Larger than Life: They Might Be Giants on successfully changing

Ithaca Times, October 24, 2018
by Bryan VanCampen

“You’re very crunchy.”

Ah, such are the vagaries of cell phones, trans-Atlantic phone lines and automobiles. (The author is speaking to the artist while driving.) The connection may be crunchy, but it’s good enough to make out what John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants is saying.

If pressed, the author will happily concede that TMBG’s “Flood” is one of the ten greatest albums ever recorded. For a band that had been led by Flansburgh and John Linnell in various combinations since 1982, you may have your own favorite TMBG album.

They Might Be Giants have been touring “the world and elsewhere” to quote Spinal Tap since releasing their 20th album, “I Like Fun,” in January. They’ll make their Ithaca stop on Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre. John Flansburgh spoke to the Ithaca Times about what there is to see in Belgium (where they were at the time), playing with people who are better than you, and his unrepentant addiction to guitar effects pedals.

I read that you’ve had some pretty cool musicians come and play for you.

Our band has always been, for lack of a better word, ringers. When you start taking on musicians in a band, you sort of have the choice of playing with people who can play as well as you, or you can play with people who can play much better than you. You have to sort of defend your ground a little bit more when you’re playing with people who are really virtuosic. I think as a songwriter, it’s a really interesting challenge to try to write for people who are much better players. But right now, we have added Curt Ramm, who’s playing trumpet. He’s done a lot of recordings, and five shows with Bruce Springsteen, and Nile Rodgers and a host of other people. He’s been working for a long time. It’s sort of opened things up; up until now we’ve had a five-piece band that was essentially sort of a rock combo: two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. But with Curt on board, we can do a lot of things. John Linnell is playing the contra alto clarinet a lot in this current show, and that combined with the trumpet just gives all those songs a really unique sound.

I was really struck by the opening piano figure on “Let’s Get This Over With,” the first track of “I Like Fun.”

Well, that’s all John Linnell. We didn’t have to hire out for that. I mean, that’s the flashy fingers of Mr. Linnell.

I really like the new album. Where do you feel like you are in the ongoing process of being in this band?

Well, it’s kind of an evolution and it sort of feels like a manic episode. It’s much more of a piece than I think […] as bands change, as you put out different things, people act as if the changes are the big news. But I think for us, we really just treat it as one big creative project from the very beginning, and it’s been a really interesting challenge, and it certainly endured and found an audience, and that’s been really exciting.

We’ve come up with a way of working that seems flexible enough to invite input and yet concrete enough to keep the session focused. We’ll bring in a pretty realized demo in terms of the song structure. And sometimes it’ll just be a chord progression and a click [track] and vocals, and other times it’ll be some very specific sound that needs to be featured in a recording. We’ll do a little bit of home production, which will often lead to the more usual sounds that you hear on the records. Those kinds of explorations don’t usually happen on the clock, because it just takes too much time. But it’s a good way of working because you have something very solid for everybody to jump on. On occasion we really take hard left turns from the material that we start with. We’ll change the tempos or really move the feel of the song around. But usually we walk into the studio with a pretty good idea of what we’re gonna do. We do a lot of experimenting within the song form, but if we don’t have a song to start with, we’ll wind up staring at the walls.

I’ve been a fan of your guitar sound since I saw you at the State on Oscar night in 1994.

It’s pretty straightforward for me. I play a Telecaster, and in recording studios, it’s usually a Fender amp or a Marshall amp. It’s nothing exceptional. I have a guitar pedal addiction, but the truth is, I find them very inspiring. And a lot of times things will start with pedals, and then I’ll just simplify it. It’s surprising how often I’ll take the pedal out of the picture. I probably owe the pedal a credit on the production, because they are fun.

I have a Vox vibrato pedal that is one of the most unloved. It makes the guitar make this wiggling sound that I think impresses no one but me. But I find it very exciting [laughs]. It has a little bit of a Ventures kind of sound. It’s a very heavy spice, but I think of it as being very me.

There’s a very unusual track on the album: the title track, “I Like Fun” actually was sort of generated […] the spark of this song was this Mellotron sample that Jack Bruce had put together. And the sample library has now been reissued with a bunch of other very unusual Mellotron samples. And it’s basically a couple of octaves of Jack Bruce singing notes, and so the chords that you hear, it’s almost like a Laurie Anderson part. The chords that you hear are actually Jack Bruce of the band Cream singing. I found those samples to be very haunting, and really interesting for the song. But now, when we do it live, that part is just played on the trumpet by Curt, and it’s not like there’s anything missing, like “We have to have the Mellotron.” The song can kind of stand on its own two legs and walk around now. It’s more durable than just a sound.