Dark Cartoons and Burning Cars: An Interview with They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh

Austinist, July 19, 2011

They Might Be Giants are inarguably one of the most prolific bands in rock history: with 15 studio albums and as many videos, collaborations with figures from Homestar Runner to John Hodgman and appearances on a slew of TV shows, Johns Flansburgh and Linnell have kept busy in the nearly 30 years they've been performing together. They've authored children's books and were the first band to release an online-only album, and their intellectual, catchy sound -- which often masks absurd, dark lyrics -- inspires bands of all genres. Their Dial-A-Song hotline, run out of a New York City apartment in the 80s (and eventually moved online, where it lived happily till 2008), was a groundbreaking experiment in both marketing and productivity. Recently, they contributed a rousing cover of Chumbawumba's "Tubthumping" to the AV Club's Undercover series. While they've become known for their family-friendly albums (on topics like The ABCs and The 123s), their latest release, Join Us, is their first "adult" album since 2007's The Else, and they're celebrating its release with a series of tours that'll take them all over the globe. We caught up with John Flansburgh to talk about collaboration, comedy and tour disasters (and good news: he promised that TMBG will be rolling through Austin in early 2012).

You're getting ready to go out on a huge tour -- are you looking forward to it?

We’re basically making our way across the United States, then heading for Australia and Japan, so it’s a weird schedule. A lot of work. It’s like being tied to some train tracks and knowing that, at some point, the train's going to come. It’s a little daunting. We’ve got something like 45, 48 shows booked, and a whole lot of other stuff, too. A whole lot of press and travel stuff, video things; it’s a very hectic time. I just hope we don’t run out of energy.

What's it like touring with a band you've known for over 30 years?

It’s a lot like being in the Army with some really interesting guys. I think we sort of feel like we’re all on the same side, so even when it’s exhausting, or complicated or challenging, we’re a team. There’s a tremendous camaraderie, a very real camaraderie with everybody, that makes doing it very easy. I can’t imagine what it would be like in a situation where you didn’t get along with your bandmates. I think the fact that we get along is kind of how we get through it.

Is playing for an adult audience less stressful than playing for kids?

It’s an easier process, adult shows. The kid shows, sometimes you just don’t know who you’re playing for, in a way, because there’ll be some very little kids in the audience. We don’t do that many kid's shows, to be honest, so I don’t think we’ve ever really gotten used to it. Some people have a very natural gift for playing for kids; I think, for us, it’s just a little bit trickier. We’re so used to talking to the audience, breaking the fourth wall and that kind of thing, when we do concerts for adults there’s something very conversational about it. It’s a little bit harder to establish something like that for a kid's show without people thinking you’re just talking to the parents. Do you talk at the kids level? Do you talk at the parents level? Trying to figure out the right way to mediate between the two can be a tricky bit of business.

TMBG participates in a lot of projects, from cartoons to anthologies to videos. Is it difficult juggling things when there's always so much going on?

We’re very proactive about finding the people that we collaborate with; we have a very specific aesthetic and there are a lot of things that are very interesting to us. Fortunately, we live in a time where it’s very easy for independent, creative people to work. There are a lot of small animation houses, people working in motion graphics and animation essentially on their own, and that’s very different than it was 20 years ago. We’ve been making videos for a long time, and we’ve always collaborated on the visual side of things with different teams of people. Back then, just finding an independent animation company was a very tricky bit of business. There weren’t that many people in that world. A lot of the independent people were also kind of the less professional of the bunch. Now, the best and the brightest are doing it for themselves, so it’s a different era for sure, and it’s a more interesting time now that visual artists have the means of production right in their computers.

Those DVD projects we’ve done and the videos that we’ve done, I think we just want the way that the band's music is presented to be specific and to be representative of us. We curate that stuff pretty carefully. We also don’t have a really big budget, so one of the things that we offer people we collaborate with is a relatively free hand. We’re very careful in finding them, and once we find them, we trust them to do a thing in their own way. We’re in a good place. Everyone comes with tremendous enthusiasm, and honestly it’s a little bit of a cakewalk for us. We feel very lucky.

We tell everybody the same thing; just make it deadpan, don’t worry about making it funny, and the rest will follow.

For example, we did a video for our last album called "The Mesopotamians," which was an interesting challenge. We were collaborating with a guy named David Cowles, who’s done a lot of our family stuff before. He’d worked on The ABCs project, a bunch of things for kids. And when we were doing stuff for adults, we had to kind of reset the table for him and say, Okay, look, this can be as dystopian and ugly as you can make.

In animation, there’s often a period where things are in animatic form, which is a very crude form of animation, a lot of place markers and not so much motion. A lot of times it’s sketches that’ve just been dashed off and slotted in. It’s often very beautiful, and I’ve talked to so many people who work in animation who have the exact same experience: where the animatic has all this energy and all this freshness to it, and, as it gets closer and closer to being finished, it looks less and less interesting. And so when we were doing "The Mesopotamians" we were cautiously trying to hold on to that, to that crude, ugly line of an animatic, really have it look filthy. That was an interesting experience.

Are there any projects you've always wanted to work on but haven't gotten to yet?

I think we’ve always been interested in working on a full-length animated film, but our luck with films is not so great. For whatever reason, it seems like a lot of things are done by committee and a lot of things get sat on in the process. But if Pixar called tomorrow, I’d be jumping up and down. I actually think it would be a very natural fit for us, I don’t think people who know our music would be surprised to see us do something like that.

Would you play yourselves?

[Laughing] Oh, no no no. We’re actually talking to this online gaming company about doing a project, and they came in with an initial proposal -- it seems like part of what they do is have avatars of people, kind of like a classic celebrity walk-on thing, where they make them look like the person and they come on as themselves. I was trying to approach the idea, if we were to collaborate with them on something, if we’re going to be represented as They Might Be Giants then some nightmarish thing should have happened. Like, a monster should have taken over the band and we’re just his slaves, something beyond just the odd vanity of seeing the guys from the band; there’s something a little hollow about when people are protective of their image even in comic form. It seems a little uptight.

The band incorporates comedy into lyrics, live performances and lots of the projects you work on -- have you ever considered working on something that's more traditionally "comedic"?

That’s an interesting question. You know, I think a lot of the spark of the stuff in the live show that reads as comedy, that’s all very spontaneous. I think it’s some version of improvisation. And I don’t think we feel confident enough in our legit skills as performers to be officially Funny. I think we can be very funny when we’re not called on to be funny, and some of that is just repurposing our nervous energy about being onstage, and some of it is often just having the confidence to be spontaneous onstage and deal with things that come. There’s always other things happening when you’re onstage besides just playing your song, and a lot of the stuff we do for laughs onstage comes out of the immediate situation. A lamp falls over, something bursts into flames, that’s fodder for the show. I think, the truth is, if what we were doing was really about laughs, it’s probably not funny enough, you know what I mean? We really rely on having melody. Melody is our crutch.

Do things often burst into flames onstage?

Oh, we’ve had all sorts of things happen. We’ve had stage collapses, we’ve had tent poles fall over, we’ve had electrical generators explode. We did a show once where we were playing on the ground level of a building and there were windows out onto the street. And directly behind us, a car was lit on fire. That was insane. The fire department came, it was just really bizarre. It was very dramatic, very strange, and hard to pretend it wasn’t happening, even just to sing a song. It was hard to not be distracted by the burning car.

The strange thing about a life of touring and performing shows is that you kind of only remember the stuff that was crazy. When we go back to places that we played 10 years earlier, if we don’t remember them it’s probably just because the show went well. You really remember everything that didn’t work, and that’s a strange curse.