They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh
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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 begin to count. So when The A.V. Club called founding member John Flansburgh for one, he was receptive about trying something a little different. Rather than talking about TMBG’s Grammy win for 2008’s Here Come The 123s as the Best Musical Album For Children, or its recent follow-up, Here Comes Science, The A.V. Club and Flansburgh decided to peek behind the curtain and focus on the band’s decades of being interviewed. Before embarking on a three-month tour, 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. The people who feel you need to be explained will back up all the way to questions that might really be of no interest. When we’re on tour, probably we don’t go 24 hours without someone asking 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. Constantly. We’re affable guys. We’re not gonna do the periscope-down thing, but it’s a little bit mind-bending. The biggest struggle is trying to figure out a way to back up far enough in your answer that it can be read without the context of the question. Every declarative statement you see that comes out of an interview with somebody is actually in response to a question. So it’s sort of like this very real interpersonal dance where one of the people involved is invisible.
Sometimes people will ask a real “Why are you beating your wife?” question where there’s some assumption built into it, and all you’re trying to do is kind of re-contextualize it with some element of truth, and it comes across as incredibly defensive, or just really weird. You know? For instance, our music has this element of humor, which is probably the most uptight part of what we include in our music, because we’re in part very self-conscious guys, and we want our music to stand up to the test of time, not just be visceral comedy records. We love humor and comedy, but there’s this aspect to it that runs counter to what is included in most music.
Short of becoming the Jerry Lewis art-of-comedy interview with Larry King, we try to address that stuff head-on, but in a cursory way. But a lot of times, people ask questions where they’ll just assume all we want to do is be goofballs. Look at us: We dress like our parents. If we’re going for such an over-the-top thing, we’re doing such a bad job at it. But I’ll talk to somebody and she’ll be like, “You guys will do anything for a laugh. Tell me about that.”
AVC: What’s the worst example of interviewers trying to match that perception by being just as wacky as they think you are?
JF: That probably comes up most in doing morning radio, because the morning-radio guys, they just want everybody to be game for their stuff. I mean, as a feminist, I take serious issue with a lot of that stuff. That’s a good question, but my mind flashes to the morning-radio jocks bringing a stripper into 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 kind of parallel level, I remember being on Loveline before both hosts ascended into loftier places in the culture. But I remember 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 that there isn’t any clinical evidence [about that]. [Laughs.] But to be the guy wearing the doctor’s hat on the radio 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 like the invited guest. But at the same time, as a thinking person, it’s very difficult just 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.
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. 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.”
So tell me about interviewing from your perspective: You write for the legit side of The Onion?
JF: Which, that in and of itself is a very hard thing to explain to people. I read The Onion, and I’ve read a lot of interviews that are very direct, often with people who are never direct. Which is interesting. But somehow the A.V. part of The Onion, I don’t think is telegraphed into the popular culture.
AVC: I’d agree with that. It can be a tricky thing. I interviewed MC Hammer earlier this year, and he told me at first he resisted out of fear that he was going to be satirized by us.
JF: Do you feel like when you’re interviewing, just by taking on an interview, that you’re sort of culturally voting for them already?
AVC: It depends. I hope people know that every interview we do comes from a place of respect and genuine interest—even if ultimately, yes, they are hawking a new movie or album or whatever.
JF: This is a question that came up in my life: If you had to interview Beck, would you ask him about Scientology first? Would you not ask him about Scientology? Or would you ask him about Scientology last?
JF: I knew it. You are a Scientologist.
AVC: Well, what would be the value of asking him that? People have approached him about it before, and it’s clear he just shuts down about it. What does that really have to do with his music?
JF: I had the opportunity to interview Beck on a couple of occasions for ABC, and all my friends asked, “Are you going to ask him about Scientology?” I’ve done a fair amount of research, and the one thing I’ve found is that he basically has this very thoughtful but defensive boilerplate explanation of Scientology. He’s a smart guy, and you’re just not gonna get past it. So on a practical level, I thought, “I don’t know how much interview gold is going to be found going here.” If somebody just jumped up in the middle of an interview with me and said, “Tell me about Unitarianism,” I’d be like, “Why? No. Why don’t you mind your own business, young man?”
AVC: Before this interview, you mentioned playing in Japan. How do international interviews compare to North American interviews?
JF: Well, any time there is a language barrier, you don’t know how much you need to simplify what you’re saying for it not to be damaged in translation. But culturally, there are some interesting phenomena. I get the feeling that the way rock music gets described in Germany, it is all like Rolling Stone circa 1975, taken to the 10th power. Like, there’s something about it much more political than it really is—like everything you were doing was an indictment of the American culture. If you’re a rock musician, you’re part of the counterculture. Your music is like a critique of everything that is wrong with America. I think this happens with Modest Mouse and Vampire Weekend and They Might Be Giants as well as Rage Against The Machine. You don’t have to have any political veneer to get this treatment. And it’s kinda fascinating, because it only comes through in the questions.
I read an interview with one of the members of Sebadoh. He was saying he had just got back from touring Germany for the first time in five years or whatever, and one of the interviewers asked him, “Why aren’t you still relevant?”
JF: That’s what I thought. That really sums up the strange bluntness that a really prime German interview can have. They’re really interested in your cultural velocity in this way that I don’t think people in the United States even necessarily think about alternative-rock bands. So it’s not like we’re against regular rock. We’re not like a battling army shaking our weapons against The Rolling Stones.
AVC: Speaking of that bluntness, 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 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 that 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, because the critic’s job or the writer’s job is to explain where it lands in the whole constellation of rock bands. You’ve got tremendously self-serious bands, then you’ve got very, very complicated, artistic bands. And then you’ve got a band like us, where maybe that is the most accurate way to describe us to all the other bands in the world. But our job isn’t to pigeonhole ourselves, or describe where we fit in. That’s not our goal. 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 all this other stuff. 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: From other interviews you’ve done, I thought you were going to say “aging.”
JF: Sometimes you have to wonder if there isn’t an ejector seat built into having a popular-music career. We were lucky when we started. We were already old when we started—you could have described our first album as “aging Brooklyn guys.” We were in our late 20s. We weren’t octogenarians, but a lot of bands were already younger than us. Fortunately, we’ve held on to our manly good looks.
AVC: Have you ever had a Barbara Walters moment? Has someone ever tried to have you cry during an interview, or get a strong emotional response?
JF: They’re not looking for that from us, in general. There have been times I wanted to cry, but it hasn’t been because that’s what they’re trying to conjure. No. I think you have to graduate to some higher level of TV IQ for people to actually want to see you cry. Have you ever tried to make someone cry?
AVC: Not yet. What’s the weirdest case of your being misquoted?
JF: This happened years and years ago, and 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: How is being interviewed for your documentary different from print or radio?
JF: Doing the documentary [Gigantic] was harrowing, because even though we knew the director [AJ Schnack], we couldn’t trust the idea that it wouldn’t somehow have a Behind The Music third-act part, where it’s about something really bad. Part of it just ran counter to our general idea of keeping the idea of the band separate from our personas. No, we don’t really put our photographs on things, and we avoid the stuff that is just about selling us.
AVC: As product?
JF: Yeah. As what it is. Yeah, if you’re looking at the array of performers, there’s just a lot of people that it’s about getting closer to them. That’s not really our focus. It’s funny, with the kids’ stuff, we really sell ourselves as the MC, but it’s much more like we’re Ed Sullivan than we’re like Sting. We’re just the presenters. And that’s an idea that we’re very comfortable with. But yeah, the documentary thing, we’re just not controversial. I think The Onion story about—
AVC: The Tetris thing?
JF: Yeah, like, our Behind The Music had no drugs.
AVC: Right. The episode largely focused on John Linnell’s crippling addiction to Tetris.
JF: I have to say, I do love that Tetris game. But I was relieved.
AVC: You thought you got off easy?
JF: Oh, I didn’t think we got off easy, but it just seemed—well, yeah, maybe that is the best way to describe it. Yeah. Got off easy. I mean, it wasn’t super-mean. I felt like you know it’s coming. I dunno. I can’t imagine what it’s like.
AVC: It seems that you tend to do more of the interviews than 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 article and sees how thoughtful an interview can be, and that his ideas can be fully heard in the popular culture.