FROM THE PLAYBACK:stl ARCHIVES: That is the beauty of lowered expectations. If we were more calculating people, it would be very easy to get frustrated by our situation. The reality is that we have always seen it for what it is. A big part of enjoying your life as a performer and a musician is recognizing that it is usually not a bad time to figure out how to have a good time.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be in a band. Each of those guitar lessons was my road to success. Better, I thought I would certainly get laid some day because of my guitar prowess. Today, so many years later, I still can’t play guitar. So much for my social promise and procreation. I was reminded of this when hanging out with a rock star couple. We started talking about They Might Be Giants. While he seemed indifferent to them, she came right out and said, “Too much head and not enough sex.”
It immediately put me on the defensive, since I have liked TMBG from their earliest days. In a way, I almost felt that my manhood was questioned. But it is a question that arises when you talk about TMBG. They aren’t your normal band singing solely about teen angst, love won and lost, or an appetite for destruction. Over the last 20 years, the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell have pumped out 300-plus songs (officially; hundreds more unofficially) about subjects including modern technology, déjà vu, Lucy and Ricky, the massive power of the sun, New York City, and such unlikely figures as 19th-century president James K. Polk and Flemish painter James Ensor. They have introduced their fans to the rocking sounds of the accordion, flugel horn, and theramin, and the barebones technology of the Edison Center (know for some of the finest wax cylinders to come out prior to 1900). They have been fearless in the presentation of their work, being the instigators of Dial-A-Song, early proponents of the Internet and MP3 technology, and wunderkinds of TV music, serving up a Grammy-winning theme for the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Late last year they released their latest album, Mink Car. It features 17 songs which veer from obsessions with “Bangs,” to a rocking remake of “Yeh Yeh” (originally recorded by Georgie Fame in the ’60s). “My Man” features a man having a conversation with his body after being paralyzed; and “Wicked Little Critta” rekindles the more slang aspects of being a kid in Boston in the ’70s. The album also contains “She Thinks She’s Edith Head,” a peppy tune about mental illness and how we deal with it.
The morning I talked by telephone with John Flansburgh (who helpfully pointed out that he was the one with the glasses), he was tired and excited. He explained that the night before TMBG had been up late putting the finishing touches on the new theme for TV’s “America’s Most Wanted.”
PlaybackSTL: This is, what, like your 15th album?
John Flansburgh: Oh I don’t think so, no. Lets see…one, two…in the world of what you call real albums this would be like our 7th or 8th studio album. We do have a lot of songs. We actually figured out the other day that we have 300 songs that have been commercially released.
PS: What about the songs on Dial-A-Song?
JF: We don’t release a lot of them. Most of them aren’t good enough. We have a lot of outlets for our OK songs, or sort-of-interesting songs. We did a thing last year with e-music that ultimately ended up releasing about 120 songs that had never been in world before. It was really strange. We were putting out like 12 songs a month; half of them were from the archives and the other half were newer things. It was the he-man songwriting club.
PS: You guys are going to have a box set coming out.
JF: Rhino is putting out a 20th anniversary set next fall. It is kind of strange to be around long enough to actually see your tombstone being carved. It is odd to see an anthology being made because it sort of implies that you are not going to keep on working. It is going to be a cool thing, a comprehensive overview of what we have done, with a beautiful package. John (Linnell) and I were involved in putting it together. For me the whole thing has just gone so fast. It has just been kind of a dream. We started this band on kind of a manic high and just never came down. Just the idea that something as farfetched and unlikely as this band could work in the world and find an audience still kinds of astounds us.
PS: I think part of that is that you guys didn’t give up at any time. You basically kept building all aspects of the band.
JF: That is the beauty of lowered expectations. If we were more calculating people, it would be very easy to get frustrated by our situation. The reality is that we have always seen it for what it is. A big part of enjoying your life as a performer and a musician is recognizing that it is usually not a bad time to figure out how to have a good time. I’ve never said that before that way [chuckles], but a lot of people I know are very calculating about their careers and they really want it to happen, and happen fast. Sometimes that just gets in the way of playing and having fun on a Saturday night. A lot of times, having a good time at a show is all you are ever going to get out of it. Certainly, getting signed to a major label is not a finish line. I talk to a lot of people who think once they get to a certain place then they can stop working so hard. I don’t think that is ever true.
PS: I was reading a design magazine the other day and they mentioned the Chopping Block, which has worked with you on several projects. The article went on to say they have a great site and infectious theme song (penned and performed by TMBG).
JF: There is such a great long tradition of theme songs. Everybody grew up with reruns and everybody knows how magical they are. And yet rock music has this official ambivalence towards television as some highly alien beast when, in fact, it is impossible to live in this culture and not know “The Addams Family” theme. So whenever we get the opportunity to do a theme, we jump on it. The guys from the Chopping Block approached us and it seemed like a really fun idea. Just having your music attached to some elaborate Flash file is very cool.
PS: I was going over a list of all the things you guys are attached to, and I was just amazed at what you are able to accomplish in the time you have.
JF: Well, you know, we are only here on this planet for a very short time. Actually, I was up late last night working on the “America’s Most Wanted” theme.
PS: Did you put on your Jack Webb hats?
JF: No, but let me play it for you.
[Out of the speakerphone pours the sounds of horns and bouncy jazz. It brings back memories of the “Untouchables” from the ’50s and music that might include a woman taking off her clothes. ]
Very Mancini-esque turn for us. I think if it gets some real play, it will open up some other doors. It is so dramatage-meets-crime-jazz.
PS: As you continue, do you see yourselves heading more in the direction of that kind of work?
JF: No. There is only so much of it that we can do and stand it. I think one of the reasons that we succeed is because it is not our main gig. We really never pursued the TV and ad work or movie work for the first 15 years of the band. We didn’t realize by opening that Pandora’s box that the work would become so legitimate so fast. We’ve really had a lot and it has been kind of keeping us home for a while. But it is not our main focus.
In some ways we can just approach it as an interesting craft exercise. We find our artistic satisfaction as a band because we get to write our own songs and get our songs into the world. We have a large degree of satisfaction as performing and recording artists in our own right.
PS: I always pictured you guys as being sort of Beatles-like, coming home and getting out of your limos and then heading down to the lab. You throw little pieces of chit-chat back and forth and then say, “Hey, that would make a good song.”
JF: I think that is probably how the Bee Gees work. It is not really how we work. We do think of ourselves as the shitty Beatles. Most of our ideas for our songs can be found at the bottom of a cup of coffee. I think there is something about the vibe of our songs that has a kind of a common denominator. We don’t have a set way of working and we are always trying to figure out another way to approach songwriting. As a form, there are so many different kinds of songs that you can write and there are so many different approaches you can take that still work. As a forum for ideas, the pop song just gives and gives and gives. It is a really amazingingly powerful vehicle for ideas. I can’t believe it took the culture so long to find the popular song. I can’t believe it is not like a thousand years old.
PS: Who are your influences?
JF: Our influences are probably not much different from other people’s. The Beatles, artistically and culturally, were a huge influence. It is hard to underestimate how big they are. They did a lot of things well, which- I don’t know how important it is to audiences, but I think as a songwriter, it is really important to be challenged by what you are doing and face the idea that you need to do more than one thing well. In a lot of ways, I think we are the last new wave band. It took us a really long time to get noticed and in that time, punk rock and new wave completely went away and people never saw the connection. We started the band in 1982, and were thinking of starting the band a couple years before then, so it really came out of the earliest years of new wave. Then we proceeded to flourish in obscurity for five years. We have really strong tie to first-generation New York and Boston punk rock: Blondie, Taking Heads, Elvis Costello, Human Sexual Response, Patti Smith, the Real Kids…there were a million different bands. The Ramones were a huge conceptual influence. All those bands are really different from each other and each were interesting personal projects. For us, it was kind of amended to “do your own thing.”
PS: Your new album, Mink Car, contains one of my all-time favorite songs, “She Thinks She’s Edith Head.” It is such an infectious song.
JF: Thanks. I was trying to write a one-chord song, which is possible. A bunch of really great blues songs had just one chord. But I couldn’t do it. I failed.
PS: But you came up with a good failure. The theme of the song, mental illness, is relatively serious, and that seems to be a fairly consistent aspect of TMBG songs. Many contain topics far outside the pop song mainstream.
JF: That song is a good example. It is a strange feeling to have an acquaintance of yours lose their mind. Mental illness is a scary thing. When it happens to an acquaintance, it is not necessarily that important. The person in question was not a big part of my life at all. It is a very strange curiosity that happened and it is about feeling emotionally remote as much as anything else. This is not an idea that people usually embrace in the song. Somehow, it was a curious kind of feeling and it seemed an interesting topic. The song is made more colorful by the imagery of it. But at the core of it, that is the idea. I am interested in pursuing subtler ideas about song topics. I think they are worthwhile. I think there is nothing wrong with trying to write about a complicated feeling.
PS: Emotions with a peppy beat.
JF: We try to make it easy.
PS: Anything else on the Giants’ horizon?
JF: The next thing coming up is a children’s record coming out in two months on our own imprint through Rounder Records. It is a really great record. It came out really cool. There are things on it that really remind me a lot of our first record: unusual sounds, very psychedelic in a certain way. The whole thing is enhanced, so it comes with animations from Chopping Block. It is a real cross-platform entertainment package. There is a lot to it. We are featuring some of the animation on a kids-only Website that we have developed called www.giantkid.net.
PS: A whole new generation of They Might Be Giants fans.