They Might Be Giants: Big Deals

Status, July 14, 2011
by Reena Mesias

Alternative rock band They Might Be Giants shows no sign of slowing down despite having been in the industry for about 30 years. STATUS talks to vocalist/guitarist John Flansburgh about their new album, Join Us, an 18-track LP which features, once again, music for adults. Kids will miss their catchy pop tunes, but we're glad that Flansburgh and his partner-in-crime, vocalist/keyboardist John Linnell, are back, ready to hit those charts bigger this time.

Hey, John. What's up?

Just relaxing in New York City!

Are you planning to play songs from Join Us in your tours?

We have a few strategies, but the main one is just have a really big repertoire so we can keep it all rolling for ourselves and the audience. But we're not in a bubble as far as audiences love of the familiar, and it's hard for me not to feel a sting of transference when my friend comes back from a some veteran bands show and says, "The first half of their show was all these goddamn new songs. Like, who cares? Play what we came here for!" On the other hand, we did just put out four advance tracks from the album and the reviews were so enthusiastic it really has emboldened me to rethink that--although I suspect we'll avoid doing album sides. We'll see what goes over and keeps people dancing.

You hinted a "back-to-roots" sentiment with regard to Join Us.

TMBG started as a duo, and that kind of set-up shows you power of reigning things in that you can never really get away from. John [Linnell] and I don't usually have a plan of how to approach making an album, but this time we did discuss trying to put together songs that we could sing and play as a duo too, and keeping the recordings more spare in general. It wasn't like an overall idea--just a thread that seemed worth exploring.

You also said you'd like to make a "more insane-sounding record." How insane is Join Us?

It's not insane, but it does cross electronic sounds and rock instrumentation pretty successfully. For people who don't know about our history as a band---John Linnell and I started out as home recording enthusiasts. That pulls you in a lot of different directions musically. I know this sounds really pompous, but the simplest way I can put it is that from the early 80s to the early 90s, our focus kind of shifted from experimentation outside of traditional song forms to experimenting inside traditional song forms. Of course, there is plenty of elbow room for getting freaky with sound either way, but the allure of less traditional structures still speaks to us--even if it's tucked somewhere inside rhyming words, bridges and breakdowns.

Give us artists who remain to be musical influences ever since you guys started. The Residents, Pere Ubu, Elvis Costello, Television. The first generation of New York and Boston punk bands all loomed very large as musical reference points. The no wave bands like DNA, The Contortions, and James White and the Blacks were also very much on our radar in our formative moment. I think The Smiths were a very helpful touchstone and a more direct inspiration then a rock critic might imagine. Their music was so exciting, and the point of view Morrissey presented in his lyrics was so extreme and impossible---it was hard to take at face value, even though it seems their more earnest fans couldn't do anything else.

How much time do you guys spend thinking about the ground you've covered versus thinking about what's on the horizon? We spend very little time thinking about the past---but it feels more the result of a collective temporal lobe injury than a decision or a strategy.

Which is more important: the artist's vision, or the way the art is interpreted by the audience?

I would respectfully put a third idea first---the art itself! The public's idea of audiences can really get in the way of good art being appreciated, and, if you can pardon a ten dollar word, recontextualize stuff that is otherwise pretty directly good. It took a long for me to hear Led Zeppelin without thinking of the guys who liked them in my high school first. As for TMBG, as much as I feel our audience is wonderfully open to our better artistic impulses, I can't help but feel the cliquey vibe within our crowd makes outsiders feel, well, like outsiders.

Share with us fresh tracks on your playlist right now, and tell us why you love them.

I only have one, but it's a good one! "You and Me" by Penny and the Quarters. This is from a very ambitious set of soul reissues called Eccentric Soul. I know exactly nothing of this group but this song is unbelievably pure. The feeling of falling in love is embodied perfectly in the sound of this woman's voice.

Complete the sentence: Join us... a friendly hand of Texas Hold 'Em.