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An Interview with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

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They Might Be Giants is a poppy band that describes itself as a rock band that produces ridiculously catchy songs. If you haven't heard of the band or its members, you've probably heard their work. Because they're not a huge band, they have an interesting way of promoting themselves — making music for TV shows. Their names are attached to the theme of Malcolm in the Middle and The Oblongs and even the theme to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I recently had the chance to have a little talk with one half of the band, John Flansburgh, about where the band has been and where they may be going.

To start out I guess I'm going to talk a little bit about how I found out about you guys. I heard TMBG songs throughout my life, and I didn't realize it because you guys have been around doing a lot of things. The first time I connected you with your music was whenever you came on The Screen Savers on TechTv and I was wondering if a lot of people find out about you from random places because you do a lot of random things.

Right, well it's very satisfying for me to hear about somebody finding out about the band that way because I think that's one of the reasons we do things like that. The way rock bands are pushed through the culture have this very conventional thinking behind it, you know: you do this, you open for this band, on this tour, you do a video for this song like this. For a business that prides itself on being rebellious, there's just a lot of very orthodox thinking that goes into how bands are presented and I guess for us, doing projects, doing any kind of side project like that, is appealing on a bunch of different levels. They're just fun to do because they're kind of insignificant. They're just something you're doing in the moment. Often times they have a little bit of a craft challenge, you have to do something that works for somebody else, and then the final, ultimate side effect is that someone may be intrigued by the sound and the ideas in the song and come back for more. For us, we're not going to be in the new faces column, and there's not an old faces column yet, and we're not superstars, so its just a way for us to keep it alive.

You said you categorize yourself as a rock band, and I do too, but your sound is really different from a lot of other bands out there. One of the interesting things about some of the work you've done like The Daily Show and stuff like that is that it's really different from what you hear but you can always tell that it's you… once you hear that it's you guys, you're like, yeah, I can hear that.

[Laughs] I wouldn't know that from the sound of the orchestral cues from The Daily Show that it was like us, or some of the incidental music from Malcolm in the Middle that you'd know that it was us. I mean, we're songwriters and arrangers and you know we do things, we can do things in styles, so a lot of times we're actually, for that kind of outside stuff, we're hired because we can do a wide range of musical styles in the most generic sense. I like to think we do them with some level of panache, but people aren't always asking for TMBG-ish stuff all the time when they hire us to do stuff. I think of us as a rock band in the same way I think of pop/rock bands of the '50s as rock bands. When I listen to a Beatles album there's a wide variety of rhythms in it; one song does not relate that much to the previous song, even Simon and Garfunkel, it's like there's ideas in it that are similar but they approach the arrangement as if each song has got its own little construct, so maybe a pop band would be a better title, but that would make less sense because we're not that popular.

Something else about your music that's very consistent is your lyrics. You guys always have very clever lyrics that many times say nothing at all about anything, so is it a challenge to maintain that level of cleverness in your songs?

I guess, yes. I mean in our evolution, we've tried to simplify things a little bit; you know when you start writing songs you really like to throw in the kitchen sink, but I don't know. I don't feel that being clever looms as large in our idea as what's right for this band as it does for the fans of the band or the audience of the band. Maybe that's what make us stand out from the crowd, but to us it's not the main event, that's more of the stuff that comes natural to us in a way, you know, just who we are.

I read somewhere that you guys are working on two albums simultaneously, a children's album and a regular album?

Well, we did that [with] our last two albums, The Else and Here Comes the 1,2,3s, and right now we're working on the new children's album, Here Comes Science and we'll be doing some rock project in very short order after that, we might do an EP or something — something for adults — sooner then later just because we don't want to be off the radar for too long. But the kids stuff has been so successful, it's become like a parallel career for us. It was not something we intended. There's more than one part to doing kids stuff, there's the actual writing and recording, then there's the shows and the explaining, and I really enjoy the writing and recording but the shows and the explaining is a little more complicated. As a writer, it's such an interesting opportunity to be able to write stuff for kids, but I think being a children's entertainer is one of the hardest jobs in the world. In a culture that is really into putting governors on what people can and can't do within one career, the idea of being a dangerous rock band and being a kids' act is just too paradoxical to wrap your head around.

And at the same time, what I think is really cool is your fans are so great and your children's music is just as strong as your adult music and most of your fans enjoy your children stuff as much as your adult stuff.

Our fans are so great and I have to give, to the people that I refer to as the front row of our audience, a lot of respect for understanding that we're capable of doing more than one thing. And even appreciating it, a lot of the kids' stuff has been really warmly received by people that don't have kids and otherwise wouldn't be interested in kids' music. That's actually very interesting and heartening to me because I think we were expecting a lot of bad vibes from trying to stretch out like that and people seemed to have rolled with it very well.

Any interesting upcoming projects?

We've recently been asked to do, this is actually a classic project for us, to do a theme for an online site that is for fans of a video game called, I think, Weapons of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft.

Oh, World of Warcraft. Which evidently one-third of males between the ages of 12 and 18 are currently playing right now; I have no idea what it is. So they want us to do a theme for this thing, and it's just a friendly gesture; the guy's into the band and thought we'd be interested in doing it and I am kind of interested in doing it but I also have no idea what it is. I assume it's kind of a shooter game thing; when I think about doing kids' stuff, then I think about doing the theme to World of Warcraft.

[I then give John a brief explanation about World of Warcraft.]

Yeah, I stepped off the video game thing around Mrs. Pacman. I assume there's a lot of killing, right?


Well, that's the important thing.

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About Terry Bartley

  • Mr. mE

    That’s great!

  • John

    I love the Giants, but this is a very poorly written article. You “superior writers” should proof-read a little better.

  • Damon

    Don’t listen to the critic! I found this article to be very well-written and gratifying. Thank you!

  • Kris

    “I assume there’s a lot of killing, right?


    Well, that’s the important thing.”

    Hahahaha… That’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard Flansburgh say.

  • Thanks you guys, I really appreciate the compliments and I’m sure John does too!