They Might Be Giants | Interview
For a band that has been on the go for more 30 years, released sixteen albums and twenty-one EPs, won two Grammys and preformed the theme song to one of the most popular shows this century, They Might Be Giants somehow continue to bubble below the surface.
The band, the brainchild of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, come to Dublin for the first time in nearly twenty years later this month to play Vicar Street, touring their newest album ‘Nanobots’. With songs like Stone Cold Coup d’Etat, You’re on Fire (a literal interpretation of the phrase) and Circular Karate Chop, it’s weird, but weird in a distinctively They Might Be Giants way. According to John Flansburgh, that’s something the band can’t really get away from.
“Well we are made of They Might Be Giants,” he told Goldenplec . “It’s our sixteenth album. It’s a good question why anyone would do sixteen albums. I think usually sixteenth albums are pretty good evidence that people should stop. I think we might have beaten the odds.It’s a pretty action packed album. There are twenty-five tracks on it in 45 minutes, so it moves along pretty rapidly.”
‘Nanobots’ is full of absurd topics around which ‘serious’ pop songs are written, just as it was, is and probably always will be for the band. “The sensibility of it, the comic sensibility that is in there, that is pretty deadpan in a way. In a certain way, it’s deadpan. In a certain way it’s so over the top, it’s impossible. That’s very much a reflection of our personalities, where we’re coming from. In some ways, cooking up that way of working, that way of crafting a song, which really goes back to the very first things we were doing together.”
They Might Be Giants have always been preoccupied by the architecture of ‘the pop song’ but have pursued their own uniqueness through their lyrics. “I don’t think that there are a lot of other people working the way we work,” he said. “It’s hard to say if we’re just shy about writing a proper love song or we’re just goofballs by nature.”
There has always been something educational about their songs too; something John says goes back to the songs of their childhood. Songs like Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and Why Does The Sun Shine? influenced the band from an early age and both have become They Might Be Giants’ staples. This educational sensibility played a part in the band’s segue into children’s albums ‘No!’, ‘Here Come the ABCs’, ‘Here Come the 123s’ and ‘Here Comes Science’.
“Around 2000, we were neck-deep in going the Danny Elfman route of doing incidental music for television. We were doing a lot of television programmes as a way of not being on the road all year-long. It wasn’t particularly interesting to us; in part, because we were definitely working for other people in a way that we had been sheltered from for a lot of our adult lives. And, when you suddenly find yourself getting yelled at by someone who is actually your boss, suddenly you’re putting on your ‘Johnny Paycheck’ records and thinking about how much you wanna just do anything else.
“The idea of doing kid’s music was just a happy side project. We might be writing, recording and touring TMBG records for the rest of our lives, but the kids’ album was a way to expand the scope of what we were doing and still be our creative masters.”
Both the television work and the children’s albums led to Grammy awards for They Might Be Giants; the first for the Malcolm in the Middle theme song Boss of Me, the second for ‘Here Come the 123s’. Both too were ways for the band to make sure they were continued to cover new ground.
“You do have to worry about repeating yourself,” John said. “If you are going to repeat yourself, you have to make sure that you bring something else to it that takes it to a different level.
“We try to write in a bold way. With our voices and our sensibility, it might end up seeming like there is a certain amount of repetition. There have been times when we were worried that we have been running out of nouns; that’s something that we’ve discussed. Nouns really are such a great way to ground a song.”
They are always keen to try new things though. “The Darlings of Lumberland is just a very different type of recording. It’s 10 reed instruments and a very extreme electronic rhythm track that I put together… We concocted this 50-50 split between electronica and the most organic sounding acoustic instruments. It’s just a different kind of recording. I don’t it’s like anything we’ve ever done before, at all. And, after 16 albums, that’s a nice place to be.”
One way of making sure they don’t repeat themselves is by referencing the fan-created wiki based on the band. “That’s probably the most impressive bit of TMBG related internet activity. I could reconstruct the last 30 years of my life, almost day-to-day, from that thing. It’s wild. It’s got show reviews from every single show going back to the 80s. They’ve got chord charts for songs that I don’t even remember working on. It’s insane.
“The craziest part is that it has an actual tally of the songs we’ve worked on and there’s something like 1,500. It seems impossible to me.” It’ll be John’s point of reference if he ever comes to writing an autobiography.
The Dublin show, taking place in Vicar Street on the 18th of November, will be the band’s first in the city since playing the Colombia Mills in 1994. The band are excited about the show but hope it runs a little bit smoother than the last one.
“Last time we played in Dublin, we played on the stage of an opera house where they had not taken down the set. We were playing on this very elaborate opera setup. I can’t even remember what it was, it just seemed insane.”
So what can Irish fans expect from a They Might Be Giants show? “It’ gonna be kick ass [laughs]. It’s a celebration. Think about all the things in rock shows that suck and take that part out and leave the good part.”
John is disappointed to find out that his show is clashing with the Pixies on the same night, but might call a favour from a friend for a collaboration. “Maybe we’ll call on Frank Black to come on down. He’s sung on Particle Man before. I love Charles, he’s the best. I’m holding out hope that we’ll have a cameo.”
Might he join the Pixies on stage? “That’d be good. I could sing the Kim Deal part in Monkey Gone to Heaven. I can do the high parts.”
They Might Be Giants play Vicar Street on the 18th of November. Tickets are on sale now.