By Andy Fetter
Talking about nostalgia is tricky. You don’t want to get hung up on the “good old days” when there so much good stuff happening now. However, 10 seconds into my conversation with John Flansburgh (co-founder along with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants) it almost immediately turned to the past.
For starters, he grilled me on the title of our publication, wondering if we were truly “in the Ghetto.” I tried to answer diplomatically, but he wasn’t having it. “It’s a simple yes or no question,” he said directly, while trying to stifle a laugh. The best answer I could come up with was to let him know that we still do print issues, and he could interpret that however he wanted.
It actually was a decent transition to how I intended our conversation to begin. About 3 years ago, I found a copy of their self-titled album on cassette at a thrift store. It’s nostalgia on three different levels. It didn’t seem to take him by surprise. “It all circles around to how you see yourself in the universe. We only made 5,000 copies of that cassette. Even back then we knew that we were future landfill.”
That’s certainly one way of looking at a legacy of over three decades of making music that has taken them from seedy, artsy New York clubs to making music for the Disney Channel. However, John feels pretty fortunate that They Might Be Giants have flown pretty under the radar yet still been able to keep it going for so long.
“John and I don’t really have a notion of how well known we are. We’ve never really broken into the mainstream, and it’s helped for us to have low expectations so that we’re not taking out three mortgages. I will say that we’ve been told on 3 separate occasions that Bob Dylan really likes our music. When you hear something like that once, you kind of brush it off and don’t really think about it. But after the third time, it really sinks in. So I guess we do have at least some bragging rights.”
If that doesn’t justify bragging rights, their new album Nanobots certainly does. It’s their sixteenth studio release (which doesn’t include hundreds of other EPs, B-side collections, TV and movie soundtrack appearances, etc.) and contains mostly all new material, even only a year and a half after the release of their last record Join Us. The only exception is the semi-biographical “Tesla,” inspired by the inventor and Science Fiction icon Nikola Tesla.
“We originally wanted to include that song on Here Comes Science (their third album of children’s music), as it tells a tale of the unusual life of a scientist,” John says. “But as we learned more about him and discovering things like him going out of his mind towards the end of his life, we decided that the subject matter had too troubling of a vibe for a kids’ record.”
John continues, “It’s a pretty fucked up record in general. Those short songs add a psychedelic feel to the record. Using those quick ideas changes your expectations of what’s going to happen. Like the song “Hive Mind” is just the title of the song sung twice. I sometimes find it hard to distance between those short songs we do and commercials or jingles. They just put that one quick idea in your head and then they’re gone. It fits with how we write though. We use a lot of simple song structures that are just skeletal or stripped down ideas. A good example of that is the song “Black Ops,” which the majority of it is just me singing over a drum beat.”
While having an interchangeable team of backing musicians in their time as a band (which has been more consistent for the last few records), the core of the band has always been Flansburgh and Linnell, and you’d have to wonder how collaborating with primarily one other person works for so long.
“I think John and I are really fortunate we’re not brothers. We’re very direct with each other, like high school friends. And if there are any contentions, they get sorted out pretty quickly. It helps because we actually have a lot of time apart from each other. Performing live it’s cool because we have this tag-team mentality and it’s good for energy conservation. Of course we’ve also done solo projects, where you don’t really have that back and forth and sometimes it feels like you’re being shot out of a cannon. With the band, we do allow the other guys to have freedom with what they play. However, John and I still do retain veto power. It’s funny because we’ve been arguing about things like drum fills for at least a decade.”
They Might Be Giants are one of the few bands that I liked in high school that I feel have gotten better with age. And it made me so proud when my son started getting into them (even if it was stuff associated with Disney). As a dad, I felt obligated to ask if a follow up to Here Comes Science was in the future. John responded pretty optimistically.
“We’ve done quite a bit of our ‘adult’ music, so I think we’re about due for another kids’ record. We really like doing that stuff. Though I think we’re still the least nice in the realm of children’s music. It doesn’t have that ‘lighter than air’ feel that you get with most of that stuff. And we’ve done a lot of stuff for TV which has also been fun, but obviously we’d still rather do our own stuff.”