Love, science and top-shelf liquor: the world of They Might Be Giants

The New York duo have been making hard-to-define music since 1983. Their latest album for children preaches the virtues of science, but their tour is strictly for adults

 

There is little conventional about Brooklyn band They Might Be Giants, so it is no surprise when a long-distance call with one half of the group, John Flansburgh, gets off to a funny start.

“I always like to ask before the interview, and this is off the record and strictly for the purpose of gossip,” he says in his New York drawl. “What’s the very worst interview you’ve ever done?”

Among the music journalists he has polled so far, there are two clear leaders: Lou Reed, who died in 2013; and Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, who still lives.

Erring on the side of diplomacy, I say I have met my fair share of short-tempered stars but perhaps they were just having a bad day.

“I want names. Give me names,” demands Flansburgh. And so I spill about the surly Irish actor and the permanently pissed-off A-list actresses.

Sated by some celebrity gossip, Flansburgh shouts “Let’s begin!” and proceeds to undo the wrongs of the aforementioned famous grumps. He is as delightfully forthright, cheerful, sincere, articulate, generous and upbeat as you might expect from the man who cowrote and sang the joyous Birdhouse in Your Soul, in 1989.

Since forming in the early 1980s, he and his fellow John (Linnell, his long-time friend and bandmate) have been on a maverick musical hamster wheel, working nonstop and perpetually making and performing new material.

Last year was particularly “crazy”, with the release of two new albums, Glean (for adults) and Why? (for kids). There is a third album due soon, and they will be touring nonstop until April (they played one Irish date, in Belfast’s Limelight on Saturday). The tour is something of a “victory lap” after all the hard work, but it’s not for kids, Flansburgh says. “It’s strictly for adults and drinkers and people who enjoy swearing late at night. No kids allowed. No even thinking about kids.”

No one could accuse They Might Be Giants of being work-shy. “I didn’t get into a rock band because I liked working hard. But it does involve some hard work.” There have been “a lot of deadlines . . . and fretting”, he says, looking back on the past 12 months.

Musical placebo

The optimistic rockers’ family-friendly album Why? is their latest. It is their fifth full-length album for kids, and about as far from the usual “I love you, you love me” Barney garbage as you can get.

“There’s a lot of rock songs, a lot of high-energy stuff. It’s not that different from what we do for adults,” he says. With other music for children, “the whole point is to slip in information and education . . . They are like musical placebo records trying to make kids better.”

In the past they have worked on music for Disney, and penned the award-winning theme tune You’re Not the Boss of Me for the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, but Why? sees the band go back to their psychedelic rock mandate.

“I don’t know if you know a lot about American culture, but there are a lot of stupid people here,” he says, referring to another successful project for children, Science Is Real.

Flansburgh laments that science has come to be seen with an aura of suspicion in the US. Or as he puts it, “People still want to get on planes but they don’t want to admit science is real.”

That inspired the lyrics of their song Science Is Real: “I like the stories about angels, unicorns and elves / Now I like those stories as much as anybody else / But when I’m seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract / The facts are with science / Science is real.”

They Might Be Giants formed in 1982, in a serendipitous story that sounds like it was invented to spice up their Wikipedia entry. Flansburgh and Linnell went to high school together in Lincoln, Massachusetts. They had a formative friendship and worked on the school newspaper together. After high school Linnell went off to play with a professional band, the Mundanes, in Rhode Island. The band got plenty of work playing parties, and moved to New York hoping to get signed.

By luck, Flansburgh was moving to New York on the same day to start college. In a very big city, they moved into the same low-rent building on the same day. (Flansburgh interrupts himself during this explanation to sort out a fight between his cats: “Hey you guys, just get along”, and again later when a cat is biting him: “If the line goes dead, please call the police.”)

They Might Be Giants have a back catalogue of 18 studio albums. They have sold millions of records worldwide, won two Grammys and have more than 30 years of sold-out shows behind them. But Flansburgh says that in the 1980s and 1990s they had to fight their way past innumerable “gatekeepers and curators” in the music industry.

“We never had any trouble writing songs or doing shows.” The challenge was getting anyone who ran a club or a record label to take them seriously. “It was whether or not you fit into their idea of where culture should be going,” he says.

Back then they were loosely seen as part of the growing East Village performance arts scene. Being classed under the “college rock” umbrella suited them for a time, but they were always the odd ones out. As Flansburgh puts it, they were the “what’s wrong with this picture?” band.

In the years before smartphones, when cassette-tape answering services were all the rage, They Might Be Giants created the weird and wonderful Dial-a-Song. They recorded 20-30 songs (“some of them were pretty strange”) and advertised the service in the Village Voice. Curious people started to call to hear whatever would play on the other end of the line, and it took off. Without it, Flansburgh says the band might well never have been seen as anything but an amusing party band. Dial-a-Song made them mysterious.

Last year the band resurrected a modern version of Dial-a-Song, releasing a new track (and an accompanying music video) online every Tuesday for a year.

After more than three decades making music, how do they continue to keep pace, writing songs and touring? “Top-shelf liquor,” says Flansburgh before adding, slightly more seriously: “I’ll let you in on a little secret . . . it’s completely fun. The reason people stick with it is because there’s relatively little else that’s as much fun. But please don’t tell anyone else: I don’t need any more competition.”

Since I have broken that promise, if you ever run into him, he has permission to tell you the name of that rude Irish actor.

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