Exclusive: John Flansburgh

Dig Boston, July 26, 2011
by Samantha Pitchel

The first time I heard They Might Be Giants, I was en route to Canobie Lake, sitting shotgun in my brother's truck. I was something like ten years old and my brother Stuart, clocking in at over 15 years my senior, was trying to teach me a thing or two about Being Awesome. Step one? A little cassette called Flood, from a band that got its start a few short miles away in Lincoln, Mass.

The album was as relevant and endearing to ten-year old me as it is now. Songs like "Particle Man" and "Istanbul" hinted at the group's future appeal to younger audiences, but they still flirted with dark subject matter, a mix that characterizes much of their work. At the time, the band--which had long since relocated to New York--seemed to be at the peak of their career, topping the charts and, in 1992, holding court as Musical Ambassadors for the International Space Year.

Now, on the eve of They Might Be Giants' 30th anniversary, Johns Flansburgh and Linnell are still at the top of that peak. And with 15 studio albums, about as many videos and a full-length documentary dedicated to their success, they show no sign of coming down.

Recently, they've been hosting impromptu free shows at venues across the country (including the Boylston Street Apple Store) to promote their latest release, Join Us (their first "adult" album since 2007's The Else), and they're getting ready to embark on a 40+ city world tour.

Earlier this month, we spoke with John Flansburgh about the suburbs, breaking into the Boston scene and the difference between BOS and NYC.

How did the late-1970s Boston music landscape influence They Might Be Giants?

It was very formative to us, and it was very specific and quite different. John [Linnell] and I both went to high school in the western suburbs of Boston; we went to Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School (which a lot of people in the Boston area would be familiar with), in Sudbury, Massachusetts. It was a typical suburban kind of [place]; you know, there's a big discount shoe store and shopping malls, and all that kind of slightly lo-fi suburban stuff was very much a part of life there. There was a dollar movie theater that we would go to all the time and see third run movies, see "It's Alive" in the theater.

And when you turn 16 and get your Cinderella license, you can go into Boston and see shows. And, not to really date myself, but I was 17 in 1977, which was a really big year for punk rock in its sort of embryonic stage. Boston was a very interesting place to be, because not only did you get all these New York City bands basically playing outside of New York for the first time ever by taking a road trip up to Boston--you've got all the CBGBs bands coming through--there were also all these Boston bands that kind of had their own scene. It had a distinctly different vibration than the New York stuff. The strange thing about all these punk rock bands--and I'm really talking about, like, Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Tuff Darts, Mink DeVille, Pere Ubu, Blondie, really the entire first-generation constellation of New York bands--there wasn't much in common between them in terms of their sensibilities, their sense of style. Television was a straightforward, sort of very art-school band, Blondie was very night-clubby, you know, they were a professional band, they were more like a real band. And the bands like the Tuff Darts were just a mess. Or a band like, what was this band called, The Dead Boys. The Dead Boys were just a sprawling, freaky mess of a band, just guys throwing up and smashing chairs on themselves and doing all this crazy shit.

So, every band was very different from one another, but it was part of this very small scene. And they all played at The Rathskeller. I remember I saw Mink DeVille do the most beautiful show at The Rathskeller; he had these three guys doing vocal backup, and it was just so extraordinary. They did these beautiful ballads, it was the most unlikely thing imaginable, actually in a nightclub, in a moment where everybody's like. . .the most provocative thing people are doing is putting safety pins through their nostrils, and this guy is singing these beautiful songs. So it was an unusual, ultra vivid kind of time.

And there were all these Boston bands that were really great. There was a thing about Boston bands that was different from New York bands, which is that they were all very street-level. Nobody ever dressed up. Like a band like The Real Kids, there's so much truth in their name, they just seemed like the kids down the street. They were just the guys from down the street who started a band. All their songs were about girls, and girlfriends, and just being a regular person. There's something so magnificently prosaic about them. So I think that actually had this very real influence on us, because it was the Punk-Rock-New-Wave time and there were a lot of people who were getting really into dressing up and putting on costumes and putting on a fashion show, you know. Music was going in a much showier direction, in some ways. But the Boston scene was really the opposite of that, and we sort of took to that.

There's always been something very dumpy about the way we presented ourselves, and I blame it on growing up under the influence of Boston rock.

You also had experience in the Providence scene, right? John [Linnell] moved to Providence for like a year, and he was in a band out of Providence called The Mundanes. They were the big band out of Brown University and they played a lot, they were very professional. I think from the very beginning, we sort of set our sights kind of low as a band because The Mundanes had been such a powerful live outfit, they really had a great sound as a band, and they were successful--but they weren't super successful. They definitely hit some roadblocks professionally. Considering what a competent band they were, it seemed strange that in an era where every new wave band was getting signed, they didn't get signed. And I think people didn't understand, you know, they had a great guitar player, they had great songs, they had a female singer who was very charismatic. It just seemed strange that a band that sort of had it all wouldn't get a major label deal.

So when we started the band, I think our sort of natural thought was like: well, if they can't break into something more professional, let's just do this for fun. It just seemed like, how far can you get in a band if a band like The Mundanes can't get a deal? But you know, it was a very different time, there was no such thing as indie rock, in an essential sense. When we started to make records, there was such a thing as indie rock, but that network of stores and that network of labels and venues, none of that stuff really existed until just moments before we really started touring.

Did you see that sort of starting when you moved to New York?

We actually came out of a very heady scene, I have to say, which was the East Village scene of the mid-80s. It's not like a very famous time in the history of music. People know all those bands from the CBGBs era of punk rock, the bands that I rattled off before. Basically after that, right as we arrived in New York City, the CBs scene was kind of kaput. The CBs scene turned into the Mud Club scene which turned into the Peppermint Lounge scene which turned into the Club 57 scene; in the early 80s, there were all these other clubs that came up and a lot of other bands got their play. Basically all of the New York City music scene kind of died when we arrived, which was heartbreaking.

I remember one of our earliest shows, I actually got the band booked at the Mud Club. Probably in the middle of the night on a Tuesday or something, but it was very exciting for us. And then the Mud Club closed, like, a week before we were going to play. It was the era New York City was really in decline, in a very real way economically. Nobody had any money, it was this very dire, Fort Apache moment, where everybody in New York was broke and there were a lot of people leaving the city and it was just shitty. But we were so young, I don't think it even really dawned on us that things were that shitty. We were just living on hot dogs and ramen noodles and 75-cent falafels, so it was all cool as far as we were concerned.

But in the mid-80s moment, which was really the beginning of MTV and asymmetrical hairdos and all that, the East Village had this very strange performance art kind of scene. There was a lot of emphasis on being original, and there was a lot of emphasis on being sensational in a certain way, it was very theatrical. John and I, we did some theatrical things in our show just kind of to get people's attention, but I don't think it was a natural state. I think we were actually more straightforward, in ways, than we appeared at the time. We've always been interested in songs and working within song structures, but we were on a lot of crazy bills. We were on a couple bills with the Butthole Surfers, and played with Live Skull and Swans, all these very noisy, calamitous bands.

So was starting Dial-A-Song a way of trying to break out of that, or was it a more general marketing move?

It was both of those things, although it was not like we were thinking, "This is the marketing masterstroke of the decade." The truth of the matter is, it was a much more calculating time in rock music and people really went out of the way to make themselves seem like big deals, which is kind of hard to relate to in the modern world. But you know, there were a lot of very broad gestures back then, it was not about giving stuff away and it was not about appearing rinky-dink. So in some ways, doing something as humble as Dial-A-Song was sort of surrendering to the small time. I don't think we thought, "Oh, we'll get a thousand people to come to our show." I think we thought, "Oh, we'll get 10 people to come to our show." A hundred people might call, but a dozen would be intrigued.

There's always this period for the first year you're in a band where all your friends come out to shows, because they're just excited you're in a band and it's strange. We were kind of at the point where none of our friends were coming to our shows anymore, all our friends had seen us already. So it was like, how do you carry on as a local band, how do you find an audience, in the most practical way. We were just trying to figure out how to find people, how to find likeminded people in New York City, and Dial-A-Song seemed like the only easy way to do it.

As I said, there just weren't indie labels. You could be on RCA with Elvis Presley or be on Capital with The Beatles, but wanting to make records was like wanting to be in the Fantastic Four--it didn't seem like it was going to happen. As much as you might want to be in the Fantastic Four.

It seems like a very Internet-minded, yet pre-Internet, type of project.

I guess it is. But the one thing about it is, it's really our legacy as a band, so I think about it a lot. It was something that made us notorious, but when we did it. . .it's hard to explain, but there's actually something about it that's sort of vaguely pathetic. It's my home phone, so when my mom called me she had to listen to one of our songs before saying like, "John, pick up the phone." It didn't seem so ingenious, at the time, is what I'm saying.

TMBG has always been on the forefront of figuring out ways to use the Internet to unite fans and distribute music; do you feel like it's almost too easy for bands to put stuff out there now?

There's a lot of cultural noise, to be sure, but we were very much off the radar. I know when we first started touring we talked to people--like, if I was doing an interview with someone from Seattle, they'd ask, "So do you know They Might Be Giants who do the machine thing?" They didn't even think They Might Be Giants, as a band, was necessarily They Might Be Giants the phone machine. One thing that was weird about Dial-A-Song was, for the first bunch of years we did it, you never heard the words "They Might Be Giants." We never said "You've called They Might Be Giants' Dial-A-Song." I think I explained this story in the movie Gigantic, but, the other thing is, how do you advertise something like Dial-A-Song, how do you tell people it's out there? We would put posters up around New York City, but we also would advertise on the back page of The Village Voice, which was a bulletin board classified kind of thing. And they had two rates: it was either $15/week for a personal ad--and a lot of the personal ads were like, "You, brown backpack, second row, Grateful Dead; Me, orange tee shirt." They'd be these weird, lovelorn personals with people trying to meet up with somebody, or odd personals that cost $15. And if you had a professional classified, it was $50 or $60. We were scrappy, we didn't want to pay $50 for a professional ad, so we told the person it was a personal ad and we just wrote Dial-A-Song and the number. It didn't say They Might Be Giants because we didn't want them to make the connection it was a rock band doing it. So on the outgoing message we never mentioned our gigs, it was just the song, which was a very mysterious. It really was enigmatic, you just heard some crazy two minute song from us then it hung up. It was even more mysterious then it probably sounds.

Did projects like Dial-A-Song set the stage for the more offbeat stuff you've worked on?

It is strange how far-flung some of the stuff we've been involved in has gotten. I think we've been very lucky, and the last ten years have been really interesting, seeing how many people in the creative community have reached out to us to collaborate. It's just very flattering when people have grown up with the band and we're like, their dream collabo. It's like very flattering.

Since there's new generations of TMBG fans who grow up with the kids' albums and transition to the "adult" ones, does that mean you'll be touring 'til you're both 150 years old just to keep up?

Well, I feel like I'm 150 already, so I can tell you yes. You know, it's very strange to be in the kind of band that we're in and yet also be considered kid-friendly, because I feel like we've spent our entire lives playing bars for drunks. There's nothing about our sensibility that's that nice.

But you know, we're normal, we are nice people, and the kid's stuff has been very warmly received. There are whole families of They Might Be Giants fans and it's exciting to see. I feel like we have our own little cultural hothouse where we've developed our own little audience that transcends age and time.