Mr. Xcitement: An Interview with John Flansburgh of
They Might Be Giants
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since They Might Be Giants released their last official full-length studio album. In fact, between a live album, a couple of MP3-only compilations for eMusic, and a gig composing and performing the theme song and incidental music for Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, one could argue that the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has been more visible than ever over the past half-decade — so busy that you might even wonder when they find time to sleep! “Yeah, we’ve been pretty busy,” John Flansburgh agrees. “It’s been kind of a burn, a little bit. I feel like that little red light is blinking… power is low.”
You wouldn’t be able to tell that by listening to their latest album, though. Mink Car, released in September, breaks the five-year studio “silence” for the band, and is every bit worth the wait, combining the eclectic experimentalism of the band’s early albums with the harder, more rock-oriented full band sound of their last decade’s worth of work. The result is the band’s best album since 1991’s Apollo 18, and a worthy companion piece to their brilliant sophomore album, Lincoln.
Flansburgh had just returned from a long stint on the road when I caught up with him by telephone from his Brooklyn home, but was kind enough to take the time for an extensive interview about the new album and the band’s myriad other projects.
Well, it’s not like you’ve been stagnant for the last five years, but Mink Car is the first “official” full-length album you guys have put out in that time.
Yes, and it’s very exciting to be back in the swing of “official” full-length, tangible, physical CDs and stuff.
Is there something that the album says as a full album, as opposed to just a collection of songs, like some of the things you’ve done with eMusic?
I guess the thing is, I wish I was cool enough to not be so bound by the idea of the physical world defining my reality. If I was a less material person, having releases online would be completely satisfying, but I do, I’m a record collector, and just in general, a materialist, and having an album cover and that kind of stuff always just makes something seem more tangible to me. Even when we were doing stuff with eMusic, I was always trying to push on them the idea that people could burn stuff, and make their own cover, and have artwork, and that stuff kind of matters. When we did Long Tall Weekend, we actually figured out a way that people could put a cover together for it, which kind of makes sense. But I love the artwork on Mink Car, I think it looks really, really cool.
I was going to say, judging by what you’re saying, it seems like you went all out on the package as this one, perhaps as a reaction?
Well, I mean, we’re working with these guys at The Chopping Block who are very talented, and they were very excited about doing it. We went back and forth on the ideas for the album cover a lot. They have a big group of designers there, it was definitely the work of a lot of people’s imaginations. It came out great. It was really funny, too. It reminds me of my favorite kinds of album covers, where there’s a lot of information, and there’s also like a lot of nonsense. It’s really fun to stare at.
Speaking musically, how do you approach going in to do a new full-length as opposed to doing something like Long Tall Weekend?
Well, I mean, it was not… only the last couple of months of the process of making the record were completely focused on and directed on completing Mink Car as an album. We actually did it in sort of different segments; we did some stuff with Pat Dillett, and some stuff with Joe Nicolo at the initial period of recording. We did a bunch of stuff on our own, kind of in between doing incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle and other projects that we’ve been doing the last couple of years, and then we kind of wrapped up in a blaze of glory with Adam Schlesinger and Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, and a lot of that stuff is, you know, major reworkings of songs that we’ve been playing in the show for a couple of years. And so, I guess the biggest different from our previous records is that usually, we come off the road and record albums. With this record, we were basically coming out of the studio on other projects, and sometimes even in the same day, going back in and working on this. And there were a number of occasions when we were actually doing work at more than one studio. There was one point where we actually had three sessions going on simultaneously. That was really nuts. Clive was doing like a session with The Elegant Too, kind of messing around with “I’ve Got a Fang,” while I was working with Adam Schlesinger wrapping up the mix on some songs, and Linnell and Dan Miller were doing overdubs with Alan Winstanley, and so we actually had three like real, bonafide New York studios going all at the same time.
Wow, that’s insane.
Yeah, it was very C + C Music Factory of us. They were famous for kind of having multiple sessions going at the same time. We would work at Skyline Studios — they used to have three studios there — and we would often be in just the little MIDI studio working, and then C + C Music Factory would have the other two studios going full blast, often locked out for weeks on end.
It’s actually a surprisingly efficient way to work, because you don’t need to be at a mix session for most of the day. You’re actually only needed for a couple of meaningful hours. So if you want to work efficiently, there’s nothing not to recommend working that way, except that it does, just on paper, it seems insane.
Getting back to what I was saying before, the real difference is that coming from doing other recordings, we weren’t at all cold to the recording process, we were actually very used to trying to sort of conjure sounds out of the studio and very used to doing a wide variety of recording, and I think one of the reasons why the record sounds… I think the record is very intense, and it’s very vivid in a way that we’ve tried to do before — I think with John Henry and Factory Showroom, we were trying to make kind of high-impact, action-packed records with live rhythm sections and incorporating all our electronic music ideas from before then into one thing, but I think what really makes it actually kind of hang together in a more compelling way on this record is that we actually were very comfortable with the studio, and very comfortable with the materials of making these recordings in a really full-blown way. You know, it’s kind of a trick. When we started working, we were just working with drum machines, and we really knew how to kind of get the most out of that kind of little narrow slice of what was available to us, and most of that was really homemade stuff, and we had a lot of time to kind of explore what was available. As we’ve gone on, through the ’90s, working in real studios, we don’t have unlimited amounts of time to kind of explore. The actual studio time is very expensive, and we feel like we do the best job that we can, but there is something to be said for having those experiences under your belt, and really knowing how to make drums jump, and just get the mix really going. I don’t know, we’ve learned a lot — I guess that’s not a surprise. But I think the experience of working with Malcolm definitely taught us how to work really quickly, and also taught us how to push things to another level.
I think a lot of people are very really of confused by this record, because it’s so full on, and goes in so many directions, but I think it’s pretty successful. The stuff that we’re attempting to do, I think pays off pretty well. A lot of the electronic stuff I think sounds really cool. I think “Wicked Little Critta” sounds really interesting, and “Mr. Xcitement” is also really interesting, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t include that kind of stuff in our general approach. I don’t like projecting too much into what people “expect” from us, or what audiences want from bands — I don’t know how fruitful it is — but I think that there might be a desire that we just be “nice,” that we be kind of a “friendly” band. I think that, you know, we’re friendly people, and I don’t think we’re trying to mine some mysterious, enigmatic angle as “rock personalities,” but as far as our songwriting goes, and just like the way the songs sound, I don’t want to get too hung up on the idea that our songs reflect what we’re like as people. If I could figure out a way to completely divorce my body and what people think of as like my face, or my image, and just sing a song from the point of view of like, an actual monster, that would be fine with me. I think that there’s something really great about characters in songs. I guess like “Cyclops Rock” is kind of like that. I can’t even say that it’s not just the way that somebody who’s been spurned feels, amped up to kind of a melodramatic level, but the issues in that song aren’t really my issues, it’s just an interesting thing to write about.
Well, when you said “sing from the point of view of a monster,” that song was exactly what came to my mind.
Yeah, well, I mean, it is kind of like this monstrous song, and it’s really, it’s ugly, you know? And I think… I mean, I dress nicely, I don’t want people to think that we’re monsters, or we’re ugly, but I don’t want to have to worry about our image so far into what we’re doing that it actually inhibits the expression. And that’s something that not everyone in the world wants to do that, or is willing to do that. It probably doesn’t help us, in the marketplace. I think if we kind of soft-pedaled that stuff, we’d probably be more successful, or at least sort of more immediately appealing, but I’m still into the expression.
So I’m very happy with the way Mink Car came out. I guess the one thing that’s tough about it is that it just doesn’t have the kind of continuity that makes people feel like they can understand it. There’s a lot of really interesting songs on it, and I think that it’s a very exciting sounding record, but I just don’t know if it holds together in the unified way that an album that gets recognized as a great album holds together. In some ways, it reminds me of Lincoln in a way, which is that Lincoln has a lot of interesting songs on it, but it didn’t really hang together like all in one way, like our first album really hangs together to me.
See, but I think that’s a strength, though. I think this album has a lot of spiritual kinship to Lincoln…
Well, it’s adventurous, you know, and that’s always good. I’m trying to figure out what our next record is going to be like, and I’m wondering if we should make a more concerted effort to actually make it be a unified sounding thing. I’m wondering if we should make a much simpler kind of record, actually, somehow, but I don’t know how to do that. It’s really tempting to, once you’re comfortable with the kind of ingredients that go into song production, it’s really hard to kind of restrict your palette.
You mentioned from the technical side how things like Malcolm have changed the way you approach going into a new album. Is there any other way that these side projects influenced the development of Mink Car?
The thing about all of the outside stuff, most of the outside stuff that we’ve done, is that it’s largely instrumental, so it’s actually been kind of our, it’s been a real lucky break for us, because up until now, that’s probably been the most underdeveloped part of the kind of work that we’d be interested in doing. Obviously, when you’re writing songs, there’s lyrics and vocals and all sorts of stuff that’s very specific to songwriting issues, and working instrumentally, it’s a whole other thing, I guess you just get tuned into pure sound in a more abstract way. It’s kind of expanded our horizons a bit. And actually, I have to say both doing all the instrumental stuff for Malcolm, and the other thing — I mean, Malcolm is definitely the biggest task of the bunch, and Jon Stewart, and the other incidental music jobs that we’ve had — along with doing the children’s record, which because it wasn’t really rock-oriented, we weren’t really thinking about beats or grooves or drum sounds as much as we were about kind of interesting sounds. I think we really kind of got back to our original anti-rock recipe, which is that when we started, we had a lot of kinds of sounds available to us except kind of standard “rock,” the standard “rock” line-up. That’s an interesting place to start. Even though there’s some pretty hard-rocking moments on Mink Car, I think we definitely got pretty far afield from just doing a straight-ahead rock album.
You mentioned the children’s record. Real quick, what’s the status on that?
Well, one way or another, it’s gonna be out in the spring. There’s a couple of different scenarios that have been kind of getting batted back and forth, and it’s hard to know what the status of it is, because it keeps on shifting around because the companies that we’re talking to are having really tough financial times that have nothing to do with us but have everything to do with their ability to make stuff happen. We just want to get this record out. I think it’s going to do really well in the marketplace, and obviously, there are a lot of people that are really looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to it just getting out, because it’s such a strong record, and I think the They Might Be Giants fans are going to really love it. Speaking of the “nice” things, the children’s record is like the “nicest” record we’ve ever made. I mean, it’s very kid-friendly, and there’s just something very sweet and sort of Seussian about it that I think• it’s hard not to like it. It’s got this whole• The Chopping Block did this whole enhanced CD artwork for it that makes it just a really killer package, so when it comes out, I think it’s gonna blow a lot of people away. It’s really nice.
Going back to what you were saying before, the last time I talked to you, you said that doing Malcolm allowed you to “realize your secret fantasies of being electronica artists”…
Huh? [Laughs] Well, it has!
Well, and now, on Mink Car, you’re working with The Elegant Too, and I was wondering if that was a direct response.
Oh, yeah! I mean, those guys are real masters of that kind of contemporary, completely sample-based way of arranging stuff. They’re really, really good musicians, as well, so they’re coming at it from a pretty educated point of view, but they definitely stick to their computer monitors when they’re working. When I first started working with them, they were doing a lot of self-sampling, but more and more, I just see them going to great lengths to just manipulate whatever materials they have on hand, and not get up off the chair and start re-recording stuff — which is funny, because they’re both, Phil and Chris are incredibly good, gifted musicians. It’s just fun to work electronically, There’s a whole world of stuff that’s available right now that’s never been available before, and it’s really a gas to take advantage of it.
Is there any specific significance behind the title of the album?
Well, my wife Robin was saying… we were sort of kicking around a bunch of titles, and nobody was ever happy with any of them, and then Robin suggested we should call the record Our Wives Want Mink Cars, just as like, sort of a strange concession to — I think there’s a thing in rock where bands are always apologizing for desiring any kind of larger success. The sort of, you have to hide what would be the most reasonable kind of ambition for your own personal project. I guess one of the things about being in a band for 19 years that has not become a superstar act is that you become much more comfortable with the idea that it’s a struggle. You kind of want it to get past it being a struggle, but it’s probably going to be something of a struggle forever. So you’re not so embarrassed about just saying, “hey, yeah, we want it to be big! [Laughs] We’re looking for breaks, here!” So it kind of came out of that, this idea that, “hey, why not have it be a big fat success?” And then we just kind of chopped it down to the more mysterious Mink Car, and then, once it was determined that that was actually going to be the title of the record, John and I put together the song “Mink Car,” which has got kind of a slightly different spin on it. It kind of has this Burt Bacharach kind of swanky vibe to it, and the lyrics of the song are kind of this strange, “through the looking glass” set of ideas about everything in the world being highly luxurious, yet kind of messed up.
You know, the thing I’ve never understood about not wanting bands to be “successful,” in terms of wanting to keep something to yourself, and make it precious, is that every band that I’ve ever talked to, the reason that they bother to record music and play live shows is that they want people to hear their music…
Yeah, I mean, it’s a paradoxical situation. I mean, I understand, there’s a subcultural thing that happens where people identify with a band and they don’t really want it to be appropriated by the general public, and also, when things… success has a way of dismantling the promise of a lot of projects. Success can be very destructive, and kind of end the good times for a band. So, I know why people are suspicious of it, but at the same time, a lot of times when bands actually find a larger audience or have some more abstract idea of an outside audience, they actually start doing their best work. I think you can probably point to as many examples of bands that kind of grew up and rose to the challenge of doing great work when they found a larger audience for what they were doing.
For us, we’re probably one of the strangest examples of a band, because we actually, it took us so long to even get the most basic kind of situation going, we kind of already had a style established before anybody even heard us, I mean, we did a lot of growing up in private, because we were such a small-time thing for the first four or five years. Maybe we were lucky that way, I don’t know. A few episodes of Behind The Music, and everybody thinks they’ve got some angle on reality. I think., in general, people are a lot more worried about the sort of morality, and trying to figure out the intentions of the people working, and not worrying enough about whether it’s actually good or not. I’d much rather listen to some big show business phony, and their kind of fascinating document, their interesting song. I’ve said this before, but I never worried about the fact that Bob Dylan had a really lucrative major label contract. It never really affected my perception of what his stuff means. Honestly, Bob Dylan is an extraordinarily wealthy guy, but that’s so unimportant in the general scheme of what his music is about, obviously. I just feel like the more bogged down people get in those kind of issues, the smaller it makes their music scene. If the music’s really good, the money seems really secondary.
We talked about your incidental and scoring work a lot last time, so I don’t want to get too much into that, but what was the first work that you guys did as far as that kind of stuff? Was it Malcolm?
Well, I did the music for this Nickelodeon animated pilot that never got picked up called Stewie the Dog Boy, that we did the theme for, and that was kind of the first thing we did. I’m trying to think of other… We did some incidental music for a movie, we did the end credits for this Space Ghost thing… and it just started coming in in drips and drabs. Then, when the Malcolm thing happened, it was kind of like, all of a sudden, that’s what we were doing. We weren’t going out on the road, we were just going to be doing this stuff every week, and it kind of immediately took over our lives. I don’t think we really realized that that was what was gonna happen, because when we did the pilot, there were only like a half-dozen cues, but then when we were doing shows, there was like 20 to 30 cues, so the amount of work actually went up exponentially, and there was no warning that that was what was gonna happen, but all of a sudden, the actual workload was kind of overwhelming. But then, while we were doing that, we actually took on a lot of other work, including the Jon Stewart show. [Remembering] Oh, you know, we did the “Brave New World” thing for Nightline, and that actually was really the first big kind of scoring job we had. We were doing, like, news music for Ted Koppel to talk over, and that was like a really grand departure, because it was completely like strings and horns, and sort of military stuff, and kind of like art-music stuff, and just didn’t sound anything like anything we’d ever done before. And that was actually the job that got us the Daily Show stuff, because it was exactly the kind of music that they were looking to, essentially, parody in The Daily Show. So, they were very interested in getting us on board because we had a good understanding of the comic tone they were trying to achieve, plus the skill to actually do the authentic-sounding, kind of martial music that is TV news music. As these things go, kind of one thing leads to the next, and just in the same way that the Malcolm theme led to us having the opportunity to do the incidental music for the show.
Are you doing all the incidental music on The Daily Show?
When you see the show, there’s sort of a set music package that, like they’ll do like “Headlines,” and “Other News,” and there’s like an opening music, and [hums Daily Show theme], and all those things… all the things that happen in every show are us. The only thing we didn’t do was the “Back In Black” thing [for Lewis Black’s segments], which is like this really transparent rip-off of AC/DC’s “Back In Black.” It’s funny, because we actually did our own really transparent rip-off of “Back In Black,” but it was considered too far afield from the original to really get the point across. It was funny, because we thought we were doing stem cell research, it was so jive. It was clearly not close enough, and the one that they have on the show seems almost… I mean, you could really litigate.
As a result of all this, are you finding yourselves in demand as composers? Are you on the Danny Elfman career track?
You know, I think it’s something that’s available to us, and I’m very interested in working with creative directors on projects that actually involve a more kind of active role for us. I think the thing about what we’ve been doing up until now is that it’s been very challenging in the most immediate way, like we’ve actually had to create more music in a week than we ever thought we could, and we’ve had to work in styles that we never thought we could work in before. But I think the actual task of just making that amount of music on a regular basis is sort of a buzzkill for us. I think we actually, we want to be… you know, we just want to be more involved in the artistic part of what we’re doing. I think there is something inherently tough about doing incidental music, I think you really have to balance the effort, you have to know when to kind of just be loose, and do something in an off-the-cuff way, and then figure out when you really need to dig in and get the timings really perfect and really have a very, very sensitive piece of music tuned into the scene. I don’t know how Danny Elfman does it. Linnell was telling me that he heard an interview with Danny Elfman the other day, and Danny Elfman was saying he realized he could do a minute of music a week, and that seems like a pretty sweet gig to me, because we could never have gotten by with just doing a minute of music a week for Malcolm.
I don’t know, I like being in They Might Be Giants the most of all, to be perfectly honest. I don’t feel validated by doing Hollywood stuff, it’s never been a dream of mine, I’m not particularly a movie fan, which I think is something that is considered kind of a job requirement to do that kind of thing. I mean, I’m interested in ideas, but I’m not interested in show biz in the abstract.
It’s really funny, too, because I’ve read interviews with Danny Elfman recently where he’s been talking about wanting to make rock records again, so…
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing is, the grass is always greener, and that’s why it’s good to just kind of change it up. I have no regrets that we kind of took a couple years off from heavy touring, but I have to say, the past couple of months we’ve been on the road steadily, and we’ve been doing the most satisfying shows, I think, of my career with They Might Be Giants. For me, just personally, I feel like the band sounds great, the show is incredibly consistent, we have a huge range of material we can draw on, we’ve got all this brand new material that’s really exciting to play that actually is going over real well, and it just couldn’t be any better. The shows are all selling out, people are really responding to what we’re doing, we haven’t gotten sick.
No mishaps in Florida this time? Linnell’s not passing out anywhere?
No, that’s the other thing, for whatever reason, our health has really held up well. Nobody got sick, which is really unusual.
I saw the show in Orlando a couple of months ago, and it was great. I couldn’t believe you guys were playing “Fingertips!”
Oh, yeah! Yeah, I mean, we’re doing “Dead” now, as well, which is another song that I never knew if we would ever get into the repertoire, and I’m really, really happy it’s there. It kind of opens up the show in a completely different way, as does “Fingertips.” You know, The Band of Dans [TMBG’s auxiliary unit live and in the studio, comprised of drummer Dan Hickey, bassist Dan Weinkauf, and guitarist Dan Miller], they’re such great players, and I’m just so happy that we’ve got such a great lineup and the shows are just so together.
We were talking about film, and it kind of leads into the fact that there’s a film being made about you guys right now…
Yeah, A.J. Schnack, who’s my producer who’s done all the videos I’ve done for other bands, sort of decided last year that he was going to do a documentary on us, and I have to say, I’m really terrified of it. I have no idea what it’s going to be like, I have no idea what the tone of it is going to be like. I actually asked him — he’s editing it right now, and I asked him the other day how it was coming out and he said things are going along good. And I was like, “is it funny?,” and he was like [deep voiced], “oh yeah.” [Laughs] So, I hope it’s light, because… I don’t know. Like a lot of documentaries, it reflects the director to a certain degree, and I think because he is a rock video producer, I think he’s very fixated on kind of the very early history of the band as a video band, and I know that as far as he’s concerned, one of the biggest contributions that the band did was that we kind of reintroduced what I think The Beatles kind of created in A Hard Day’s Night, which is the glorious insignificance of kind of a spontaneous musical and visual performance. There’s something very light about A Hard Day’s Night, and I think there’s something that runs parallel to it in all our videos. I can’t say that we were the first people to do it, because I think The Beatles, actually, that form, you know, [A Hard Day’s Night director] Richard Lester really created a tone that is there for anybody to take, but it was really absent in the early days of rock video. By kind of introducing that idea again, of just kind of having some fun in a video in kind of a carefree way and not worrying that it was going to be dopey, has been really influential. I mean, I’ve talked to lots of musicians who are really big fans of our videos, and I think there’s a reason.
It sounds like you don’t have a lot of creative input into or control over the documentary project.
No, we really left it to A.J. to kind of design it. We perform in it, and we’re interviewed in it, and we’re the topic of it, but it’s not our project, I don’t think we really want it to be our project. I’d like to do some kind of visual project soon, possibly like a DVD kind of thing, but have it be much more abstract. I think it would be kind of a megalomaniacal exercise to try to actually contour your own bio. It’s hard to cut your own hair.