But They Might Be Geniuses, Too

John Flansburgh spills the beans on quirkiness and accessibility, on kids records and their new rock album, and, oh yeah, on who's the REAL brains behind Fountains of Wayne.

Blurt, July 19, 2011
by Lee Zimmerman

There are a multitude of adjectives that might best sum up They Might Be Giants' MO, and while quirky, zany, wacky and off kilter often come to mind, so do such descriptions as melodic, tuneful, inventive and infectious. Indeed, over the course of a 25-year career, this impetuous duo - childhood chums John Flansburgh and John Linnell - have concocted the kind of offbeat offerings that manage to define the very essence of genuine pop perfection. More often than not, they actually overreach, with rock, pop, folk, vaudeville and even circus sounds tossed into the mix for good measure.

One of the indie scene's early success stories, They Might Be Giants first mined that DIY approach on the early ‘80s with a strategy they dubbed the Dial A Song service, a phone line that spotlighted a series of songs written and recorded to garner record label attention. That led to a deal with Bar/None records and a burgeoning following that grew proportionally with every release. Their self-titled debut effectively established them as geek gods, a distinction they've proudly maintained ever since. Their next album, Lincoln, and its accompanying single "Don't Let's Start," honed that slapdash style, affirming their status as the darlings of the college crowd. A signing to Elektra Records provided the potential to elevate their cult status and bring them into the mainstream, a possibility that came close to fruition with their first label offering, Flood in 1990. The album went gold and yielded the terrific twosome "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." Both songs went on to become staples of the band's catalogue, outstanding examples of the irreverent, infectious and utterly irresistible sound that's been the band's stock and trade from the very beginning.

The band never scaled the heights of unadulterated stardom that clearly seemed their due, and indeed, after those early landmark LPs, their fortunes have ebbed and flowed. However, that hasn't negated their popular appeal. A series of children's albums, DVDs and soundtrack contributions have turned They Might Be Giants into unlikely family favorites, a parallel career they still pursue. However, it's their new album, Join Us, that has fans excited. A return to the clever signature sound that stamped Flood and Lincoln, its 18 tracks return them to their trademark sound. From the effusive opener "Can't Keep Johnny Down" through the sunny good vibes of "Old Pine Box," "Spoiler Alert" and the riveting rocker "Let Your Hair Hang Down," and on to the final bizarre freak-outs of "You Don't Like Me," "Three Might Be Duende" and "2082," Join Us is as enticing as its title implies.

Flansburgh recently spoke with Blurt and offered to share his insights into They Might Be Giants' oftentimes unlikely trajectory.

BLURT: You're so prolific - is it ever a challenge coming up with new ideas? How do you avoid repeating yourselves?

JOHN FLANSBURGH: We have discussed how we're running out of nouns. Probably time to move our focus to adverbs.

I wouldn't want to assume we haven't done a certain amount of repeating, but it's probably not a bad idea for a creative person - especially songwriters - to give yourself permission to at least repeat some aspects of how you work. Good songs are often bold and simple, and it would be a mistake to say "I've already done bold and simple. Gotta move on to fragile and fussy."

When it comes to the songs, how closely do you guys collaborate in their composition? Can you give any insight into the way the material is conceived and how the arrangements originate?

We both have home production set ups and write separately for the most part, but we are the first audience for the other. The collaboration kind of expands and contracts around the individual songs and where we're at as a band. We'll hand things off to the other. We have written various things in the traditional music dude/lyric dude way, but we've done things a lot of other ways too. I seriously don't want to speak for John here, but personally I've always sensed that there is an abstract idea of this band They Might Be Giants -- after years of talking about what we want and don't want that band to be about musically -- and we're writing for that concept.

Where do you come up with some of these unusual subjects that form the core of your songs?

When we started, we had a lot of big ideas about avoiding stock ideas. No solos, just arranged breaks. Short intros. No fade-outs. We weren't too big on writing about love, but we were also probably pretty shy about the topic too. Just staying away from clichés was the main thing, and while we have given in to the pleasures of intros, solos and an occasional fade-out, it's still the goal. When we started, we weren't that far past the new wave moment and short, sharply structured songs of any kind -- whether it was the Residents to Elvis Costello -- were infinitely more appealing to us than the baggy, jammy songs of progressive rock.

How challenging is it to replicate your songs on stage, given the unlikely instrumentation and unusual arrangements that grace the studio versions?

We feel like what we gain is always more than what we lose playing songs live. But while we put a lot of energy and thought into how we put songs together live, I'm not certain we always actually have such profound insight in to how any given arrangement really lands. I mean, audiences clap at the end of most songs -- and we all know that can be deceiving!

One song we have talked about over the years is "Ana Ng." It was a popular early track for us, and when we recorded it, we had probably had seven cups of coffee apiece and were jazzed at being in the studio and working with a new drum machine. We just kept pushing the tempo up and up, and ended up recording the song a bit fast. I don't want to say too fast, because it's a very successful recording sonically. But needless to say, in the fullness of time as we have performed the song hundreds of times, and we came to the conclusion that at a more moderate tempo "Ana Ng" actually feels much groovier. Now here's where I can't help but wonder -- if you see a bunch of old dudes playing their old songs at a slower tempo -- doesn't it seem likely that as an audience member you're gonna think, "They're tired!" Either bored of this song, or just too damn old to play it at full speed? Now of course, at any given moment we are all that too -- but what we're doing in our performance in "Ana Ng" for musical reasons I suspect, could scan in an entirely different way to an audience member. But who knows?

Early on, you built up a tremendous cult and college following and with your signing to Elektra. Yet, afterwards, it seemed like your possibilities for broader success never really reached full potential. Any thoughts about what transpired?

Well, that really defines a half empty/half full way of looking at your career. Most bands don't last five years even with hits, and I could name two dozen bands that had much bigger hits than us back then who are now 100% married to that time, and in a sense are forever cast as an oldies act. We could have definitely worked harder at some key points, but we could have also broken up. We toured for a solid year behind Flood, and that certainly made some registers ring, but we were aging like presidents.

Your songs have always been both quirky and accessible. How do you maintain that balance? Had you opted to write straight pop songs, you might have been fixtures on the pop charts.

There is a real generosity in the idea that we're just holding back on being a more mainstream band out of restraint or taste, but what we do is our mainstream stuff. I suspect it's because TMBG songs are often melody-driven that people feel like we're hiding some kind of musical WMDs. But that final layer of a super-sincere lyric or the chant-along chorus really does elude our best efforts.

After signing to major labels, was there ever any pressure to downplay the quirkier subject matter and focus on becoming more commercially viable?

I think it would be a mistake to categorize the pressure there was to make us a "straighter" act. Quirkiness would be fine by them. If you really quizzed the smartest folks there I suspect they would've said They Might Be Giants really needed to be a bolder, more current package: dress in a more costumey way, be more outspoken or outrageous, and have songs with catchphrases in them -- that is the standard "shape" of a hit band.

Of all the many albums in your catalog, which do you have the most fondness for?

As we were making The Spine in 2004, there was a real overabundance of spiderwebby, Halloweeny kind of songs. Some were manic, and some were more pastoral -- but as a group, it seemed like a bit much to put them all on the album, so we left a lot off, and the overflow became the EP The Spine Surfs Alone. When I listen to it now, the EP is wonderfully, if unintentionally, cohesive and so damn paranoid -- it's a real song cycle.

What inspired the detour into children's music?

John and I had both done side project albums, the movie "Gigantic" was getting made and a box set of our first twenty years was coming out on Rhino, so it seemed as if TMBG was really finally established in the culture. It seemed like we could do a one-off without people thinking the band was forever changing course. So we made the album No! (our first kids album) during the off hours of doing incidental music for "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Daily Show," and the process was a very low-key, pleasant diversion compared those far more public gigs. Of course, the commercial success of No! was the part we hadn't anticipated.

Did you ever consider making kid's music your path entirely and abandoning the adult audience altogether?

No, although it certainly was available to us. Even though we were pretty upfront about it -- and always kind of hid behind puppets or animated avatars of ourselves -- taking the leap into being full on children entertainers somehow always loomed in the back of our conversations with Disney. But you can't blame 'em -- there aren't many faceless kids acts!

Will you continue to make children's albums?

Probably, but who knows? We have done enough kids albums to do a pretty compelling kids show, and it seems the existing albums just go and go with new generations of kids. If we were to go right back to it, it would be nice to get away from the education part of it. As efficient as it is to write on a topic, it's fun just to write songs in a more wide-open way.

Do you have any soundtrack projects in the works? Is that still a lucrative area for you?

Movie stuff is often more interesting, but being based out of New York we don't get a lot of offers. Most of the incidental music we've done has been for television and advertising. It's okay money and I think we're actually pretty good at it, but often it's just a huge volume of work, and typically delivered on very hard deadlines, so it's really just a high-pressure, well-compensated job.

You're about to embark on a big tour. When was the last time you played out so extensively? Any thoughts on returning to the live arena? Any apprehension?

The album is very strong so everybody is very confident about the quality of the new show. We have a great band and crew, and the audiences are always fantastic. While it's tough being away from home and the show is physically very demanding, touring is also a way to feel fully alive, so it's hard not to feel excited.

You seemed unlikely rock stars - in both your image and your approach. And yet that became your hook of sorts. Any thoughts about what it was like to evolve as sort of "anti-rock stars?"

We are in fact very often rock-star-style unreasonable. We are complicated and by standard measure, our goals are often very abstract. We can be very "just so" about how we're presented. While I wouldn't say we are self-destructive in that typical "Behind the Music" rock star way, there are many things -- like money for instance -- that simply will not be enough to motivate us to do something we don't want to do.

Any final thoughts?

I recently flew to do a show in Toronto and had to take my guitar on the plane. The car service driver was as chatty as I was exhausted. He couldn't stop talking about Santana and Jimi Hendrix and guitars, guitars, guitars. He asked me what band I was in, and I begged him off. "You don't know my band," I said. I just couldn't get the energy up to describe the band to a stranger one more time. But he wouldn't let me off the hook. As he went on and on, I thought -- what would other guys do? -- and my mind drifted to Brian, the drummer in Fountains of Wayne. Brian is a great practical joker and notorious fibber. So I broke down and told the guy I was a sideman -- the ringer lead guitarist -- in Fountains of Wayne. He hadn't heard of us! But he wanted to know more! I told him about "Stacy's Mom." Told him how we got our name. Told him I do all the recordings too, "To keep 'em tight -- but I'm not in the pictures."

It was so liberating not having to tell the truth, and so pleasant pretending to be someone else. I think next time another interview like this comes up I'm going to do it as a sideman in Fountains of Wayne.