The Giants Interview Each Other
This interview was originally featured in the May 21, 2003 newsletter.
JF: Linnell, do you ever wonder if you will run out of nouns in your songs?
JL: I think I probably have already. The thing now is to go back and readdress the nouns that were covered by earlier, younger versions of us. I'm looking forward to the next round of songs that use "dog", "skeleton", "pants" and so on.
JF: Linnell, you've written so many songs. Do you worry about repeating yourself? Have your standards changed? What do you want to achieve in the future with your writing?
JL: These are the kind of hard hitting questions I have been avoiding asking myself.
JF: I have two completely contradictory threads going: I really want to write more complete songs that really hold up to repeat listening, but at the same time I want to get freer and more messed up with my ideas, and try to write as fast as possible.
JF: When you are writing a song like "Older" (with the line "you're older than you've ever been and now you're even older") do you consider how it's going to work theatrically in front of an audience, or is it just an internally pleasing idea?
JL: Oh I think that that song in particular was created with the live audience in mind. I normally don't think very specifically about how a song functions but that one works much better in front of people than on record. Especially if they can hear each other reacting to it and then they have that kind of communal experience. It sounds very touchy-feely but I think that internal audience feedback has played a special role in our best shows.
JF: Do you think of yourself as an electronic musician? ...A rock musician?
JL: To me this gig is, at the core, a desk job, which is the part I like best. That's why even in the live show I stand behind a desk, or maybe it's a podium.
JF: The reason I ask is sometimes I think if it wasn't for recordings, I would never have made music. It's really the "otherness" of recordings that make me feel like I've done something. Playing music is actually just kind of relaxing to me, and I never feel like I've done anything at all. That's why, even if we just make a song with regular instruments, I still feel like the project is really to make a recording, and is therefore really an electronic music project.
JL: I think that performing came second for both of us, like an added feature that was included in the box.
JF: Linnell, what kind of music do you like that has the least to do with what you write?
JL: One thing that I can't do myself is be deliberately naive. Sometimes I hear playful, unschooled music that gets me feeling inspired and yet it's a road I can't really go back down. I mean I could write something similar but the motivation is completely different, so the effect is not the same. I'm thinking of something like the Shaggs. I am probably unschooled and naive in ways I can't appreciate.
JF: But I do notice you are more comfortable writing more simply -- or more specifically, arranging things more cleanly -- these days, which I, a simpleton, appreciate.
JL: Why thank you Mr. Flansburgh. I'm probably getting simple in the head. Not the worst that can happen. I guess there's a difference between naive and simple. Lots of primitive music is complicated, and some very Spartan things are schooled.
JF: When we were a two man band, did you think we were a real rock band like I did, and then figure out years later we weren't?
JL: I remember at some point saying that our backing tracks seemed "quaint". You were surprised by that.
JF: I guess it was really a few years into settling in with the live full band, when we were doing some show for some radio station that was just really unambiguously loud and short and hard hitting, and realizing that our original set up was really not a rock show at all, which I can honestly say I never even suspected during our time as a duo. This realization made me feel really un-self-aware.
JL: Is there some way the whole band could actually tour with suits or is that impossible?
JF: I know they'd be impossible to clean... I have felt good about the couple of "suit" shows we've done. There is something really edgy about the whole band wearing suits. It's like we're from another planet -- the PLANET OF MEN!
JL: I really like the anti-rebel quality of the suits. The idea that you need to rebel against having to wear a uniform is pretty tiresome. Especially when you consider where that rebellion usually leads. Funky doesn't really work for me. However, wearing shoes, a suit and a tie for a two hour performance under lights can get uncomfortable. I guess that's why I wear a pocket T-shirt. I'm not saying it's a good solution.
JF: I think the uniform thing is interesting. I wish there was an easy way to do it besides suits, but the matching shirts remind me of the Beach Boys stripe thing, or a softball team.
JL: Do you think people who like us generally "get" what we do? Do you think there's something to get?
JF: I wonder sometimes. Sometimes I feel like there is something much more simple going on for our audiences than for us artistically, which is that they just find the band entertaining, and what we are working out in our music is not really so important to them. I feel like much of the merit of what we do is built far enough into the music that it's actually untaxing for the listener, which is good.
JL: That's true. I'm reluctant to say that we have some kind of higher insight into music, even our own, (in the first place it's a reprehensibly snotty attitude, and also it's so clearly not the case) but there is a point where you can't get inside the ears of the people who aren't personally invested in it. Particularly the untechnical music fan who appreciates ideas unencumbered by music theory and musical references.
JF: A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I freak out at how snarky people think we are with musical elements. I really want to scream out that we are not musical parody half the time I read a review, even when it's positive. Maybe it's just impossible to incorporate the various rhythms and production ideas along with the personal, humorous nature of our lyrics and not confuse people as to what our intentions are. I think it probably seems like a really outward looking thing, like a parody or a pastiche. I know it might seem wrong to willingly declare that we are just a totally isolated and self-absorbed songwriters who happen to be working in the widely trafficked pop music idiom.
JF: I am really enjoying making this children's record, even though I really have great trepidation about being a children's entertainer. I feel like it's coming at the exact moment in our careers when most artists would be opting for the instrumental, or jazz standard, or "rock meets classical" integrity project, and instead we've kind of backflipped into the Seussian thing that kind of started us as a band. Your thoughts?
JL: I tell myself that it takes guts to dispense with a tempting fantasy that we as aging statesmen of rock should be canonizing our own work or producing something that declares itself to be Art when we have reached this point by doing something less pretentious. We've seen this enough times with other artists. They start to believe their own press, that their longevity and the respect of their critics gives them some kind of special license to write oratorios, as though working in archaic modes is more befitting their dignity, rather than something merely outside of their own area of expertise.
JF: Did you like New Wave? Did you ever really like '70s art rock?
JL: I'm still into New Wave music. It's something Karen and I have in common so I often go back to the well of skinny tie records for a sentimental journey. Concerning art rock: I'm a little embarrassed to say that yes, I was kind of entranced by that stuff our friends were so into in high school that was written over its own head, so to speak. Yes, Brian Eno, and even the dreadful Pink Floyd seemed so interesting to my teenaged mind. I have a knee-jerk reaction against that stuff now. It's a useless prejudice I need some aversion therapy to get over. I recently listened to "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" by Rick Wakeman but it still left me with a funny taste in my mouth.
JL: Is there some other period in the history of mankind in which you could imagine yourself being as self actualized?
JF: Well, it is fun being in a band. I think I would have liked to have been a graphic artist in the first half of the twentieth century, but not now. I feel a tremendous affinity for the cultural history of the twentieth century. Maybe it's just growing up with my dad (who is a Modern architect) but I really love the arc of it. I could do without the catastrophic historical moments, but the evolution of Modernism, and graphic and industrial design seem really cool. I really find the high-tech looks of today kind of a nothing, and a little nothing at that.
JL: Then there's the problem of a previous time seeming a little more authentic than the current one. I probably suffer from this delusion.
JF: Yeah, but I feel very authentic for a WASP. It might actually be the falseness and polish of all these design things that gets me going. It's as materialistic as anything I enjoy. Junk stores remind me of Christmas mornings (now there's a WASPy sentiment for ya).
JF: Linnell, if you were organized would you feel better about disorganization?
JL: I feel okay at the moment. I get to the most important things on my list and if there isn't time to do everything that's just the way it is. I have a latent desire for maximum efficiency of movement which is motivated by laziness. I spend a fair amount of time thinking of the easiest way to do things. I guess I should return my calls more, especially to friends and relatives. I hope people realize that my being disorganized doesn't mean I don't care.
JF: I feel like I simply run from deadline to deadline. I try not to worry about having too much stuff stacked up in the future, because stuff always falls out.
JL: What was up with our high school science teacher Ouida Bailey? Elaborate.
JF: I was just explaining Ouida Bailey to my friend last night, and how we named our publishing company after her until our lawyer told us we would just get sued later, and changed it. She was really a character, with completely shaved eyebrows that had been replaced by what looked like orange magic marker, and a voice which resided in one very low octave and one really high, making everything she said seem insane. She was the head of the science department, and in my sophomore year I got into a pointless argument with her over her concept of evolution, which seemed completely and impossibly under-informed to me.
JL: She was kind of wise to everything, so she must've known that everyone thought she was bizarre. The first day or two of a semester, everyone in the classroom would just be falling over every time she opened her mouth. It didn't seem to bug her. Eventually we got used to her.
JF: I never got used to her.
JL: Will you ever have the "eye-planing" laser surgery or is it just too freaky? I would have it if I could but apparently it won't help people who are farsighted, at least not yet.
JF: Maybe they could turn your eyes INSIDE OUT and then do it! No, eye surgery is something I really fear. I am really fascinated by this "bo-tox" thing they are doing in Hollywood which actually PARALYZES YOUR FOREHEAD with POISON BACTERIA. You can't create wrinkles because you can't raise your brow. Sounds like a good idea, but if you look at some of these aging starlets it might appear their faces are frozen BECAUSE THEY ARE.
JL: I'm hoping they come up with a bacteria that they can use to KILL MY EMOTIONS. That way I won't ever look sad or tired. Or one to AMPUTATE ALL NEGATIVE THINKING.
JF: Sad and tired has always worked for you. And it's better than bitter. I'd lay off the bacteria till your fifties.