full-length kids albums, then we did 'The Else' and this podcast album, so it's been a lot of recording. As we were approaching this, we realized we wanted to take it to a different level. Writing for kids, there are themes so there's already sort of a built-in focus, which makes it easier for writing purposes. With the beginning of this record, we were kind of staring at the blank page and a little bit intimidated by what we wanted to do. When we started They Might Be Giants, there was something singular about our point of view. We wanted to get back to our beginner's mind about the elements we're combining. This new album has a lot of unexpected arrangements and there are a lot of hard left turns in it.

Writing for kids, you probably want to keep things simple. Do you consciously try to make it more complex when you have an adult audience?

The thing is, when we were recording 'The Else' with the Dust Brothers, there was a certain notion that we were reacting to the kids stuff. We're a rock band and when we play live, it's very loud. 'The Else' came out very aggressive because it was a bit of a neurotic response on our part. This album is sort of us in a more natural place.

So you're more comfortable now?

I would never say that They Might Be Giants are comfortable. We're just two neurotic people. But I really like the scope of this record. It's as adventurous as a They Might Be Giants record should be and there's a lot of really solid pop songs on it, which is very exciting to me.

Do the songs on 'Join Us' have a common theme or are they all over the place?

There's a lot of death, a lot of disappointment. Our regular stuff.

Why did you make this adult album now?

Well, this is what we like to do. The kids stuff has been a wild ride and we did the first kids album as an experiment and we never anticipated that it would kind of sidetrack us as far as it did. Personally, I love playing for adults. I love playing in a club at midnight in front of people who are entirely inebriated. We like playing loud and that's what got us into it.

What might not be obvious from a distance in our music is how adult the adult themes are. I don't mean that there are dirty words or sex, but the actual emotions of a post-adolescent person are subtler and I think we get at a lot of those things in our adult music. Disappointment is a lot different than anger, and adult lives are filled with disappointment and how to reconcile yourself to the life you ended up with. I know people think of us as this happy-go-lucky band but there's always been a very real thread of adultness in what we're doing.

The song titles for the EP -- 'Can't Keep Johnny Down,' 'Old Pine Box' and 'Never Knew Love' -- sound a bit dark.

Well, 'Never Knew Love' is actually an optimistic song. The full title would be 'Never Knew Love Like This Before,' that's pretty upbeat. 'Old Pine Box' is a song about a burnout but it's not sung by a burnout. Yeah, now that you read the titles it sounds like a trip into a very dark cave. But no, there's a full range of human emotions, happy and sad.

What is 'Can't Keep Johnny Down' about?

That would be a question better put to John Linnell, but it's a song of defiance. It's an incredibly catchy song. That's a very nice, bittersweet concoction of a very bitchy lyric with an incredibly sunny arrangement. It's sort of Brit-pop. I'm very excited about how that one came out. It's one of those tracks that as we were putting it together, I was like "wow, this is so strong." John did an outstanding job with the track. The man is a genius.

Songs about defiance seem particularly topical these days with everything going on in the news.

Yeah. Well, it's a crazy time. We should start writing some union songs. I've gotta tell you, I'm in three unions. I've got a retirement plan through one of them. I'm in Local 802, the musicians' union, I'm in AFTRA, which is the radio and television recording artists union and I'm in SAG, the Screen Actors Guild. I'm pro-union.

I have to tip my hat the wealthy men of the right wing for fooling the poor people of America into thinking the middle class is their enemy. They have really hypnotized the under-informed. The idea that school teachers are the problem is just absolutely amazing.

With doing all the kids stuff, you probably interacted with a lot of teachers.

We have! And I have to tell you, contrary to the popular notion that they're paid too much, schoolteachers are paid far too little. When you consider their education grade and their level of responsibility in the culture, in the world and in people's lives, they're like emotional firemen. It's more than just a giving a lesson out of a book. They're guiding kids through how to be part of society.

The whole thing is actually insulting in a way. It's not right. These people should be held up as examples of how to live a noble life. It's just been twisted around. They must be pissed off. It just shows you how far you can go with no information. It's really about creating a panic where there doesn't have to be one.

Anyway, it must be a thrill to get back to making adult albums.

We are super excited about the quality of this record and can't wait to get on the road to get the word out about it. We're doing a huge tour in the fall and it's a really exciting time. I'm really happy to be focusing on the world of adultness.

But you're still not comfortable.

Not comfortable, but happy.