Your wife Robin Goldwasser is the co-creator of People Are Wrong! in which you’re making your stage debut (now playing at The Vineyard Theater). What about the show, other than your wife's involvement, made you think now would be a good time to explore theater?
People Are Wrong! was originally going to be a concept album, like Jesus Christ Superstar, but as it has developed as a show it's grown into the staged production we have now. It's a bit different than your standard Broadway musical -- and again like Jesus Christ Superstar -- in that almost the entire story is told in song, so it technically really is an opera, as unlikely as that might sound. Robin and Julia Greenberg started making demos and I sang on those. The project started out so small and evolved so naturally, it never seemed like such a big deal until the last six months or so. I can't even remember discussing my involvement. It just kind of happened.
Of course, singing on stage isn't exactly new to me, but playing a role and interacting with other performers in this way is totally new and a pretty big challenge. I suspect I enjoy doing new things more than a lot of other people.
I did do a tad of theatrical performing in the 80s with a performance art group called Watchface, and that was fun and a perfectly big challenge. I played John Wayne Gacy in a show about serial killers, and I remember having a very hard time remembering my lines, but I really haven’t done anything else til now.
What was your involvement in the development of the play? What is the difference in developing an album versus a rock musical?
My role in the creation of People Are Wrong! was more like being a record producer. I had some experience and technical expertise, and could help arrange things effectively, but a big part of the role is standing on the sidelines til you know you can help. Although I chipped in a couple of song ideas, my primary role was as an outside perspective.
I was asking Robin and Julia irritating questions like "shouldn't it make more sense?" and helping get the gigs booked, although given the reputations of all the people involved (including the Loser's Lounge band) that wasn't too hard. As for the album vs. show difference-I think both can be extremely easy or hard. It really depends when you are willing to say "done!" With People Are Wrong! the show has been profoundly revised a couple of times and in a far more rigorous way than anyone in rock music, except maybe Steely Dan, probably has the patience for. I suspect that is more like the way things work for the stage, but staging things is a very different kind of work. It is about creating a repeatable experience so you are not just capturing a performance or simply telling a story once; you’re making a structured event. I realize now that rock, even at its most straight forward, is much more about unique moments and improvisation than theatrical stuff.
Robin is also is one of your co-stars in the show, however she doesn't play your wife. Is it strange not just to act with another woman as your wife but to have your actual wife onstage while you're doing so?
The couple in People Are Wrong!, even though they are based on me and Robin, are pretty stylized and, for comic purposes, kind of reactive and a tad shallow, so maybe it's useful that it's not just me and Robin up there together. It would put a far stranger message out there if we were doing it as a couple.
Even though the show is essentially comic, as a performer you really have to commit to being in the story for a show like this to work, so actually I block out all that stuff-and being on stage is not real life, even in a rock band. Let's not forget that!
Does your participation in "People Are Wrong" mean that TMBG is on hiatus?
We are so not on hiatus, and we do not rest. We have a big kids project coming out on Disney Sound called "Here Come the ABCs" in just a few months - it's a DVD and CD of ABC songs. We worked with a huge team of animators and Robin actually created a whole set of puppets called the Deeply Felt Puppet Theater for this project. It was actually a huge effort that we kind of crammed into the middle of this already busy year. We are currently writing songs for our next rock album which should be out next fall.
You create songs for TV series and commercials, along with your own albums. What's the difference between writing for yourselves and being musicians for hire? Does your creative process change at all?
The process is totally different, and commercial stuff usually goes much faster because of their deadlines. We listen closely to clients, because ultimately it has to please them, and usually (or maybe I should say hopefully) they have a specific idea they want to put across.
I think we enjoy a particularly sweet spot in the work-for-hire department, because we get hired to do so many different kinds of things, have enough of a reputation to be essentially left alone, and still have TMBG as a full functioning creative outlet band for our personal stuff. Unlike our jingle-writing compadres, we don't have to shoehorn our personal expression into our commercial projects to have our most original ideas be heard. Moreover, we get to do a lot of instrumental music, and get to work in a lot of very unusual styles (for example all the orchestral music in the Daily Show is from TMBG-not exactly the kind of thing we do on our albums) so from a craft point of view it is just a cool challenge.
I recognize many song writers would be totally bummed out by doing commercial work and not everyone has the temperament or the skill set for it-and I suspect many music fans take a rather orthodox, highly simple view of this kind of thing-but personally the process of television and film work is completely interesting, essentially creative on the craft side, the money is insane and the people who you get to work with are by and large are really smart. The hard truth is it allows us to carry on as the semi-successful rock band without having to ever worry about what dull or ugly changes it would take to convince whatever miserable radio formats are left out there to play our personal songs. That kind of thing would actually be a task I would find pretty uninteresting.
Dial-a-Song provided interactivity before we even really knew what the web was about. How did the idea for it come about? Now that you have your fancy internet site, why do you still keep Dial-a-Song going?
So many people call it, it just seemed worth carrying on. We started it to help people who hated going to rock clubs, like us, to come see us in rock clubs.
You've crossed over into the kids sphere, with records and books, making big time deals with Disney and Simon & Schuster. What's the appeal of the children’s market for you? Are you guys just giant kids?
I think our kids stuff has been so successful because it has our essential spirit in it, and spirit is a rare commodity in kids stuff. A lot of kids stuff just seems horrifying to me. John and I are not kids at all, but there is something about childhood-the curiosity and the imagination side of it-that I think we try to tap in to in everything we do.
On the biz side of your questions-if we couldn't do the stuff our way we probably wouldn't want to work with anyone big or small, but as it does well it seems big companies want to put it out which is fine by us. I could write a book about the misperceptions of authenticity-and these days I don't think “indie” or “major” says much about anyone but the mind of the beholder-but I fear this whole thread would put your readers into a deep deep sleep.
The New Yorker once said about TMBG: "Flansburgh and Linnell enjoy a modest but constant popularity, the wonderful state of obscure success." Do you agree? And if so, it the state of "obscure success" truly wonderful?
Well, I don’t know what this says about our set up but we work really hard, and probably could be a lot richer if we did almost anything else-but we love what we do. We have had a singular career-one of very slow growth-and that has prepared us for some things that might be hard to get used to without a little prep. I think that has helped us keep things in proportion. The nature of our success has not been that difficult, but maybe the waves just broke better for us. Timing is everything in entertainment, and I think the couple of times reality slapped us in the face-first getting successful with the college rock explosion and then losing our deal with Elektra in the late 90s-actually came at relatively opportune times. All through the 80s great indie bands with far more universal potential than us couldn’t even get noticed by the mainstream music world, and we definitely benefited from a lot of those bands hard work-even just the circuit of clubs that was created-and which is largely in tact today-that didn’t even exist five years before stated touring. On the other side of that merry-go-round, we bounced out of Elektra at a very easy time-into the dot com boom and into all sorts of interesting media work a couple of years ahead of this current music industry depression/consolidation that has left a crowd field of signed bands essentially out of work.
Who do you regularly listen to? Are there bands/musicians new to the scene right now who excite you?
I like the Fiery Furnaces. Corn Mo. The Neptunes. I want to get into Rudy Vallee. I listen to Jay Z when Robin isn’t around.
Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), a documentary about TMBG, premiered in 2002 and was released last year. How did the documentary come to be made? Were the "Two Johns" happy with the final result?
I think Gigantic is a remarkably fair portrait of the band. As rock doc subjects, we're curiously non-insane - we haven't exploded or recovered from much, so there isn't so much personal stuff interrupting the actual focus of the band. We just kinda do what we do, but as we are a complicated band - and our intentions are sometimes fundamentally misunderstood - I feel the film does a good job of explaining our point of view and aesthetic - especially in the "price of fame" second act (as I hear it is called in VH1's Behind the Music) More and more I am grateful it doesn't create a fake story arc with the footage - the kind that don't really exist in real life but seem to be the way contemporary documentaries are cut. With other documentaries I'm getting tired of creative editing creating a story out of what is really a far more subjective truth.
You are notorious coffee fiends. At the New York premiere of Gigantic, The Mud Truck even provided coffee for all your guests. How integral is coffee to your work, and what's your favorite NYC java hut?
As a Williamsburg resident, I go to the Verb on Bedford Avenue and buy a big cup of coffee, and usually get an idea for a song about a block later on my way to the studio.
Ten Things to Know About John:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
A pair of KLH speakers in perfect condition from the 1960s.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Slope Cellars Wine Shop (I like to entertain!)
Gotham Madlib: When the ______(noun) makes me feel BEAUTIFUL (adverb), I like to DREAM (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required – answer however you wish.)
When the Madlib makes me feel beautiful, I like to dream.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I think I lived my previous non-New York life as a depressed manic-depressive, and I just flipped it over to the manic side when I got here.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
I love the Mermaid Inn on 1st Ave. I love the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
There is a bar so peaceful and sophisticated and wonderful and quiet in the East Village that I won’t even tell you. Ha!
How did you spend election night? How do you feel about the results?
I went to The Daily Show party, looked at some giant TVs and got really sad.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
My entire life.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
I try to express my inner emotions often enough that it doesn’t get to that.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
There were some very broke moments in the early 80s for me. I was cutting my own hair because I was broke for a while (I have short hair) and it really looked bad and I mean that in a bad way. I looked like a convict from Alcatraz in the 30s.
There are 8 Million Stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
When I first came to New York, in the very early 80's - when NYC was in a pretty radical decline - there were fake bodegas that were actual pot stores run by Rastafarians. This one particular store down the street from my apartment had its windows completely filled with various laundry detergent boxes to hide the goings on inside (the effect actually made it look like a pop art gallery as much as a bodega). The pot store was also, coincidentally, next to the local coin-op laundry mat. When I tried to buy laundry soap one Saturday, the store owners got really nervous. It took me a while to put together what was really going on.
John Flansburgh currently stars in People Are Wrong! at The Vineyard Theater at 108 E. 15th Street in Manhattan. The show plays daily (except Sundays with two performances on Saturdays) and runs through Dec. 11. For tickets, call (212) 352-0301 or buy them online from TheaterMania.com.
They Might Be Giants' latest album, The Spine, was released earlier this year and is available via iTunes and TMBG's own website, where you'll find other albums available for download and purchase. Dial-a-Song is still going strong off the web and can be reached by calling (718) 387-6962. Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) airs on Sundance Channel on Nov. 20 at 9 PM.