Q&A with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants stop into town tonight, but last week Dusti Rhodes spoke with John Flansburgh about influences, kids’ albums, the band’s 25-year career and his views on today’s music scene.
How do you guys go back and forth between writing a kids album like Here Come the 123s and adult albums like The Else?
Well, I mean if we did more kids show it would feel more schizophrenic. Basically, we’re really involved in the production of music. There are different audiences, but the primary thing is kind of the same thing. Basically what we do is very much our own. It’s not like other kids' stuff. It’s not that big a stress, it’s all kind of just creative stuff, you know, so it’s all in the world of songwriting. If we actually did more shows for kids it probably would be a little bit different. We’re basically like adult performers and we write these projects for kids.
After writing kids stuff, do you have a preference? And do you find yourself during the creative process realizing that something you’re writing for an adult album may be better suited for kids or vice versa?
Well, difference between our kids stuff and regular kids stuff, is it doesn’t have very watered down vibe to it. That’s not what people are looking for from us. We don’t try to kind of soften what we do for kids.
We did the The Else and the 123s kind of at the same time. The kids’ projects are also DVDs where we are wrangling these enormous armies of animators, so they take a long time to organize. As soon as we have a song that’s prepared for our kids thing we have to ship it off and get the wheels rolling on the animation. So, the whole process from beginning to end, takes about a year. So during the time that we were putting together, we basically started and finished making the music for the two albums, during some interval of time, then had to carry on working on the animation side of things for the 123s.
We were doing them at the same time and that actually made us have to think about the two of them. In the past, when we’ve done these as discreet album projects, you know, oh we’re working on our regular rock album now and now we’re working on a kids project and it’s just like we’re just stressing the work at hand. But actually doing The Else and the 123s at the same time, I think, probably ended up making The Else a bit more fierce. Because you come up with a really fluffy song and you would think like “Oh, well I think this music would be more appropriate for kids.” So I think it actually sort of brought into focus some of our adult stuff. It’s probably made the The Else a little bit tougher.
It seems like when you do release an album – for kids or adults – your adult fans really seem to like it just as much.
That’s an interesting point and I think that’s very true for people who are like in the front row. Whatever band you’re in, it kind of behooves you to think about people in the back row just as much, you know? We give ourselves license to do a lot of different things. We’re not about just making up crazy rules for ourselves and I think what we’re doing in many ways is a very open-ended experiment as far as rock bands go. But I think there is a distinction that is pretty clear: When we’re doing the live show, it’s really for adults. The energy of the show is very much about what we feel is the most electrifying stuff we can do and it’s a very physical and it’s very loud and there is something about it that is essentially rock music.
From a deep fan point of view I’m sure it’s all just a different way to hear the band you like, but I kind of respect people, the idea … I mean, we’re not trying to make kids albums that appeal to adults and we’re not trying to make adult albums that appeal to kids. We kind of have to face music on that front. You can only expect so much from an audience.
It’s interesting that you say that because it seems like you have this universal appeal that always attracts a younger audience. I think it was mentioned in your documentary Gigantic about what a reoccurring, young fan base you have.
Right. That’s 20 year olds and 22 year olds. College audiences are really responsive – they are more involved in the culture wars than I am. They’re responding to stuff all the frightening stuff they’ve been force fed by the culture and they are making those choices often in response to corporate media stuff. I’m sympathetic to that. I’m sensitive to that. I feel like we want to, as an adult act, we want to provide people with a really viable alternative to just the regular stuff.
Have you guys every thought about an education album for college kids?
We’ve talked about doing an album called “There Go Your Civil Rights,” but it’s still in the planning stage.
When Gigantic came out did you guys actually get to watch it?
Yeah, we saw it in a movie theater with an audience. We were sitting in a theater with like 700 people or something at a festival. It was a little bit strange, you know, we didn’t see a frame of the film before it was finished. We weren’t involved. I mean, we gave them access – and a lot of access – so I think we probably felt the same way the Metallica guys felt going into to the theater, um, I can expect that we felt a little bit better about ourselves leaving the theater than they did.
I think it’s actually a pretty balanced portrait of who we are as a band. You know, we have complicated lives. We’re not the most successful band in the world so we kind of we have to work our way through the world without a tremendous – there’s not a big cushion. Success brings a lot of comfort and we can’t afford a lot of those luxuries. We’re often, you know, just bumpin’ along. I guess my worry about when they were making the movie it would reveal how sort of strangely pitiful our situation often is.
The reality is that so much about people’s notions of performing artists is kind of a heroic enterprise. People want to see people get through careers without their spirits trampled. People want to people to remain intact. But you know, of course, real life is much more complicated than that. Even if you have a good life, everything will change. Everybody’s mom and dad will die; it’s like horribly sad. Tough things happen. I guess I wasn’t sure how mellow dramatic that stuff would come across in the movie. I’m very glad that stuff wasn’t played up.
I think it was very obvious in the film, but I felt like you guys balanced it out with this kid of realistic and sometimes completely cynical view of who you were all the way through it.
I think that’s a way for us to preempt disappointment. We’ve had a tremendous amount of modest success, but we’ve never had that kind of and-now-we-live-on-easy-street kind of success. And that’s actually kind of unusual, I think, a lot of people at any point in our career would go, “well this just too hard. It’s too much work. It’s not really clicking at the level it needs to click at to carry on.” And very early on we just recognized that we’re going to be doing something that’s essentially counter-cultural. We’re not saying that what we’re doing is so obtuse that’s nobody’s going to like it, but, you know, this is music for a smaller audience. I think the thing that is so tedious about American culture is that everybody acts like everybody is just auditioning to be on American Idol. You know and it’s like I don’t even like American Idol. The idea that fame is more important then good work is to me is an artistically bankrupt idea. Fame is just jive. At its best, it’s just a tool to have things heard but ultimately, it’s ultimately stupid.
Was there ever point when you were on your way, because I mean you say you’re not too successful, but I think you guys are …
I mean, the truth of the matter is when you use a word like success you have to maybe it’s useful to determine how you define success. To me, we’re extremely ambitious about the work that we’re doing. I’ll give you a typical question we’re asked all the time which is “how come you think your kid stuff is so successful?" My main response is “well, you know, it’s just good.” You know, I think upon reflection, the fact of the matter is we treat our kids stuff with the same regard as we treat our adult stuff. Most people making children’s albums don’t try to make year long projects.
Because it’s not like this is just stuff you guys have left over.
Yeah, exactly. And even when you’re making kids stuff, you’ll talk to people involved behind the scenes who are like confused that you haven’t just sort of tossed this stuff out as finished products. To me, being proud of what we’re doing and to be able to even just make stuff we’re proud of –that defines success to me. To make an album project or a DVD or a concert tour that, you know, is as good as I want it to be is huge for us. But you know, when it comes to being, there was a really good interview with Ricky Gervais on Fresh Air where he really talked about how there is this huge cultural shirt and a lot of it’s generational. You know with the world of reality TV and stuff, there is this very strange ambiguity of notion that anybody involved in the lively arts is just using that talent as a way to promote themselves just their name and image and become a star.
In some ways, as big a hambone as I am and as much as I like performing live, there is a party of me that if I could figure out a way to just write and to just be and do the creative work and collaborate with the people I like to collaborate with that would be a lot of it for me. That would definitely be, that would be easy street for me.
But you still like performing?
Oh, I love performing. It’s completely fun. It’s just the funnest thing in the world. It’s just like candy. It’s like saying “Do you like chocolate cake?” “Yeah, yeah. I like chocolate cake.”
When you guys were busy doing all the work on the side – the kids albums, the television theme songs, etc. – what drove you back and kept you returning to They Might Be Giants?
I think, you know we weren’t kids when we started this project. We were adults living in New York and we weren’t exactly showbiz veterans but we were in no way naïve. I think we really designed this project to be something that could – we designed it with the long haul in mind. I think we wanted a creative vehicle that would be completely satisfying for us, on any level that it got to.
Speaking of performing, I think the biggest surprise we found was even doing this thing that we kind of recognized as being a little bit offbeat and awkward – how positive the response was almost right away. There are a lot great musicians in the world that have a very difficult time connecting with audiences. It’s not a given. It doesn’t even necessarily reflect the quality of the work. There are virtuosos who are just like important creative people in their field who don’t ever find that audience for what they’re doing, for whatever reason. It doesn’t mean they’re not great. I think in many ways, ultimately it’s a half-empty-half-full kind of situation. I think we’ve been extremely lucky in that people come to our shows and they get it. I mean we do festivals for 25,000 people with like a guy wearing a Slipknot T-shirt and, you know, he gets it.
You music is so universal, though. Not to simplify it, but I’ve never been to one of your shows where I haven’t been surrounded by just a ton of people that were just like really happy to be there. And I’ve seen you guys a lot – my sister is a huge fan. But it’s just this kind of universal connection that you just don’t see with a lot of bands.
Dusti Rhodes, I wish every interview I had was like this.
(Laughs.) But really, I’m not trying to shower you with compliments …
Keep ‘em coming, keep ‘em coming.
(Laughs.) But that seems so interesting because it’s like you’re saying it was always that way and I believe you. I mean, the shows I heard described by venue owners and fans in Gigantic happened 20 or so years ago, but I could say the same things for one of your shows that I saw last year or two years ago.
Right, I think um, it’s been a trip. (Laughs.) I don’t know what to tell you, though. We’ve been in this band for 25 years now and it feels like it’s gone by in a minute and half, it’s been very exciting and it’s been very strange and very challenging and exhausting.
Was there ever a point when you guys you thought you were on the verge of easy street and were disappointed?
I think, now. Maybe we’re just naturally cautious or risk averse or something, but I do remember being kind of afraid when we started touring between the first and second album and we were touring so much we basically lost our freelance jobs. You know,
we would go away for a month long tour and come back and do our regular jobs and at certain point there was another person at our desk. And that felt kind of weird because for a very long time and from basically like ‘83 to like ‘89 we had day jobs and we did this band for fun. That’s a perfectly long amount of time to be in a creative project and we did it not ever really thinking well, we gotta pay the rent. We were like this band is never gonna pay the rent. We were going to do this because it’s cool and fun. There was this kind of turning point where all of the sudden we actually were relying on the band to make a living. That was not our goal and I think we were actually a little bit reticent to carry on in that direction because we didn’t want to have to do things to simply – we didn’t want to do the gigs that people do to make money.
I’ll give you an example of They Might Be Giants and it’s absolutely exceptional in the world of rock music: We’ve barely opened for any other band. We’ve just always headlined our shows. The bands we’ve opened for I think I can count on one hand. I mean, there are notable exceptions: We spent a month of touring the deep west with Hootie and the Blowfish at the height of their career and really the practical reason we did it was because we got to Nebraska. We had played in like 38 states and it seemed like there were 10 others that we would never be able to afford to get to. So, it was kind of vehicle for getting there. Other that, we’ve always just done our own shows.
I can tell you, I’ve had conversations with our booking agent who thinks we’re idiots for doing it. That’s exactly what people do not do. You open for other bands; you expand your audience by getting up in front of strangers and do all this other stuff.
I think we kind of had this strategy that was just like the thing that’s good about what we’re doing is a little bit more fragile then other things and we need to protect it. And we don’t want to put our music through the cultural wind tunnel of playing for the biggest audience we can play in front of. We don’t need to know what the least enthusiastic person in the crowd thinks of us. It’s like we want to kind of keep on going in the direction that, maybe it’s hard to justify.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong, though, with just being proud of what you’ve accomplished. I remember in Gigantic there was talk of how Elvis Costello was going to produce one of your albums and you guys didn’t want him to, not because you didn’t like Costello, it’s just that you guys thought you had earned the right to produce your own album.
Oh yeah. Elvis Costello changed my life. I saw basically Elvis Costello’s first public show in London in 1977. Elvis Costello could easily be – if somebody had to say “who do you think the most talented musician of the 20th century” it’s like I guess you would have to say Paul McCartney and John Lennon in front of him, but after that. I got nothing but respect for Elvis Costello, but I don’t need to spend my days being scared to go to work because I’m working with someone who is like ten times better than me. It’s just too daunting.
Were you surprised when you watched Gigantic to hear what others had to say about you guys?
It was like a slam book in reverse. There were a lot of things that happened when we entered our 20th year that were almost sort of kept secret to us until then.
You know what’s really nice about being around for 20 + years? Is that people stop comparing you to other bands. My heart goes out to bands like any band that is starting out. It’s so ridiculous the bands they get compared to. I mean, I think a lot of it is just about timing. If you start getting into the world at the same time as another band it’s like people – I just don’t know if the imaginations of music reviewers [are] so limited that they can only compare the two things that arrived in the mail that day to one another.
He says to the music reviewer who shrinks back into her chair.
(Laughs.) Right. How does They Might Be Giants new children’s album compare to, oh say, the new Velvet Revolver album?
Yeah, I would notice too that it’s also a matter of what former bands were popular at the time. Like a year or so ago when Gang of Four was really big, every band that came out “sounded like Gang of Four.”
Right. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the painter Ad Reinhardt. Ad Reinhardt is a very famous – he was also a painting instructor – and he painted these black paintings that had a bit of glaze in them so if you stared at them long enough you would see a pattern emerge on the surface of the canvas. But if you were just walking by the canvas it was like a blank canvas. As an art statement, that really speaks to me because you can’t make a surface assumption about what’s there when you’re looking at an Ad Reinhardt painting. You actually have to be patient and fully experience it and think about it and take it in to get anything out of it, to even know what it is you actually have to look at it, like really look at it and not just walk by it. He actually, I’m not sure I’m not sure if it’s factual or not, this was something I was told in art school, I’m not sure it’s even true, but it seems like a very apt quote. He would tell his students; many of my professors were students of his because he was a New York City painting instructor, but he would say, many other painters would say they were influenced by Ad Reinhardt and Ad Reinhardt would say “After me, there is nothing.” His point was like I’m not trying to influence anybody I’m just doing my thing in the most extreme way that I can and maybe culture is always people are always looking to make connections and people are always bouncing off ideas that are in the world, but I think there is something to be said for just simply trying to do your exact personal thing.
When people say “Oh, you guys have all this humor in your music you must like this or must like that.” I’m just like “no,” actually the humor in our music is a very specific reflection of only who we are. We’re not trying to prove anything with it; it’s actually not that important of a component of what we do in our minds. You know, we don’t think like “Oh, and we’ve got to make it funny.” It’s so unimportant to us that it be funny, that stuff just kind of slips in in a very natural way.
But getting back to the comparison thing, when we first did a lot of touring – in the early 90s we would tour Australia where the Violent Femmes are like really, really popular. They enjoy the level of success there that probably the way REM is in the United States. If you think about how successful REM is in the United States, that’s how successful the Violent Femmes were in Australia – very respected, but also extremely successful.
Because of our vocal quality, people would say you guys have to be influenced by the Violent Femmes, when in fact we had spent the last five years in New York City, like the only city in the United States that didn’t have college radio or alternative radio and had really barely heard the Violent Femmes. We were fans of Jonathan Richman, we were fans of the Velvet Underground and of a lot of things that were formative. You know, we probably had the same influences as the Violent Femmes and we had nasal voices, but I have to say we would do these interviews and in these interviews people would be like “You guys must like love the Violent Femmes. They must be like your number one band.”
I like your Australian music journalist voice.
Yeah, it’s like “That knocked me out, I’m going to make an album.”
And I found myself in the awkward position of telling the absolute, honest truth and then recognizing the person I’m talking to thinks I’m completely bullshitting him. Because to him the Violent Femmes are like the music that’s on the radio, like everybody knows – he doesn’t know that the Violent Femmes are not that well-known in the United States and are almost culturally invisible in hip-hop New York City in 1988. And I totally see where he was coming from, but it also just wasn’t true.
Not to completely switch gears, but did you guys ever come close to calling it quits?
The period that was probably hardest for us was basically the last couple of years on Elektra we were basically contractually obligated to run everything we were doing through Elektra just because that was the structure of the deal. And we weren’t really making any money on the road. I think no matter what level your business is at, if you perceiving that you are going broke, it’s kind of nerve-racking. What’s funny is that there have been times since then that we’ve made less money, but operationally we haven’t been broke. That’s kind of a hard thing to explain. But I guess that was the most uncomfortable thing because we were trapped in a situation where it doesn’t matter how hard we work, we couldn’t make more money. Like you know you start thinking, oh I’m broke, I’ll just work harder, but we were basically working as hard as we could and spending all our money on tour buses and semi-trucks.
You were talking about people who list other artists as influences, are you ever surprised to hear an artist list you as an influence?
I’ll tell you one thing that happens to me a lot, like when I’m going into a guitar store to get something repaired or buy some gear or something, it’s almost inevitable that somebody basically like wearing clothes of some very extreme rock lifestyle will sort of jump up and in a very kind and generous way express how much our success or just our existence meant to them in their formative time as a musician. And speaking as an old guy with no tattoos, I have to say, it’s a very interesting kind of flattery because you never know where your music is going to land and how things are going to affect people. I was 17 in 1977 I was in love with new wave music. All the first generation New York bands were the things I loved whether it was Richard Hell and Voidoids, Blondie or the Tough Darks or The Ramones, Mink Deville – a million band that no one remembers now, those bands were all enormously important to me and part of what made those guys so exciting to me was really, what we’ve been talking about a lot, they were all doing their own thing. Like all the bands were different from each other. I think one thing people forget about the whole punk rock, new wave thing is that it wasn’t a rhythm, it wasn’t a beat. It was actually sort of more of a cultural predisposition to do-it-yourself and to do your own thing. The more you talk about it, the more punk rock seems like a big hippie notion because it is so idealistic. But that’s what I grew up with and I feel like at our best, when we’re really doing the thing that we do, that’s immediately ours, I think it does express that same energy. And I think that what people pick up on, you know these guys are just doing their own thing. Whenever anybody in this culture gets a chance for their voice to be heard like that and not just be auditioning, it affects people in a different way.
You and John Linnell have gone off and done things on your own, but what do you think keeps you coming back to collaborating?
I think everybody, it’s lucky to have somebody that you can bounce ideas off of and then when you find somebody that you have enough in common with that you feel like their not just coming from another – there’s a lot of talented people in the world, but they don’t necessarily have that much in common. I think what’s kind of positive about our situation is that we have all this common ground and yet we’re not brothers, we’re not identical twins. And we can sort of, you know, ever so gently inform the other one that how something could be recalibrated to be more effective. There is a real element of trust, which is not to say that the other one is always right about how they are judging the first person’s stuff, but it’s just like a very easy collaboration and to a certain degree, I think to a very large degree, we actually, on the other side of that idea, I think we boost each other’s confidence. I think we actually embolden each other as a first audience. We’re kind of like “yeah, no, make it more fucked up.” And that’s a good thing in collaboration; most of it is just about being a booster.