Brooklyn's own They Might Be Giants are back with a new album, a multimedia experience called Book. In addition, the band, led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, is celebrating its 40th year. And after four decades of albums and tours, Grammy awards, and seemingly countless TV themes and movie songs, the new project reveals the duo have lost none of their ambition. Book pairs a fresh set of music with a clothbound, hardcover art book of lyrics and photography.
Below, Flansburgh talks about Book and this big anniversary year.
The conversation has been lightly edited.
The new album is called, somewhat confusingly, Book - but, indeed, you can order a version that comes with this massive book of photography. In an era when streaming accounts for so much of the music business, did you decide to go as far as possible in the other direction? Well, you know, we're old. And we understand the allure of physical things. I have a vinyl record collection and I also have like a small collection of photography portfolios, coffee table books. I think we have an appreciation for that kind of effort. We were approached by a publisher about doing kind of a retrospective book. You know, we've been in this band for 40 years, which is kind of a ridiculously long time to be in a band.
Actually, I should point out that it's 40 in February! So like a lot of people who are 39 we want to be very specific about that. But I think we wanted to do something that wasn't just a retrospective. We wanted to do something that was new and it was a big challenge to just figure out what that was going to be.
I've been watching this Let It Be thing with the Beatles [Editor's note: the new Beatles: Get Back documentary on Disney+] and realizing there's this whole problem of trying to finish something before you started with projects like this. We collaborated with a great street photographer from Pratt - another Pratt graduate, I went to Pratt - this guy named Brian Karlsson. And a graphic designer named Paul Sahre. I think the idea was to really try to figure out how to do something that was actually beautiful, which is different for us, because I mean, we do a lot of things that are unusual, but it's very unusual for us to do something that's really about balance and aesthetics.
Book seems to celebrate extinct - or nearly extinct - formats and technology. There's a broken piece of a vinyl record on the album cover. You can get it on vinyl, CD and cassette. It was first available on 8-track of all things - a long extinct format. The lyrics are all typed with an actual typewriter and there's even this photo of a discarded book lying in a patch of dirty snow on the last page. Is there a message in all of this? Clearly. I guess, we are all in this physical world. And as much as things keep changing, we're kind of surrounded by the detritus of what we have done and the past lives we've lived. I think that's the interesting thing and the memorable thing about the book is that it's so rich in imagery of, kind of, abandoned worlds.
The song "I Lost Thursday" from Book seems to fit right in with the pandemic and lockdown, as so many of us were starting to lose track of the days of the week. Was a lot of Book written and recorded during the pandemic? Well, it's a weird thing to talk about one's hardships during the pandemic, having lost friends in it. Obviously it's just a terrible time in the world. But the struggle to try to feel inspired in the middle of it has been very odd. "I Lost Thursday" seemed like a personal song in a way, but obviously it's a kind of a universal sentiment in the era of the pandemic. But in some ways I feel like I could have written the song at any time. I mean, the song is pretty paranoid and, well, I mean, I guess I'm pretty paranoid!
This is your 40th year, or just about your 40th year of being in a working band— 39 and nine months.
Thirty-nine and nine months! And I want to look way back for a moment. In 1988, I had the chance to interview you when I was writing for the Daily Orange newspaper at Syracuse University. And you referred to your career back then as your, "occupation of shame." Basically, you said having to tell people that you were in a rock band was a real conversation stopper. How do you look at it now? Well, it's not that different! When you get in a taxi with a guitar case, it's the beginning of a long and odd conversation. And maybe that's what I was responding to. And also like, on the parental front, telling your parents you've decided to become a professional musician is sort of like saying, "I've joined the circus and you know, my life is going to be a disaster." So I love being in a band, but it's a weird topic.
I love how everything connected to They Might Be Giants seems to part of this extended art project. Everything seems to be a deliberate opportunity to be creative, including the way that you market the band and promote the music. Well, that is an incredibly kind thing to say, David, I really appreciate that. I've I certainly feel that way about it. I think, you know, John and I have been friends forever and having this abstract idea of a band is a great kind of a trampoline to jump off of to make something different. And I'm kind of grateful that, you know, in spite of the years, we haven't really lost sight of that. You know, really from the very beginning, we were trying to figure out a way to be a band in a new way.
But bringing that same energy to all of the stuff that most bands hate doing, you know, is probably difficult. Oh, we hate doing it too!
Well, I'm thinking about how back in the eighties, of course you promoted your music through the now famous Dial-A-Song service, which offered a different song every day. You've gone on tour and assigned yourself the impossible task to play a unique song written for each venue you play in -- Yeah, it is a challenge. I mean, as a band, you have to be careful that you aren't just being a contrarian. I think there's a lot of energy in rock music, especially, to just do the opposite of what you're told. You know, we do a lot of things that are just completely bog standard. I mean, when we do shows, we often do two encores, which I know other performers who find the idea of encores to be completely artificial.
It's a bit of theater that I've completely given myself in to and kind of celebrate. And it's not something that, I mean, maybe I shouldn't be speaking in a public forum about it, but I've often been surprised at how, if we sneak in a third encore, which is something that is available to almost anybody doing a show if you know how to time your set list, people go like, "Wow, what a great show! That was amazing! They did three encores!" And it's just a matter of planning it out. It can be creative and it can be startling, but it can also just be calculated.
The band is heading out on a tour in the new year to play your 1990 album, Flood. This is a tour that was postponed at least once due to the pandemic. John Linnell, your partner in They Might Be Giants recently called Flood the band's most overrated album. So why go on tour playing this "overrated" album? (Laughing) I have to respectfully disagree with John! Um, you know, Flood was a very special album for many people, including myself. It is our only platinum album. It was kind of the calling card for a lot of people who are now still in our audience. It was the first thing they ever knew about us. And it obviously had a huge effect on a lot of people's lives. Like it's just this sort of strange cultural lighthouse for a lot of people.
When we embarked on doing the tour, it was kind of a down interval where we didn't have a new record coming out. So it just seemed like a natural way to do a tour with a point of view. But now it does seem like we're just kind of caught in this Twilight Zone of rescheduled shows. I mean, all the shows are sold out. I'm sure it'll be super fun. But yeah, I can't think of it as our, our most overrated album. I have to disagree with John.
He may have been pushed into answering that question! And of course, you're going to choose the most popular album, right? That's the way rock people do it.
Let me just add that Flood is a wonderful, magical collection of songs. I agree!
Are you also going to be sneaking some of the new Book material into the shows? Oh yeah! The truth is, Flood is - it's less than 40 minutes long, I think. And we do two sets and it's a full evening of music so there's plenty of time to do all sorts of other things. In a weird way, doing any kind of album show or specialty show is in some ways a bit of a Trojan horse. But again, it's like I've taken truth serum. I shouldn't be saying these things.