The future is now. The future is good. The future is scary as hell.
Listening to They Might Be Giants’ 16th and latest album, Nanobots, it can be hard to suss out exactly how the Brooklyn nerd-alt-rock champs feel about the future. Are they futurists, celebrating the forward march of science and embracing the soon-to-come singularity? Or are they tinfoil-capped doomsday prophets, using synthesizers, tightly gated guitars, and outlandish metaphors to convey a sense of modern man’s Icarus vertigo? There’s a song about the titular tiny robots, a morally ambiguous character study of a drone operator, and a 16-second track titled “Destroy the Past.”
“I think we’re like a lot of present-day people. It’s equal parts,” says John Flansburgh, who shares TMBG songwriting duties with collaborator John Linnell. “I feel like we live in the future. There’s so many things about our daily lives, and I’m sure even your daily life, that are things that have only started in the last 15 years, that aren’t connected to the way we grew up, and that’s just the way it is. We’re not terrified of the future. We’re terrified of life.”
The song “Nanobots” sounds like it could be as much about the literal subject matter as it is about a more timeless cause of anxiety: raising children. “I turn my back for two minutes and they’ve grown again/ Rearranging beds/ Eating what’s available,” Linnell sings after Flansburgh drones the robo-voiced refrain: “Grow the nanobots up/ Grow them in the cracks in the sidewalk.” In fact, Linnell has said in interviews that the song was inspired by the experience of raising a 14-year-old, but Flansburgh chooses to explain it by pulling up the Wikipedia entry on “gray goo” and reading it aloud: “A hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves.” Yikes.
Truth be told, for all the band’s bizarre lyrical conceits over the course of its three-decade career, the sentiments expressed are often simple and universal. 1988’s “Ana Ng” was inspired by an oft-repeated name in the Manhattan phone book, but it dealt with the theme of growing old and included the priceless line, “And the truth is we don’t know anything.” The 1996 song “James K. Polk” addresses the timeless problem of unscrupulous expansionist policies in the White House. And the concert favorite “Doctor Worm,” originally a rewrite of the KISS song “Calling Dr. Love,” is about the fantasy of reinventing your identity, even when no one around you buys into it.
The same simplicity of purpose exists on the Nanobots track “Black Ops,” which is heavy on doom-and-gloom atmospherics and features the all-too-timely lyric “Here come the drones.” The song develops the character of a rogue drone operator, but Flansburgh doesn’t sound like a Rand Paul booster when he talks about it. “What if, instead of being earnest defenders of liberty, what if these guys doing the black-ops operations were just completely cavalier, free-wheeling tough guys? What if they just were like, ‘Hey, I’m an enforcer for the government,’ in the way that a hockey player can be an enforcer?” Flansburgh says. “It’s not really as political a song as it sounds. I feel like if there wasn’t a voice to explore in the song, I wouldn’t have been interested in it.”
And then there’s “Tesla,” which deals with the achievements, genius, and eventual impoverished death of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. “It’s a little bit complicated, but the truth is that everything about Nikola Tesla’s life is complicated,” Flansburgh says. The song started out as a track for Here Comes Science, the band’s 2009 Grammy-nominated children’s edutainment album. Flansburgh says he wanted to write a list song, rattling off the inventions of rival scientists Tesla and Thomas Edison, but as he ran the lyrics by fact-checkers, he kept having to revise his claims about Tesla, who, for instance, made strides toward radio communication but can’t be said to have actually invented the radio. “It was almost impossible to write something without qualifying every statement,” Flansburgh says. Hence the hedging in the lyrics, which in its final form sounds more like a poetic touch: “Tesla/ Ushered the radio wave into the world/ Ushered the neon light/ Into the world.” In the end, Flansburgh’s science-boosting educational song becomes a melancholy ode: “The Hotel New Yorker/ He’s dead on the floor/ The body of Nikola lies/ With just his papers/ No family to tell/ Out of the windows birds fly.”
“There’s a lot of people who just sort of celebrate him as the most ingenious person of all time,” Flansburgh says. “But I think it’s much more interesting to think of him as somebody whose inspiration was crushing his brain.”
As ever, They Might Be Giants’ musical aesthetic combines diverse retro stylings with fearless modern experimentation. The most musically daring track on Nanobots is “The Darlings of Lumberland,” an elaborately layered mélange of bassy synths, a distorted drum machine, and off-the-wall woodwind arrangements. The squawking, warbling arrangements come courtesy of former David Bowie collaborator Stan Harrison, and the final product sounds like what Frank Zappa would be doing were he still alive today. “There was a lot of subtractive editing and mixing,” Flansburgh says. “As dense as it is, a lot of it is made to sound even wilder because of what was taken out.”
From a business perspective, too, the band is at turns stubbornly traditionalist and playfully progressive. On the one hand, they are still firm believers in the album in the post-Napster age, releasing a 25-song LP including nine sub-minute micro-tracks that likely will not sell well on iTunes. They even have their own record club, sending exclusive tracks and vinyl albums to super-fans who sign up for the Instant Fan Club.
But on the other hand, they were pioneers of free, no-strings-attached songs. In 1983, they started loading taped recordings onto an answering machine in Flansburgh’s apartment and advertising the service as Dial-A-Song (It lasted until November 2008, when the band’s final old-school answering machine bit the dust, according to TMBG fans’ meticulously researched band wiki This Might Be A Wiki). And this year, adapting to the internet’s free-music model, the band published the entirety of Nanobots on Soundcloud a full week before the album’s release.
The future is now, and Flansburgh has mixed feelings about it, just like anyone else.
“Technology is how we make our music,” Flansburgh says. “We started with a drum machine, and everything we’re doing is computer-related, so obviously these are our creative tools. But in spite of that, I think it’s very human to have mixed feelings about these things. I think we’ll have to see what happens when the gray goo comes.”