Interview: Lessons with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants [Music]

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We may not be aware, but we have all experienced They Might Be Giants in one form or another. As a child I unknowingly witnessed their work watching Tiny Toons and Malcolm in the Middle and never imagined I’d be coming back to question the entity behind it all. They were still an established band long before this time and have maintained strong output of inventive art that marks them a beloved act by all audiences. Leading the forefront of the inevitable internet-music marriage, they were the first artists to self-run an online music store and release albums exclusively in MP3. The past few years have kept them involved in mostly youth culture (get ‘em while they’re young) with their last three albums directed at children. Today, the two Johns tour in support of their latest adult TMBG album in four years, Join Us, which has been received surprisingly well according to John Flansburgh.

I caught up with John to discuss music and their upcoming show at Waterfront Park, a free event hosted by WFPK in their final Waterfront Wednesday of the season. Through the thousands of interviews past, it was clear he knew how to throw one down and made good company for a relaxed conversation. Flansburgh says he’s looking forward to be back in Louisville; this time TMBG is joined by Baltimore’s J Roddy Waltson & The Business and Louisville pop posse The Deloreans. Although there probably won’t be science lessons on the set list, it shouldn’t discourage you from bringing along the kiddies anyway. It’s an awfully generous opportunity with a free event of this capacity, and could seriously handicap your credibility as a human being if you neglected the legs/nubs you were born and failed to attend. A free They Might Be Giants gig is more of a right than an opportunity; don’t waste it!

You’re going to be doing a free waterfront show here in September.

Right, right. It’ll be fun to be back in Louisville. You know, Louisville used to be very much on the circuit of cities that we played. And I’m not sure if the rock club that put them on the map closed down or…I can’t remember the name of the rectangular room we played in.

Was it Headliners? [Note: I later came to find it was Tewligan's, which is now Cahoots]

No, it wasn’t. I forget the name it was called. In fact, the name might have changed a couple times, but I remember at one point we were still touring in a van, so it must have been the early 90s. And somebody—a fan—stole a license plate off our van which was such a drag, because it was at the beginning of a month of touring. We would have t-shirts drop shipped to us every five or six days and we’d have to go to an airport to pick them up. So we’d go to a local airport in some city and pick them up wherever the drop shipping place was. And one might not know this—but they’ve done it—if you drive a van without a license plate onto an airport, they know right away. [Laughs]

Basically they tipped off a crazy set of police alarm bells. But fortunately we had paperwork from the Louisville police saying that our license plate had been stolen, but you can’t get a replacement plate until you actually get back to the state where the vehicle was registered. So, we had to wait a month. And we were driving around for a month without a license plate, so we got pulled over like a half-dozen times, which really sucked.

Wow, that’s really sketch!

Well what’s weird about it is they were, officially, our friends, you know? They were fans who were getting a souvenir, “ha-ha.” So that month was really shitty.

So, about how many interviews do you think you’ve done?

Oh, I don’t know, probably a few thousand. We’ve probably done almost 2,000 shows, and we do at least an interview per show. And that’s actually probably a conservative number. I’m used to it.

The current tour is in support of your new album Join Us, and I've noticed through your Twitter feed that several of your shows have been free events. For a band of your notoriety, it seems odd you aren't asking for any kind of admission. Any reason why?

Well, we did a big free show in Brooklyn right as the album was being released and that was just a very celebratory thing. You know, we do a free show in New York and there are 10,000 people so it’s a way to celebrate the release. This radio show [WFPK] is just something that’s having a big event and we’re taking part in it. There’s nothing better than a free show; it’s a great vibe. And you kind of super-size your audience when you play a free show. You get the music out to more people, so it’s kind of a win-win situation.

What are your favorites to play live?

Well, whenever you play a super familiar song, it gets a different kind of response from the audience which is exciting. But I think on a musical level, it’s always interesting to have new songs in the show, whether they’re from the catalog or it’s an old repertoire that you brought back or brand new songs. Right now there’s a bunch of brand new songs from the album and they’re getting a very warm response which is…unusual. But it seems like people are paying a lot more attention to this record than typical. The typical thing is kind of a time delay on how audiences respond to songs. Like when they’re brand new, they tend to be kind of quiet.

Most of them don’t know or care to know about them yet.

That’s to be expected, but over time they become equally beloved. Although I have to say, this record’s getting a very different kind of response. Even the first couple times we played songs in the past couple weeks, certain new songs have just gotten a really big reaction, so it’s very exciting.

I think it might also be because your last releases have been children’s albums.

Oh, yeah. And that’s like a different audience entirely really. We don’t really mix those worlds. The stuff we do for adults is strictly for adults and what we do for kids is certainly for kids. So the shows are very distinctly different. We’re not into generating that level of confusion.

Right. So you’d take a different approach to making a kids album?

The things that are different are the things that are the same. You know, the challenge of writing a good song is always kind of there. Those things have a lot of common elements. They sort of function differently; it’s hard to say what the difference is, but I wouldn’t say they’re completely different.

Who writes more of the music/lyrics?

Well, we’re both songwriters and then we collaborate on things.

Has it varied over certain albums?

It really varies from song to song, but by large we typically just pull our efforts into the project. There’s a lot of experimentation in the way we approach collaborating. It’s not like one of us is a music guy and one of us is a lyrics guy. I would say a lot of songwriters work in sort a painterly way and a sculptural way- they kind of throw stuff out there and let it pile up, and there are people who are into editing and the subtractive kind of pruning of ideas. There’s a lot of peeling back of ideas in our work. To try to figure out how to arrange a song is always a big question for us.

TMBG has always been ahead of the curve in terms of adapting technology and alternative ways to distribute music. Where do you see this heading? Do you believe that file-sharing is a beneficial part of music's digital transition or does it do more harm than enrich?

In terms of the business of music, once you take the money out of it, it changes the talent pool. There was a time when a lot of very bright people were running record companies, because they were professionally ambitious. You know, people tend to look at the business of music from a very…they think about the artist and they kind about audiences, but they don’t think about how it functions as a business. There are advantages to having file-sharing and there’s things that are nice about artists being able to make a living. The economics right now are very different. And having been picking around this—you know, my first job was working in a record store when I was 17 years old; I’m 51 now. I’ve seen multiple formats come and go. I’ve seen generational shifts, and there was this period where. People always sentimentalize things. The truth of the matter is, in the 1950's there was a lot of crooks involved in music. A lot of those crooks kind of got pushed out by more legitimate business practices over the course of 30 years as the business got bigger and more corporate. And it’s hard to say. People talk about the 50’s like it was a glorious era, but it was an era where the only people managing bands were crooks and the people running record companies were crooks. So, how great is a business when it’s all run by crooks? I’m a little bit nervous that as the money marches out of the music business, it seems very likely that the crooks will return. But that’s just a guess. The music business is a very strange one.

This is totally on the side, but an interesting point. People are talking about schoolteachers and they’re complaining about…ah, it’s too complicated to explain. But it goes back to the idea of talent pools shifting. If you think of all the great women who are doctors, lawyers, engineers and business people- all the women in the workforce right now were doing all these amazing things. And imagine that all those women in a different generation would be teachers. Think about what a change in the talent pools for teachers it is. Just generationally. In one generation, it’s gone from being teaching and nursing were the professions of women and now women are everywhere in the business world. If you’re a teacher, and they change the culture of teaching. Because you just don’t have the best and the brightest in your work pool. And I have to say, I remember when there was a time when everybody’s kid wanted to be an intern at the record company. And when that changed, I really felt like, oh, music isn’t the business of future.

I also noticed your music video output has slowed since ’92.

Well, we’ve done three full length DVDs for kids in the past five years. There all like an hour long animated music video collection. MTV doesn’t really exist anymore. We’ve done lots of music video-type things, but the old fashioned music video doesn’t have as many outlets.

It’s definitely losing its value.

Yeah. And the shift in outlets and value kind of made the budgeting a really confusing thing. If you’re an established band and you try to make a rock video, people immediately want to attach a zero to the budget where it might not normally be because your presence makes it a bigger deal. But still, it’s a world of $5,000 rock videos now. It’s not a world of $50,000 rock videos and it doesn’t really make sense for us spend a whole ton of money on videos when there’s no place for them to get played. And they don’t hold people’s interest that much.

How did you get a spot on Xavier: Renegade Angel?

Oh, I’m friends with the people who put that show together and they asking if I could come in and do a thing. It’s very crazy.

What are your thoughts on the show? Did you have a fun experience?

It was very, very strange. I spent like an hour screaming at the top of my lungs. The production company that does those shows [PFFR], they also did Wonder Showzen, and they’re very creative people with loopy ideas. They’re neighbors of mine; just nice people.

It’s great; it really is. Do you have any current side-projects in the works?

No, we’re going on the road for six months, so my side-project is gonna be eating chicken wings at three in the morning.

They Might Be Giants will be performing with J Roddy Waltons & The Business and the Deloreans at Waterfront Park on Sept. 21st. Admission is FREE and all ages.

Photo: Lastfm/TMBG photo album

About Lara Kinne
I am an Illinois native and have enjoyed life in Louisville for four years. Currently, I'm holding a position as web editor for The Louisville Cardinal, UofL's student newspaper, in addition to contributing regularly to LEO, Louisville.com and my own website, Huevos (spanishforeggs.com). I was an assistant editor for my high school paper back in the day and have continued writing from a young age. My goal is to provide the masses with no-bull sentiments of independent music and arts. Email me: larakinne@spanishforeggs.com
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