They Might Be Giants Interview

Hybrid Magazine, 2002
by Roxanne Bogucka

As I ascended the stairs to the mezzanine of the Paramount Theater, an ornate, old-style movie palace, it felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. I was on my way to interview my favorite band, my daughter's favorite band, everybody's favorite band, They Might Be Giants.

John Flansburgh, hi. Nice to meet you.

JF: Hey, nice to meet you.

Congratulations on your Grammy. I understand y'all just got a Grammy.

JF: Yeah, yeah we just got a Grammy in L.A. It was really exciting.

Did you ever imagine you would be there for Malcolm In The Middle theme?

JF: Oh absolutely not. The whole thing was a big surprise. We didn't even know we were up for it. There's a whole prenomination process that we didn't know we were up for, so the whole thing has been a kind of delightful surprise.

We've been joined by John Linnell. Greetings.

JL: Hi.

Hi. So. Heisenberg said that you can't help but change what's going on when you observe it. The person being observed must be changed, so how was the creative process for Mink Car changed by having documentary cameras rolling?

JL: Well we didn't see any of it. I think the thing was, none of this movie was available for us to see until it was done, so it didn't affect Mink Car at all. It was just a, kind of a process of getting over the fact that there were cameras. We never knew what he had in mind.

But I mean with the cameras there, did they constrain the things or the types of discussions that might have gone on creatively?

JF: Oh sure. I mean, I think. You just have much more blunt conversations when there aren't cameras rolling. It's just a natural thing. I think if AJ had just camped out with us for a year, by the end of it, it would've been like "An American Family."

JL: Right.

JF: But the fact that he was sort of coming and going, it was never something that we got used to, in what people think is like the true documentary sense of it. And also it didn't really affect our, most of our creative process we have to do very much in private. So like the second there's somebody else there, a lot of the process just stops.

Okay, one of the things, my family–-I've raised my children on They Might Be Giants music–

JL: Wow!

–-so you have some fans who have come up over the past few years. One of the comments that we always make is that this music is like the sonic equivalent of a Max Fleischer cartoon for us.

JF: Oh, how interesting.

And one of the things that you always wonder-–we wonder when we watch Max Fleischer cartoons is, what are they smoking? So we were wondering if you could comment on your inspirations.

JF: Well, the movie really hones in on the coffee thing. I think the reality is that we-–

JL: We're uninteresting in reality. We've never really had a sort of particular illicit drug. I mean that hasn't been a thing that... it doesn't affect our music. Yeah. Exactly.

By any chance are you Too Much Coffee Man fans?

JF: Oh, I don't know Too Much Coffee Man.

It's a comic by Shannon Wheeler.

JF: No, I don't know it.

Guy with a big cup of coffee, gigantic cup of coffee on top of his head.

JF: Yeah, well I think for us, the process of writing songs more often than not begins with a very large cup of coffee. And where it goes from there changes from time to time.

There's a really large public education component to a lot of your songs I've noticed. Things like "Mammal" or "The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas," or "James K. Polk" or "Meet James Ensor," or something like that. Which actually sent my kids out to read about James Ensor, so thank you very much for that. But how does that come about, this public education aspect? Is it serendipitous–-you were reading about James Ensor? Or did you think, "James Ensor! Let's go do some research."

JF: Sometimes... we had this discussion early on about what kind of subjects are interesting, because they just don't get tackled in songs too much. And not because we were out to educate people in particular. I think if, I think one of the things, that seems compelling about writing a song like that–-and we haven't written a lot of those kind of songs, there's just a few, but people really notice those ones–-the thing is that they're songs about something nobody actually wants to know about. I think that's the thing that makes it interesting. The song, the tune is really catchy, and when you hear a song, inevitably, for some weird reason you memorize the words, if you hear it enough times. Because the tune gets it into your head. It kind of infects you. So you end up learning all this stuff that you're not actually interested in. And that I think was one of the things that seemed funny about writing that kind of song.

So according to your site, you're going to maybe work on a project for children called No!. So are you going to indoctrinate our youth?

JF: Yeah, it's a, we made a children's record. It's actually, it has virtually no educational material. It's pretty much, it's more of a Dark Side Of The Moon for children. There's no, it contains no educational material...

JL: Yeah.

JF: Oh well there's a song, there's a cover from a New York City, like a public service commercial from the sixties called "In The Middle," which the main refrain is "don't cross the street in the middle of the block," which is certainly a good piece of information for the wee ones. But it's, it was just an idea that... seemed like we were at a point in our career where we could make such a bold departure and not have it be misinterpreted as entering the world of children's entertainment in a primary way.

JL: Yeah, I think we didn't want people to get confused about what the intention of those other songs were. Like, they were not, there wasn't some pragmatic idea. It was much more of a experimental idea to write a biography of somebody like that.

So how long might you be giants?

JF: Our doctors give us 25 years.

And what would you be doing if you were not giants?

JF: I think I'd probably be a graphic designer. That's what I did before.

And you worked on children's books?

JF: Yeah, I worked for a children's, I worked in publishing primarily, just like regular. I worked for textbook publishing, and then I ended up in magazines. And so graphic design. It would be interesting now because I worked in a lot of really big places that have all been, with the introduction of the computer, all the staffs have been whittled down to tiny crews. So I'd be on a computer or I'd be on welfare.

And Mr. Linnell?

JL: Well I think we'd probably both be doing what it took to make a living, but I think the key thing was kind of suggested in the film. That we started doing this for pleasure a long time ago, and I'd like to think that we'd still have time, amongst whatever else we were doing to just goof off and make up stuff. Come up with funny ideas. That, to me, is something you don't have to get paid to do it.