The signs weren’t so good when I made contact with John Flansburgh in Manhattan last week. He sounded affable enough, but he’d already had a hard morning fielding questions from UK journalists.
“I’m completely bored of myself. I’m just going to start saying things that aren’t even true, to keep myself interested.”
In response, I promised I’d make my questions as interesting as possible, prompting a somewhat typically-deadpan response.
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll just start lying.”
John was at a friend’s apartment at the time, the Massachusetts-born and bred musician and occasional actor having been based in New York City since the early 1980s. so does he ever get back to Lincoln, MA, where They Might Be Giants, the band he formed with John Linnell in 1982 hail from, and which gave its name to their second album?
“My Mom actually moved to Florida, doing the thing people tend to do here. So there’s no real reason or excuse to get back. For years I’d go back for holidays though. It’s a very beautiful part of the world.
“However, I don’t know if you’ve heard the term, ‘snob zoning’, but there’s a little of that. When my parents moved there it was very much under-developed, but it became much fancier after I left. They probably figured it was safe to make it nice! There was a lot of defence industry engineering going on, high-tech and professional in the suburbs. It got pretty posh. I’m sure it’s a dilemma British people feel all the time – you want to be some place that’s pretty, but it becomes pretty fancy!”
So when were the two Johns, the two Dannys (Miller and Weinkauf) and Marty Beller flying over to join us in the UK?
“Right after the enormous snowstorm … apparently there’s a huge one coming on Saturday.”
Yes, you guessed it. Our conversation happened just a couple of days before that ‘big dump’, and at one point it looked like the tour was in jeopardy. Either way, it seemed that the tickets were being snapped up fast for a band described as ‘Brooklyn’s very own perpetual-motion machine’.
“Yeah, the shows are all selling out. There’s something very relaxing about playing a sold-out show. The artist feels like he’s done his job before even getting on stage. Can’t do any better than that!”
Then there are 20 dates back home. Is it likely to be a similar situation there?
“We’ve sold out a couple of shows already, but tour the United States pretty relentlessly, and there’s almost a ‘how can we miss you when you won’t go away?’ problem. People post on social media if we’re playing a venue out of town rather than a regular venue, it’s too far away and they’ll see us next time – not the response you want!
“The thing is that I don’t know how frequently we will tour in the future. Hopefully we will, but I don’t want to spend my entire life sleeping on a tour bus. So far I’m 25 years into it. It will be exciting not to tour every year.”
You’ve certainly put in some miles on the road since forming in 1982. Have you learned to make the most of those pockets of spare time between your travels, soundchecks, performances and hotel stopovers?
“I’ve really given up thinking I’ll be able to do more than just what I’m doing. It’s a very physical show, so when I’m not on stage I’m usually in a state of preparation or total collapse. Every day I’m just recovering from a show. Others in the band are more physically fit and go out and do museums and touristy things, but I don’t have the energy to get that extra layer of experience.
“That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy it. I love doing the shows. It’s cliché to say a couple of hours of playing make all the rest worthwhile, but if that isn’t worth it, it really wouldn’t be worth it! That’s the reason so many bands explode. It’s too physically unrewarding being in a band that’s not capturing your imagination!”
Imagination has never been a problem with TMBG’s creative geniuses, and that hectic schedule doesn’t seem to affect their output either. And the last 12 months’ material alone suggests they haven’t lost the ability to write cracking songs and hooks.
“Oh, thank you! People point out we’ve been doing it for 30 years or whatever and ask how we can keep going, but we have all these fresh songs that are really exciting to play and that get a really big response.”
At this point, John throws in something of a curveball to try and explain himself better.
“Do you get the Inside Amy Schumer show over there? She’s a very funny comedian, kind of shocking and a little provocative, and was doing a comedy sketch where she’s breaking up with her boyfriend and he’s yelling at her as she was leaving the apartment, and she says, ‘I hope you go see your favourite band and they only play their new songs!’ I just thought that was a great way to curse someone!
“I’m sensitive to that idea. I can imagine what that’s like. But I have to say a lot of rock bands are very lazy – I’ve seen so many bad shows where guys in the band clearly don’t give a rat’s ass about what they’re doing. When things start to fade they get into this bad imitation of themselves, and in some cases there are some highly notable bands that really should have stopped.”
You’ve always been a very clever band – the term ‘unconventional and experimental’ gets used a lot – with plenty of humour. But you never come over as smartarses.
“I think the level of humour in what we do is a natural reflection of us as people and comes very naturally to us. From an early moment we were aware of what worked with repeated listening. It wasn’t like we were overly ambitious and dreamed of being rock stars, but one of our genuine ambitions was to make records. And good records hold up to being listened to again and again – which is not the same as comedy.
“The theatre of comedy is like first time it hits you it’s interesting but if you hear the same thing again it’s more like ritual. So in general I think what we’re doing is deadpan in its ultimate way. If the main point was to be funny it should’ve been a whole lot funnier! But ultimately we want the songs to be something you want to listen to again and again, and that really the tempers the amount of humour there can be in any song you want to continue hearing. It’s pretty finite.”
The band are certainly far from one-dimensional, their 2015 output including the follow-up to the Grammy-winning Here Come the 123s and Grammy-nominated Here Comes Science, TMBG returning to making ‘family-friendly’ albums with Why? And like their ‘grown-up’ albums – with the most recent, Glean, also released last year, to a typically great response – the result involves plenty of memorable songs with irresistible melodies and original production techniques.
TMBGy also released a new song (and video) every week last year through their Dial-A-Song project (www.DialASong.com) while touring non-stop, including dates in Australia in the autumn and a month of shows on home ground at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg.
And all this between several other projects, this John alone having also featured in the band Mono Puff, and having spent time running a record label, directing music videos, producing other artists and working alongside his wife, co-actor, co-writer and occasional TMBG contributor Robin Goldwasser.
Could you ever have dreamed in those formative days of the band that it might all come to this for yourself and your fellow John (Mr Linnell)? Did you really think you might be giants overseas, or did you just crave success on a more manageable Massachusetts scale?
“Some things have surprised us all along, while others seemed more manageable. When we first got booked for a regular show at CBGB’s I was amazed. It seemed impossible. But John had already played there in his previous band and his attitude was that it was kind of a dump! And by the end of our tenure there we were completely tired of playing there – it was a dump!
“There are so many things that are thrilling about playing to audiences though, getting used to being a performer. Neither of us had any professional training, even though we’d had this material for five years we’d worked on. It was on the job training and ‘earn as you learn’ while figuring out how to put on a good show. It was a challenge.”
For the first decade it was just the two Johns plus a drum machine. What became of your original drum machine? Is it in the They Might Be Giants Retirement Home now?
“In my apartment I have a hall of shame of drum machines, and in November we did a duo show where we played with drum machine tracks, doing songs from the ‘80s and early ‘90s but also brand new songs using that format.”
Did the original drum machine remember the old material, or did you need to take it to one side for a tapped-out reminder of the hits?
“Oh yeah! I think people were fascinated to witness that kind of presentation, and it works very well in a club but not so well in a theatre. You start to move into Milli Vanilli ratios of what feels prefab and what feels spontaneously generated.
“The drum machine show worked surprisingly well for us and doing it again was interesting. But one of the things that was strange about putting the track together and making all those rhythm section decisions was that there are so many aesthetic decisions to be made now that are so different, as to where electronic music and its production in 2016 is.
“It’s such a world away from drum machines we were working with in 1984. We were basically like cavemen. If all you have is rock you’re just going to smash the rocks together. That’s kind of what we were doing. Now I can put together a rhythm track in traditional ‘80s style sound or a very contemporary sounding rhythm track that is an homage to that ‘80s sound.
“There are a lot of bands right now – very much contemporary bands, where all their sounds draw on that ’80s aesthetic. There’s also a world of electronica dance music that contemporary audiences love and we can do that as well. So there are a lot of choices to be made, and they can be surprisingly challenging. It wasn’t a preset … put it that way.”
At that point our interview is temporarily postponed as John deals with his cat, which has just bolted the flat, in a scene reminiscent of a scene from cult 2014 Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.
It turns out that a friend had agreed to take care of his cats while he’s away. But one of John’s cats – an ‘extremely wily’ one – escaped while John was opening the door, and was three storeys away before he was caught. Perhaps he feared he was about to be transported back to the early 1960s’ Greenwich Village folk scene.
Anyway, with everyone back we continued, and I explained how for me it was hearing early single Don’t Let’s Start in 1987 on night-time Radio One that led me down the road to loving the band. And that made me wonder – does John think Europe understood the band better than America back then?
“In the first couple of years of our recording life, Germany was a huge booster of American indie rock – ‘college rock’ bands like Husker Du and The Replacements, the first wave of bands that ended up being called alternative rock, like R.E.M. and Green on Red.
“We were part of that proto-alternative rock scene and our booking agent booked a lot of bands that would be very familiar to you. And we discovered from around 1987 to 1989 that Germany was more receptive to that kind of music than any other kind of American underground music.
“I think they were always interested in American counter-culture and viewed it as a counter-cultural movement – almost being the opposition to mainstream music. It’s a funny idea, because I don’t think music ever comes from negative energy – that’s not how it works. But I think they took it that way.
“I was getting lots of questions about Frank Zappa from interviewers, who definitely framed us like that. So we toured in Germany a tremendous amount, doing four or five weeks a time, playing every major city as well as secondary places, sometimes very small audiences. It wasn’t unusual to play to a hundred people, night to night. To us it was really interesting and felt remarkably like a real career.
“We’d always stop and play in London, but it wasn’t for a while that things really started to click for us in the UK. It was more like a work project.”
In my case, I’d say it was more a case of me and my indie sensibilities, searching for something slightly different. I don’t think there were too many of us thinking that way. But the big break was on its way, and certainly came with the third album, 1990’s Flood, which turned out to be the most commercially-successful in the UK of 18 studio albums, not least thanks to the success of first single, Birdhouse in Your Soul.
That said, they’ve barely troubled the charts here beyond that, other than a 2001 hit with Boss of Me, the Grammy-winning theme tune of cult US series Malcolm in the Middle.
“Yeah, but what was crazy about Britain was that if they liked you they tended to like you a lot! The way things got built up was really wild. ‘This band are like The Beatles … and Hendrix … but better!’”
We do like to build bands up, then knock them down.
“Exactly. Quite a system you’ve got perfected over there!”
A discussion follows over which bands were currently being built up on our side of the pond, something I didn’t feel I could be classed an authority on these days, despite making positive plugs for a few bands, including one I feel has a lot in common in certain respects with TMBG – Public Service Broadcasting, suggesting he checked them out.
“I remember a bunch of years back we came over and the Arctic Monkeys were the band du jour. I recall thinking those guys were so young and weren’t going to look like that in two years. It would be strange for their audience to see them go through that metamorphosis of post-adolescent ageing.’”
Another call soon comes in, and I’m already over-running, but John seemed to be enjoying himself after all, and soon ‘bought us 10 minutes’. Either way, I dovetail my questions and try and get in as many as I possibly can.
Having mentioned Don’t Let’s Start, is it fair to say you taught American film director Adam Bernstein (who started out making promo videos with the likes of The B-52’s and TMBG before moving on to shows like Breaking Bad, Californication, 30 Rock and 2014’s Fargo) everything he now knows?
“I think Adam taught us everything we know! He’s had an amazing career. I haven’t seen or talked to Adam for years, but would love to have a beer with him and see where he’s at. He’s such a talented guy and was such a self-starter. I don’t think we even dreamed it could have the life it had, and he just kept on going – he’s a very big wheel in Los Angeles now.”
What did respected British producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley add to your success with Flood?
“They were such gentlemen, so smart, operating with a kind of confidence and purpose. They were very close listeners to us as people and to the demos we put together. In a lot of ways they were classic pop producers – they amplified everything we were about.
“People make a fuss about Svengali producers like Phil Spector who bring in talent in a very a la carte way. With Langer and Winstanley part of what they were doing was lashing their sonic booster rockets to the very specific person they were working with. That’s why their records sound so different from artist to artist, rather than going through a template.
“They were a great team – both having skills the other didn’t have, respecting the other’s skill set. That was very exciting, and they were cool guys, and very generous.”
You’ve been known to play Flood live in reverse, from track 19 down to 1. How many other great LPs do you think would benefit from such a reconstruction?
“The truth is Flood was very much front-loaded. We were very nervous about making a hit record so did the classic thing of putting all the really hot songs up top. Faced with a night of playing the album in its entirety, if we were to do it front to back it would just spiral down into the space walk that it was!
“The CD era ushered in a lot of front-loaded albums. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rolling Stones LPs lately, and a lot of times the end of sides have the big songs on them. It was probably a trend people spotted in the ‘70s, but transferred to CD those songs just turn up in the middle!”
Do you regret not having Elvis Costello involved on your fourth album, Apollo 18? I’m intrigued as to how that would have worked.
“Elvis Costello was a huge influence on a lot of different levels. He’s one of the greatest talents going. It was an idea floated past us, but it would have been too intimidating. It would have been the opposite of the Langer and Winstanley thing. I wouldn’t know how to collaborate with somebody more famous than I!
“I guess the closest we came to that was working with the Dust Brothers. But the main topic with them is that it’s ever-changing. They have a very kaleidoscopic production technique and the fact that it’s identifiable doesn’t fully define it – they’re very wide open.”
With that John really did have to go, his next caller having waited patiently long enough, this interviewer having to wait until next time to ask the rest of his questions, not least the story of the next album coming our way, Phone Power. But as it turned out I probably could have called back a couple of days later for part two, while his band twiddled their thumbs amid the snowdrifts, waiting for JFK Airport to re-open. Thankfully that finally happened though, and I for one can’t wait to see them.
They Might Be Giants’ UK tour: Wednesday, January 27th – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club; Thursday, January 28th – Newcastle, Riverside; Saturday, January 30th – Belfast, Limelight 1; Sunday, January 31st – Glasgow, Celtic Connections Festival (two shows); Monday, February 1st – Manchester Academy 2; Wednesday, February 3rd – Cambridge, Junction; Thursday, February 4th – London, Shepherd’s Bush Empire.