They Might Be in the Middle: An Interview with John Flansburgh of
They Might Be Giants
At their core, They Might Be Giants are two guys named John. Friends since high school, John Linnell and John Flansburgh began making music together when they found themselves living in the same Brooklyn apartment building, a few years after graduating. Making their debut as a duo in 1982, they quickly swiped their name from a ’70s flick starring George C. Scott (the title refers to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which he believed that windmills might be giants). On record and live, they performed as a duo for many years, using taped accompaniment to fill out their sound. While touring to support 1992’s Apollo 18, the Johns decided to use a live band for the first time, and have continued to do so, both live and on their records, ever since. The only constants, though, have been the Johns, and it’s hard to imagine one John would continue to use the name without the other.
Despite 15-plus years of hard work as one of the most distinctive, interesting, and prolific bands around, TMBG shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, TMBG were asked to write the theme song for the TV series Malcolm in the Middle. The producers of the show liked the song and asked them to score the entire series. Thus, TMBG’s music now reaches an audience of millions weekly! The show’s soundtrack album, featuring two tracks from TMBG, will be released early next year, and their immediately identifiable theme song, “Boss Of Me,” has been chosen as the lead single, with a video featuring the Malcolm cast soon to follow.
In addition to working on Malcolm (which requires the Johns to come up with up to 25 pieces of new music a week!), the ever-prolific Giants are also working on their first children’s album (the cleverly-titled No!, also planned for release early next year), and still find time for side projects (Flansburgh with his band, Mono Puff, Linnell with last year’s solo effort, State Songs), MP3-only albums for eMusic (http://www.emusic.com), new material for their legendary Dial-A-Song service (call 718-387-6962 or visit http://www.dialasong.com — it’s always free!), and the next “grown-up” TMBG full-length, also due in 2001. It’s amazing that they can find time to do anything but work! Thankfully, John Flansburgh was able to take a few minutes respite to talk with me about everything that’s going on.
What happened with Elektra? Did you leave or were you dropped, and how do you feel about it?
We left. It was a very dull and deadening kind of end to a long relationship. Basically, the executive slot changed a couple of times during our tenure there, and by the time we left, I don’t think there was anybody who even particularly knew who we were at the label. By the time the final regime came in, I don’t think they even really knew very much about rock music, let alone fringy, strange rock music. It wasn’t that personal, to be perfectly honest, it was very benign, in a strange way. It was just benign neglect. I really didn’t take it that personally. It was very obvious that there was just very little attention being paid.
Do you feel they ever did a good job of promoting you?
Oh, sure, yeah. When we first worked there, it was like a very interesting company, with a lot of visionary, confident people.
It’s interesting that you put it as “when we first worked there.” Do you see your relationship with a label as an employer/employee relationship?
No, but you work with people. I mean, this is what we do for a living, and if you’ve got to do it whether you want to or not, that’s a job (laughs). A lot of times, if you’re doing a couple of hundred times a year, or if you’ve got to get music turned around for a project on a deadline, that’s just real life. I don’t know, sometimes I think I might have a very different relationship to what it means to be a creative person in the world. My father is an architect, and being an architect is this very strange reality, because you go to the school committee meeting, and you’re very reasonable, and you explain all your ideas, and people kind of nod their heads in agreement, and then basically, the second you’re out of that environment, you’re in this kind of very theoretical, very pie-in-the-sky kind of design world. The issues of architecture are, in a way, the most high-falutin’ of all the arts. They’re very into theoretical stuff, and very theoretical ideas. I just got very used to the idea, from a very early age, that there’s a way to have an artistic life that is integrated with the real world and yet is not compromised by the real world. That’s an idea I kind of grew up around, and it might sound kind of remote or something, but it’s actually been very helpful in preserving the good part of the project that we do.
That makes perfect sense, actually. That’s something that we run into on Ink 19. We try to cover a lot of cool stuff, and stuff that we’re personally interested in, but occasionally, we do have to work under a little bit different perspective and try to include things that we may not personally enjoy, but that we know the readers will enjoy.
Yeah. What’s interesting about audiences’ relationships to musicians is that they tend to think of musicians as people who should not ever compromise, and maybe have never compromised. What’s strange is that a musician’s life, even finding a band to be in, can be a total compromise! You can be in a really successful band that has nothing to do with what you’re really about. I mean, the average drummer in the average successful rock band probably could regale you with hours of lurid details about how little respect they have for the people they work with. Or you do a show, just doing a show is like a strangely… Any band who’s been told, “ya gotta play for a half-hour more or you’re not gettin’ paid!” (Laughs) I mean, what do you do? Do you just throw down your instrument and go like, “fuck it! I’m gonna live on love,” or are you gonna play for another half-hour? I think musicians, in a weird way, often feel like they just want to be invited back. I think part of it is that you just get used to kind of putting it out there, and you’re not really… In some ways, you’re totally compromised, and in some ways, you’re just the entertainer.
Do you feel there are more or fewer compromises in dealing with a smaller label, or with Internet distribution, than there were with dealing with a major?
I don’t feel compromised by those things. I’ve never felt compromised by those things. Those things always seemed like opportunities, and in fact, the difference is almost negligible. I mean, Restless runs their stuff through BMG, BMG is the biggest record company in the world. They’ve been distributing They Might Be Giants since six months after our first record was released. So in some ways, we’ve never been on an indie. You know, I don’t know if that stuff really matters. Bob Dylan’s been on Columbia Records his entire life. He’s still Bob Dylan. He’s crazy good, I would give my left half to be a fraction as good as he is.
I think it’s mostly an issue to people who come from the whole punk rock aesthetic.
You know, I was in London in 1977, baby! I love the punk rock! But I just think there’s more to life than worrying about what label you’re on. Music is real. Record companies come and go. Nobody wonders what label Hank Williams was on. It doesn’t matter what label Hank Williams was on, and I think it shouldn’t matter what label… That stuff’s really unimportant. That’s like, “who’s your insurance agent?,” you know? You do good music, that’s what matters to me.
Is there anything you miss about working in the old two-man band setup?
I miss feeling comfortable enough to talk for really long periods of time between songs, because when it was just me and John, we could just kind of hang out. There’s kind of a momentum of being in a band, that you want to keep everybody cookin’. You kind of get into a groove, and you want to keep on doing that. So it’s not so much that I feel like I’m censored by the presence of our bandmates so much as the momentum of the bigger group is kind of self-perpetuating, and that’s just kind of a different bag.
That said, I think from an audience point of view, what we lose in kind of the chatty, familiar element of the show, we kind of gain in the “rockingness” of the show. On a good night, we can really rock people to the ground. It’s strange, because I’ve spent a lot of my adult, professional, musical life doing this thing that kind of, in the fullness of time, I’ve realized I was really not quite understanding what was really going on. When John and I were a duo, I really thought we were a “rock band,” and I think to most people in the audience, the only thing they knew was that we really were not a “rock band.” I thought we were like AC/DC (laughs), I mean, sure we worked with a drum machine, but we were like, “rockin’,” and that was not the effect of what we were doing, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Pretty much the second we started working with a live drummer, there was so much more dancing, and so much more energy at the shows, in the sort of celebratory, unfocused, raging, freakout, rave sense of what a live show could be all about. I think that’s appropriate to the sensibility of our music. I mean, I think a lot of times, people dwell on the lyrics of our songs quite a bit, and I think our best songs probably you don’t really even understand the lyrics that much. The balance of what we do is as much about the music as it is about the lyrics, and the format of the two-man show kind of favored the lyrics by default. It was just kind of a lyric-driven show. That might have actually really helped us; I mean, it certainly helped us stick out from the crowd, it was a really weird format. We were never like anything else on the bill. It was, in its own kind of tiny, humble way, it was very, very winning, it worked. We were a tight little combo. But I really do enjoy being the “party” band that we get to be now. I think it suits us to have that level of celebratory sort of revelry in our music.
I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I’ve probably seen you guys close to a dozen times over the last ten years, and having been an audience member so many times, I think it’s been something that not only you have seen, but the audience has seen as well.
What shows have you seen?
I’ve seen you probably just about every time you’ve come through Florida since 1990. I drove from Tampa to Orlando to see you at Visage in 1990.
Did you see the show at the Milk Bar [in Jacksonville] where Linnell passed out?
No! I’ve seen you mostly in Tampa and Orlando.
We did a show where he passed out. It was the one time I got booed.
It was weird. I’ve done hundreds of shows, or thousands of shows, and I realized, at that one moment, I had never been booed before, and God, it’s a horrible feeling to be booed. They had oversold the show, there were like 1500 people in a place that probably could comfortably hold like 600 people or something, so they were just like stacking people into this club downstairs. The temperature on stage… there were lights, and it was slightly elevated but there wasn’t a high ceiling, so it was just very compressed and brutally hot. We hit the stage, and John basically had a heatstroke. He pretty much hit the deck, he just kind of keeled over, and the first thing I thought was, “wow, Little Mr. Show Business doesn’t want to play!” (Laughs) I had no concept, because he didn’t actually faint, he just kind of crumpled to the ground, and I was just thinking, “wow, weird, it’s like some kind of Michael Stipe routine he’s never done before.” Then he was just like, “John, I gotta lie down,” and he went offstage, and we just played another song without him, and then I went to the side of the stage, and went into the dressing room, and I was like, “are you OK?” He was out.
I’m curious, was this the tour that you guys ended up canceling a couple of the Florida dates and coming back and making them up later — I’m thinking like ’93 or ’94, somewhere in there? You played in Tampa, then had an Orlando show that you canceled and ended up coming back, so I actually got to see you twice within a couple of months.
We’ve had some weird bad luck in Florida. We also had this Miami show that they didn’t have a rain date for. I don’t remember, I think it was a little bit later than that. It’s funny, I feel like we have a really great actual core audience in Florida, but we’ve had really bad luck with gigs and tour and scheduling that’s really undone us in Florida.
It seems like the one place in Florida where you guys really have a good time is Jannus Landing [in St. Petersburg], which is luckily where I’ve mostly seen you guys.
You know, we started touring in Florida at the very beginning of our American tours, and we always really liked it. I remember playing in Jacksonville and having really fun shows there. I just always enjoyed playing in Florida, it’s a really good crowd. Hopefully, we’ll be back there momentarily, in the winter.
Do you have any idea how many songs you’ve written and recorded over the years?
Well [pause], I wish we’d written more good ones! We’ve recorded a couple of hundred, but we’ve probably written at least a couple of hundred more. But you know, we’ve been doing it for a long time, we’ve recorded… I don’t even know how many albums we’ve recorded, and we’ve done side projects as well, so we’ve recorded a lot of stuff.
What percentage do you think remains unreleased in any form?
I don’t know, I think anything that’s good has gotten released, I think it’s fair to say. Even the most sort of odd, “both eyes in one socket” kind of songs have found the light of day through various compilations and reissues and stuff like that. There are some really odd songs that have never seen the light of day, but you know, Dial-A-Song is just so thirsty for songs, and all that stuff kind of gets bootlegged or MP3’d, so once it gets on Dial-A-Song, it just gets catapulted into the world of completists. Actually, you know what’s strange, we’re actually doing all the music for this Malcolm in the Middle TV show, [and] that’s actually… I mean, we thought we were prolific before, but we’ve got to do like 25 pieces of music a week for this show, and keeping up with that, keeping up with the onslaught, the ever-thirsty TV show, is really kicking our ass. But it’s a different kind of writing in that they’re basically like one-minute-long songs, and they’re all instrumental, and they can be pretty slender pieces of music in terms of harmonic interest, but we’ve got to produce them. I mean, it’s background music, but it has to be complete and real sounding, so it’s definitely changed. It’ll be interesting to really get back to straight writing, having done this project for the last six months, because I can write so much faster now — it’s a completely different thing.
That was actually going to be one of my questions. How different is it to write for a score as opposed to just writing songs for an album?
Well, writing for the Malcolm show is really different than writing probably the score. They don’t really make the show… They’re not really into “score” that much. They use the music to kind of contrast what’s happening on screen a lot. A lot of times, it’s kind of informing people that it’s not really, really deadly serious. A lot of the topics in the show, it’s kind of a dark comedy, so a lot of the times the music is a little bit more cheerful than what’s actually happening on screen. Other times, it gets kind of into a more pastiche-y thing, where it does function like a score, where the chase scenes will have Mancini-esque type music, and we’re always down for that kind of stuff. We do a pretty wide range of stuff for the show. Actually, kind of the most interesting side-effect of working on the show is that we get to do music that is completely unrelated to what we’re known to do. We can be completely faceless, and nobody’s particularly thinking, “oh yeah, that’s They Might Be Giants,” [so] we can do, like a drum n’ bass thing that’s just slamming, that works on the show, and everybody at the show thinks it sounds great. They’re like, “do more stuff like that, ’cause it sounds really cool.” It’s a great way to stretch out, because it doesn’t really involve our persona. We can kind of realize our secret fantasies of being electronica artists.
Is the soundtrack album going to be more of the incidental music, or is it more of a “hit music” soundtrack?
It’s hard to say what is actually going to be on it. I was sort of hoping that they’d use some of the best of the incidental stuff, because I think a lot of it could actually stand on its own and be super-cool, but unfortunately, it seems like it’s going to go the route of a more standard soundtrack album. It’s going to be licensed songs by rock bands. And that’s cool, it just seems… I would be thrilled if something documented the work that we’ve done.
After this record comes out, I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually do a real soundtrack album just for the people [that are interested in that]. There has been a lot of interest in doing something. We have some really large, long instrumental pieces featured in the show, a bunch of ska things that we did that are really cool, and I would love to see those things see the light of day.
How did you get the gig doing the music for the show?
The creator of the show is this guy Linwood Boomer, and he’s a lone wolf in the world of TV stuff. He’s kind of his own guy, and he had a very specific idea of what he wanted the music to be like in the show, and he was very interested in us doing it. So it just seemed so exceptional, it seemed like a real opportunity. He’s a long-term fan, and he asked us to write the theme, and he loved the theme when we did it, and it just kind of went from there. It was very organic.
I know you’re also working on a children’s album. What was the impetus for that?
Well, we got approached by the people at Rounder [Records] to do it. We got up to Boston on a pretty regular basis, and the people from Rounder were coming out to the shows really regularly, and they were very interested in us doing the project. It seemed like an interesting opportunity. We’re not children’s artists, in the traditional sense. I think in some way, what we do is suitable for children, but it wasn’t until we actually sat down to write a childrens record that we realized how difficult it really was. I think this record will appeal to They Might Be Giants fans, but the nicest thing is that it will be really cool for kids, because it really is a kind of different thing. I think a lot of rock bands that do children’s records, or pop performers who do children’s records, kind of flatter themselves into thinking anything would be good for kids. Obviously, for every kid, it’s different, but [with] the level of interest things that kids bring to things, you’ve got to keep it rollin’, you know? Also, I think the spirit of what we do, there is an overlap between us and Dr. Seuss that I think is kind of useful to think about when you’re making a children’s record. It came out really good, we’re really proud of it. There’s some very cool songs on it. In some ways, it’s a very pure version of our kind of energy, as hippy-trippy as that sounds.
The second season of Malcolm in the Middle, feaaturing music by They Might Be Giants, is underway. Catch the show Sunday nights at 8:30 Eastern Time on Fox. The video for the show’s theme song, “Boss Of Me,” will debut on Fox just before the January 7th episode of Malcolm. The Malcolm soundtrack hits stores on February 6th. They Might Be Giants’ first children’s album, No!, will be released early in 2001 on Rounder Records.