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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.