The Darlings of Lumberland: An Interview with They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants' never-ending cavalcade of songs and wry humor culminates with Nanobots, their 16th album. John Flansburgh walks us through the album's creation, their evolving songwriting process, and defend against the notion that some of their songs can be construed as mean-spirited.
When injuries and burglaries kept them from performing on stage in the late '80s, John Flansburgh and John Linell created the Dial-A-Phone, an answering machine they filled with songs from their band, They Might Be Giants. A regular Brooklyn number, they placed an ad noting that it was "free if you called from work."
That's how most of Flansburgh's career has gone -- zigging where others have zagged, navigating a path through indie angst and lighthearted comedy by creating something new. They Might Be Giants remain as small as a band with a 16th album coming out and multiple Grammys could be. Their awards are all in Walled City of Children's Music, and their albums are supported by a dedicated cult who claim the two Johns as nerd philosopher-kings.
Early adopters on nearly all technological fronts -- they first band signed to a major label to release songs exclusively on MP3, the first to have an e-store -- it makes sense that their latest album is called Nanobots. An EP promoting it revealed three songs instantly recognizable as TMBG: nothing that brings forth outright laughs but instead uses clever wordplay and surprising honesty to elicit emotion often left behind by other musicians, the type of joy one feels when solving a puzzle. Celebrating the release, Flansburgh talked to PopMatters on the phone from an undisclosed friend's house in New York City.
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Nanobots will be your 16th album. How will it feel to have 16 albums?
It's funny you mention that. I guess, as being among the people who have made 16 albums, the elite group of over-producers, it feels like a manic episode. It doesn't seem like -- I'm still excited that our first album came out, you know? It's been exciting. It's been a -- impossible dream.
Did anything unexpected happen while making it?
Well, a lot of things happened while making it that weren't musically-related. There were a lot of things keeping us from getting to the work at hand. The process of making it was a pretty... jolly challenge. I think we've been experimenting in under-production in the past couple of years, trying to not fill in every nook and cranny of the song with sound. It's difficult for us because we come from a home-taping background, as opposed to a garage rock background. And home tapers like to track things up. Make lots and lots of -- "Oh, I've recorded five guitar parts layered on top of each other." That's kind of what people do naturally, because a lot of the process is making the demo at home.
So, working with the band, working with John, I think we've come to realize that there's something glorious about the more spare recording that we've done, and we've been brave enough not to overproduce the songs. A song like "Black Ops" is a good example. A lot of "Black Ops" is just a vocal and percussion loop, and it's a very haunting lyric that is sing-song in a way, and it's about an awful military world. I think it just has a lot mystery to it than things where we're all just bashing away. I feel like we're kind of getting somewhere, in a direction where we haven't always gone.
I guess ultimately, there's a lot to be discovered. Even on album #16, there's more to be done.
And you've been with most of your backing band for over twenty years. [Drummer] Marty Beller is like the new kid, and he joined in 2004.
[laughs] We've discussed how it's one of the cruelest things about certain cultures. It doesn't matter how long ago you moved to New York. If you weren't born in New York, you're not from New York. With Marty, no matter how long he's in the band, he's still the new guy. [laughs] It's kinda shitty.
How do they play into song creation?
There are times when -- it's really wide open. It's a very open environment. There are times when we'll present the band with just the most skeletal ideas for a song and we'll have left it that way because we'll want to pull it together with their contributions. There are other times when there'll be a very, very complete and impossibly specific demo, and we'll simply be asking them to reproduce it in a more sonically powerful way. Then there are times where we're asking them to find a part that folds into electronic music or home-brewed recordings that we've made that we want to hang onto, and they're just providing the ornamentation. It really works a lot of different ways.
Ten years ago we were doing a lot of incidental music for television, doing a lot of studio sessions with a lot of hands on deck and we were really just bashing out music by the pound for these TV shows, because there were so many cues to be made. And it's background music, you can't do the same thing twice, even if the first one was perfectly serviceable. They just don't repeat cues. That whole experience made us extremely loose in the studio, just having to work on extreme deadlines where we would be called upon to do fifteen cues of music in a day. You can't be too precious when you're recording 20 minutes of finished music in a ten-hour period. It's a really big challenge to your sanity and controlling your coffee intake to get through that kind of process.
We were all trapped in that bunker for a while, and I think we came out of it with -- there's some transferable skills there! Once you know how to pull it together that quickly, you kind of have an efficiency. It's just like being in musical boot camp. It really helped us in a lot of ways, I think, in the second half of our career. I think we spent the first half of our career being afraid of being in the real studios, you know? We were always very comfortable doing the home-recording stuff, and we really got a tremendous amount of creative stuff out of that experience, but the second we got in a big studio -- the pressure of being in a fancy place that costs a lot of money, it would kind of undo us. We're already tightly wound, and would be like, "Oh God, this is too much." But, you know, it's a combination of things. Recording all the time -- recording every year, being in the studio every three months or six months or whatever -- also gives you a familiarity with the place, makes it a lot less daunting. There's a period where it would be a couple years before we'd go back into the studio, and it'd be like "Oh, everything's changed, how are we gonna do this?" There's be technological changes, and we'd be just trying to keep up.
And now you have that app coming out.
Oh, it's out! It just came out like last week.
You've been on the record as being very pro-listeners creating their own experience with music. I was wondering how that mindset played into creating the app.
Well, the app is very simple. It's just a music streaming device. The nicest thing about it is, if someone's reading this article and they haven't heard of They Might Be Giants, it's a very simple way to enter our world. The interface is basically a cassette tape made out of felt. It's very easy to operate. It loads in five songs at a time, the first songs changes every day. It's a little window into what we do. The music spans our entire career, that's very cool. We got all the different corporate monoliths to nod their heads in unison and let us do this thing.
There's also a button that brings up a mysterious guy's face in it, going in and out of focus.
That's the "under-construction" part of the app. We knew there'd be some other component to it, and we just put that in there as a placeholder. That might be an announcement place, or a video place, I'm not sure what that's gonna be. We just wanted to get this thing into the world as soon as possible, so we put in a page that's just a creepy floating head.
It certainly is creepy.
It is! Paul Sahre put that thing together, and it sounds like it's one of the simpler things you can do -- maybe in After Effects? I'm not sure. i just think he did it in five minutes and sent me the little file over, and I was like, "This is so disturbing."
I just went to -- I don't know if you know about this, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art there was an exhibit called Faking It. It was the history of trick photography, basically the history of Photoshop before Photoshop. It was a fascinating exhibit, because from the moment photography was introduced there were all these photographers using darkroom techniques to promote the supernatural, fantastic ahistorical meetings, all these different kinds of artificially created created photographic prints that would fool the layperson into thinking something phony was real. And since people would believe that anything photographed was real, these pictures of little double-exposed fairies floating over people's shoulders and people people in a seance with their lost loved ones hanging over their shoulders, they would just believe whatever they saw. And it's very creepy. That thing Paul did on the iPhone app really reminded me of that.
A lot of They Might Be Giants songs are known for their positivity, but every now and then there's an outright mean song. On Join Us, there's "When Will You Die" --
I don't think "When Will You Die" is a mean song. I think there are a lot of villains in our songs, which is slightly different than meanness. I think we try to hide our meanness. I'm not saying we aren't mean, but you gotta know us a little bit better. We save the mean stuff for our friends.
But do writing villain songs, like going back to "Your Racist Friend" on Flood, is writing those different than other songs?
I think they strike the listeners differently. But I think those songs actually have a lot in common with songs that from a distance you would consider a friendlier song. They are playing with the unreliable narrator as a concept. My wife was just taking a writing class, and it was interesting how, of course, if you're writing short stories or a novel or any sort of fiction, the voice of the narration is actually something that's very explicitly -- it's like what accent you're going to use. You can tell a story in a working class, East Ender British accent, or you can tell a story in -- it's the vehicle by which the story is told. So it's something that's actively discussed in fiction writing, very actively -- if it's going to be told as if you're looking down on the room, or if you're going to be inside the prime mover in the scene's head, or if there's a narrator that's just an objective third party, or if there's a narrator who's just looking at the scene from an emotionally remote distance.
And then there's sort of idea of an unreliable narrator, which is somebody who has their own point of view and you're actually seeing a whole story unfold through the perspective of someone who might not really have the most fair or even-handed perspective on what's going on, so there's this huge filter across the event. Those ideas on who's telling the story, or how the story is told, those are ideas that I think for me and John [Linell] -- they are ideas that have obsessed us from the very moment we started writing songs, and our conversations revolve around how songs approach that idea. In fiction writing, there are all these terms, like, uh, I want to say omniscient?
The omniscient narrator? Yeah.
Yeah! Nobody says, like, "I love it when Willie Nelson writes omniscient narrators!' But that's really part of the point of view of a song. What's the Bob Dylan song? Oh yeah, "Idiot Wind". He tells the story like its a murder ballad, like he's giving all these details about criss-crossing across the country and meeting a woman and marrying her and at the end of it, the last line is, she had had all this money, and the last line is, "When she died, it came to me" [Note: actually in the first verse]. Which is this incredibly cold way of of describing, "I inherited a bunch of money from some lady." What's odd is, the lyric is telling a fact, you know, he's really using the language of the traditional folk song which are often streams of facts. But Bob Dylan knows how cruel facts can be. He's got this very sort-of acid, corrosive cruelness in some of his lyric-writing. It's interesting to see how he can sneak that in, even in a form that seems kind of benign. And of course that chorus, which is just one of the meanest pieces of songwriting ever. He's no stranger to the mean, but you know, it's a good sign.
What created "Call Your Mom"? It sounds like it came from a very specific experience.
Oh, you know, you'd really have to ask Linell about that. Although I don't think it's that personal. He has a very fully-developed relationship with his wife. He's not looking to infantilize his wife, I can assure you.
Noted. If you could go back in time, to 1981, right before you play that show at a Sandinista rally, if you could tell yourself anything right before you go on stage, what would it be?
Uh, relax a little bit more. One thing that's a real double-edged sword about being younger, you're very worried about being misunderstood. It's very unclear if your voice is gonna be heard, and if it is heard, whether or not people will take away what you intend. I think in many ways, learning to let go of what people preconceived notions are, or what people are projecting into what we're doing has been very helpful for us. The truth is, we probably could have figured it out at our first club show, when people kind of chuckled at the end of the first song. At that point, John and I probably felt like -- we knew what our intentions were, and we were pretty pretentious. But we really felt like we were following the Residents and a bunch of oblique, experimental art-rock people. And that was our temperament, that was our sensibility. But when people looked at us, they saw their brother or their cousin goofing off in a rec room taken to a much higher level of musicality. I don't think we realized how relatable we were. We weren't working that hard at being mysterious, but the ideas we were working on, we thought were pretty psychedelic. But it didn't come across that way. I think we were confused at how understood we were [laughs]. You put stuff into the world, and the way people react to it sometimes reflects more on them than on you. I feel like I spent a lot of time worrying about what other people thought, in spite of the fact that I probably respected people less. For a long time, I really felt that there was a good side and a bad side to music culture. That there was an enemy.
And there's no more enemy?
Today, I feel like it's more about mediocrity than evil.
Last question: do you think today's youth culture would be capable of killing a dog?
I hope not. I think this is a great time for the music scene and just general bohemian life. I feel like the weirdos have stormed the gates of the culture and the American Idols and the Glees are losing.