It’s 10 a.m. on Thursday morning and John Flansburgh is just waking up from a long night. When the Review calls him, he’s not quite ready for the interview.
“Do you mind calling me back in five minutes while I get this coffee going?” said Flansburgh, who, along with John Linnell, makes up the perdurable songwriting duo of They Might Be Giants?—?a band that has consistently (and you could almost also say surreptitiously) made records for more than 35 years without ever reaching higher than C-list fame, and that’s probably being generous. In fact, they’ve made 20 of them now and filled a great deal of venues across the planet in the process. Upon fixing himself up a brew, Flansburgh eventually gets back on the phone with SPR to promote his band’s upcoming New Year’s Eve performance at the Theater of Living Arts on South Street. During the interview, Flansburgh discusses TMBG’s new album, South Street’s legendary Repo Records, and other things the Brooklyn-native likes about Philadelphia.
How’s your coffee taste?
It’s, uh, strong. I think I overdid it, but it’s fine. It’s working out great.
Good to hear. So, you guys just released your 20th full-length album, I Like Fun. That’s a lot. In an era where rock and roll bands flame out after a few albums, how does it feel to maintain a core fan base and continue to win over new fans on a consistent basis for more than 35 years?
It’s OK. I think the thing that’s sort of a stumper about it is that you can point to probably a dozen things that are all equally crucial to carrying on. People say “how do you keep going after all this time?” You know, we really haven’t checked into rehab and we haven’t had any [drama]?—?there was even an Onion article about how there was no drama in They Might Be Giants’ career and it’s true. It’s kind of odd. I think that in some ways we just kind of do the work and we just kind of put the work first. We’ve been very lucky on a lot of different levels over the years, and I think that helps quite a bit. It’s also odd; we haven’t had something that’s been so overwhelmingly successful that it’s put a sell by date on us as well. That’s probably the subtler thing that happens. I mean, basically we just work.
I imagine that involves a lot of coffee.
It does involve a lot of coffee actually. I mean, in a lot of ways I think the birth of They Might Be Giants is in a cup of coffee. I think we’re probably?—?you know, coffee has made us braver, you know? Bolder.
What makes this album different than the others?
I’m not sure how different it is than other albums. I mean, in some ways I think there might be a little bit more dystopian kind of bleakness, but how that really hits the ear of the listener is hard to quantify. I think making an album in the Trump era has this?—?you know, something is going to be kind of baked in there that’s different than any of the other times.
So that perfectly segues into my next question: One of the songs off the new album that immediately caught my eye?—?or I guess my ear?—?was “An Insult to the Fact Checkers.” Can you talk about what that song’s about? My guess is that it’s political.
I think just the title makes it sound like it’s going to be some rant against the Trump administration, but in fact it’s really about a friendship gone awry. It’s much more basic than anything beyond that. When you hear the term “fact checkers” I just think you automatically think of Trump, who’s made fact checking so popular, but no it’s just a good old “I Hate You” rock song. It’s unrelated in spite of what the YouTube comments might say.
So it still sort of fits the dystopian theme, I see.
Yeah, it’s?—?well, there’s an array of emotions on the record. But no, it’s about betrayal. It’s more straightforward than a topical song would be.
So you guys have played in Philadelphia a bunch of times over the years. What are some of your fondest memories of playing here?
The nice thing about Philadelphia is that it’s close enough that we actually can have a chance to kind of putter around. There’s a couple vinyl record stores that I enjoy there. One of them just moved.
Yeah. It didn’t move very far, but it’s incredibly close to the venue, so it’s great for me. But there’s the Mummers parade. We played New Year’s Eve in Philadelphia at least once before. And we played the Mummers parade…
You played the Mummers parade?
No, no, no, we saw the Mummers parade after we played the next morning. Excuse me. And I’ve been to the?—?what is that crazy museum of medical oddities?
The Mütter Museum?
Yeah. How do you say it?
The correct way to pronounce it is “Myooter” Museum.
That’s funny that there’s the Mummers Parade and the Mütter Museum. They are definitely stored into the exact same place in the hard drive of my mind. So it’s interesting, like, the colorful stuff of Philadelphia. And to be perfectly honest, I enjoy a cheesesteak as well. So it’s all nice and comforting and familiar. And it’s a great crowd as well. It’s a great town for us.
OK, last question: New Year’s Eve is a pretty hot night for live music this year. Why should Philadelphians spend their night with They Might Be Giants?
Because every show is a special performance. I guarantee you that things will happen at New Year’s at our show that will never happen again.
Nice. Well that’s all the questions I had!
Well thank you for your time! And thanks for the exposure.
No problem! Enjoy your coffee.
Alright have a good morning.