Parallel Universe

The Mercury, May 2, 2013
by Kane Young

Two-time Grammy-winning Brooklyn band They Might Be Giants want to get under your skin -- and challenge your preconceptions of what an "album" should be -- with their new record Nanobots.

"Nanobots is basically 14 pretty legitimate, full-length songs, accompanied by 11 crazy jingles for unreasonable ideas," TMBG guitarist John Flansburgh explained.

"The song sequence is unexpected and unpredictable. One of the things that seems strangely conservative to me about the way albums are strung together is that so often it's just one three-minute song followed by another three-minute song.

"But I think it's not always important that every piece of music have an intro and an outro and a bridge. We're trying to wrangle the people with short attention spans into the world of enjoying a good album listening experience.

"I think it's OK to mess with the form of the album. It's 2013, I don't think there's any reason to hold back."

But Flansburgh and TMBG partner John Linnell (keyboards, accordion) have never been ones to hold back, flaunting convention with their experimental instrumentation, twisted lyrics, sly humour and absurd stage props since emerging from Brooklyn in the early 1980s.

Over the past decade the band have also enjoyed what Flansburgh described as a "parallel career", making music aimed at children. Their 2002 album No! was supposed to be a one-off foray into the world of kids' music, but soon became too successful not to follow up -- much to Flansburgh's surprise.

"I don't have kids, so I never listen to kids' music," he said.

"The first record sold 150,000 copies in six months, so obviously the world was fairly hungry for something of a different quality.

"We take on the writing challenge in a very full-on way. In the children's music industry there's a tendency to think you can get away with stuff, but I'm happy to report that we have taken the exact opposite track -- we really work on our kids' albums just as hard as our adult albums.

"It's a very interesting challenge writing for kids, because you have to spark their imagination in a much more immediate way. They don't have cultural reference points. They don't have preconceived notions about what they're listening to, and that makes them an amazingly open audience to be writing for."

Linnell and Flansburgh will be performing for a slightly different audience this month when they return to headline their first Australian shows since 2001.

Flansburgh said that with so much material to choose from, settling on a set list was an almost mathematical process.

"There's kind of an arithmetic or geometry to it," he said.

"Our songs are short, so we have to pace the show so it feels cohesive. We'll often segue from one to another -- we're not going to wait to have applause after every two-and-a-half-minute-long song.

"It's not a bad strategy to think in terms of sets of songs, rather than play a song, stop, bask in the applause, and start again."

TMBG's shows are selling out across the country, with more dates being scheduled to cater for demand. A Tasmanian gig was added on the recommendation of the band's stage manager, who visited Hobart with David Byrne and St Vincent earlier this year.

"We haven't been to Australia in 10 years, and I never would have dreamed in a million years that upon returning we'd get this kind of response," Flansburgh said.

"It seems that in our absentia we have somehow grown in stature in Australia. We toured there all through the '90s and we felt a tremendous affinity to it.

"There's something very direct about the way Australians take in what we're doing. We appreciate being understood, and I think the audience on your side of the planet seems to get where we're coming from."