They Might Be Giants
w/ Michael Leviton
Sat. April 29
$20, $23 (ages 16-21)
32 Ann St.
Talking to John Flansburgh, one-half of indie-smartie-pop-rock-polka-kitchen-sink band They Might Be Giants (TMBG), is a bit like trying to wrangle a bumblebee. He’s so quick, so eloquent, and so deliciously full in his answers that you let him continue talking until his second interview of the day beeps in and he issues a hurried goodbye. It would take the entire length of this article just to list all the CDs, EPs, Dial-A-Songs (we’ll get to that later), TV theme songs, podcasts, festivals, and other endeavors the Two Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell), who make up the core of TMBG, have embarked upon since the official beginning of the band in 1982. Let’s just let Flansburgh do the talking as he explains some of the finer points of being in America’s most “successfully obscure” band.
CITY PAPER: Were y’all surprised by the popularity of Gigantic
[the documentary film about TMBG that was released in 2002]?
John Flansburgh: To be perfectly honest, when someone starts doing a documentary film about you, I think it brings out the paranoid in almost anyone. You can’t help but think, ‘Is this going to be some kind of expose? Are they going to present me as, you know, my worst tendencies?’ I think both John and I were so relieved when we saw the film and realized that we were essentially the heroes of the film rather than the degenerate nuts that we are. What’s interesting about it is we don’t think of ourselves as being in the culture, really. We watch TV like everybody else and listen to the radio and I don’t really think about where what we do lands, who listens to it, or how it influences other people. I think the movie actually kind of opened our eyes to that, that we actually do have a place in the culture. Granted, it’s way over on the left, but it’s still part of the world. In general, we don’t really think of ourselves in terms of audience or music culture or anything like that.
CP: Was it strange watching the movie forthe first time?
JF: Yeah. I mean, I don’t even watch us when we’re on TV. I was happy with the way it came out. It’s on Sundance all the time now and all these documentary film places, so all these people who are into indie films suddenly know about us, which is really interesting, because those people have healthy curiosity. The strange thing about music culture and rock culture is, I feel like it really sort of separates people. It tells people that you can’t be part of a band’s audience if you’re not committed to this sensibility or this fashion or this outfit or whatever. For us, we’ve never been about that. We’re the band that you’re into along with the other bands you’re into.
CP: What are you working on now?
JF: We’re actually recording an album with the Dust Brothers. We just got back from L.A., where we were tracking with them. That’s a big long-term project. The … incredibly big news for us is that we’ve been creating this monthly podcast that has completely taken off. We suddenly have like a half-million subscribers, it’s this free thing that has kind of reawakened this enormous audience for us. It was such a shock when it happened, we just did it kind of as an experiment and posted it on iTunes, I put together a show and we instantly had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. We work at it pretty hard; it’s such a great outlet for us because it doesn’t really cost anything to make, but it also kind of gives us the opportunity to do everything we’ve ever dreamed of as songwriters.
CP: So do you think that you sort of started that whole podcasting thing with Dial-A-Song [the “alternative marketing strategy”/”readily available music-delivery system” that TMBG began in 1983 — the number is still active at (718) 387-6962]?
JF: We invented podcasting, [laughs] No. Well, you know, our life experience has been more changed by Dial-A-Song than I think we would have ever anticipated. It’s been this thing that has always piqued people’s interest more than we ever thought it would. We were just a local band trying to get people familiar with our songs before we played them, and this situation with the podcasting thing certainly runs parallel, because, you know, we’re really giving our songs away. We’re putting all this material on the podcast and a lot of times it’s brand new stuff that we finished that day. We’re very comfortable with that and I think that’s something we became comfortable doing because of Dial-A-Song.
CP: So the path that y’all’s career has taken…
JF: Meandering? [laughs]
CP: I think the New Yorker
mentioned “obscure success.” How do you feel about that?
JF: Well, as soon as you’re not just going for mainstream pop success as a band, you’re kind of automatically marginalized. The whole structure of the music business is really wrapped up in blockbuster hits and the next big thing. If you tell someone, ‘I’m banking on longevity,’ people just give you thousand-yard stares … it kind of behooves you to reinvent yourself as you go along, or make yourself accessible to an audience. A lot of effort that we do with the podcast is just to really keep our audience interested. We recognize that if we disappear for a couple of years, we’re not such fascinating fellows that people won’t forget about us. So we have a lot of creative energy, we write a lot of songs, and we want to get them into the world, and that’s probably been the thing that’s helped us the most — being free and easy about getting our songs out.