When I called John Flansburgh mid-morning a few days after Christmas, he was fresh off a flight from Los Angeles to New York the day before, his cat was ill, and his a.m. jolt of coffee was spilling across his kitchen. "This might be a low-key interview," he playfully confessed. If anyone could be excused a decaffeinated interview, it would be the guitar-playing John of influential Brooklyn band They Might Be Giants. Flansburgh had spent the last few days loitering in airports between flights and was now staring down the barrel of back-to-back New Year's Eve shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the US leg of a looming world tour, the release of his outfit's aptly titled 20th studio album (I Like Fun), and a 2018 re-up on the band's legendary Dial-a-Song project.
But before I could tell him that a dialed-down John would suffice--after all, I was still in my sickbed from a Christmas in quarantine--Flansburgh burst into a handful of lighthearted gripes about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's recent induction selections, almost as though he was determined to finish a conversation with me that he had been having with someone else. "Why doesn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just stop?" he asked. "It's almost inconceivable how there's going to be an all-star jam at the end of the night. It's The Moody Blues, Dire Straits, and Bon Jovi!" In that moment, I began realizing what the next two hours and change would confirm: there's no such thing as a "low-key" John Flansburgh. He's as generous with his time, memory, and enthusiasm as one could ever hope. It's an energy level that at once makes you understand why he and bandmate John Linnell still have some pogo in their steps all these years later. But it also raises the question about how that seemingly bottomless well of get-up-and-go gets refilled--especially when the damn coffee leaks all over the kitchen.
Maybe it's because our favorite Particle Men remain as spirited and youthful as ever that we sometimes forget all that They Might Be Giants have done and seen over the course of nearly 40 years together. They were an indie band from Brooklyn before that was a "thing," became music video pioneers on a pop-infatuated MTV while armed with only guitar, accordion, drum machine, and tape, and have the found common ground between music and technology from the archaic days of Dial-a-Song right up to the slightly less archaic days of dial-up Internet. To speak to Flansburgh, it's all been a beautiful mess of blood, sweat, and wrong ideas gone right.
Humility with a puddle of coffee. Just how we like it.
We literally drove into Brooklyn at the same time to move into the same apartment building. In 1981, for lack of a better term, it was the height of the Fort Apache moment. There was a huge amount of flight out of the outer boroughs of New York. There were a lot of abandoned buildings. We lived on a block in Brooklyn that on paper you'd think would be a beautiful place, but one-third of the buildings were shuttered. It looked like East Berlin after the war. Landlords were routinely burning down apartment buildings to evacuate them and save money. It was that kind of downward spiral of a neighborhood.
I came to New York to finish up art school at Pratt, and John was in a skinny-tie punk band (The Mundanes) ostensibly coming to New York to get signed. The Mundanes were a real band, and They Might Be Giants were...I think anytime you start a band, you have to calibrate yourself against what exists in the world, and it was daunting that John was already a member of a band that had gigs, a PA, a lighting system, and real prospects. What we were doing together just seemed kinda like a lost cause.
They Might Be Giants was really just an extension of our friendship and a creative outlet for the kinds of conversations we would have and the things we were interested in. It came about very organically. There were a lot of conversations and pie-in-the-sky ideas about what a band could be kicking around as we were forming. Everything seemed abstract. We certainly weren't ever thinking about making a record or having any career to speak of at all. It was always, "What if a band was…" It was always wide-open, abstract thinking.
While all these buildings were getting shuttered, people were leaving town, and subway cars were getting covered in graffiti, all the young people of New York were buying phone machines, which previously had been reserved for actors or people with very itinerant lifestyles. Then these consumer phone recording devices came out, and it immediately reminded me of Dial-a-Prayer in Massachusetts, which was something the Boston Catholic Archdiocese had started so that very observant homebound or ill Catholics wouldn't miss their daily prayers. So, when I saw these phone machines, I realized that you could record on that device and have individual people call and hear a song. At the time, it just seemed like another bad idea.
Later, John was working as a bike messenger and had broken his wrist, and I was graduating from Pratt. We had to move out of the apartment we had shared together, and I moved into this terrible apartment in Bed-Stuy that was actually run by the pot dealers who lived there, and they were as unenthusiastic to see me at the door with my moving boxes as you could imagine. So, I went off to my job, and when I returned, everything I owned was gone. Oh, actually, the one thing they did not take was my four-track tape recorder because it was too heavy. In fact, if they had taken it, we probably would have never been able to regroup. But those setbacks basically meant we weren't going to play any shows, though I do think we played a gig at CBGB with John's hand in a cast. I think that happened.
So, I had to find another apartment, and the whole notion of doing the Dial-a-Song project was to keep the momentum going, which is a really funny idea because I think we were drawing about 35 people at the time. So, we bought a phone machine and just started putting up little posters around the East Village, and people started calling up, and it started becoming its own stand-alone phenomenon.
Early on, callers were able to leave messages. Any memorable ones?
The one that always sticks out in my mind is when a friend we had lived with in Park Slope called up and did this very, very effective impression of Robert Christgau, something like: "Hello, They Might Be Giants. This is Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, and I just want to say that your band stinks, and I'm going to do everything in my power…" And it was extremely deadpan and very, very cold. The first time I listened to it I was pretty positive it was real, and I thought, "Wow, how much evil is there in the world that a rock critic would take time out of his day to call you up, tell you he hated you, and promise to destroy your career."
Also, at least one woman, and probably more in New York City, took down the seven-digit number and used it as a way to blow off unwanted suitors, so we would get messages like, "Hey, Sarah. We met the other night. I thought it was pretty cool...Wow, pretty weird message, but, hey, give me a call."
What is it about Dial-a-Song that still kinda tickles you guys? You're bringing it back in 2018.
In a strange way, everything has sort of changed and then changed back. Through the '90s and the '00s, we kept doing Dial-a-Song, even though we were making albums. At a certain point, it sort of seemed like this useless extra thing, and we didn't want to stop it because people might think we sold out or got lazy. And it kinda fell off, but then as social media has kinda taken over the world, we noticed that things that happen this week are much more important than things that happened this month and certainly more important than things that happened this year.
When you're working on a record for years, it's very weird to come out with an album and then have people say, "Alright, so what's next for you guys?" But that's the way of the world. In a way, the Dial-a-Song project is now answering the question of how to keep introducing ourselves to our audience and just having people be able to experience the band in an ongoing way. Not to sound too crunchy granola about it, but one of the things I like is that everyone who was curious about the band got to experience this journey with us.
It must have been both fascinating and daunting trying to break into the NYC music scene in the '80s. Where did a band with an accordion, drum machine, tape, and big stick fit into that scene?
It was a really intense time in music. Things were moving very quickly in terms of styles of music. It was not that much after math rock and goth and prog rock and that California '70s cocaine-fueled stuff, so all of that stuff was very much on people's minds. And, of course, the breakout point of punk rock in '77. Everyone was just sorting things out after that. When we arrived in New York, it was at the height of No Wave, which is the asterisk on the end of the New York music scene. Unlike the initial punk rock stuff and the New Wave bands that followed, the No Wave movement brought no breakout acts and was sort of universally loathed. It was this very almost performance-based kind of music, very screamy. And that was the future as we were starting. There was something very dystopian about the reality of New York in the early '80s that is very difficult to explain without photographs.
When we arrived in New York in '81, I was doing home recordings with a four-track tape recorder that I had, and John was playing on some of those recordings. We did one show in the summer of '82 outdoors at a Sandinista festival where we played a bunch of songs accompanied by tape as just a duo. John was playing organ; I was playing electric guitar. One person could do the rhythm part and one the melody, and it's very complete sounding. Drum machines were just emerging technology at that point. Because we worked with a drum machine and pre-recorded tape, everything took a lot of preparation. There'd be a recording of a Moog synthesizer and a drum part that we'd have to be completely in sync with. So, nothing was done on the fly, and there was no way to stop anything. That was our first show. Just putting all of that together was really the beginning of our permanent mode: We need to write more songs. We've been needing to write more songs for 35 years, which is a very manic, self-imposed episode. I think we should have a conversation with Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices, though I think he clearly kicks our ass in the He-Man songwriting competition.
We had started playing shows in '83 about once a month, and the East Village Scene was just taking off. That would ultimately be a much more important part of our career trajectory than, say, CBGB. But CBGB was very much the official gatekeeper of the New York rock scene at that time. It seems so surprisingly democratic, but there was so much demand for bands to play there that they set up this very clear structure for bands to march through to get to a weekend gig. There'd be an audition night, and if you passed that, they'd give you a Monday or Tuesday show, and if you brought in a lot of people, you'd get up to a Thursday or Friday or Saturday show. It took the better part of a year to get from audition night to a Thursday night, and if you didn't keep on playing, you'd get pushed back.
It was super fun. New York City is a terrible place to try to get out of. The local scenes in New York explode and implode very, very quickly. We had kind of enjoyed this incredible East Village scene that had really come to a peak in '85. But there were also a half-dozen or more nightclubs that were doing insane business--hundreds of people from all over the New York area pouring into the East Village to see these crazy nightclubs, with the Pyramid Club being the biggest one. Because there was this huge, local scene, and we were part of it, we were really plugged into it. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
These clubs were very different than previous ones. They only wanted original acts. It was very important that what you were doing was absolutely original. They were very focused on performance art and things that were very sensational. There was a lot of drug-oriented art; there was a lot of transgressive stuff, a lot of transvestite acts, and things that were never going to be able to be televised.
We made our first album kinda fueled by this local phenomenon--this thing happening in New York that had an audience. So, we came to the attention of this very smart and ambitious, young man named Adam Bernstein. He was working at Nickelodeon and wanted to get into video direction. MTV was only a couple years old, but it was already fully dominant on the pop charts. MTV was kind of like a soap opera. It seemed like it was in the shape and style of rock and roll, but it had no sense of humor or proportion. In the same way that nobody ever tells a natural joke in a soap opera, there are more belly laughs in a real emergency room. On MTV, all the established acts were so afraid of looking silly and breaking their very-well-crafted images that it was very leaden and pompous. John and I were as pretentious as anybody about what we were doing, but we didn't care about our personas or personal images at all. It wasn't about our faces.
We went out to the New York Pavilion at the now-abandoned World's Fair site in Queens and made the video with Adam. It was already the second video off the album, and the first had only done okay, so we weren't thinking that we were going to crush it. The album had come out and been out for a few months, and in many ways, it seemed very possible this video could've been the last thing we ever did, which is a really strange idea. It got picked up by MTV, and people responded to it immediately. It was something that went into rotation simply on its own merit. It's hard to explain how unusual that was in 1987. Nothing went into rotation on its own merit. There was no such thing as just playing something because it was really good. That's not how radio stations or MTV worked. We had exactly zero money behind us, and yet there it was, getting played on MTV like it was a real video from a real band. And things changed in very short order after that. It turned us into a national act. We could actually tour and play in clubs all around the country. It was scrappy--piling in a van and sleeping on people's floors--but it pushed us out there. We went from being a very popular local band to being a very unpopular national band.
It changed everything. The success of that record gave us the career that would ultimately sustain us until now. It was a platinum record. There were songs that charted in the UK. The success of Flood was due to having this Saturn V rocket of the Warner Bros. distribution company latched to our backs, and that was no small thing. But we made a record that felt really special in its moment. We weren't too far ahead of our audience...I felt like it was all good, which is so strange. We had many showdowns with the record company, and when you read interviews with people who have been in a band a long time, they always talk about these things, and I don't think that people realize how pointlessly self-aggrandizing they can sound. We certainly had those types of odd conversations, but I do have to say that we felt the record company was very much on our side and was trying to figure out how to crack the code at the highest level. They were in the business of making hit records. The only reason you're on Elektra is to have a hit. So, how to figure out how to have a hit for They Might Be Giants, just as an idea, kinda hurts your head. It's just not necessarily a natural thing. I wanna say I'm grateful to all those people who worked so hard on that project.
And to be perfectly honest, I felt like our side was winning. It was a very corporate moment in music. This was very pre-grunge. The only trend of the '80s was that recording artists got prettier and prettier and lamer and lamer. The rock video thing only made it more complicated for regular people to make music and contribute to the pop music scene. When looks didn't count, successful musicians got pretty darn ugly. The '70s was a period when you didn't even know what a lot of people making records looked like. But if you did, you'd find out pretty fast that they looked a lot more earthbound than fashion models.
It was a really big challenge making records that sounded unique with a full band. When we were working with drum machines and samplers, we thought the ideas we had were super original and the tools we were working with were just the tools we were working with. Of course, it was much more in reverse. The tools that we were working with were really unorthodox and made really strange recordings almost automatically. That was something we weren't really aware of when we were working that way.
When we made recordings with a full band, all of a sudden it sounded kinda like other bands. And that was distressing to me. Again, we were still in this very high-stakes environment with Elektra where they're trying to figure out how what we're doing is going to fit in on the radio, and all of a sudden, one of our secret weapons, which was working with this very unusual recording setup, was being directly altered to a much safer sound. I think there are a lot of great songs on John Henry, but the actual process of making it and the sounds on it are...it's probably the only album we've made that actively frustrated me.
Did fans actually boycott or resist the switch from a duo to a full backing band?
There was zero resistance from our live audience to having a live band. The second we went to having a live band, our shows went from seeming like concert presentations, where everyone was sitting down with their fingers on their chins, to full-out, stage-diving, moshing, party celebrations. The energy of our audience's response just went through the ceiling, and that was actually a change that happened in 1992. We did a world tour as a duo on the Flood album--almost 200 shows--and never got the response we did once we had a full band. Playing live music at insane volumes...it was just nonstop dancing.
I haven't learned a lot, but I have learned there is a big difference between the front row and the back row. The front row's perception of what things mean and why things happen in a band can be very, very off, and things just become predetermined as facts. It's just part of the myth-making of being in a band. The truth is two things happened at the same time when we got a live band: our records sounded kinda safer, and our live show became really fun. And the idea that two things are happening at the same time can be hard sometimes for people to take in. But it was clear to me that we were never going to go back to our previous format after we got with a live band. But we did get back to working with drum machines and samples and work that way to this day.
Could you even go back to the old way of performing at this point?
We actually played one show as a duo in November of 2015, a set circa 1985. And it was really weird. It was fun, but circling back...The thing about playing as a duo was we really firmly planted our feet in that idea. We were committed. We were a duo in the way that AC/DC doesn't do fade-outs. We were like, "This is who we are: guitar, accordion, bass synth, drum machine. That's what we do." It was a totally willful act to thinking there was no shortcoming to that format. And people would come and see our show and wonder if we were for real. The format itself was a huge governor on a lot of people's experience with the band. Either they thought we were fake or incredibly weak. It just didn't have any power. But I loved it. I thought it was real.
We were leaving rehearsal at 11 o'clock at night once, and I was in the front lounge with the security guard. He was just changing channels on the television, and it literally went from a rerun of Malcolm in the Middle to The Daily Show to a rerun of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (who's watching at 11 o'clock at night, I have no idea) to an ad for Dr. Pepper or Dunkin' Donuts we'd done. It was like, "Click...us, us, us, us," and part of me thought this was amazing, but I also thought about what it would be like to be, say, a sideman in a Motown band. It's an extremely invisible thing to do. Nobody knows. In a way, it's kinda fun. We're definitely in the culture, but it's under the cloak of night.
We were in a very weird transitional moment. It really was the only time where it was unclear what the future of the band was going to be. We were just really broke. We couldn't figure out how to make a profit by being on the road, and we thought of this as an experiment. We figured we'd only be making one kids' record, and we wanted it to be very special. Although we have a reputation for having educational material in our songs, our ambitions were kind of to push more absurd Dr. Seuss impulses. It made it kind of a psychedelic record for kids.
I think it came down to good timing. I was recently watching a Portlandia episode about a children's rock artist--based on The Wiggles or something. There's this hipster dad thing that's a big part of kinder-rock. There are a lot of regional acts, some of them doing really top-quality stuff. It's like a folk scene. But that idea was just starting when we did No!. And, of course, it's now blown up into its own component of indie music. And watching that Portlandia episode, I realized this was a world now. You could make fun of this idea, and it's funny to think back to a time when this was a brand-new idea.
Did writing for children teach you anything about songwriting in general?
It was very important to us that we kept to our personal production standards. When you're making a kids' album, if you tell anyone, you get into a lot of conversations about how kids like things like dinosaurs. If you get beyond that, they'll tell you, "That's great because it doesn't even have to be good." And that made us feel so weird that it turned into a passion project for us to make something of the highest quality. If it's going to be something that's part of somebody's childhood, then it can be something that echoes a long time. Everybody wants their record to be good, but we really invested a lot of energy into it.
The truth is there's a whole ton of 20-year-olds in the front rows of our shows, and that record was their introduction to us. We're their guilty pleasure. We're the act they didn't give up on. That's a very flattering place to be. I feel we're very fortunate to have been able to hold on to an audience.
Instead of just shouting out the city you were playing each night, you wrote a brand-new song inspired by and dedicated to each venue you played on that tour. How'd that unique project come about?
I don't know why we did the Venue Songs project. I think it was just a very stray conversation in a rehearsal hall where somebody noticed we were doing the same tour we had done a year and a half ago. We were playing all the same places, virtually in the same routing. So, we thought if we cooked up a new song during soundcheck for each venue, it would make the show that much more exciting. So, we set about doing that. Some of them--maybe a half-dozen of them--are actually worth listening to again. The "Mr. Smalls" one might actually be the best one. The Hollywood one is pretty good, too.
The weird thing about the process is that we would cook up the arrangements for the songs onstage and then proceed to go off and have dinner and get ready for the real show, and by the time we were ready to hit the stage again, we would have to play the song at the top of the show because if we didn't, we'd never remember it. So, right before we went on, we'd listen back to the soundtrack recording a couple times. It just seems like a mistake now. We really gilded the lily by having John Hodgman do all the narrations and making the videos. It was the beginning of the YouTube moment, and it seemed like doing visuals was such a big part of people even hearing stuff. But it's a very lighthearted thing. I have no idea how much interest it is except to people who went to Richard's on Richards or Mr. Smalls.
Everything we do as a band is scheduled. I've got a calendar of scheduled things in front of me that runs to December 2018. But the weird thing about a calendar is there's no place that says something like "John and John Writing Songs." Consequently, we can often be entering the studio extremely well prepared or not so well prepared. One thing that we have gotten better at--and a lot of this is due to doing commercial work--is working quickly. Our confidence level in the recording studio is much, much higher than it was when we started at home all those years ago making demos and taking these very fragile ideas and committing them to tape.
We have a much bigger skill set than when we started, but our ambitions and standards are kinda the same. I'm looking at the 15 songs on this album [I Like Fun] and thinking, "Yeah, this new record's really solid." I'm really proud of how it came together. It's a good combination of very strange songs and just some good pop songs. But I'm probably as nervous as I am proud. The challenge of writing songs...there's just so much unlimited potential. But I think we're covering some original territory in songwriting, and I think it's worthwhile.
Actually, I think this record is a very good calling card for what we do. People ask us what a good starting point is [for getting into They Might Be Giants], and I think this album has a really good range of things. A really healthy, unusually wide set of ideas. And for the kind of band that we are, that's sort of what you're looking for. We're trying to create a universe of our own, and I think this album does a good job of setting out a bunch of different flags.
You're heading out on a world tour in a couple weeks. What's life's wisdom taught you about touring?
The best venues are the places that are some percentage shitty. If you're playing at the opera house or arts center where everything is nice, it's just gonna be a bad gig. Playing in a place that's slightly run down, lived in--those are the places that have the energy. The places that do 200 shows a year. Those are the places you wanna play. Basically, the places that smell a little bad. Those are going to be the good gigs. That's where the real stuff happens.
Are there any new songs you're dying to play live?
There's "I Left My Body", which is such a simple song, but it's really fun to play. It's a very hypnotic, throbby song. It's just really fun to dig in on. And then there's "I Like Fun", this really left-field song that we're doing with our trumpet player, Curt Ramm, who's coming out with us. We've done a lot of shows with him in New York, but we've never been able to afford to take him on tour. Until now, he's been working with Springsteen. I think it's probably fair to say that Bruce Springsteen pays a little better than They Might Be Giants. So, we've added him to our live lineup, and it's this incredible amplifier to what we do. There are all these songs in our repertoire that have really big trumpet moments--"Doctor Worm", "Your Racist Friend", "Whistling in the Dark"--and one of them is the title track, "I Like Fun", and it's very majestic, very unexpected, and having that kind of instrumentation onstage makes it so different than your average, cookie-cutter rock show.