It might sound like an insult to call a band's sound cartoonish, but in the case of They Might Be Giants, it's really not. I first encountered their music on the FOX cartoon show Tiny Toon Adventures in a kind of music video where the character Plucky Duck acts out the song "Particle Man," getting pummeled by a variety of heavily-muscled of the professional wrestler-meets-comic book superhero type. The band's wry, funny lyrics mesh with the arch musical sensibilities of the two core members, John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- organ, accordion and drum machine have always figured prominently in their sound -- and create something that's more adult than it seems, in the way that the adventures of cartoon ducks and bunnies appeal to kids' tastes while giving the parents providing the suggested supervision a laugh. In advance of tonight's New Year's Eve extravaganza at the TLA -- two shows, one at 7:30 and one at 11:30 -- the band's two Johns spoke with me in the balcony of the venerable South Street institution, reminiscing about on-stage collisions, yearning for free coffee and donuts, and reaping the rewards of a certain much-lauded music award.
You started out your career in 1983. You've seen a lot of bands come and go in 25 years in indie and alternative rock...
JL: Those bands were no good!
What's the secret to your longevity?
JF: That's a really good question. We started the band when we were, like, 23, basically, and being 23 is really different than being 18.
You'd been to college, you'd seen the world a little bit. . .
JL: I would guess that part of it was that we didn't have an expectation of a particular kind of success. We didn't have a specific goal in mind. We had an idea of what we were doing, a sense of the purpose of the band, but we didn't have this thing like "One day, we're gonna blah-blah-blah..." And since we didn't define it, we've never really reached that point. Really, what motivates the band is this compulsion to write songs and record them and sing them in front of people, and there's not an end to that. There's not some point where we go, "Well" (dusts hands) "mission accomplished."
JF: And we certainly really didn't start the band to get famous or get signed or get rich, or a lot of those things. For a lot of people doing music, it's the means to an end. I don't mean to self-aggrandize by comparing ourselves to another band, but the sense of purpose that a band like Fugazi puts out just in their mission statement, I think when we started, even though we didn't make big public declarations of where we were at spiritually and culturally with what we were doing, I think we actually had a very clear notion of what was worth doing and what wasn't worth doing, and it spared us a lot of really kind of jive experiences. We barely ever opened for people, which is a very normal track to take. If you want your band to be known, opening for a band that's ten times bigger than you is a pretty tried-and-true way to do it. But I think, since pretty early on, what we were doing had a self-selected audience.
JL: Also, I think we're emotionally fragile about playing in front of a crowd that's not our own. It's really demoralizing to open for a band where their audience is pretty much waiting for you to stop playing and leave.
JF: I think if we had thicker skin, we could go through it and be working that 5 or 10 percent of the audience that found it interesting. You have to kind of project into it to think that what you're doing is productive. But opening for other bands is really productive.
JL: You broaden your scene very much.
JF: We just decided early on not to do that in a very definitive way, and ultimately I think it did spare us from what might have been a very confusing time.
JL: Because we didn't burn out. That's one major thing.
JF: And y'know, playing for your own audience is... it doesn't matter if there's 50 people or 5,000 people, if they're all there to see you, it's gonna be pretty cool. You're going to feel rewarded for your effort. Doing your own show and having your own crowd is a great thing.
Why Philly for this big splashy gig? Why not Brooklyn? Or Boston -- I know you're both from there.
JF: Well, we're playing every month in New York City.
JL: We've actually done New Years shows all over the place, in San Francisco and New York City. There's a long list, but we've done a couple in Philly.
JF: And this is where I accidentally hit Tony Maimone in the face with my guitar, and he's got a scar on his cheek from that show.
That was a New Year's show?
JF: That was a New Year's show at the TLA. It was about ten years ago, and I really feel bad about that, but he was a total trooper about it.
JL: It wasn't the only scar on his face either.
JF: He's a tough guy. He was just like, "It's cool."
So what's been your experience with Philly audiences? Are "your people" here?
JF: Oh, sure! I think one of the secret weapons in our repertoire of responses to the general population is that we treat groups of strangers with the respect that you should treat a group of strangers.
JL: There's also a good vibe in Philly. Not to diss other cities, but there are particular places where we feel there's a kind of warmth that we get, and it can't be the same people we played to 20 years ago. But it does seem to exist on a continuum with those shows, y'know, the earliest shows we played here at the TLA.
JF: I feel like the first shows we did at the TLA were actually really good shows. I mean, we had actually done kind of bad shows at the Chestnut Cabaret. At shows we played there before, we felt disoriented. Part of the stage was really huge, and we were working as a duo then. . .
JL: It was really diffuse.
JF: Speaking of it not being our show, there was, like, a huge drum set behind us at the Chestnut Cabaret to remind everyone that we didn't have a drummer. So we kind of felt like our show was a temporary work site, whereas even the first time we played here, it really felt like our show. It felt very, very special.
JL: It's a great place when we're on tour, because there's a washer/dryer upstairs. Very important. It feels very kitted out. The neighborhood is great: you have to play in places where there's no food whatsoever to appreciate the abundance of eating choices around here. There's so many things to recommend, and it's not far from home, that's another good thing.
JF: Sort of like the Bowery Ballroom and other vaudeville theaters, jewelbox-stage-size venues, it's perfectly big and perfectly small, which is the best combination. You can see people's faces, but there's a crazy roar coming from the crowd, and that combination is kind of perfect.
A little bit earlier, you mentioned starting out as a duo. You were a duo before it was cool.
JL: And we'll be a duo when it's uncool again!
JF: What about Simon and Garfunkel, man?
Well, they're cool, but there are groups that have come along like the White Stripes or the Black Keys, who are really big now. What advice would you have for duos -- about how to get it done, or about how to cover all your bases?
JL: I think maybe the ones that have held together are the ones that liked each other, because you spend a crazy amount of time together and, like a lot of bands that I like, we've known each other since we were kids, so we don't have to explain stuff to each other. We've gotten past the thing of trying to describe something that's basically indefensible. Maybe the best way of describing the best aspects of what we do is that if you're stuck in the position of trying to defend something that's indefensible, it's over. So the great thing about John and I is that we both like indefensible stuff, but also we understand each other's indefensible ideas very well, so we're past that, and that makes it a more efficient operation.
JF: Maybe this is saying the same thing just in a different way, but if you are in a duo, you have to remember that you're still a team. It's not like everything about the way there's a natural tendency to contrast duos because there are two front people. It's very easy to let the echo chamber of the way people write about the band kind of dissect the band. It's important to remember that it's a group effort and a group project. You see it even with the Beatles. It's like, the Beatles were the Beatles. I like Paul McCartney's solo albums, I like John Lennon's solo albums just fine, but the sum is greater than the parts. Even in a band with outstanding talent, unspeakably great talent as the Beatles, people really knock themselves out trying to pull them apart.
JL: And indeed the Beatles. . .pulled themselves apart, leaving They Might Be Giants the last men standing. . .
JF: This is just going to be transcribed, John.
JL: All the sarcasm and the inflections will not be. . .you can put something in parentheses like, "Linnell is clearly bullshitting at this point."
JF: I just did this interview for a very well-known national. . .well, one of the two national newspapers you can think of, and it was the most out-of-context. . .There was this part where I was talking about the legacy of children's writers, talking about Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss and even, like, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and saying like, "There's no question that that stuff has integrity." And somehow the quote got flipped into being. . ."Reflecting on their own work, Flansburgh says, 'There's no question that our stuff has. . .'" It was really. . .
JL: "No one could question our integrity." Yeesh.
JF: It was just horrifying to me, but that's the risk you take when they don't have a tape recorder.
How has your approach or your style of writing music changed over time?
JL: Well, we've adjusted to the fact that there are these really talented people that we like to work with, to the point where we have, on our Grammy-nominated children's record, we have three songs written by each of other members of TMBG. And the other thing is that we've started allowing producers to completely deconstruct what we're doing. on certain occasions, we have had people produce us where they really do take the songs and the arrangements apart and change everything, and that's something that we never would have permitted in the '80s or even a long way into the '90s. I think we've gotten enough confidence in the ideas that we see collaborating as a great opportunity for us. And plus, we have these great collaborators, and I think that's been a great development for us. We work with the best cats.
You're going to say farewell to 2008 here in Philly. What have been your favorite moments of the year?
JF: I'm really looking forward to 2009, actually. For the very first time in my life, in a number of small ways, I worked as a citizen for the Obama campaign, and we actually did a bunch of benefits for Obama. I also canvassed for him in Pennsylvania, and it was really exciting. I was kind of into him from the very beginning, even when it seemed very hopeless. And usually the person that I'm into doesn't win. So I'm really heartened by the whole thing. The last eight years has really been such a dystopian nightmare for me, personally. . .No, I mean, I think everyone has been disappointed with how things have turned out with the Bush administration, and I'm just super-looking forward to 2009 and getting past all this stuff. And obviously it's going to be a difficult time with the economy and everything, but I'm just super psyched. I wish I was a more optimistic person in an everyday kind of way. . .this whole thing, after Obama won, at some point almost every day, I would cry, because I just couldn't believe it was happening.
JL: It's a very unfamiliar feeling to feel two things: one is that there's this great upwelling of public opinion that you feel a kinship with, and also the feeling of patriotism. I've never been patriotic before, but now I look at the American flag, and I actually feel this, "Oh, that's what you're supposed to feel like when you look at the flag." It's a new sensation.
JF: Didn't Michelle Obama get called out for saying the exact same thing?
JL: I'm right with Michelle.
That's been twisted around so many times, who even knows what she said?
JF: She really said it, though. Now that they've won, I feel I can speak freely, but it's a glorious time for this country. I'm very happy.
How are you handling the Grammy nomination?
JL: Um, shitty. I'm turning into a tyrant -- no.
JF: It's exciting. We actually had the good fortune of winning a Grammy in 2002, for the Malcolm in the Middle theme, and in many ways, it kind of gave us a certain level. . .Well, I don't think people in our audience thought of us any differently, and probably the average rock band thought no differently, and culturally, the Grammys don't necessarily have that much weight. The wonderful thing about winning a Grammy is that it's a huge legitimizer in the world of art-funded things, like if you're going to be playing at the nice theater in. . .Boulder, Colorado, the people booking it can actually justify your existence more easily to the, y'know, board that runs the arts-funded theater. And that has a huge effect on just the quality of our touring lives. We're not just playing at the punk-rock club every single night. We rely on this vehicle for our personal creative satisfaction, but we also pay all our bills this way. It just helped us professionally. It turned a lot of red lights green.
JL: It was significant that the Grammy we got was for a television and the one we've been nominated for is for this Disney children's project, because that's exactly who needs to be motivated. It'd be great to win a Grammy for Best Metal album for our kooky personal stuff. . .
If Jethro Tull can do it. . .
JL: That's right. But I feel like the more practical thing is impressing the people who are in a position to help you. And sadly, my father cannot help my rock career, as much as he's proud of me.
Do you have a lifetime supply of free coffee and donuts from Dunkin Donuts?
JL: My son wanted to know the same thing. He assumed that we could walk into any Dunkin Donuts and get free stuff, and he was disillusioned and crestfallen to find out that they don't even know who they hell we are at Dunkin Donuts.
And so am I.
JL: It's wrong. He was like, "Dad, you should tell them. Tell them."
JF: That would be a really awkward conversation.
JL: He's learning the brutal realities of commerce.
If you were writing it today, who would you match up Particle Man against?
JL: I think Arlen Specter maybe would be a good opponent. He's powerful, but he's got weaknesses. Is he susceptible?
He had cancer -- come on.
Both Johns: He survived.
JL: He totally survived. He survived cancer, and he may have survived Triangle Man.
One last thing: I was living in upstate New York, and I did trivia at a bar every week. And within a couple weeks of each other, your band came up twice. There's always a guess-the-song-by-its-lyrics thing, and it was something from "Birdhouse in Your Soul." And then maybe a month later, it was, "What band played in the recent Dunkin Donuts commercials?" So when the opportunity for the interview came up, I said "Aha!"
JF: When the phenomenon. . .What was the show? Not Who Wants to be a Millionaire. . .what was the other crazy show?
JF: I think one of the writers for Weakest Link, I believe -- or maybe I have this wrong, maybe it was Who Wants to be a Millionaire when it first started out -- clearly somebody was a TMBG fan. But they were inserting TMBG into the show was they were using all these facts that were referenced in songs. It was this crypto-version referencing the band.
JL: It was like how many terms James K. Polk served, and you'd know the answer. Of course, you could also know the answer by studying history.
JF: It was something where at higher levels the questions would tip to topics that were covered in TMBG factual songs. What it really was probably that they were comedy writers who sat down and were saddled with the chore of having to write more academic questions. And they were like "Well, I dunno, but those guys in TMBG have got a song with some facts in it!" It just kept coming up over and over again, and people would make us aware of it. It's a funny kind of background noise in your life. We've also been in the New York Times crossword puzzle a lot as well. It's a funny thing to be in the crossword. To be perfectly honest, I can't even wrap my head around the idea that we're well-known enough.
JL: The point is that we're not well-enough enough that it would be. . .like, they wouldn't have a Beatles song as an answer, because everybody's gonna know it.
JF: Right, but when I think about the people I know who do the crosswords, it seems impossible to me. I would think that nobody would ever get it. It's gotta be reachable in people's spheres of knowledges. It shocks me.
Well, it's like you said before about being on the fringes: from the fringes of rock-and-roll to the fringes of. . .the rest, I guess. It's not a bad spot.
JF: It's a great spot.