While I’m surely not the first to discover that the musical duo have no formal training in science and engineering, the impending release of Nanobots, the Brooklyn band’s 16th record, certainly brings up old questions about where precisely the duo gets off singing about those fields of study so frequently. Flansburgh manages to frame the issue in most succinct — and characteristically arcane – manner: “If scientifically minded people are looking for the clearest example of the Peter Principle in the 21st century, it is They Might be Giants being allowed to make an album about science.”
But if the band is “rising to their level of incompetence,” at least they’ve still tried to teach us all a thing or two along the way about Nikola Tesla, self-replicating technology, and Particle Men. With three decades of music under their belts, Wired asked the band — which is currently touring the U.S. — to look back at the more notable science- and technology-themed numbers from their career, from 1985’s “Become a Robot” to the upcoming “Nanobots,” which drops on the eponymous album tomorrow.
“We have a song lot of songs that begin with a noun, and the entire rest of the song wraps around that,” explains Linnell. “Robot is maybe a word that deserves multiple songs. We probably haven’t finished writing robot songs.” It’s a word that founds its way into the band’s musical vocabulary quite early on, in the form of “Become a Robot,” a track that predates the band’s self-titled debut by a year. And while it never made it onto any proper records, it has, not surprisingly, arrived it into fans’ hands, through b-side collections, podcasts and other more questionable channels.
In the years since, the band has apparently softened its views on of our inevitable overlords, moving from “Here’s hoping you don’t / become a robot,” to the joyful tale of a robot army catering to the whims of its young creators. The mellow version that would see release on 2002’s kid-friendly “No!” was, however, a far cry from the song’s hard-rocking origins. “The original version of the song is this impossible, blistering heavy metal thing, and we realized that that might be too overwhelming for anyone, so we did the peaceful electric piano version,” explains Flansburgh.
The song was born out of a jam session in the downtime between Malcolm in the Middle scoring, when the band happened upon a new toy. “The real nitroglycerine is that we had this real primitive vocal-effects processor, the Yahama SBX-90,” the singer continues. “But it made this octavized, harmonized robot voice. You could just sing into it, and it would come back sound that way, which was pretty insane. We just let that drive the song. When you sing into the thing, it’s hard not to go ‘Ro-bot.’”
They’ve released a baker’s dozen of LPs since Flood, but for those weaned on the after-school television of the ‘80s and ‘90s, two tracks off that record that will remain forever burned into our collective brain, thanks to the animated antics of Tiny Toons. The first, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” is a cover of a pop number from the 1950s that, like the once mighty Ottoman Empire, might well have fallen victim to history’s fading, had it not been resurrected by the Brooklyn duo. The second is a song that Linnell says is to molecular biology what Bonnie Tyler’s back catalog is to astronomy.
“It’s a science song the way ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is a science song,” he explains. “It’s taking some terms from the world of semi-popular science and kind of tossing them around. It’s not an information song, but it is a song,” adds Flansburgh. “I’m not denying it’s a song,” counters Linnell.
So. Not a science song, per se (or at least not what the band has taken to calling an “information” song), but all on this conference call can agree, without reservation, that anyone suggesting that it’s not a song is kidding themselves, really.
What manner of song is it, then? Turns out the “Man” is the key to its two word title. “There was one very obvious source for it: the theme for the cartoon version of Spider-Man, which was on TV when we were kids,” said Linnell. “There’s this kind of idea of introducing a bunch of characters that are all just ideas with the noun “man” at the end of them. You just take a word and add ‘-man’ to the end, and that was the impulse.” While Linnell denies Flansburgh’s suggestion that each character has “radioactive blood,” the song can, perhaps, be read as an exploration of what occurs after being bitten by a gamma-bombarded particle, triangle or person.
This one hits pretty close to home, exploring the importance of hair in ways that 2001’s “Bangs” could only dream. “This is one of those songs where it’s a little bit poetic and not exactly clear,” explains Linnell, “but it alludes to this idea that all mammals have hair at some stage in their development, whether it be whales, when they’re embryos, or humans, before they’re bald. And it’s all very elliptical in the way that it’s written. It’s not a science song in the way of actually being information. It was a little more poetic than that.” The poetry represented herein was largely gathered from an encyclopedia entry, according to Linnell. The Apollo 18 track is also notable for its sadly rare musical shout out to that under appreciated spiny egg-laying ant eater, the echidna.
The prototypical They Might Be Giants science-information song, it’s worth noting, was not written by They Might Be Giants, appearing on record nearly 30 years before the band was forged into existence by the geek rock gods, making its way into the hands of the young Johns through dusty library shelves. “Our history with that song is very long, and it’s interesting to see how it’s sort of shifted over the years,” says Flansburgh, with a slight hint of childhood nostalgia. “We were kids in the ’60s, not long after the bomb shelter, civil defense paranoid moment. It was a very scientific era. There was a notion that science was the future, and there was a lot to be understood about the world through science.”
As its exceedingly verbose title implies, the song answers its own question through force of fact, explaining the inner-workings of our favorite “gigantic nuclear furnace,” including size, distance, molecular dynamics and, of course, the fact that no one we know is likely to be moving to the sun any time soon. The track, first released on a 1993 EP of the same name, set the stage for many informational songs to come. “It’s really a boldly original idea to do a song that’s just filled with facts,” adds Flansburgh. “It’s kind of startling in a Joanie Mitchell kind of way to jam a song full of facts and leave the emotional stuff out of it, and i think that song sort of reintroduced us to that idea, and soon after we started doing that song in our show, John and our friend Matthew Hill wrote a fact-based song, which was “James K. Polk,” and even it’s not a fact-based song, I think the form for that became the original recipe for this song that we’ve done a lot of since.”
“At a certain point, people started to think, ‘you guys do information songs,’ ” Linnell answers, his voice punctuated with the slightest hint of disappointment. “We do a whole lot of different things, but there’s one really oddball thing that we like that’s become identified with us.” Flansburgh offers some small consolation, “If you’ve got a regular haircut and a unicorn horn, people are going to talk about the unicorn horn. We do love songs, as well. But who will buy our love songs.” Some day the world will be ready for a They Might Be Giants Magnetic Fields cover record. Sadly, that day is not today.
The medium is the message of Factory Showroom’s penultimate track — or rather, the recording process is the message, for a song that makes Robert Pollard’s early output sound like Sgt. Pepper. The song was recorded on a trip to the Edison Museum in West Orange, New Jersey, utilizing the inventor’s electricity-free wax cylinder recording device. “Besides being maybe the earliest version of a recording device, it’s also a really early example of a sound reproducing device,” says Flansburgh.
“It has a speaker on it. So, the song is kind of a meditation on how the speaker has become this ubiquitous part of life. There’s intercoms, there’s car alarms, there’s telephones on planes and the way we don’t think anything of having a speaker yell at us, everywhere we go. It’s just part of 21st century living. I think it’s really amazing that you can walk by a car and have it yell at you.” It’s that last example that makes the song arguably the least irritating thing to include a reference to the Viper Car Security System — a reference that was far more relevant in the heady days of the mid-’90s.
Flansburgh also compares Edison’s incidental invention to the work of competing scientist whose work the band have tackled on their latest record. “It’s this thing about side inventions,” he explains. “When Tesla was making a guided torpedo, he just happened to invent the remote control at the same time.”
Having conquered letters and numbers on their previous kids records, the band dived into the bunsen-burning world of science like never before, with 2009’s Here Comes the Science, with songs about planets, colors, evolution, cells, electric cars and 19th-century frontiersman hurtling through the cosmos. The album’s second track implores its younger listeners to “Meet the Elements,” introducing them to copper, silicon, helium and the atoms you’ll find if you really drill down on an elephant (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, never forget).
But in spite of its periodic message, the song never battles against the information it’s trying to convey. “It’s a really kind of a straight pop song in a way,” explains Linnell. “The song isn’t being tormented by the fact that it’s relating information.” The singer adds that, as with so many other molecular reactions, the song required external forces to take shape, “Actually did not fully come to life until the video that was made after the fact. It’s a really beautiful, visual way of conveying the information in the song. I wasn’t thinking of while writing the song that “this will all be cleared up by the video.” In a way it was rescued from being not completely clear.”
It’s a natural progression, really, from writing albums for children to comparing them to self-replicating technology. Linnell, whose son Harry made a cameo on the band’s 2005 kids record, Here Come the ABCs, adds that “it’s this notion that when something or someone reproduces, then you lose control of the product. And that’s this sort of cliche, when people are talking about nanotechnology, that it’s going to get out of control. But I sort of feel the same way about having kids.”
At least those self-replicating kidbots can be subdued with one of any number of TMBG’s kids records. For now.
In spite of the band’s past flirtations with electric cars (see: Here Comes Science), the seventh track on Nanobots isn’t about the model S. Originally planned for release on TMBG’s science record, the song is an exploration of one of more brilliant and complicated figures in scientific history, Nikola Tesla.
“He’s such a colorful character, and the idea of the mad scientist was basically created by tabloid newspapers tracking Tesla’s activities,” explains Flansburgh. “But the more I read and thought about him, the more adult it seemed as an idea. I wouldn’t say he’s a tragic figure, but he’s a complex figure. As much success as he had, he was such a haunted guy. It just seemed to complicated to be to be true to the idea of his biography. It just seemed too heavy for kids.”
The song does give the sort of crash course the band had initially hoped, discussing x-rays, AC power and radio waves, while tackling the darker side of genius. “Maybe that knowledge could drive one insane,” sings Flansburgh. “How could that knowledge be tamed?” The song closes by painting the picture of the inventor’s lonely death in Suite 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel — dark stuff, indeed, but perhaps ultimately hopeful, ending with a tribute to the bright buzzing of Tesla’s neon light.