After 33 years in the music business, and just coming off the back of a gruelling 12 months that included releasing a new song everyday, you could certainly forgive John Flansburgh for being less than enthusiastic about an early morning phone interview, but the They Might Be Giants frontman is as affable as could be. Half of one of the hardest working musical partnerships in the business (along with John Linnell), Flans or Flansy (as he is also commonly known) has always remained a noticeably down to earth character that exhibits a genuine sense of excitement about his work.
Not content to just to be part of the status quo, They Might Be Giants have essentially been working across two different spectrums for the past number of years, continuing to create regular albums alongside separate records for children, or “kids’ projects” as Flansburgh calls them. With the release of both their 17th and 18th albums, Glean (for adults) and Why? (for kids), this very year TMBG have had an unsurprisingly busy time of things, but just as I begin to praise the band’s industry, Flansburgh quickly corrects me.
“We’re actually releasing three albums over the course of 12 months” he exclaims to both my surprise and admiration, “There’s another album on its way that will land at the beginning of next year for adults. This is all due to the song machine that is Dial-A-Song.”
I had heard about the band’s resurrection of a phone service for songs they had previously used before it’s cessation in 2006, but now I was beginning to understood its full potential.
“We’re putting out 52 songs this year, a new song every week,” he states before expanding further, “Starting last Summer, with Dial-A-Song in front of us, we sort of had the notion “We better write as many songs as we possible can” and that was really what we did. Sometimes multiple songs in a day!”
Such a work load might drive the ordinary singer-songwriter to an early retirement but Flansburgh insists that he has a “fun job”.
“As far as jobs go being as songwriter is sort of like being a “professional dreamer,” he claims assuredly, “There are definitely worse jobs, and definitely harder jobs. But it does take time and it does take a certain type of focus, a strange kind of “daydreamy” focus. It’s an odd one for sure.”
Although evidently fond of his profession, John does touch on the fact that their may indeed be a paternal reason for his work ethic.
“My Dad (Earl) was a workaholic and he worked so much harder than I do, he really worked around the clock,” he states. “So even if it’s accurate to call myself a workaholic, in comparison to my Dad, I always felt like a little bit of a fraud in that department. He really navigated strange, kinda compartmentalised worlds. He was a modernist architect so he was going to Town Council meetings and selling the idea of building a new school which would be a thing that people would think of as being impossibly modern at the time. He was a true believer!”
Impressive stuff, but after 33 years in the same band, or “a Prison Sentence” as he jokingly refers to it, has either Flansburgh or Linnell ever been tempted to pull the plug?
“It is a long time but we’ve been very fortunate,” he says candidly. “Unlike most bands it’s been relatively steady on. The only real low moment was in the late ’90s, when the tide was going out of the major label scene and we were caught in this vicious cycle of losing money on tour because we were touring in too expectant a way and not knowing what else to do. So we would tour longer, and play more shows, simply to dig ourselves into a bigger ditch. I don’t think it’s that uncommon, we just didn’t know what the other options were and what was possible. We did a lot of things afterwards, like a lot of the television stuff we did was right after that, and part of that was drudgery. We did a lot of incidental music for television, and that was not as much fun as making kids records, I’ll tell you that much!”
A partial explanation of why the band first decided to explore the avenue of making music for children perhaps, but John points out that he doesn’t really emphasise the difference between the two musical endeavours.
”I don’t really think of it as a style of music,” he states, referring to the kids’ records, “more like a category that it’s filed in.” “One of the strange things about ‘They Might Be Giants’ as a band is that we’ve done music explicitly for adults that sounds exactly like traditional children’s music, and we’ve done children’s music that sounds exactly like very hard rock forms of adult music. We have songs from kids’ albums that sound more like Cream or Parliament/Funkadelic then they sound like kids’ stuff. It’s a pretty wide-open assignment for us. We don’t really approach it like it’s for kids at a musical level. Obviously there’s certain lyrical threads that are completely wrong for kids, but on the melody side we try to work both sides of the equation. We don’t really have too many rules about what’s right or wrong for kids , or right or wrong for adults but we’ve a clear difference in our minds with the finished product. Sometimes there’s little bits of educational stuff or points of view that just make it seem like it’s gonna be good for kids.”
While fairly adamant that TMBG don’t play shows for kids, stressing that the band tend to play in bars and asserting “that people should DEFINITELY not bring their kids to our shows!”, it is obvious that the kids’ projects are a big part of their identity as band. But are these songs easily incorporated into their live shows? John doesn’t seem convinced.
“We did the thing for The Daily Show, and Malcolm in the Middle, and we had some Disney things that were really big but we never really incorporated them into our shows,” he states. “They sort of exist in a world that’s to the side of what we’re doing. There is a song called ‘Alphabet of Nations’ that we’ve done in the live show, and ‘Clap Your Hands’ which was put together for our very first kids’ project and in a different moment could’ve been called ‘Get Up Off Your Ass!’, as it’s basically a “Get up and shake your ass kinda song”. But we just put it on the kids’ record because it seemed like it had a lot of energy to it that was transferable to a kids album. Putting in a live show for adults is just completely natural and it functions in a very immediate way because the idea of the song is celebratory, it doesn’t have the weird after taste of a kids’ song. It’s funny because it was a staple of our live show for a long time and I never thought twice about the fact that it was on a kids’ project cause half the song is me screaming!”
For a band renowned for their endless creativity and appetite for the whimsical, the kids’ projects undoubtedly seem a great fit, but when it comes to the actual creative process involved in their songwriting, John is less specific.
“I think one thing about the way we go at song-writing is, it’s not experimental music, but there’s an experimental approach in the formative part of putting a song together,” he says hesitantly. “We don’t always start with the music or with the title, we don’t have a preset notion of how to write a song. Sometimes it’s just a sound, or a beat that we put together on a drum machine, or it’s a lick on the guitar, it can come out of a lot of different places. We’ve created a lot of unusual springboards to write a song, sometimes I’ll try to write a song that’s just one chord, or try to write a song where the verses and the chorus all work with this one-chord progression. Just simple devices to try to spark something new.”
After just finishing the first leg of their American tour They Might Be Giants are set to embark on a week long UK tour this coming January, including a date in Belfast’s Limelight 1 on the 30th. Noting that his previous visits to this island have been “fascinating and fun” Flansburgh is greatly looking forward to his arrival, and to the tour in general.
“Yea its gonna be great!” he exclaims joyfully. “We have a fantastic band and we can draw on a huge number of songs so it’s just very easy to put together a different show every night and really just enjoy ourselves and keep things moving. I think one of the things that’s strange about being in a band for a long time is people stop expecting certain things. When you see other bands that don’t put on a good show it seems like they’ve a very predictable idea of what they’re good at, but for us I think the best shows we do are when we’re challenging ourselves a bit and changing up the repertoire.”
So after all the touring and daily song releases will there be anything left in the tank? Surely a nice, extended break will be in order for the band.
“Oh yeah we’ll have a huge break after this,” John states in a somewhat relieved tone. “I mean this is it. After the UK tour and the next leg of the US tour we’re gonna disappear for at least a year. Just sit on a beach and… laugh!”
A well deserved break for a refreshingly enduring band.
They Might Be Giants play Belfast’s Limelight 1 on January 30th 2016 (tickets here) and new album Why? is on current release.