Over the past quarter-century They Might Be Giants have become such a consistent presence in the indie rock solar system that it’s quite possible to take them for granted. Because they were there at the ignition of "alternative" rock and never took their feet off the gas, one assumes they'll keep rocking all the way to the end, with "Don't Let's Start" providing the dance music for cockroaches' post-apocalyptic revelries. But despite their expansive musical output – in addition to their numerous “adult” rock albums, the notoriously productive duo keeps busy making brilliant kids’ albums, composing tunes for everything from Dunkin’ Donuts to Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, posting dozens of podcasts on their website and touring the world with their super-tight band – they somehow manage to keep flying just slightly below the mainstream radar.
By all accounts, The Johns seem quite happy with that altitude – big enough to play all the best clubs but not so consumed by the rock industry they can’t enjoy normal weekends in Brooklyn with their families. Their new album The Else will appear in stores on July 10th, but it’s available starting today exclusively on iTunes; TMBG plays two sets at Joe’s Pub Wednesday night as part of a “secret warm-up tour”. (That date is sold-out, but they’ll be playing five Wednesday nights at Bowery Ballroom in July and August.) We recently interviewed the inimitable John Flansburgh.
The Else is the cryptic title of your forthcoming rock album. Can you shed any light what inspired the title?
It is just a made-up name, kind of like "The Other" but more unknowable, which seemed to fit.
The Dust Brothers, who helped produce the album, are based in L.A. What do you say to those who suggest The Johns have "gone Hollywood"?
It would be exciting if that was how it felt! We could use a little glamour in our lives! But all our time in L.A. was spent inside recording studios, working and ordering take out. I think the Dust Bros. are kind of used to Hollywood coming to them, working with big rock stars like the Rolling Stones and Beck. Probably the most Hollywood part of making The Else for us was Dust Brother John King's uncanny resemblance to Jack Black. Think of Jack Black with that huge grin on his face, punching his fist in the air and screaming "awesome," and you're working with John King. The Dust Bros. actually produced a Tenacious D album, so this fact was hardly a secret to them. Jack Black and John King are twin brothers from different mothers.
How did The Dust Brothers affect your usual music-making process?
It allowed us to work all the ways we wanted to work, which is in the service of the song but with the added super-fuel of having the Dust Brothers giving us arrangement and rhythmic ideas. On "Withered Hope" or "Upside Down Frown" we were building a song on top of a very busy groove idea from the Dust Bros, whereas on a track like "Take Out the Trash" they took a pre-existing demo recording we did with the band and Pat Dillett and put the whole arrangement on the blocks to really make it build and flow. In a traditional sense they didn't produce that recording at all, they didn't track it, but on another level they made it infinitely more successful as a song by really aggressively using protools to rearrange the structure and subtracting elements. We also have to give props to our drummer Marty Beller who proved to be our not-so-secret weapon in the recording process. He could really bridge any loop-based idea put in front of him and take it to a much higher level of interest. In contemporary recording trying to "top" a loop almost always proves to be impossible but Marty really knows what to do with that material and that made all the tracks extra tight.
The Dial-A-Song website is neat, but when we call Dial-A-Song [(718) 387-6962] now, it just rings and rings. We know you prefer to use the "Record-A-Call 695" phone machine for this service, but for a while you were using a computer-based system, right? Has the old-fashioned analog Dial-A-Song gone the way of the dodo?
Well, only Dial-A-Song requires a relatively high fidelity unlimited outgoing message, so there aren't a lot of viable options to support it available commercially. We still write and record like fiends, and give a lot of music away, but we use the TMBG podcast as our outlet for that stuff.
Our sources tell us you will be doing a performance with robots at the New York Electronic Art Festival. What will that entail? Can audiences look forward to a literal rendition of Robot Parade?
We have a lot of ideas for that show, but Robot Parade might be a little "on the nose" as they say in Hollywood. (See, we really have gone Hollywood!)
Is it true you didn't know your music was going to be on The Simpsons until it aired? How can that happen?
We're always the last to know! Our publisher let Pizza Hut use our song Twistin' in a big ad campaign in Europe, and we would never have known if we hadn't seen it watching TV in a recording studio lounge in London.
Please settle a bet: Did the inspiration for your band's name originally come from the George C. Scott movie or a friend's ventriloquist act?
Both! Our ventriloquist friend had a list of names for his act and They Might Be Giants was one on the list, so we asked if we could appropriate it.
You both reside in Brooklyn but in different neighborhoods, isn't that right? Please name one or two things that make you feel a little jealous of the other John's neighborhood.
Park Slope has real trees and real architecture, but the unintentionally overheard conversations of Williamsburg are priceless.
Where is your favorite recreational hangout in NYC? (Besides your apartment.)
Up until very recently my vinyl buying habits were largely restricted to flea markets and bi-annual trips to the Princeton Record Exchange. Then Academy Records opened up a branch in Williamsburg and the convenience has really accelerated my habit. I just (re)bought Revolver by the Beatles. THAT is a good album, my friend.
If, God forbid, you couldn't live in New York City, where would you reside?
I spent some time in Italy last year. I could get used to that pretty fast, but I would probably reach my natural weight of 400 lbs. in about a month!
You've rocked a lot of venues in New York and even wrote a song for Irving Plaza as part of your Venue Songs series. Are you excited about Irving Plaza's recent transformation into The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza?
I honestly don't know what to make of that. We love Irving Plaza and feel like Irving has its own history that is pretty amazing. I can tell you a related story - in the mid 80s we were playing a very late night show at a very large, very notorious disco called The Saint. Rumor had it that the Saint had been built where the old Fillmore East had been, but that was all before our time as a band in NYC. The Saint was constructed in the immediate post-Studio 54 moment and was quite spectacular. It had a complete working planetarium projector in the center of the dancefloor, and a fully domed ceiling just like in a real planetarium-but it was all in the service of a crazy disco light show. The stage was actually outside the dome; they had cut a little rectangle in the shell and made a sliding wall that worked like a curtain to reveal the band and the stage. Well, standing outside the dome on the stage I could see all the rigging and an ornate proscenium above the stage just above the dome. It dawned on us that we were playing on the actual stage of the Fillmore East even though it was now entirely repurposed and "discotized." Realizing that They Might Be Giants were the cultural bridge between the Allman Bros. and that most disco of disco audience at the Saint was a very strange sensation.
Please name your favorite venue to play in that no longer exists AND your favorite venue that's still open.
For a couple of years in the mid 80s we played just about every weekend at either the Pyramid, 8BC or Darinka in the East Village. We got tons of encouragement to do our own thing from the audiences and the venues, saw some of the most challenging acts you could imagine and just had a ton of performance-art-fueled fun. Even though by most "rock" standards it was strictly small time stuff, it was an all-time high for us.
Bowery Ballroom or Irving Plaza (whatever it's called these days!) right now are the perfect spots for us. Big enough to provide the band the big rock adrenaline rush, and small enough to do subtler stuff without losing the crowd. That is the best of both worlds for us.