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Q and A with They Might Be Giants

 

 
 

 

 
October 1998 Interview by Matt Springer and Brian Bender     

 

Before this past Saturday, the closest we'd gotten to John Flansburgh of the uberpop stalwarts They Might Be Giants had been to stand about fifteen feet from him as he belted out such classics as "Sleeping in the Flowers" and "Lie Still Little Bottle" at concerts. (Oh, and there was that incident at his house last summer. But he was kind enough to revoke the restraining order, and the wound on my inner thigh has healed quite nicely, thanks for asking.) Just hours before a sold-out show on October 3, Flansburgh sat down in the bowels of Chicago's Vic Theater to update Pop-Culture-Corn on the latest in Giantland.


How's the tour going?

It's been great. Almost every show has been selling out, so we've been feeling groovy.


I saw you guys last night, and it was a really great show. A really great crowd. Could you tell us a little bit about the new song you put together, "Working Undercover for the Man"?

It's a brand new song; it'll be on our next record. I've always been infatuated with the expression "the man," because it's so vague and mysterious. It just has a certain X-Files appeal to it. It's such a paranoid idea. It's sorta like an update on the "Mod Squad" concept, the idea that there's a band going around the country infiltrating youth culture. In a weird way, there's a much more crazy and elliptical kind of song on John Henry called "Dirtbike" that's essentially the same idea, except that it's so crazy in terms of its lyric. It's almost beyond interpretation, because it's anthropomorphizes a dirtbike as a cult leader, and the idea is that there's this dirtbike travelling around the country and gathering up a cult.


That was exactly my interpretation.

(Laughs) That is what it's about. Some of our songs are very hard to explain, even though they have their own internal logic to them and I think people can get a lot of pleasure out of listening to them. We're not into jabberwocky. I feel like we could write a song with the title "I Wanna Fuck You" and people would still say, "I don't understand...explain to me what that song means." For whatever reason, the reputation that the band has, people just assume that we're somehow cryptic. But I think a lot of what we do makes quite a bit of sense at face value. We are trying to communicate.


Does it bother you that people are always trying to dig as deep as they can into things?

I'm flattered by it. That kind of activity for any writer is always really flattering. I think unfortunately it probably illustrates what bad communicators we are. We'll be trying to write a real direct song, and people will think that there must be some hidden meaning, because the obvious meaning doesn't make enough sense.


Could you give an example of a song that fits that description?

I think "Particle Man" is probably the song that people talk about the most, and yet has the least to offer. Basically it's just a song about characters in the most obvious sense. They're not real people; it's not Animal Farm. It's not like they represent other people. So yeah, that's the genesis of the "Working Undercover for the Man" song.


What's up with your label situation? I know you've left Elektra, and you're putting Severe Tire Damage out on Restless...

We're basically working on our new record assuming that we'll have no trouble hooking up whatever deal we get. We're talking with different labels. We're ambitious people, so I'm sure we'll have some kind of deal. The main thing is that we just want somebody who will back us up, in the sense that when we do go out and tour, people can find our records in the store. I think we have a pretty realistic idea of where we are in the culture, but at the same time, we want people to hear what we do, and we don't want to be marginalized. It's a classic struggle. We were at Elektra for a long time; I was really glad to be there, and I was really glad to go. I think we had a pretty good deal with them; at the end, they completely sucked. I wouldn't want to have the Factory Showroom experience again, where we delivered a really great record that had a lot of commercial potential, that everyone who likes the band could feel that it was a strong effort. Even now, we play a ton of songs off that record, and they just work live. My only regret is I feel like that record didn't have a chance in the commercial marketplace, because Elektra had already pulled the plug on it. What was unfortunate is that there were a lot of things about it that were actually pretty different for us, and yet still interesting. It's hard to explain, but basically we could tell that nobody cared. But we're very committed to what we do. We're just happy when other people chime in; we're not waiting for people to organize our scene.


So in terms of having hit singles, you guys aren't too worried about that?

If I were worried about having hit singles, I probably would have killed myself a long time ago. Speaking as somebody who's never had a hit single...


What about "Birdhouse in Your Soul"?

"Birdhouse" wasn't a hit single, on any level. People are familiar with the song, but it never charted. I think probably the main reason people know it is because it got MTV play. I would love to have hit singles. The thing about a band like us is that if we had a hit, it could work a couple different ways. It could be catastrophic for the general stability of our scene. I'm sure if we had a hit that a lot of our solid fans would feel extremely alienated from our new fans, and that would sorta short-circuit our whole set-up. We're in a very unusual place as a rock band; we're in the middle. We can tour and play theaters and big clubs and eke out a middle-class existence pretty well. It's hard to say how long we'll be able to do that; it's possible that it'll be an ever-dwindling downward spiral, or it could turn into a very cushy, easy gig. You just don't know. I've known people who were much more famous than I probably will ever be who are really having a hard time having a professional career at this point. People who made records that were huge hits, and now they can't even tour because if they toured, people would realize that no one would come. One of the nice things about never crossing over into the big world of hit records is that once you're in that arena, you either slay the lion or you're killed by the lion. We've never had to do that. We've never had to exist on the charts.


People set up expectations...

Yeah. People have no expectations for us. As far as I can tell, a lot of people just found out about They Might Be Giants in the past couple years. There are a lot of new people at our shows. I talk to a lot of people who are like, "I didn't know anything about you until last year, a friend took me to one of your shows" or "I saw you at this festival." And when you play for a festival audience of over 25,000 people, 20,000 of them have never heard of you. It's one of the interesting things about what we do. I feel like we're sorta running for a low-level congressional seat. It's not like we're running for President; we're just sorta trying to get the word out...


Like a grassroots movement.

Right. It is a grassroots thing, and I think when people see our show, it's obvious it's a different kind of thing. It's not for everybody, but it's definitely better than a lot of other stuff. We really enjoy what we're doing.


So with that in mind, what kind of future do you see yourselves having?

I don't think it's completely in our hands. If we did a record that suddenly started getting played on the radio, it might be like a Randy Newman "Short People" scenario. He was a totally respected singer/songwriter all through the seventies, wrote some incredibly great albums, very interesting. Then he writes this song called "Short People" that's a number one hit. In a lot of ways it's very much like every other Randy Newman song, except that it has this sorta novelty appeal to it that made it incredibly popular. The song is essentially about the random nature of racism, how people will just pick out any human aspect and amplify it and turn it into a way to discriminate against people. The spirit of the song is interesting and cool, but then it turned into this "I hate short people" thing. It was completely misunderstood. I feel like in some ways, that kind of future might be in front of us. By being ambitious and wanting to exist on the radio, I think we do always run that risk. It's hard to say what would happen with larger success, but I think that's a risk that we're open to taking. Other than that, we're gonna continue making records and doing tours. We're working on a children's record, so we've got a bunch of different things going on.


Do you ever think of it in terms of age? Do you ever think you're going to be "too old to rock"?

We were too old to rock when we started. We were already in our late twenties when the band started working professionally. I think there's a big difference; our expectations and our goals were very different than they would have been if we had been younger. In certain ways, we were really idealistic about the band. The band had to be exactly the music that we wanted to do. But on a practical level, when it comes to doing shows and the daily schedule and what kind of things we're up for, we're not very calculated about it at all. I think we feel like any exposure is probably pretty good exposure. We don't really worry about what TV show we're on, or what morning show we're on. I feel like by being sorta pretentious and protective about what the actual output of the band is, we also feel like we can't be recontextualized. If we're on a Comedy Central show, we don't worry that people are gonna think we're comedians. We feel like what we're doing and where we're at is pretty easy to understand.


Why did you guys decide to put out a live record now?

Part of the reason is that we finally had enough material. The reason that new bands don't do live albums is because it's redundant; they just don't have enough songs. Having put out six or seven albums at this point, we had a whole catalogue of songs to draw on, a lot of which had evolved into radically different arrangements, or in some cases, improved arrangements based on the same idea. With a song like "She's Actual Size," the live version is actually in the same spirit as the original version, but it's just a whole lot better. The way we've been doing it live for the past few years is just more full-blown. The original recording that's on Apollo 18 sounds like a demo to me. In other cases, like "Why Does the Sun Shine?" it's actually a different version of the song. The song selection on the record was specifically designed to push the stuff that had changed forward. I think the legacy of crappy live albums is so strong that you really have to actively work against it. There are some well-known songs on this record, but it's not just rocking through the hits live. There are five new songs on it, plus all these crazy Planet of the Apes songs at the end. It's an interesting package, and I think it serves the band well as a live document. It's not as crazy as the actual live shows are; it holds up to repeated listening better than if you took a board tape of the show.


How would you describe your fans?

I have enough respect for the diversity of our fans that I don't want to be the one who pigeonholes them. I think it's fair to say that we've got a lot of interesting fans, a lot of people who don't go to too many rock shows who'll come to our shows. But what people want out of a rock group is very different. When I'm talking to people after a show, there are people who are there because it's a party, and then there are those who are standing there writing down every song we do. There are people who come to dance, there are people who come to watch. People's motivations for going to any show, but especially to our shows, really run a pretty wide gamut. As somebody who's also in audiences at times, I don't even applaud when I see shows. It's not like I'm a snob, but I don't often feel compelled to applaud at shows. I guess that makes me a pretty stinky audience member, but I might actually really like it. I'll see a show where I think the people are really great...I applaud sometimes. But if I'm at a really big show, I feel like I'm not that important, and I wouldn't want to feel like anybody could characterize me in that audience. They don't know me. Audiences are really collections of strangers from really different places. Some of them are high. Some of them aren't. (laughs)


One of the high ones was in front of us last night.

There was definitely somebody torching up some really stinky pot in the audience last night.


It was rank.

Well, who knows...it might be really good pot. But it was definitely incredibly pungent. I find that one of the problems with performers is that they actually think they know their audience, and they're not thinking in terms of how a wider variety of people might respond to what they do. I think you've got to be open to the idea that there are people in the audience who are smarter than you. I guess the reason that people don't think in those terms is because the collective I.Q. of a crowd is probably lower than the individual I.Q. of anybody in it. You definitely do see the dinosaur head rise up at different points, especially at big shows. You'll say something, and the wave of recognition takes a couple of beats to go through the crowd. It's like "WAAAAAAAAAAH." That's odd. I just feel like stereotyping an audience is a mistake; it's sorta arrogant.


What are you listening to right now?

Actually, our opening act Michael Shelley just put out this really great record on Big Deal Records. It's got some really great songs on it. I don't know if he's getting any reviews or getting any radio play, but it's one of the strongest records I've heard in a long time. Other things that are passing through my CD player...I just got a house upstate in the Catskilll Mountains and there are all these junk stores up there that sell records. I've been buying a lot of...this is going to sound completely weird and horrid, but I've been buying a lot of soundtracks to Broadway musicals. Some of them are pretty interesting. I've never really liked Stephen Sondheim, but he's not really as bad as I thought he was. There are elements of it that are really interesting, like he'll do these duets where there are two songs that are happening simultaneously. It's really insane. A lot of the sentiment in Broadway musicals I find radically offensive, but the actual techniques of how to put the songs forward are so different from rock. They actually are very musical and kinda tricky in the devices they use. It's almost like a musical version of juggling. It's very tantalizing in the way it's structurally presented, like that duet thing or things written in rounds. It is very musical and interesting. I don't know...in a weird way, I'm a real music lover, and I spend a lot of time just listening to music. This will sound pretentious, but I'm interested in listening to music in an anthropological way. In my teen years and even in my twenties, I felt like my personal identity and my musical tastes were really connected. Now I can listen to music that I might not be able to relate to at all and I get a lot out of it still. I don't feel like it's important that it reflect on me at this point.


It's as though you're a student of music.

Yeah. I can listen to like a Willie Nelson record and think, "That's a really haunting and crazy way to put a reverb on a vocal," and it's actually completely exciting for me to listen to it. I've spent many hours in restaurants with John Linnell listening to Muzak, and what's weird about it is that it's this really crazy filter on a song. I'm interested in sound in a really abstract way. It's not like a camp thing, like Muzak is so bad it's funny. It's such a weird way to hear a song. I don't know. I'm just a guy in the world.


What's influencing you as a songwriter right now?

For the past couple years, I've been heavily into R&B music from the early sixties, like Stax and Atlantic music. It was getting to a point where it was all I was listening to. I was in the bus the other day, listening to this Beatles record from 1966, and it had all these really great beats on it. It was distinctly different from early Beatles records and late Beatles records, in that it has this girl-in-a-cage, go-go drum beat thing happening, with a lot of tambourine. It was very cool.


Which record?

I think it was either Rubber Soul or Revolver. It was actually a bootleg of some alternate versions of the songs from that era. It just made me realize how much I like that kind of rhythm, that original rock rhythm. Not rock 'n' roll or heavy rock, but just rock. The Beatles in their prime had a lot of that sound, that go-go sound, like Manchester beats. I'm a sucker for it.


What's your favorite movie?

I don't know. Probably Raging Bull.


How about your favorite Giants record?

Probably Factory Showroom. Before that, I would have said the first record. I feel like it has a lot of the qualities of the first record, that sorta kaleidoscopic thing, but it's very full-blown in a musical sense. It's as adventurous as anything we've ever done and sonically very fulfilling. I feel like our first record was very ambitious, but also really awkward. In our records since then, there have been highs and lows, but they didn't have that encyclopedic quality. I feel like our first album has its own little musical universe, and Factory Showroom is kinda the same way. What the two have in common is that we had a lot of material to draw from when we were doing the song selection for the record, and we actually whittled it down. I guess it has more to do with the way the album was created, and the shape of it was something we could figure out rather than having it be determined by what existed.


When can we expect the next record?

The fall of next year, probably a year from now.


That's a long time.

That's a long wait. It'd be nice if it were out sooner, but we've been touring so much. We've been on the road much more the past two years than ever. It's been a lot of one-offs and tours. It's getting to a point where I would just like to pull off and not do any shows for six months, but as a working band, it's a real juggling act to keep the wolves from the door.


Can you tell us any more about the children's record? What's the motivation behind it?

It's just another project to do, one that seems like it'll be a challenge. We're gonna make it simultaneously with the next studio record. I don't think we know completely how to approach it. It might not end up being that different from a regular record.


What are you writing about? Are they educational songs, or comedy?

I think there will be some educational songs on there, and some really simple songs. The working title of it is No, which I think is a good title for a kids' record. (laughs)


Okay, five records. Your Desert Island Discs. What would they be?

Oh god. I don't even know. Sammy Davis Jr. Live at the Sands, any Mills Brothers anthology...I don't know. After that it's hard to say. David Bowie's Low. I'm trying to think of records that I've bought fifteen times. That'd be my list so far.


What would you guys like to be remembered for, when the rock history is written?

That's an interesting one. I've heard two people answer this question that I can think of. One was when they asked Roy Orbison how he'd like to be remembered, he said he thought it'd just be nice to BE remembered. And recently I saw an interview with Ian Dury, who is somebody that I really admire and I really like the spirit of what he does. He's unapologetically light; he's a very musical guy who just doesn't take himself that seriously. He said that he doesn't want to be remembered, he just wants to be savored. It was really perfect for him. But in some ways, I feel like both those responses are really appropriate. In a lot of ways, I feel like what we're doing might actually be more important to people right now than it will be later on. I think that in the culture we live in, most things really...suck. Most things that are sold in the culture as culture, most things with a price tag on them, are clearly not the product of individuals. I think we have a unique status as a rock band; we're not the next big thing, we're not the last big thing, we just sorta exist on our own terms. For people in our time, that's a great thing to be. I think we feel very lucky that we even get to make records. We probably won't even be remembered, but just judging by the other musicians I meet, it's very flattering to talk to people and find out what a positive effect a band like ours can have on people. A lot of people have told me how inspired they were by just the existence of our band, not even the music that we were doing, but just the fact that there's a band that exists outside the conventions of the music scene. That's a great place to be. I guess to answer your question, I feel like what we're doing right now is the important part. We're not going to change anybody's hairstyle and we might not even be remembered, but I think what we're doing is definitely worthwhile.

 

 

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