They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh
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John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been making music together as They Might Be Giants for nearly 30 years, over the course of 15 studio albums and a seemingly endless array of offshoots, including a Dial-A-Song phone line, a podcast, animated sequences on kids’ shows from Tiny Toon Adventures to Courage The Cowardly Dog, more than a dozen EPs, a documentary called Gigantic, a DVD of videos for their Grammy-winning children’s album Here Come The 123s, and much more. Since 2002, TMBG has been making as many kids’ albums as “grown-up” albums; 2011’s wildly diverse new Join Us marks the band’s first adult release since 2007’s The Else. The A.V. Club recently talked to both Johns about Join Us and hitting the 30-year mark. Today, John Flansburgh discusses his thoughts on the band’s recent A.V. Undercover taping, hating hooky songs, and the joys of turning music into objects. And don’t miss yesterday’s interview with John Linnell, who discussed the difficulty of avoiding repetition, the difference between TMBG and Steely Dan, and why the group doesn’t care about its history.
The A.V. Club: You guys have been a band for 30 years at this point. How do you keep this fresh for yourselves?
John Flansburgh: Well, parts of it are not fresh. Parts of it, you have to just endure. I think the tedium of the travel part of it really can undo you. Sometimes it’ll take three days to just do a show, to just be onstage for an hour. You have to travel to some far-flung place, and it literally takes days of your life to get there and get back, and you can’t help but wonder if that’s worth it. I don’t think anybody in the band or crew are such carnies that we feel like no matter what we’re doing, it’s worth it. But that can sound very ungracious to civilians. If you’re not in the business of being onstage, saying anything beyond “It’s awesome!” can sound very grumpy.
AVC: People do want the illusion that being an artist is the best thing in the world.
JF: Well, you’re familiar with the joke about the guy sweeping up the elephant shit in the circus? [When someone suggests the shit-sweeper should quit, he says “What, and leave show biz?” —ed.] I think there’s a part of it that always applies. I don’t have a lot of transferable skills. It’s not like the headhunters are knocking down our door, saying, “We need you take over our failing dot-com business because you’ve got such mad skills.” This is all we get to do, in a way, but also, it’s exactly what we want to do. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing.
AVC: Has there ever been a point where you thought about changing careers?
JF: There was a moment where we were extremely in debt, where it seemed weird to me that we were doing what we were doing. We were actually losing money being on the road, because it was so expensive. It was a vicious cycle, where basically the more we worked, the more in debt we got. The natural response in running a business is like, “If we don’t have any dough, we need to work harder. Right?” Then you work harder, then you actually have even less money. It’s part of the problem of working with people who get commission rather than sharing profits.
AVC: Are there particular aspects of the business that you like best? Do you prefer studio time, or writing-alone time, or performing?
JF: I like to say that I like every aspect of this business, but that is a lie. I am intrigued by a lot of things that people are not intrigued by. I guess when we’re on the road, I occupy my time with the business of the show quite completely. That might sound like I’m some sort of flinty guy, or some sort of control guy, but I actually find there’s a sort of Zen to it. I think it’s actually kind of fun figuring out how we should do our merch. From a distance, that might seem strange, but it’s totally fine for me. Because I it’s hard to do anything else when you’re on tour anyway, so you might as well just be inside the show.
AVC: So you aren’t writing new songs on the road, or thinking about new distribution methods or whatever?
JF: [Laughs.] A little bit. It’s good when there’s excuses to do stuff like that. We’ve done tours when we’ve written lots of songs on the road, but in general, it’s hard to get the focus up to do that. Writing a song, you really have to be in a free place psychically, I find. Letting yourself off the hook when you’re on the road is a big part of not having it drive you crazy. Like saying, “I’m just going to do the show. I’m just going to do a great show every night, and that’s going to be my focus.” That’s plenty.
AVC: At this point, what’s your methodology for getting into that free place where you can write songs?
JF: Well, it starts with a very strong cup of coffee. We approach things in a lot of different ways. I’m constantly trying to come up with different strategies to write songs. There’s a new song on the album called “Cloisonné” that started with two completely disparate elements that had no relationship to each other: this very tiny drum-machine programming thing that I did, that is really just all about the charm of tininess in drum-machine sounds, and then this linear lyric that almost seems like it was just off the top of my head. Although in both cases, they’re both highly edited. But the drum-programming thing, I probably spent two days just doing a dozen different drum-programming things. I was just making beats in the same way anybody would be making beats, any hip-hop guy would be making beats. I would work on something for an hour and put it aside, and work on something else, and then maybe come back to the other one. I ended up shipping off some of the other beats to other projects, but the “Cloisonné” beat was the most interesting one. And it just had kind of a crazy spark to it. So that was just pure experimentation. There wasn’t even a chord progression or anything, it was just about enjoying tiny electronic sounds for the sonics.
AVC: Do you ever think of what you do as improv? Starting with a key element—
JF: That’s a good question. I think yeah. I think we would probably characterize it as experimentation within the writing process. There’s so much editing going on all the way down the line. The stuff gets demoed and demoed and revised and revised, so I think part of the focus of what we do comes out of this very editing process. But yeah. Improv makes it seem super-free. I wish we felt more confident about what we did, to just go, “Yeah, we can improv something and it’ll be great.” I have the highest regard for people who can do that kind of improv stuff. Having witnessed Asssscat and stuff like that, seeing that crew of people doing that stuff and realizing what a magical thing it is, it’s very impressive.
AVC: I’m not so much talking about improvising songs, especially given how complicated your song structures are, and how dense the lyrics often are. I mostly just mean that you seem to like to work with little prompts or games or experimental methods to get you started.
JF: Yeah. I guess in the sense that improv uses devices as springboards, it is in that vein. We have joked in the past that we are running out of nouns. There is this thing about what we do that sometimes I feel like is just entirely too married to the physical world. It’s almost like we’ve made the entire physical world a fetish. I don’t think that’s necessarily a strength, I think it’s a place where we started, and hopefully we’re evolving out of it. I’m ready to move on to verbs, or adverbs. It’s a thrilling thing, being able to write songs. It’s hard to explain. People always say “Where do you get the ideas for your songs?” and there’s no question that will stump us longer than that.
AVC: It’s the question that’s most asked in any creative industry, and it’s the hardest one to answer.
JF: Yeah. I guess I’m proud that we don’t have a pat answer for it. Truth be told, once you’ve written a bunch of songs, you’re also in this strange dialogue with yourself, and since John and I work together, I feel we’re always cross-referencing each other’s thing. So often, things we talk about end up in the songs in a weird way. I jut realized that I’ve been working on this new song that has the word “babytooth” in it. There’s a song on the new album with the word babytooth in it. And they’re really unrelated, they have nothing to do with each other, but I don’t want to be in the penalty box with Linnell, that I used the word babytooth again.
AVC: In our interview with him, he addressed your shared urge to avoid any kind of repetition. But it seems that it would be particularly difficult over the course of 30 years, especially given how prolific you guys are.
JF: I think the constructive strategy is to forgive yourself the impulse to keep on writing simply. It is different. The very first time you write a song… I remember when I was 17 years old. It was the summer of 1977, and I had seen the Sex Pistols on 60 Minutes, and I was about to go to England for a summer. A friend of mine had given me an electric guitar, and I had three strings on my electric guitar, and I had a tape recorder. And I wrote this three-chord song that anybody with ears would realize in many ways is kind of “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed, though as far as I was concerned, it was a completely original three-chord masterpiece. And it was so exciting, making a recording and hearing it back. Hearing it standing on its own two legs as an experience, as a sonic thing. To me, the thrilling part was turning it into an object. Turning it into a recording was more interesting than actually playing it. Because then I could actually experience it. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I really love the guitar, I’m really expressing myself now.” It was actually the making of a song that could be played on a tape recorder. That was the goal. So I guess the fact that we ended up being prolific, or making a lot of recordings—even beyond records, just even making podcasts… There’s so much effluvia in the They Might Be Giants output, but I think it goes back to the joy of home taping.
AVC: You were talking earlier about how you demo your songs over and over, and you’ve often shared those demos via your podcast, or Dial-A-Song. Is that about letting people experience the process? Are you looking for feedback?
JF: I don’t think we’re looking for feedback at all. I think we enjoy the positive reinforcement like anybody else, and if we just lived in a world with high-fives and critical praise, that would be fine with us. The thing is, a lot of the time, the critiques just seem harsh. I think our luckiest break is that we started with something like Dial-A-Song, which was so “non-hit song” specific that it kind of unhinged us from the tyranny of the hit song. It’s useful to have a hit song, it’s great to have a song people know. But it’s also, that brass-ring part of it can be stifling. “Dial-A-Song” was just such a strange space project. People didn’t even think we were a band. A lot of people just thought we were a phone machine. And that’s a much more interesting place to start as a creative enterprise than being the hot band at South By Southwest, or being the band to watch. Bands in general get introduced to the world in such samey ways. You just end up getting plugged into a system, and it was really interesting to not, to just be a UFO.
AVC: You’ve always been into alternate distribution, with the Video Of The Month club, and the EPs, and the McSweeney’s album, and podcasting, and selling music off your website before that was common. Is that more about not following the pattern?
JF: It makes us seem contrarian, because it is against the regular stuff, but it isn’t like a statement against the regular world, you know what I mean? It’s not like we’re saying, “Oh, everybody should change.” In some cases it’s just what’s available to us, and there isn’t necessarily that much more stuff available to us. We’ve been on five different record labels over the course of our career. We’re not Radiohead—we don’t get to just cherry-pick what we do because we’re awesome rock people. We did Dial-A-Song as a way for people to hear our songs, because you couldn’t hear our songs any other way. Desperate times call for desperate measures. That was before any record company was interested in us. And truth be told, we wouldn’t gave gotten a major-label deal if we hadn’t already sold more records than most major-label record sell. I met Howard Thompson, the head of Elektra’s A&R department, five years before we were signed to Elektra. He knew who we were, there was just no interest. They heard our music and went, “That’s not going to work.” But we ended up finding an audience for ourselves. I guess the thing is, for us, Dial-A-Song was a creative opportunity that turned into what from a distance looks like a marketing strategy. But for us, it was exciting to just have our songs heard. Think of all the people who create Facebook sites to post their demos. It’s the same. It’s no different than that.
AVC: You’ve been working on Join Us for a couple of years now, between children’s albums and side projects. Were you ever frustrated waiting for reactions, thinking “I want to know what people think of this song we’ve had in the can for a year, and aren’t going to release for another year”?
JF: Well, we’re used to that. We’ve always been writing and recording in that. Ever since our second album, we have not been playing songs live before the record gets released. And that’s kind of a weird thing. One of the things that’s really sad about YouTube is that if you’re in a band, and you want to do something, you just want to wheel something out in a live show and see how that goes, you can’t really do that anymore, unless you want to have a million people saying, “The first time you did it was a million times better,” or “This song isn’t fully formed,” or whatever. When The Breeders went out on their first tour, they didn’t have words to half the songs. They literally just kind of mumbled through the second verses of all these songs. And it was not a big deal, because it was a rock show—you could barely hear the words anyway. It was a work in progress, and it was okay. I don’t think we’d ever be brave enough to do something like that, but it’s a way that people have worked, and I feel like the fact that everything gets recorded now, everything you do is part of your permanent record now, it’s very strange. I guess there’s something nice about being able to be off the record, or just do something for a workshop purpose.
AVC: That seems a little strange given how often you put your demos out in the world.
JF: Yeah, but I have to tell you, if we could do a podcast that disappeared after a week, that would make me even more excited about it. To me, one of the exciting things about Dial-A-Song was that it was forever in the ether. You could do anything and then it would be gone, and it was a kind of broadcasting. It was just for the experience. It was not about being documented, it was not about being forever. It was just about a person listening to a phone machine.
AVC: Is that about controlling the output and who owns it? Are you a fan of ephemerality?
JF: I guess I’m a fan of ephemerality. It’s got a different spirit. I guess that’s also why I find live performance to be exciting. There are a lot of things that can be done in live performance that can’t be done anywhere else, or aren’t effective anywhere else. Our shows have a lot of improv in them that just wouldn’t hold up to repeated listening, but in a linear, kind of visceral way, seems interesting.
AVC: Though if you still feel like the exciting thing is having the artifact of the recording, that’s the opposite of ephemerality.
JF: Well, at the risk of being candid or self-critical, sometimes what you’re good at and what you like are different things. I’ve come to realize that personally, I have strengths as a live performer that are pretty odd. I’m not shy, but I’m shocked at how bold I can be onstage. Part of it is that when I started with John, I couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time. And since then, we’ve done many hundreds of shows together, and I’ve learned how to play guitar and sing at the same time, but also, I’m not scared of being onstage anymore. And if we’re playing some weird, lame festival where everybody’s sitting in lawn chairs, I actually have no trouble saying, “Everybody stand up and move to me.” And making it seem like that would be the greatest, happiest thing that could happen, rather than some awkward, horrible thing. Even just talking about it, I can’t imagine, it sounds terrible, it sounds like a bad show. But it’s actually a very joyous and natural show. We’ve actually gotten good at some things that we might not necessarily been good at in the beginning, in terms of performance and stuff like that.
AVC: We had a brief email exchange yesterday about the hugely positive reaction to your A.V. Undercover performance. You said, “It seems like a little bit of joy directly expressed can be quite resonant in this grey world.” In spite of all the songs you do about death and disaster and misery, that sounds like a TMBG mission statement.
JF: Yeah, that’s what art is, right? If you think about it, life is a one-way ticket. [Laughs.] But while we’re here, you got to make the most of it. Now I sound like the guy at the end of the bar. The “Tubthumping” thing is especially weird, because it’s a song you almost can’t like with your conscious mind. It’s all those things about a popular song that are kind of manipulative—or, not manipulative, they overwhelm you. It’s such a hooky song, it goes from hook to hook to hook. It’s such an earworm kind of a song. It’s like the Steven Spielberg of songs. You just feel like you’ve been lassoed and dragged into its presence. It’s overwhelming.
AVC: Is anything wrong with that?
JF: Well, if you like being lassoed. No, I don’t know. Did you walk out of E.T. feeling like, “That was normal”? Or did you feel like you were kind of… I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with the hooky, the impossible catchy song. I feel like the world has a love-hate relationship with that kind of thing. Because it’s relentless. I’ve been singing the song “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel for 20 years. And I don’t even particularly care for Billy Joel’s music. A good friend of mine is a huge Billy Joel fan. I love Elton John, but as far as those classic popmeisters go, I find Billy Joel very hard. I want my mind back from that. [Starts singing melody to “The Longest Time.”] I cannot tell you. Three times a day, I think about that song. It drives me crazy.
AVC: Do you have a different relationship with the ultra-hooky songs you’ve produced, the ones most people immediately think of when they think of you? Do you feel differently about “Birdhouse In Your Soul” or “Particle Man” than some of the more jangly, atonal, complicated songs?
JF: The stuff that’s more far afield? Um. Making those songs we did with Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer was so thrilling on so many different levels. I learned so much in that process, about recording and arranging, and just how to think about the experience of a song. Clive Langer, the producer of “Birdhouse,” he was a classic hit-maker, producer, nut, so it was an interesting process. We spent so much time on it. We’ve never spent that much time on anything, before or since. In a way, it doesn’t surprise me that that song is so memorable now. When we started on the song, all the components, all the elements were there, all the things you would think would make it catchy were present. But it seemed like kind of a slip of a song. It wasn’t like you would listen to it and go, “Oh, this is going to be the biggest song of our lives.” And in the fullness of time, it’s kind of our calling-card song. It came together. Sometimes recording songs does feel sort of magical in that way.
AVC: What sticks with you most about Join Us? Is it the catchy earworm songs? Some technical thing you accomplished or struggled with? What stands out?
JF: For us, there’s a challenge in that we are aware of our history. We think about ourselves. We do interviews where we have to talk thoughtfully about our stuff, and we have this history as a band. So trying to figure out how to up the ante and evolve as writers and producers is a real challenge. We don’t want to just be a pale version of our younger, less-grizzled selves. We’ve been basically toggling back and forth between kids’ projects and adult projects for the last seven years now, I guess, eight years. As soon as we started doing kids’ stuff, as soon as we started doing No!, I think we actually touched on something that the years of writing, recording, touring shook out of us, which is the simple joy of the psychedelic impulse in the middle of a short song. Our first couple of albums have a lot of these hard-left-turn departures. This is incredibly self-serious, so let me apologize in advance.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about wanting to get back to the “beginner’s mind,” as you put it, for this album. And it really does seem that way, with the sharp turns and the eclecticism.
JF: And I think the strange thing about the success of our children’s stuff, which was kind of unnerving to us, is that as soon as we started doing the kids’ stuff, a lot of that original spirit of the band came back very naturally into the mix. Because it’s kids’ stuff, it’s the most open writing assignment you’re ever going to get. It’s like, “What do kids know about anything?” They don’t know anything. They don’t know Pink Floyd, they don’t know Cream, they don’t know Prince, they don’t know The Beatles. Your pop references are meaningless. You’re on the most abstract plane that somebody in a band could be. And also, it’s a world free of rock critics. It’s a world free of clerks in record stores. It’s a world free of people with their arms folded in the back of the room. It’s a world of love. All you have to do is fascinate the person directly listening, and that’s a really great assignment. It’s not like we think we’re E.B. White. It’s a privileged place to be as a writer, to write for kids, but it’s also extremely liberating, because you get to do the thing you want to do. The audience is really like yourself as a kid. You’re just writing for your own kid self.
AVC: What’s next, after the tour in support of Join Us? More children’s music? Another adult album?
JF: As John has said, with the kids’ stuff, it’s not like a “never say never” thing, but I think part of it was just the success of the kids’ stuff started taking over our lives. It seemed like there was a never-ending amount of recording work to be done. Getting back to your question about what was the process of making Join Us like, the one thing that actually bugged me was that we basically recorded two studio albums for kids back-to-back, Here Come The 123s and then Here Comes Science. Because basically when we got a Grammy for The 123s, there was a lot of momentum in that world to get another thing out, and to keep the ball rolling that way. Because a lot of the marketing of those records was through television, which is just a whole different thing. We were just going at the recording process very, very hard for a long period of time. When we do kids’ records, we treat them like any other recording. We actually spend a lot of time on them, which I gather a lot of people in the world of children’s music don’t. They go, “Oh yeah, we recorded it in a week, and it was fine.” We really treat them like full-blown creative projects. So we’d been in the studio a lot. We kind of started in on recording Join Us full on right on the heels of finishing up the Science record, and I don’t think it dawned on us that we were actually a little bit burnt out. And also just kind of confused, in a way, as to what we were going to do. We probably recorded 30 songs for this album, and the songs that are on album are basically the last 15 or so. There were so many strange misfires at the beginning, just the most mutant songs. And they were casting about. It was sort of about trying to find the right tone, find the thing that really clicked on every level. And that was a big challenge. We didn’t want to do a relentless… The Else, our previous album, kind of has a relentless quality. When we were listening to the whole album as it was being mastered, John turned to me and said, “Well, this is the least-coziest record we’ve ever made.” And I don’t think it’s our goal to make cozy albums, but there’s a little bit of cozy in Join Us, in a good way.
AVC: Some of that might have come out of working with Dust Brothers. In the theme of changing up and not repeating yourself, are there other artists you want to work with?
JF: Yeah. I just produced an album for Jonathan Coulton, and that was a very, very exciting process for me. And if there are any people out there as talented as Jonathan Coulton, I want to work with them. I enjoy the production process, though I think working with Jonathan spoiled me forever, because he was so receptive to the challenges I would put out in front of him. I would very sheepishly say something that I felt was kind of crossing some boundary. It’s a part of collaboration, but as somebody who’s worked with producers, I know how destructive certain things can be, and you really don’t want to simply be challenging somebody in a non-constructive way. And he was always game. He worked so hard, and with such focus, it was very interesting. It made it all seem much easier than it really is. I think most of the time you’re dealing with people with acute cases of divaticulitus.
AVC: Of what?
JF: Divaticulitus. You know, divas. People who are deeply in love with themselves. I thought everyone had gotten their divaticulitus shots.
AVC: As far as your own work, where do you want to go from here?
JF: That’s a good question. Sometimes I think it would be interesting to try to write something with a larger theme. Try to write something more in a song cycle, or something that could be theatrical. It seems like the world of musical theater or just musical vehicles has kind of opened up in a way that could be an interesting challenge. People have very different notions about how music and storytelling can be combined. I guess I don’t mind things that are colder. People who do stuff in theater are always talking about “heart” and stuff like that. I think I’m a little bit more in the Bertolt Brecht, V-effect side of things. I find things that are stilted and alienating to be much more compelling than most people, I think.
AVC: Join Us features some of that, but also songs that are warm or easy or catchy. Do you think about album sequencing anymore, now that so many people only think in terms of individual songs?
JF: The real collaborative process with me and John is in that arranging, producing, how best to set up the song, set up the changes in the song and keep the ball rolling sonically. Part of it kind of flies out the window when people are downloading things, and people’s iTunes gets loaded in backwards. When we’re sequencing things, originally we would just try to set up the hardest contrast we could think of. We were like the vibe-killers. If there was a short, fast song, we’d put it up against the slowest, longest song. We were setting up our albums like they were these horrible roller-coaster rides. I think over the course of time, we realized you could do it in a more leisurely, friendly way. But it’s usually pretty much about blending sonics together, or breaking off, making a short, sharp snap between one approach and another, just to have a real theme change. But these days, I don’t know if that stuff even exists. With The Else, we put the song “The Mesopotamians” last, but the way it loads in on iTunes, it’s first. Depending on how you set it up, for a lot of people, it loads it in exact reverse order. I remember talking to many reviewers as that record was coming out, and they’d be like, “I love this ‘Mesopotamians’ song, what a great way to start an album.” And it’s like, “Huh. Interesting.”
AVC: It sounds like what you were saying about YouTube as well. It’s sort of an argument against trying to control how people experience your work—if you go in with a plan, and that plan is immediately disrupted, is that frustrating for you as an artist?
JF: Well, not really. We’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now. I don’t know, it’s very flattering just to have people hear your music. It’s really hard to forget that. Just the idea that anybody is even thinking about us is exciting to me. I think it was Roy Orbison who was asked “How do you want to be remembered?” and he said, “I just want to be remembered.” I think that’s a healthy point of view. I think when people start going down that rabbit hole of trying to control how people experience what they’re doing, it’s just not productive. That’s kind of negative energy. You’re trying to get inside people’s minds. And the truth of the matter is that there’s always more than one thing going on anyway. When you’re doing a show, there’s the people in the front row and there’s the people in the back row, and they’re having a very different experience, and they’re different people. There’s only so much you can do. I’m probably 20 years older than you, but do you remember the Lovesexy album by Prince? So he made this CD—it was one of the first few CDs I ever bought—and it’s all one track. You can’t go from one song to another.
AVC: He really believes in trying to control the user experience.
JF: But that’s the thing, it’s the user’s experience. Some people like to listen to music completely high. Some people like to listen to music while cleaning their house. People use music for very different reasons, and it’s kind of none of your business as the person making the music. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I listen to a lot of music. I listen to a lot of other people’s music, I love listening to music. It’s just too much when people start thinking about stuff like that.