Its been almost a quarter of a century since They Might Be Giants began playing their distinct brand of off-kilter rock and roll, but the rolling barrage of the years hasn’t slowed down the two Johns a bit. This year saw the resurrection of their Dial-A-Song project, a weekly music distribution service that they first dreamt up way back in ’85, and the release of Glean, their seventeenth studio album.
The band’s career has been defined by a defiance of the norm: they have recorded a wildly successful series of children’s albums; they’ve dabbled in music for television, recording the theme song for The Drinky Crow Show; and they have released sterling album after sterling album. Rarely bound to conventions – even the conventions of alternative rock – the band’s music has remained distinct, unique and eminently loveable, and their talent for crafting songs that are odd without ever being twee remains peerless even today.
We spoke to John Flansburgh, one half of They Might Be Giants, about collapsing stages, interview etiquette and the importance of leaving out murder when writing children’s songs.
Joseph Earp: How are you, and where in the world does our interview find you today?
John Flansburgh: I am in an airport lounge in Chicago on my way to a private gig. The wifi is great.
JE: The songs off Glean all have very unique, individual styles. When you’re recording a song like Music Jail Pt. 1 & 2 do you think from the outset, ‘this is going to be the string heavy one’, or does that sound evolve more naturally?
JF: Thank you. All the songs were designed to stand on their own, so there are many bold arrangement choices.
That lead line in Music Jail was actually played by a very heavy guitar until the mix when it started sounding a bit stock. Our producer Pat Dillett had just done some sessions with this fantastic violinist/arranger Rob Moose (Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver) and we brought Rob into double the lead line. But he also harmonized it very nicely and it really brought a different texture to the recording.
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JE: What is your favourite song off Glean?
JF: I like the the last track Glean, which is all Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds. It is a bit of a space walk of a track but it wraps things up in that unknowable, Pet Sounds kind of way. As a final track, I feel like it points the album outward.
JE: What made you decide to resurrect your ‘Dial‐A‐Song’ project?
JF: It’s a creative challenge that we felt we could do well with. Posting songs in an un-precious, scheduled way fits the musical culture today far better than spending a year making a concept album.
JE: Given that you’re writing and recording a song a week, you must work very well under pressure. Do you like self‐imposed challenges like those?
JF: It might look like we’re writing into the middle of the night on Sunday night to deliver these tracks, but we actually started in on this last summer, so it’s not a crisis. In fact, we have to get songs to iTunes almost two months in advance so we have to plan, and we even build in time to revise and remix. We drink a lot of coffee and make a lot of lists and schedules. You can get a lot done if you focus.
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JE: Are there any plans for future children’s albums like Here Come the ABCs?
JF: We are working on a new one, but it is distinctly non-educational—more psychedelic.
JE: Do you approach things differently when you’re writing an album for children compared to an album for adults, or are the experiences more similar than one might think?
JF: We try not to swear on the kids songs. And we leave out the murders and the killings.
JE: What’s your favourite show out of those you have yet played?
JF: We’re touring Australia again in a few months, and that is always a blast.
JE: Did you ever have one of those much feared, seemingly all too common disastrous shows in your early days? It strikes me that most bands have had at least one…
JF: We’ve had the stages collapse in Buffalo, New York with no injuries, and a stage collapse in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which sent a bunch of folks to the hospital, electrical services blow up in Cleveland and western Massachusetts, our equipment trailer burned up in California, our roadies rolled our van over going cross country (and then pretended it didn’t happen). The entire power grid of a quarter of the city of Columbus, Ohio went down in the middle of a show as we were playing for 2000 people in a theatre. We’ve had all our gear stolen outside of Boston and from inside my apartment in Brooklyn, had barricades collapse in Texas sending trampled people to the hospital. We’ve had stage-divers who definitely did not walk away from the show in Nashville, Chicago, and St. Petersburg, Florida. Because the whole crowd was dancing, a PA column fell down in Boise, Idaho. It landed just a few feet from the audience. That was very close to a disaster.
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JE: When push comes to shove, which is your favourite album out of those you have recorded?
JF: I really enjoy our first album just as it really is a bit of a manifesto of our sensibility. It was created very much in a social and musical vacuum, but that is really its strength.
JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
JF: “This interview is over.” We’ve never walked out on an interview although we probably should have. We’re too polite, and interviewers have a nasty habit of building their preconceptions of our intentions into their questions. Here’s a good example from the BBC from the early 1990s:
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If you can’t watch—the interviewer asks us only five questions in the whole piece: How important is the humor to you?… Are you into gimmicks?… Do you think that’s a gimmick?… Don’t you ever get fed up with the gimmicks?… Don’t you ever think they’ll wear thin—the humor and the gimmicks?… We replied as thoughtfully as we could, but, speaking as a fully pretentious art-school graduate and culture snob, I am often surprised that interviewers feel so free to tell us what the message of our music is—before they even ask a question… And the gimmicks.