They Might Be Giants get at the ultimate truths in music

The AV Club, March 7, 2013
by Tasha Robinson

In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixers: John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants have been friends since high school, and have been performing together since the early '80s. They have a long history of taking an exploratory approach to sound, experimenting with different versions of their songs and with new technological instruments and innovations. To commemorate the release of their 16th album, Nanobots (out March 5 on Idlewild), the Johns suggested a mixtape called "Our True Story," in which they explore the songs that most personally and directly strike them. In Flansburgh's words, "A lot of these songs have shared history with me and John, and are tracks we reference for sonic or cultural reasons. Some of them are just interesting to us individually. But all of them, we're happy to talk about."

John Flansburgh: We started out with this list of songs, some of which had this spooky, echoing ping sound. That was compelling for reasons I can't really articulate.

John Linnell: Well that's one thing John and I had talked about. The nature of recordings seemed like they revolved around how haunting a recording can be for various different reasons. For me, the ultimate haunting soundtrack is on [the TV show] Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, just the sound effect that lived in the background of this television show. It's very hard to define what it means, but it does evoke this ultimate loneliness. But there's also a larger thing about a lot of these songs, in that we've been discussing them for years.

JF: I completely went on a different track from this "ping" thing, but I was talking about these songs that have this spooky truth to them. You can tell we're desperately trying to make sense out of these songs. I sent John a list of songs where the lyrics declared themselves to be the truth, but they are in fact fictitious, and songs that you can't tell whether they're fictitious or not. So [my contributions were] more from a lyrical standpoint than a musical standpoint. So, "What songs cut to the center of your soul?", essentially.

Does this theme tie into Nanobots in any way?

JF: No, no. There's no link with the new album. We were just like, "What is the most ultimate kind of song? What songs do we personally feel have this deep and frightening truth to them?"

JL: And this is something we think about a lot. We explore it a lot in what we do. What a lot of these songs share is sort of a weird, official theatrical truth. They're declaring they're true, or that they have a story to tell, but they're not really street-level songs. They're very heightened, melodramatic songs.

Jive Five, "My True Story" (1961)

JF: That used to be played on WCBS-FM, the oldies station in New York. That was the one song they constantly played. And it's a really startling assertion in the song. Because the song is called "My True Story" as though it's a story, and then he blurts out that it's really about him and this girl he obviously had this terrible heartbreak with. So it's kind of an amazing gambit for a song, because he starts out coyly saying "Here's a story, here's the name of the people in the story," and then he says "The names have been changed to protect you and me!" The other thing is that it's an incredible doo-wop production. The main refrain is a falsetto [sings the falsetto refrain], and it's very wholesome, as my mother would say. But it also seems like it was riffing on that show Dragnet, like "The names have been changed to protect the innocent." You'd think the title of the song would be the chorus, but the chorus is "Now they must cry." Which, maybe they thought would be too weird for the title of the song. So the title of the song is "My True Story"—

JL: Which is kind of a spoiler! It would be like naming Chinatown "My Mother Is My Sister."

It sounds like a parody of doo-wop. It starts "I'm going to tell you a story," but there's no actual story, just general thoughts about love and feelings.

JF: It's amazing. And I think it wasn't written in a very songwriter-y way. I think it kind of just poured out of these guys. I don't know what else the Jive Five did. They were kind of a standard doo-wop group where they cooked up these songs together, and it was mainly about the sound and the emotion, and not so much of a constructed composition.

The Barbarians, "Moulty" (1966)
JF: Another great example of "It's the truth," as told by the drummer of The Barbarians. He's telling you about his life. He had an accident and lost his hand. It was another oddball thing that became one of the most well-known Barbarians songs. I don't think they thought, "This is the hit!" when they came up with it, but it's the drummer talking about his life, and he concludes that he'll be complete when he has a real girlfriend.

JL: I heard about this song before I actually heard it. In the pre-Internet world, that song and "Are You A Boy Or Are You a Girl?", and--what is the one about cannibalism and being trapped in the mine?

JF: That wasn't a Barbarians song.

JL: But they had this legendary, like--this was very 10-year-old boy stuff. "There's this song where the drummer loses his hand!"

JF: And the rest of the band sings his name triumphantly, like, "Moulty!" So it's a rather peculiar song with this notion of them telling you something real.

Another odd thing is that it was released as a Barbarians track, as "This is the history of The Barbarians," but Victor Moulton apparently recorded it with a ringer band.

JF: The harmonica player is definitely some ridiculous ringer, because it has that crazy vibrato. It's incredibly maudlin, like, "Oh, I'm so sad." [Laughs.]

Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons" (1956)
JF: That has an unusual place in the history of They Might Be Giants, because we did it in our live shows. It was just John playing just a bassline, and--we had this song called "Lie Still, Little Bottle" where John would play saxophone and I would sing, and it was just a couple of riffs and a vocal line. When we went to record the song in the studio and were looking for an interesting arrangement, we basically applied "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford in terms of the sonics, because there's a part where there's just a low piano note and a part with a clarinet line. It's kind of the same way Cheap Trick, for "The Flame," took "Nature's Way" by Spirit and just did it again. It's a different song, but it's kind of like stem-cell research.

Do you often look to other songs to help you solve musical problems?

JL: There's a mystery about when you hear a song--you want to know what in the hell it was at first. It's not always obvious how they get a sound. We can't often reproduce someone else's idea, but when we try, we come up with some other oddball effect.

JF: I wouldn't say this is typical of anything. I'd say this is the exception. It was a simple idea we would apply to a strategy of recording. But it's very unusual to take one element of an arrangement directly from another song. We've made a lot of recordings, so we don't want to be accused.

There have been a million covers of this song. Why did you choose this version? Was it the particular arrangement, or the first one you encountered, or something else?

JL: Speaking of session players, it's an incredibly spare arrangement of the song that really revolves around his voice, but it sounds like there are 16 different people in the studio, and they are each playing on two bars. It's just a parade of luxurious session moments.

JF: What I really like is the contrast of what sounds like a guy spontaneously singing and snapping, and then this whole chorus/clarinet comes in, and it's such an odd contrast. It's slick and orchestral, and the conductor is very on the beat, and it's the most unlikely thing to jump in. I imagine Tennessee Ernie Ford without a shirt on [Laughs.] on a hay bale, and it's a very informal thing. He's not in a studio. And you're dragged back into the highly scientific recording.

JL: But then you jump back in, and it really is about Tennessee Ernie Ford in front of an orchestra without his shirt on. [Laughs.]

The recording I found on YouTube is a live version of the song performed in front of an audience, and Ford looks like William Powell from The Thin Man. He's in a dapper suit, he has a little Powell mustache, and he's movie-star handsome.

JL: Well, he was a very big star at a really different time. I think it's hard to understand how a television singing star worked back then. They shined him up real good.

It's just a little odd to see this movie-star guy in a suit, with this huge hundred-watt grin, singing about his hard life of mining coal and punching people out if they get in his way. And keeping his shirt on.

JL: He's got the right voice. I've never seen him perform it, so you're shattering my illusions by painting this picture of him.

JF: I've got this album by him called This Lusty Land!, and it's basically a musical version of Our Town. It's not very real.

Into The Woods soundtrack, "Agony" (1990)

JF: John and I have been having a parallel experience investigating the music of Stephen Sondheim. I guess Sondheim has been in the news a lot, with his book and his appearances on public radio, but if you're not in that world, it's very easy to not have heard anything about him. The reason I picked this song is because I saw a production of Into The Woods last summer, and it's a complicated production where a lot of characters are from fairy tales, and they're being threaded through an original story. "Agony" is sung by two guys who are presented as himbos. They're like these two dazzling, shiny dudes, and one of them is Rapunzel's boyfriend, and the other is the Prince from "Cinderella," and they're comparing notes on how terrible their lives are. It ends with them singing the word "agony" in this very strident way. And there's a musical thing in it that I'm sure John would have been equally delighted by, in that they sing the last third of the song in unison, with tons of vibrato. It's this sort of musical torture that they're singing in unison--you're waiting for harmonic interest, and he just doesn't give it to you, and it's sort of this inside joke. You hear these two voices, and you want to hear some kind of harmony, and he won't do it. It's a really fantastic song.

JL: That sounds great. I haven't heard the real cast performance, but Henry, my son, sang this song at his musical summer camp. It's the first time he ever sang a solo. And the weird thing is that it's a very maudlin song, a parody of overwrought, maudlin music. But it was a moving experience for me, even though it was in quotation marks, because it was my son, and he's 12, and singing this heart-wrenching song. It's funny, because it's this kid who hasn't been put through that kind of heartbreak yet.

Do you guys have favorite musicals?

JF: I like the classics. I really like Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers and anyone, really.

JL: Richard Rodgers is really great. And I really like Guys And Dolls, in spite of its over-the-topness.

JF: Or maybe because of its over-the-topness.

JL: Yeah. It's like [Guys And Dolls thug voice] gettin' punched in the nose!

Sandie Shaw, "Girl Don't Come" (1964)

JF: I just put that in there. I was just thinking about this time in popular music before rock took over completely where the idea of Burt Bacharach was kind fungible. Sandie Shaw did not work with Burt Bacharach at all, but the song only has one source of inspiration, and that is the work of Burt Bacharach. [Laughs.] And it's really fantastic. I guess part of it is that I'm really into Sandie Shaw as an artist, and I feel like a lot of people have never heard her stuff, so it's just trying to turn people on to something they might not know that well. She's just a really interesting figure, because she's very low-key and something about her seems very contemporary. If you're into indie rock, you'd get Sandie Shaw. She's very cool; she's very double-cool, really.

Buffalo Springfield, "Out Of My Mind" (demo) (1966)

What's different about the demo?

JF: The album is a lopsided band recording, and it sounds like the music of five dudes arguing. To me, the thing that's remarkable about "Out Of My Mind" is, it's a demo that was made in the old-fashioned way. They forced bands, especially if they were getting publishing deals, to come in and play their songs with one instrument. An instrument of your choice, and a vocal. And that demo was given to a producer, who was tasked with figuring out a way to arrange the song. It was a demo for the A&R department; it wasn't a demo for the band. It's like an audition tape. So it's sung by Neil Young, and I assume it's Neal Young on guitar, though it might be Stephen Stills. But what's fascinating about it, to me, is it's Neil Young trying to sing as pretty as he can, something I don't think he bothered doing, maybe from a few months later to the rest of his life. It's a beautiful, vulnerable-sounding recording, because it's so spare. It's a really weird sentiment, because he sounds like he's just spent six months completely scrambling his mind with drugs, and he just doesn't know what's going to happen next. It's a direct song in certain ways, but it's about a very unusual idea.

JL: That seems to go in the "Our True Story" category. Did we designate "Our True Story" as the purported theme of this list?

JF: Yes, yes.

Is the idea of this mixtape more your true story about the band, or the true stories of these singers?

JF: [Laughs.] I don't want to say, like, "Maybe it's both!" but maybe it is kind of both. The thing is, once you step into a song and start working with the voice of the singer inside the song, you are kind of going through, you're taking on the voice of a narrator.

JL: We often have this conversation about songs when we've been discussing this with people in other interviews, about how autobiographical our songwriting is. In a way, it's such a difficult, thorny question, because, on one hand, there's nothing autobiographical about anything we write. It's not stories about what happened to us. And yet, for it to be interesting, it needs to be personal. And they are, on some level, very personal songs. But I think one time, Flans, you said, of all people, Sheryl Crow had to defend her "All I Wanna Do" song in the same way, because she couldn't understand how people could think it was about her, even though that's a confusing thing, because the songwriter is saying, "I want to do this and that." It's not obvious to people that it could be like a novel, where the narrator can say "I do this and that," but you don't assume this is a completely unfiltered narrative by the author.

JF: Yeah. I think a lot of times when there are things that are obviously autobiographical elements in our songs, it's almost like we're just trying to fill in something. It's not like the autobiographical part is the most honest part. It's like you're trying to figure out how to make something fit the third verse.

JL: It goes back to the idea that somehow fiction is truer than truth. You're saying something that is very truthful by making artifice.

Das Racist, "Rainbow In The Dark" (2010)

This fits in as a song that's presented as a first-person story, but is mythologizing at the same time.

JF: I find that song really confusing, because it seems like they just got really, really baked. But that's just one man's opinion. I have a half-dozen Das Racist songs spinning around my iPod, and I'm not even sure I know where they're coming from.

JL: When we heard of that band, we assumed, like I'm sure everyone did, that they were using the German article "das" to say something even more complicated and interesting about racism. But it turns out it's just the word "that's," spoken in inner-city language. Which was disappointing. I like the idea of Das Racist better with sort of the German version.

JF: The thing I find specifically interesting about this song is the way rappers or MCs trade lines—sometimes when you hear Run-DMC trade lines, it's very clear that they're standing right next to each other. It's this relentless thing, and they're tag-teaming you. One guy is poking you in the chest, telling you the truth, and then as soon as he's done, the other guy is in your face, poking you in the chest and telling you the truth. And the thing that's interesting about the Das Racist rap is, it's set up like they're talking to each other on cell phones. The opening of that song is like, "I'm in here, but I can't find you." It's that weird, nothing conversation we've all had where we're in the same place, but need to use cell phones to find each other. And that actually seems like a wonderfully contemporary way to set up a song. It's a really strange bit of telecommunication.

JL: I had that impression as well. That seemed to be exactly what was going on. But like the name of the band, maybe you're getting it wrong.

David Lynch/Peter Ivers, "In Heaven (Everything Is Fine)" (1977)

JF: You know, I don't know if the actual source recording even exists. The version [used in Eraserhead]. Is the person singing the song in the movie the guy who wrote it?

JL: Yeah. My sense is that it was Peter Ivers doing a weird falsetto, and the woman [Laurel Near] who has the weird crap on her cheeks—she's the sister of Holly Near, weirdly enough—is lip-syncing to Peter Ivers.

JF: Yeah. I felt like it was clearly lip-synched, because it has this disembodied, heightened thing where the voice doesn't really match the body.

JF: And that song is kind of perfect in its simplicity. Some songs are so simple, they're almost slightly menacing. It's a little on the Twilight Zone bad-seed end of things.

Of all of the songs on this list, this one seems most similar to a certain kind of TMBG song, especially in the echoing vocals and the mysterious, distanced instrumentation. Do you feel any musical affinity with it?

JF: I think it is a very influential song on us, in the most general way. Eraserhead was an important sort of transitional point in the culture, I think.

JL: We still bear the scars from watching Eraserhead at age 17 at the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge [Massachusetts].

JF: What's interesting about the movie at that time is that there were a lot of countercultural things associated with rock music, but if they didn't have the trappings of rock music, they weren't really a part of the counterculture. Eraserhead was stylistically complete and apart from New Wave and that world, but it was still something that anybody in the rock culture had to see. It's not every day you're in some rock band and someone says to you, "You have to see this book!" or "You have to see this movie!" But it was.

JL: I remember people walking around Boston with these buttons that said, "Eraserhead: I saw it!" Then we were like, "We better go see this one."

JF: Yeah. Which makes it sound like It's Alive or something.

It is the kind of film where you can come out on the other side and say, "I endured that."

JL: I remember me and my friend Matt seeing it and coming out with severe stomachaches from clenching the whole time. [Laughs.] Young teens were not generally exposed to super-freaky, menacing stuff. So at first, we were crippled by the movie, and were just like "What the hell did we just see?" And then we went back a week later and watched it again.

As strange and disturbing as the song is, it's still an interlude where viewers can unclench from all the tension and unpredictability, and just relax into it for a moment.

JL: It's hard to think of it as being relaxing, but I guess in the film, it's a moment where everything is dreadful, and then Lynch has this thought where she is supposed to represent everything positive in the movie.

JF: Well, she's a muse, right? In a sense? It's where he goes in his daydream, maybe? I don't know.

JL: I feel like I can't even begin to interpret it. I feel like the end of the film, which I guess he came up with after completing most of the filming, he came up with the idea that Henry the hapless Eraserhead guy ascends to heaven, like he embraces this woman with big cheeks. And my sense is that he sees it as a happy ending, weirdly.

JF: Well, he becomes an artist.

JL: Is that what it is?

JF: [Laughs.] In my 17-year-old mind, that's what happened. Then he had a higher consciousness.

JL: Maybe this all comes back to David Lynch and TM.

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (background sonar soundtrack), (1964)
Len, "Steal My Sunshine" (1999)
Andrea True Connection, "More, More, More" (1976)
Talking Heads, "Drugs" (1979)
Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (1971)

Let's get into your "pinging" sound section.

JF: I feel like that's such a stoned idea, I don't even know how to defend it. In a way, it's more technical, and all the songs are examples of this thing that, when we make recordings--like, I feel like we've referred to the echo on the bongos on "What's Going On" a million times. It's just a reference point for a mysterious, reverberant sound. Part of it was, I was trying to think of sounds and sonic things we've dwelled on in our productions.

What interests you in all these pinging songs?

JF: They're definitely a lump, of things that all go ping. I feel like the Talking Heads one is the ultimate version of it, because it's so paranoid-sounding, and it gets to something very frightening. The "More, More, More" thing is kind of the happy flipside of the same echo. It can be used a lot of different ways. It's just a production technique, is really all I'm talking about.

Do you mentally sort songs by production techniques? Is this a current interest, or a longtime thing?

JL: In a way, I wish we were mentally organized enough to mentally sort songs. It would be really convenient to have a library of songs in your head. And, yet, often with that Marvin Gaye sound, or any of these production things we're talking about, when you're in the middle of working, you recall something like that, and it's almost like because it's this half-forgotten thing that it becomes really compelling. It's not necessarily on your mind, and you're like "Oh my God, it's that sound!"

JF: Years ago, I was reading this interview with this record producer--I think it was Mickie Most, I'm not positive--but somebody was saying that the difference between a good recording and a hit recording is percussion. It sounds like the guy in The Graduate saying "One word: plastics!" but the truth is, a lot of pop songs do have signature percussion choices on top of the rhythm track. Like finger-snaps in "Sixteen Tons," which is definitely the hook of it, or the bongo in "What's Going On." The way tambourines get used, the way timbales get used. Percussion is a spice in music. There are different spices, and they're different from each other, but they do function in the same way. It changes the vibe of a recording so completely that when you're using these sounds, you do really think about it and you talk about it. And that's what I was trying to drag into the conversation. I realize we're not talking to Mix Magazine. Maybe it's too inside the process, but it is something that is really in our world.

You've often experimented with the production on your songs, then released remixes to your fans, on EPs, or through Dial-A-Song or Song-A-Day. You don't record a song once and consider it done and official. Does that come from that idea of playing with different spices, looking for the right mix?

JL: Very often, we have a specific idea in mind, but unfortunately, then you're set up for failure. So we're really striving for a particular thing, and may or may not come off. So there's just a process where you experiment and you find something you don't expect, or weren't looking for. There are different roads to making a production, rather than writing a song. Some are premeditated, some are discoveries. We have both, but the other point I was making was, when you're planning it out, you run the risk of not getting what you're looking for, so you have to be open to the other thing where you discover something wonderful that you weren't looking for.

Any last thoughts on this mixlist, or pinging noises, to wrap it all up?

JF: I was in a record store today and the clerk was talking to his friend and they were discussing how to make a cassingle. These were two 20-year-old guys. I hadn't heard the word "cassingle" in such a long time, and I felt like I was in a time machine. But of course, in the world of upcycling, in this 2013 world, it is about mixtapes and cassingles. It's surprising how the idea of the mixtape seems to have endured longer than the format. Nobody burns CDs, very few people are using cassettes, except maybe this guy at the store, I guess. But putting things together like that is an interesting way to get more out of it than the individual songs. The sum is greater than the parts.