Meta interview: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh reflects on three decades of interviews
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A lot has been written about They Might Be Giants in their 27 years together, and in that time they've done more interviews than they can even remember. So when The A.V. Club called founding member John Flansburgh up for one, he was receptive to trying something a little bit different. Rather than talk about his catchy, clever group’s Grammy win for 2008's Here Come The 123s as the Best Musical Album For Children or its recently released follow-up Here Comes Science, The A.V. Club and Flansburgh decided to take a peek behind the curtain and focus on the band's decades of being interviewed. Before embarking on a three-month tour that includes a stop at 9:30 Club on Nov. 28 for both a children’s show and an evening show, Flansburgh talked to The A.V. Club about how morning-radio jocks, strippers, and Dr. Drew make him uncomfortable, and what he has in common with Bill O’Reilly.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been interviewed by writers for high-school papers and major national publications. What’s the common thread through all those interviews?
John Flansburgh: Well, ultimately it’s split between people who assume their readers don’t know who you are and people who assume they do. When we’re on tour, probably 24 hours doesn’t go by when somebody doesn’t ask us where we came up with the name. Which, on one level, seems like a completely legitimate question. If I think of other bands, like The Beatles, it would explain to me that John Lennon had a proclivity for slightly cheap puns. But I’m not sure how much insight that would give me into what’s actually good about The Beatles’ music.
AVC: You still get that question in 2009?
JF: Absolutely. Constantly. We’re affable guys. We’re not gonna do the periscope-down thing, but it’s mind-bending. The biggest struggle is trying to figure how to back up far enough in your answer so it can be read without the context of the question. Every declarative statement that comes out of an interview with somebody is actually in response to a question. It’s like this very real interpersonal dance where one of the people involved is invisible.
But a lot of times people assume all we want to do is just be goofballs. Look at us: We dress like our parents. If we’re going for such an over-the-top thing, we’re doing a bad job. But I’ll talk to somebody and they’ll be like, “You guys will do anything for a laugh. Tell me about that.”
AVC: What’s the worst example of an interviewer trying to match that perception by being just as “wacky” as he or she thinks you are?
JF: My mind flashes to morning-radio jocks bringing a stripper to the studio and feeling like I was looking for the hyperspace button.
AVC: Everyone knows how great strippers are on the radio.
JF: Well, also, when they’re throwing the conversation your way, what can you say? Actually, on a slightly more serious but parallel level, I remember being on Loveline before both hosts ascended into loftier places in the culture and being shocked by Dr. Drew. [He] went into this extended monologue about how anyone with a baby voice is probably the victim of child abuse or has some daddy issue. As an intellectually curious person, all I could think is there isn’t any clinical evidence [about that]. [Laughs.] But to be the guy wearing the doctor’s hat and teaching everybody about this? It just seemed like a parody of good advice.
AVC: It sounds like you’ve been in a lot of awkward situations in radio.
JF: Ultimately you have to define how much of a cultural politician you are as a performer. There are times where I just want to remain a civilian. You’re like, “I don’t want to argue with Dr. Drew on national radio.” You’re the invited guest. But at the same time it’s very difficult to stand by and go, “Yeah man, it’s cool.” It gets to a certain point where I don’t want to be [Tommy] Chong.
It’s always interesting to me when one platform of media crosses into another. We’ve been on the Terry Gross show [Fresh Air] a couple of times and I suddenly felt like we could actually represent ourselves as exactly who we are, in this sort of ultra vivid way. But the weird thing to me is that the questions she asks are in some ways no different than the questions the guy from the high-school paper asks. She might even ask us where we got our name. But something about it, it’s like the pH balance of the trajectory of the questions. Maybe it’s just her voice.
Interestingly enough, last time we were on her show she had just interviewed Bill O’Reilly. He was coming in on satellite and did an interview with her for 40 minutes, and basically in the last couple of minutes became so outraged that he walked off. So he knew he could just filibuster and enjoy all the airtime that a full interview would give him, and then also grab the sensationalist headlines that he enjoys creating. He used this as fodder for his show for weeks. I wouldn’t want to be on the bad side of Bill O’Reilly. But then again, maybe I am now. By giving you this interview.
AVC: Have you guys ever pulled an O’Reilly?
JF: I don’t think we have ever walked out of an interview. It’s not like we’re the undisputed, chart-toppin’ alternative rock band—we have to be advocates for what we’re doing.
AVC: Did you want to?
JF: Oh, probably every fifth one. Between me and my wife there’s this joke where I’ll be doing some fun interview and I’ll get off the phone and be like, “That guy was an idiot.” A lot of times, interviews are like being asked a list of questions and invariably there will be this part where they think you’re a writer for Letterman: “Just off the top of your head tell me the 10 most influential bands on you.” And you’re actually asked to come up with a spontaneous list. It’s like, “Dude, I’m not living in High Fidelity.”
AVC: In all the years you’ve been written about, what’s the most annoying appositive used to describe you?
JF: Oh. [Pauses.] I think the biggest wrestling match-up I have is how to respond to the word “quirky.” Or the alternate, “nerdy.” Both are essentially benign to the reader, but if you’re a writer just sort of involved in your creative process, they seem like very small motivations. “Strange” would be interesting. “Quirky?” Maybe not so. Or, “intense.” But “nerdy?” I don’t even think they’re wrong. It’s just not our intention.
AVC: What is your intention?
JF: To be original. To express our most interesting stuff. But you don’t see the word “original” come up very often to describe big bands. Our job isn’t to pigeonhole ourselves or describe where we fit in. Our goal isn’t to fit in. Our goal is to be free of all that stuff. And being in a band, a lot of times people think of what you’re doing in terms of a competition. They talk about where you are professionally in your career. And if you’re a lifer, you know it’s going to be ups and downs. It’s not like anybody is always just steady on.
AVC: What’s the weirdest case of your being misquoted?
JF: This happened years and years ago, right as our videos were first being played on MTV. The interviewer said, “You guys are getting famous now. Are you going to be riding around in limousines, doing drugs, and sleeping with beautiful women?” And I was a precocious young man, and my snappy comeback to that cheerful question was, “We’re willing to sleep with beautiful women.” But no part of the question was in the article.
AVC: It seems that you tend to do more of the interviews than bandmate John Linnell. Why?
JF: I do. I do too many. John doesn’t answer his interview requests. I don’t know. There’s sort of a necessity to do a lot of interviews and I just deal with a lot more of the actual touring business. John’s a great interviewer and he’s a great interview subject. Theoretically it’s supposed to be 50/50, but these things are always on deadlines and John is just very elusive about these things. So maybe [he'll change his mind] when he reads this and sees how thoughtful an interview can be and that his ideas can be fully heard in the popular culture.