Geeking out with They Might Be Giants

BMS talks with singer John Flansburgh on the eve of their doubleheader at Berklee

, Contributing Writer

John Flansburgh is the kind of guy you want to have a few beers with and geek out on music. He just might be one of the best people to do that with, as he happens to be half of They Might Be Giants (along with John Linnell), the multi-talented, multi-faceted, multi-Grammy-winning band who are celebrating 30 years together with a new album and a massive tour. Ahead of two shows at the Berklee Performance Center this Saturday, Flansburgh sat down with Boston Music Spotlight and talked about music, the band’s history and what’s in store for the future.

Boston Music Spotlight (BMS): It feels like you guys have been around forever…

John Flansburgh (JF): You’re telling me, sister! [laughs]

BMS: You’re coming up on your 30th anniversary as a group, and you’ve basically been doing pretty much whatever you wanted, musically, that entire time…

JF: Well, I didn’t invent this saying, but somebody once said that being a professional musician means you get to do what you want a lot more than you want to do it. I think that’s kind of true. We have a lot of really interesting and exciting creative challenges in front of us, but it can be daunting at times. We’re just about to embark on a fifty-plus-date tour over the next few months and that’s a lot of jumpin’ up and down and screaming into microphones. I hope we can hold it together!

BMS: Do you have any words of encouragement for up-and-coming bands who want to follow your example?

JF: No. [laughs] I don’t have any words of encouragement for up-and-coming bands. I don’t know what the future of careers in music will be like; I think it could be more like being in a symphony orchestra or something. We’ve kind of taken our own path and in some ways, I think we’ve taken the low road. When I think about when we started, so many of our decisions were reactive. I remember very early on that we had this very strict policy where we basically stopped opening for people almost right away. I don’t think that was a mistake, but we were so inflexible about it and I’m surprised that our management never really questioned us on it. We did a couple of opening gigs early on that were okay, but they really weren’t that much fun. And I think John [Linnell] and I just decided that we’d rather be kind of the main event in our little world than the sideshow in somebody else’s big world.

BMS: So you kind of set your own destiny really early on.

JF: Yeah. I mean…over the years, we’ve opened for some excellent acts. We opened for Elvis Costello – he asked us to open for him, and that was really an honor. [Opening for established bands] is the kind of thing that practical people do, and I think that we just never approached this in a very practical way. It’s been a weird ride. [laughs]

BMS: Join Us – what critics call your first “adult” album in a few years – was released in July to great reviews. Do you feel that you remain true to yourself whether you’re writing kids music, theme songs or whatever “adult” music is?

JF: Well, people’s lives are complicated. There’s often a lot of discussion about how people put a lot of value on not compromising. But I can tell you that the first time that you walk into the bathroom of most of the clubs that we play in, you are already familiar with what a compromise is. We play bars, you know? Every day there’s weird, crazy challenges that involve some mundane form of compromise.

There are larger things that are what we are about that we never lose track of. The spirit of what we do is pretty much intact, and that’s meaningful. I think the kids stuff – that’s us. It’s not like it was a big stretch to do kids albums. The spirit of what we do…it’s so heavily invested in the kids’ stuff – that’s actually the secret to the success of those projects; it’s been that it really feels like real stuff. It’s not the fake or watered-down version of something. We spend just as much time putting those projects together as we did anything else together.

BMS: If there’s a group of fans that you absolutely cannot fake out, it’s kids.

JF: Well, that’s a fact! Writing songs for kids or just doing shows for kids…winning them over lasts just about ’til the next song. It’s a very provisional kind of love, playing for kids! [laughs]

BMS: There are fewer bands that are more in love with having fun with music than you guys. Did you ever have to fight the urge to be serious, brooding artists?

JF: Well, we have politics – we are citizens in the world. And that does annoy people who disagree with our politics, but I have to remind people that our politics are right and their politics are wrong. [laughs]

You know, I was listening to that Mark Maron podcast the other day – the guy who does the WTF podcasts – and he was talking to Carol Leifer who’s like this lifer stand-up comedienne; she wrote for Seinfeld and she’s been on the scene for a long time. They were reflecting on how strange it is in the world of comedians that they’re so worried about people laughing in the right places, that it’s not just about making people laugh – it’s about people taking it in the way that you want them to take it in. There was something about that that seemed very true to me. One of the nice things about making music is that there’s so much mystery in the delivery of it that performers and audiences can enjoy that. There’s a generosity to that misunderstanding.

People like us for so many different reasons, and people dislike us for a million different reasons, but I don’t want to say any of them are right or wrong, because they’re not. Some people think that we’re intellectual; some people think we’re a party band; some people think our songs are silly; some people think our songs have much deeper meaning than we could ever put into a song; some people just think that we’re making fun of other things; other people think we’re wildly creative.

Music is such a plastic medium; it’s so flexible, and it doesn’t exist in a void. All music piles on all the other music that’s already been made. We’ve been writing songs for hundreds of years. What does it even mean to write a new song? All songs are old, in a way. It’s nice to just be in the mix.

BMS: They Might Be Giants are often said to have a “cult” or “geek” following, and you’re definitely not just a “novelty” act…

JF: I don’t really want to bash novelty music; there’s this other funny thing about being in a band. Culturally, the way critics take in what you do…they kind of hold you up as if you’re at culture war against other things. Personally, I’m in a rock band, but I like a lot of music that isn’t rock music. I don’t even know what kind of music is “novelty” music, really. I guess “Monster Mash” is novelty music. [laughs] But it doesn’t seem like there are really that many people making novelty music. If that’s your thing, that’s fun!

BMS: It’s almost like you guys are the sci-fi TV show of the music industry…

JF: Maybe! [laughs]

BMS: …in that people take you for granted. Your writing may be superb, but you’re only going to win awards for special effects. Obviously, it’s different for you guys because you’ve won Grammys, but do you feel like, among critics, there’s this sort of nebulous definition of what TMBG are?

JF: I don’t even know if rock critics even exist anymore. But when rock criticism was kind of at its high water mark in the ’90s, it seemed like there was a kind of self-seriousness about it. Part of the problem is that the energy of rock music comes out of lot of adolescent impulses. And if you examine it a little too closely, it might not really…its lack of direction might make it harder to take that seriously. Once you start pulling at the threads of teenage rebellion, a lot of it really is just free range anger against your parents. To me, the rock and roll stance seems like such a strange and dated pose. But I love guitars, I play guitar, I love power cords, I love riffs, I love Alice Cooper, I love The Ramones. But the “macho” part of it just seem so full of shit to me.

BMS: Especially now. I mean, who could get up and do a Pete Townshend windmill with a straight face – including Pete Townshend?

JF: Actually, to be perfectly honest with you…I could. I don’t think I could smash a guitar, but I’ve been working on my windmills and they’re a lot of fun. [laughs]

BMS: You guys have always looked for unique venues for your music. I love that you got your start with Dial-A-Song, and then became the first band to ever release an entire album as MP3s…

JF: Well, we have an app coming for iPhones that should be done in the next couple of weeks! The next thing that we’ve got to figure out is how to do it for Android phones.

BMS: Do you feel like apps are the next frontier as far as getting music out there, or is something else coming along?

JF: I think in terms of making a go of it as a professional musician, once you get past the noise of everybody and their cousin having a GarageBand music project, I think the business of working bands is probably going to fold back a little bit to what it was like in the ’50s. It will be a much smaller affair with much less people involved, and the people involved by and large are either total true believers in music, or they’re just really small-time chiselers who couldn’t find work in a more highly scrutinized business. Which is basically what the music business was; there really wasn’t much money in it. It was a good venue for people who were kind of half-baked business people or that was all they could do because that was all they love. That’s kind of what it is for us – we don’t have a lot of transferable skills. This is what we know how to do, and this is what we like doing. It’s easy.

BMS: So, you and John Linnell grew up in Lincoln, but do you consider yourselves a “Boston band”?

JF: Well, it’s an interesting question. We started in New York City as a band. Very specifically, we came out of a local scene in the East Village in the ’80s which wasn’t a cohesive scene because the bands were very different from each other in very real ways, but it was a scene. We’re very culturally identified by New York City, but John and I were very influenced by the punk rock scene of Boston at a very specific time in our lives. Basically, in our last couple of years of high school and the first couple years of college, we were definitely at The Rathskeller a fair amount of times. John was in a band out of Providence that played everywhere. I was a really big rock fan; there was no end to the number of bands that I saw in Boston: The Real Kids and Willie Alexander, Reddy Teddy, BMZ, Third Rail, The Cars. And then, beyond that, there’s a whole host of crazy bands like Human Sexual Response, The Girls and The Maps, Mission of Burma. So, yeah, the Boston scene was very influential on us in a very formative way.

BMS: Were you guys ever on V66?

JF: I don’t think we were! I remember watching V66, and a sister station in New York called U68. Outside of a few neighborhoods in Manhattan, nobody had cable TV. The whole fad of MTV really went unnoticed in New York City for the first few years. But we had hip-hop, which was pretty exciting! Up until hip-hop, the only music with drum machines was Kraftwerk or Stevie Wonder or Sly Stone. All that music is important and interesting to me, but the hip-hop records actually were informative. They made you realize you could put together a recording in a different way than just like a band with bass, guitar, drums. In New York City, we didn’t have a place to play the drums – we couldn’t make noise. [laughs] A big part of our sound was what we were not allowed to do.

BMS: What’s on the horizon for you? Can you give us any juicy gossip that nobody else has heard?

JF: I already gave you the app gossip! [laughs] We’re just on the road until March and doing live shows. We’ve got a lot of videos coming out. We did videos for “Spoiler Alert” and “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, and then there’s a secret video that will be coming out for Christmas. So, stay tuned!

They Might Be Giants are playing two show sat the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, October 1 at 7 and 10 p.m. The first show will feature the band performing songs beginning with A through M of their catalogue, while the second show will feature songs starting with N through Z. Tickets for both shows are still available through Ticketmaster for $25.

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