They Might Be Giants
Around 9:30 am EST in the middle of a cold December, we had a rare opportunity to catch up with Brooklyn DIY pop legend John Flangsburgh of They Might Be Giants. Amid hectic winter schedules, we caught up after a fiasco involving frozen water pipes to discuss the making of the new TMBG album I Like Fun, the creative process of contemporary & classic TMBG tunes, the resurrection of the Dial-a-Song service, building the TMBG universe of characters & songs, among other short stories. With the new record out today, we present a transcript of our recent conversation:
How cold is right now where you are in New York?
Ugh, that’s the thing, it went down to like 0 overnight here and I’m north of New York City by a couple hours really kind of in the woods and this house is just not set up for, I mean it’s a winterized house but when the temperature goes that low it doesn’t know how to function. Also I accidently left the thermostat on too low, which is a classic error.
Like you actually have to heat your house to 70 degrees overnight if you expect it to heat the recesses of the basement and the foundation not too freeze over. I’m paying for it, I’m paying for my frugality.
Keep bundled over there!
Oh yeah, the heat is working, I don’t know, have you ever experienced pipes bursting? Because it’s nuts what happens. Nothing tests a marriage quite as hard as being in a house with all the pipes bursting, it’s like the worst “I Love Lucy” episode, you know, everybody’s like, don’t do that, do this! And then like, Are you crazy? What are you doing? But down that hair dryer! But down that butane torch!
Sorry, bad joke, I couldn’t help it!
No, I understand! Good call back.
And speaking of call backs, so returning to Reservoir Studios, formerly Skyline Studios; I’m imagining it was something of a homecoming, what memories from the Flood era arose during the process of recording I Like Fun?
Well, the first couple albums that we made were made under incredible time deadlines, like our first album was made between one in the morning and six in the morning because that was the ‘free time’ available, even though I think we ended up paying for it in a few different ways. It was the first time we had time in the studio, technology has changed so much it’s hard to even think back on a time when working in a recording studio was something that was very precious. You can work things out and have them be on your recording while working on a demo at home. You can export a lot of your best ideas directly to your recorded work, but back then I felt like we were making very interesting demos that sort of had a lot of promise and for a couple years it was a very standard experience to go into the studio and find ourselves doing slightly inferior, slightly less fun versions of the same thing so the real satisfaction of working at Skyline was were afforded time, that was very meaningful.
And now with returning there, I have heard you talk about how you have utilized more of a stripped down approach and how did that freeing approach guide the creative process of I Like Fun?
We have been involved in the way we were work in many different ways over the years. When we started even though we were working on 4-track tape recorders it was a world of over-dubbbing, there was always an open invitation to layer-up sounds and overproduce what we were doing and that’s an exciting thing when you’re starting out, but I think that we have sort of realized as we have grown more confident about what we do that cooking up bolder arrangements that can stand on their own rather than relying on lots of overdubbed instruments….we still do a lot of hard left turns in the arrangements and we do a lot of instrument changes but I don’t think we rely nearly as much on what would be like classic overdub techniques, I mean we don’t have a million things going on, there’s a lot of tracks on the album where there is simply a rhythm section and a vocal and one sort of featured instrument and that’s the whole gig.
You can imagine it as being part of the live set very easily, it has a very live quality to it.
One of the things that brings us back to recording studios rather than just working at home, we track the rhythm section live and often track even more instruments live. It’s not just a series of overdubs it’s actually people in the room together playing and that brings a lot to it, you can change a lot of things on the fly and the songs really evolve rapidly when people are playing off each other and we’re capable of hearing how it’s all stacking up together. I’m always surprised how few people want to work that way, I think it’s not really a question of even budgets I just think people prefer to doing everything separately because, I don’t know, it’s just the way studio work as evolved. It’s exciting to be able to work with the song in such a plastic way, you can form it, you can bend it with all these changes as you go.
It’s interesting how on the album a lot of the discontinuities that have always been recurring motifs all throughout the TMBG catalog, on this new album it’s almost as if the negativity of the modern age is coupled with the transcendent. I have always wondered, but in particular with this go round—in the creative song composition process how do you and John Linnell negotiate constructs of the classical, the contemporary and the postmodern concepts of the scientific, the philosophical and the political and how does all that come together in cohesion?
I think we sort of break everything down to the smallest, least intimidating parts of the work we’re doing. Writing a song in it and of itself can feel pretty unambitious, when you start writing a song you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to land and I think that we feel kind of lucky that we got more than one good place for a song to land. So if it’s just a good song we can get it out into the world a bunch of different ways and still feel like it’s worth doing, it’s not like, oh, failed experiment, throw it in the garbage can. So even when we’re doing what will ultimately be just an okay song, it’s empowering to know that it will have a hearing. But in terms of the tone of the record and there’s definitely some darker themes on this record than some others, I think that’s just really a reflection of the moment we’re in, it’s so complicated and in some ways disheartening. We kind of have been through this before when we were making The Else we were very much in the shadow of the post-9-11 Bush years and it felt very claustrophobic. That record feels very affected by it’s time and this one in some ways too is working off that, but its very abstract, it’s more like the ph balance of the pond water we’re drinking than what we’re intending. It happens very organically and without intention, if you’re just doing a lot of writing and living in the world, your writing is going to be influenced by the world.
With what you were saying earlier about the wealth of demos that you and Linnell had amassed [from the early days] and with the return of Dial-a-Song, what does this demo dial up service mean now in 2018 to you all?
I have to sort of back up in my mind to answer the question because when we were doing Dial-a-Song those weren’t demos, those were the only things we were doing! Those recordings were the only recordings that people in the world heard so in a way those are just our best efforts. The strange thing about Dial-a-Song now is that even though the challenge of just writing songs in a sort of hyperactive way is the same, the way the audience gets to react to it has shifted completely. Dial-a-Song was a totally anonymous thing, no one was cataloging what was happening, and there certainly was no audience critique of what we were doing. So we could put on the most unusual stuff and it really didn’t matter what anybody said, because no one heard the messages, no one heard the responses, I mean I’m sure there was lots of things that we put on that people thought, what the fuck was that? But now we can put on the humblest and charming demo of a song and people will be like, what happened to these guys? There isn’t a way to kind of calibrate people’s expectations, a lot of people might just assume, this is a terrible single, radio will never play this and it’s like that’s not really what we were going for with that song but we understand. What we’re doing in 2018 is a little more shinier and a little bit more finished, we’re not posting demos per say and that’s really because for the same reason people don’t play songs as works in progress in live shows anymore because you know, YouTube exists and somebody’s going to film it and post it and people are gonna start critiquing it before it’s even finished. So we’re definitely working and behaving in ways that are informed by the current scene that is quite different than the 90s or the 80s.
I still remember that one [Dial-a-Song message] on Misc T where there’s that voice-mail message of the caller from the Village Voice reader with the whole, ‘I don’t know Gloria’ bit.
Yeah, that was a great thing to come home to.
I remember back in the 90s and more so when the mp3 came along, seeking out with friends via forums all the Dial-a-Song versions for every known TMBG song that had been released up to 1999.
There were quite a few and some of them that were real stinkers I can attest. But you know it was an interesting challenge and in some ways the fidelity let us off the hook, that’s one thing with the contemporary Dial-a-Song situation it’s a little bit different, we can’t hide behind the telephone line like we once did. That would certainly lighten the load. Ultimately it’s just a crazy way to kick out more songs and keep it fresh for ourselves and that’s worthwhile, how it’s perceived or understood I don’t want to over-think it too much.
I just appreciate it as a crypto-proving ground of TMBG material. And like you know now we have the DC & Marvel universes, I have always felt that there is very much a TMBG universe.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s a very funny way of thinking of it. I like the idea of it, I was just talking to somebody about the nature of collaborating and I think one of the things that makes the They Might Be Giants setup kind of interesting is that there is like a They Might Be Giants universe, there is sort of a sensibility that has evolved between the two of us that is very much from the two of us and from the things we have collaborated on its it’s own odd world.
Yeah, well everything, you can take it from the level of personnel from John & John, to the Band of the Dans, to taking it to way back in the day to inventing characters like The Rabid Child, Chess Piece Face, The Big Duluth and I don’t know. Obviously you couldn’t quite gauge the grand gestalt and scope of it all, but was there a conscious effort between you and Linell to create an elaborate realm type of concept?
To borrow that science fiction term, there wasn’t a lot of thought about world making, I think when we were very nervous about writing in clichés and we almost sort of x’d off the idea of writing love songs relatively early on, I mean if we tried to write in that mode we had to have some angle that made it seem beyond stock but for the most part and I don’t think this is that different from what Ray Davies went through in the 60s as a songwriter; once you discover writing character songs, either songs about characters or from the point of view of a character it’s a great kind of trampoline that you can set up for yourself. It’s a very rich way of writing so I think we kind of came to those strategies over and over again because it’s a really healthy alternative to more stock ways of writing. To write a song you need a lot of fuel and you need a point of view and that way of working with a persona of someone’s point of view is a great way to kind of motor a song along.
It’s incredibly generative because they are all characters that re-appear, like in “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought you Said We Had a Deal“.
Right, right, well that is more directly ripping on the “I Am the Walrus” Beatles thing which is doing a little survey of your character catalogs. But I think in general of writing in characters is a fun way to work, it’s a very generous springboard for ideas and right now we just did with the Instant Fanclub this fall we created a comic book project with one of our longtime collaborators David Cowles called The Escape Team and there are all these characters like X-Men or any kind of cartoon team and they all have these kind of, well everyone is too young to remember Wacky Packages or maybe like Garbage Pail Kids, but ultimately the original version of all this stuff was a character called Rat Fink and there was a bunch of other characters introduced from this hot rod cartoonist from the 60s named Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and so we were kind of working with the notion that it was crossing this X-Men kind of adventure with the Big Daddy Roth aesthetic and Big Daddy Roth’s characters all have these very over the top names and one of the things that we’re doing with Dial-a-Song this year is we’re actually just writing songs for all these extreme characters and they’re kind of like their biographies in a way. And what’s interesting and odd about it is some of the songs are pretty sophisticated they’re not just like hey, hey we’re the Monkees, there are some very cool, cool tracks that are emotionally surprising. John [Linnell] was working on a song for a character called “Jackie the Clipper” that is not a title for a song that would necessarily elicit an emotional song but it’s very, very powerful song.
You all are masters of songwriting and have inspired me, actually most of collegiate & secondary school work was inspired by your songs from poli-sci to earth science and beyond. Also curious as a group that has gone from the independents like Bar None to Elektra to being independent again, having already experimented with innovations from Dial-a-Song to as I recall pre-iTunes on eMusic—I remember when Long Tall Weekend came out, TMBG was one of the first bands that released an album digitally online.
Well no, I think technically Long Tall Weekend was the first album released on it’s own digitally for sure that was it’s claim to fame. You know it’s not like we’re uniformly into embracing technology because I can tell you that I’m very proud of the fact that we skipped over the great CD-ROM scare of 1996, we were on Elektra at the time, even though there was a lot of pressure for us to do it and I’m not exactly sure why and I think it might have been a situation where it was low-hanging fruit for a Grammy award for us. Major labels have like commercially successful acts and then they have integrity acts that they keep around as a way to bring prestige to what they’re doing and I think they thought if we put some of our imagination into a CD-ROM that we could have got some kind of award. But I think basically from Dial-a-Song on we’ve had kind of an open-minded approach to embracing emerging technology and if there is something there that seems like an easy jumping off point we’ll just kind of use it, I don’t think we are by nature, I’m not the kind of person wondering how to write code and I’m not an early adapter, I know people who own Laserdiscs and they are not me, I have never adjusted the color on my television set. But you know the thing is we want people to hear what we’re doing and one of the things about working with emerging technology, whatever it is, is that you get a crack at an audience that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Those early adapters as an audience are also very open-minded and very up for new experience, that’s almost what defines them is that they want to see what’s out there. So if you work in those realms you’re just going to find a group of people who are going to be responsive to what you’re doing. That’s exciting to me. That is the part that works.
That’s one of the things I love because I remember when Long Tall Weekend came out, Napster was a big contentious flashpoint, what with Metallica going after their fans and what was interesting was TMBG embracing a model that nobody knew how to capitalize off of with internet music per say, but you all embraced it with open arms and showed a lot of other artists both big and small that they could do this too and that there was platforms worth looking into via the web.
Yeah, well I think the major labels were so psyched by the success of CDs, I think that they couldn’t even conceive of losing their market share, they were very confused about what the future was going to bring and they weren’t in any hurry to figure out what the future was going to be. I mean it was basically just like the ice age was coming and the dinosaurs were about to get killed off so, it’s just a different world now, it’s funny to even get back to that world of gatekeepers, everything has changed. It will be interesting to see how Spotify survives and now that net neutrality is gone, the thing that irritates me is that free music is considered the hors d’oeuvre of the telecom industry, where they feel like they have the right to give away the entire history of recorded music without compensation just because of all the established modes of behavior online and I think we’re gonna see a lot of more of that and I think it’s gonna be very irritating. Because at this point it seems like Spotify is well on its way to figuring out a way to monetize music online and I think this end of net neutrality is gonna fuck it all up.
And lastly what is the future of Mono Puff and other solo projects?
There is no word on that, but it would be fun if it happened.