Consumable Online John Flansburgh Interview
Consumable Online recently caught up with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. Flansburgh and John Linnell comprise the main part of this group, best known for their quirky songs such as "Don't Let's Start", "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul". On their most recent release, John Henry, the duo employed several full time musicians to add to their breadth and depth.
How busy was he this day? While we were conducting the interview, John was doing his dishes - it's hard to do that when you're on the road most of the time. He had been giving interviews for seven hours straight. But, in between, he was told that the St. Louis show sold out in 90 minutes. The hectic pace comes with the territory when you're as in demand as They Might Be Giants.
C: Your new album, John Henry, is the first album you've had a full
band on. What triggered the decision to implement a full backing band?
JF: Well, it was a practical thing - we were going out on a long tour in the middle of 1992 (for Apollo 18) and we were trying to change up the show. We had toured for a year solid in 1991 (for Flood) and then went out in the beginning of 1992 as a duo and it struck us that even though we had added a half dozen songs to the show, it was hard to make the show seem different from what we had done in 1990. We didn't want to do a big national tour that was the same as the 1990 show.
C: That was when you had the backing music and such accompanying you?
JF: Yeah, we were working with a drum machine; we spent 1991 working on Apollo 18 and not working on a live show, so we were trying to figure out how to spice up the show. We decided to bring in some side musicians to play a couple songs and at some point, we decided that might be too weird to have someone on the road to play only three songs - it was an indulgence of sorts. I had been playing drums in the show for a few songs - which was interesting - so we were almost dipping our big toe in the live rhythm section. We auditioned some people, rehearsed for a few weeks with a five piece lineup and it started working. The audience's response has been really receptive.
Over the last couple years, the lineup has changed a bit - Kurt (Hoffman, horns) has left the band to work on some movie soundtrack projects. We're now a six piece - we added Randy Ando, who plays trombone as well as tuba. We're expanding - it's nice to have a full horn section.
C: So, how long have you been together now - it must be nearing ten years?
JF: We've actually been together since 1983. We played in crummy clubs for three years or so.
C: What's the best and worst things about having a band playing behind you?
JF: The best and worst parts are intrinsically linked. It's an intimately more social thing - the up and down sides of that are a total constant now. It's really fun hanging out with these people and it's musically challenging to work with them; there are all sorts of levels to pursue what you're doing. On a personal level, as a musician, it's really opened up a whole new area for me. Writing for horns is really exciting, hearing the music *become* a full blown band sound - I feel like I'm lucky to hear these great players work on my songs. It's really wonderful and rewarding to work with a great bunch of guys.
The other side - John and I have this responsibility of being band leaders, which means to some extent, we have to think of ourselves as bosses. For us, that's uncomfortable - we want to be fair, we want to do right by these guys, but it makes things complicated. We've (the two Johns) have always been self-contained which has been a strength, without compromising a thing. We just did our own thing - but now we have to figure out schedules that work for us - it's a whole new level of complexity.
C: I notice one song is written by four of you on John Henry - "A.K.A. Driver" - and the rest were written by you and John. Were there any problems with that - songs that the other members contributed on, that didn't make the final cut?
JF: No, not at all. John and I are the songwriters on the project - we've been in the band for eleven years and to some extent, They Might Be Giants is linked to the collaboration between the two of us. It's hard for me to imagine how it could work any other way. When they are involved in the writing process, they are credited, but the songs are pretty arranged by the time they get to the band. They bring out the nuances in the material, but the arrangements come down to me and John.
C: Other than the band, how did John Henry differ for you from the other albums?
JF: It was the first record we made outside of New York City (in Bearsville, New York).
C: Was that in Todd Rundgren's studio?
JF: No. Bearsville was built by Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan's manager) and was built to accommodate The Band. Rundgren worked as an engineer there in the mid 1970s and then had his own studio elsewhere in the same town. The reason people associate the two is because Todd Rundgren's works came out on Bearsville Records. There's lots of studios up there - Dreamland Studios is in the town next door and there are a couple other studios as well in the area. Bearsville is a real "A" studio - super swanky and all. It was different because we felt like we were moving - we had to move all the equipment to make the record.
The best thing for us was that we took more time to make the record and had an overabundance of material that was road tested from performing it at shows. We never really slowed down once we started working with the guys, between the Apollo 18 touring and making the record - we were always adding new songs and working them out in front of the audiences. That fleshed out a lot of the ideas in the arrangements.
The weird thing about being in a band that continues to record and has a public life is that you wind up on the treadmill of writing, recording and performing. There's times when you're recording material that you just finished writing. When I listen to "She's Actual Size" (from Apollo 18), I would be lying if I said that it didn't make me a little disappointed, because the later performance versions of it have so much more spirit than the recorded version. It was very tentative at the (recording) time because it was just finished.
C: So, at the time, it was your best version, but since that time you've improved upon it.
JF: Yeah - and, it's not so much the arrangement, but the confidence we have when we perform the song. It's frustrating to hear the "definitive" version of the song - I think it's a solid song - to be a timid performance. With John Henry, it was the exact opposite. We had the opportunity to perform them and really nail down the best versions; we took the extra time and I think it paid off in terms of quality.
C: You mentioned about the "public life" - do you have any problems when you go out, outside of touring, when you're just walking around?
JF: No, it's not that weird - by and large, because our faces aren't on the record and our videos aren't in heavy rotation (on MTV), we don't have any of those kinds of problems. We're definitely a kook magnet in some ways, and we have had run-ins with people who would be better off in institutions, but it's not a big celebrity crisis. We used to get recognized by the local grocers who would see us on the "Joe Franklin Show", however.
C: A couple songs on the new album caught my attention - on "Subliminal", what is the backwards message at the end of the song?
JF: It's the vocals and the drums of the song, played backwards. When we were making the demos and fooling around, it sounded interesting, and we thought it fit in with the song.
C: "Meet James Ensor" is a song on John Henry - can you tell us a little about the man you wrote about? What prompted this?
JF: In my art history class, while in college, we were bored and all of a sudden his works came up and we were surprised at how exciting it was. He was an expressionist, like other 20th century expressionist painters, who was ahead of his time and was very eccentric. The line "Dig him up and shake his hand" is actually very specific - a parallel idea to a lot of his paintings which involve resurrections, skeletons and puppets being animated.
It's not an accident that the language of the song reflects his work. He did a painting - titled something like "Self Portrait in 1970". It's a skeleton, wearing his clothes. He became a phenomenon right before the turn of the century. With the song, I'm trying to encapsulate the issues of his life - an eccentric guy who became celebrated and was soon left behind as his ideas were taken into the culture and other people became expressionists.
C: You also did a song about James Polk a while back, as a B-side to one of your singles. Do you feel a need to write songs about unrecognized people?
JF: Well, James Ensor isn't completely unknown; he's one of the lexicon of modern painters. He's really fresh. I don't feel like I'm an advocate of James K. Polk; in fact,the song is pretty easy on him - we could have been much nastier on him. It's fun to write those kinds of songs.
C: What are your favorite songs off of John Henry?
JF: I really like "End of the Tour"; I sort of regret that it's at the end of the record, because I feel it's one of the strongest tracks. I hope people notice it and don't skip through it.
C: I think people who buy a They Might Be Giants album will listen to it the entire way through; I don't think you attract the person who hears a single on the radio and buys it for one or two songs, ignoring the rest of the album. It seems that your fans appreciate the whole album.
JF: Well, I hope that's the case. I think our true fans are like that but it's hard to tell. People get focused on singles.
C: And, every moment you or any band is around, someone will accuse you of being a sellout.
JF: Yeah, you know, I'm just looking forward to *being* a sellout.
C: And making the money a sellout gets?
JF: Fuck yeah!! Why worry? Just one "Short People" and then you're all set...
C: Randy Newman now has the creative license to be himself again, and he's financially set for life.
JF: I just want to go on the record as saying that Randy Newman is one of my great influences. I think his case is a really interesting one; one of my biggest fears is that a song of ours, which works on a sophisticated level, becomes popularly misunderstood - that's certainly the case with "Short People". If it was just an album cut, your appreciation for the song would be completely different. You'd catch the subtleties and notice its charm. But, because it was such a big hit, it's been completely contextualized.
C: People focus on one line, the refrain..."short people ain't got no reason to live".
JF: A lot of people don't even get it - people just think it's real, from a guy who doesn't like short people. They don't even know - it's a two dimensional type of audience response that can happen. I feel lucky, in a sense, that we haven't had that kind of success - and I worry that if we ever did have a big hit single, it would be something running along those lines.
Being popularly misunderstood...(Timbuk 3's) "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" is another one. It became this sort of frat-boy, creep anthem.
C: Wait, wait..you have to slow down - I'm a fraternity person from long ago.
JF: But your frat was cool, right?
C: We pretend to be...certain people in it didn't want to listen to the recycled classic rock of the 70s all day long, and I happen to be one of them. But I understand what you mean.
JF: It's sort of a Young Republican thing that filtered down to "The Future's So Bright" which is weird, because it's a cynical kind of song. It's hard to write songs and think of how they'll be understood. That's what I wanted to say - I didn't want to just cite "Short People" and have it be misunderstood.
C: What were your goals when you were with Bar/None (recording label for the first two albums) and how have they changed now that you're with Elektra, a "major" label?
JF: That's a difficult question - our goals have always been to make the best records we can. I think people put this great emphasis on how going to a major label is a compromise and how an indie is not a compromise, but from my point of view, it's always a struggle when you're doing this kind of work. You are involved in making records, and just *finishing* a record is a compromise. You're always dealing with other people, a company and in a lot of ways I feel there is very little difference between the two labels. There are lots of really nice people at both labels, they're both helpful. I've never felt compromised being on Elektra, or that we had to change anything.
The biggest change we had was between our first album on Bar/None, where there were no expectations and our second album, where all of a sudden we had an audience, and there was a momentum to our career. That was a bigger challenge.
C: Where do you get your influences for your writings, to hear others music?
JF: Friends of ours turn us on to new groups. Being out on the road, you end up meeting a lot of people and seeing a lot of shows as you go along. I think you can't help it; you get caught up in the whole scene, while being on the road. Being in the band also has increased our lexicon of music - we all have diverse tastes in music.
C: How do you feel about moshing at shows, either at your shows or in general?
JF: I have mixed feelings about it. In a sense, I'm flattered by it; I would never have imagined anyone would want to mosh at our shows. But, having done shows where far too many people are moshing, and having seen the entire focus of a show be spoiled by an overexcited group of people, if I had to make one definitive statement, I would say, "Please don't mosh. It takes away from other people's enjoyment". I've seen a lot of people get hurt and I don't want anyone to get hurt at our shows. We take a lot of time out of our days to put on a safe show. We're not ignorant (of the things that can go wrong) and we're involved in our production. When you start having crowds bashing into things, it increases the chances of adversity.
Also, I hate feeling like someone's dad - "C'mon people, let's not kick each other in the head" - I don't feel like that's my role, but, at the same time, I don't want to sit there playing songs all night when some drunk guy is kicking people in the head.
C: What are your favorite song(s) to play live?
JF: The songs that I don't sing on at all are fun to play. Playing "Don't Let's Start" is always a gas - it's got a lot of guitars, and everyone knows it and digs it. It's kind of like "The Guitar", they're fun to play.
C: Do you still play "Stump-the-Band", where someone hollers out a song and you try to play it?
JF: We've pretty much eliminated that part of the show. It's just too hard to do anymore.
And, at this point, John has to get going. He's got more interviews to do, as the band is about to embark on their United States tour in support of John Henry. But, through this interview, it becomes apparent that there is much more to They Might Be Giants than just playing and singing. Flansburgh takes his work very seriously, without giving pat, "safe" responses - his answers come from the heart. The same attitude goes into the band's music - whether it's the bop of "Don't Let's Start" or the full backing on TMBG's most recent single, "Snail Shell", They Might Be Giants are a very serious band with a very fun sound.