When They Might Be Giants released their twelfth album, The Else, over the summer, The Village Voice called it “as tuneful and rockin' as all the rest, from the withering ‘I'm Impressed’ to the female-empowerment anthem ‘Take Out the Trash.’” Keeping it fresh is no small feat for a band with such an impressive body of work, accumulated over the course of the past 25-plus years. But a listen to The Else or, even better, a couple hours spent at one of their live shows is proof enough that the Johns remain as creatively resilient as ever. They spent most of the fall 2007 on the road and have since been putting the finishing touches on their next project for Disney, “Here Come the 123s.” Oriented for children, the CD/DVD package will feature a mix of animation and music like their previous “Here Come the ABCs”. On Saturday February 2nd they play a grown-up rock show at The Beacon Theater, with horns. [Tickets.]
When I saw you guys play Bowery Ballroom last time there were phone calls from the dead, particularly a call from Jerry Orbach. Where did that idea come from? Well, we spent the whole last year doing the phone call from the dead just as a way of breaking up the show. But it started when we performed last February at the TED conference in Monterey, California. We were asked not to just do our usual thing.
So we cooked up this “phone call from the dead” thing. At the conference they had had this guy named James Randi who I think used to be a regular magician, The Amazing Randi, and now he’s kind of a debunking expert. So he has this Randi Foundation where he offers something like a million dollars to somebody who can prove that they’ve communicated with spirits from beyond the grave; it’s just one of the many ways he’s trying to provoke people who claim paranormal stuff is real. So we did this bit in the show where we had the Amazing Randi call us from the dead and demand his own million dollars.
That was the gag and unfortunately I don’t think anyone at TED thought it was that funny. We performed our set at 8am right after the blow-out beach party they’d had the night before so everybody who was there was actually hung over and I don’t think anybody really liked or got our show that much. Anyway, we decided to stick with the phone call from the dead despite the poor reception it got at TED. And that was a regular part of our show; we had different people calling. Some of the regulars were Eleanor Roosevelt who would call a lot and, of course, the great Jerry Orbach who had an incredibly long and interesting career. He was on Broadway for many years; he was in the longest running show of all time, The Fantasticks. He created one of the main roles for that show. So I don’t know, John and I were obsessed with Jerry Orbach for a while. There was also this crazy ad in the subway that said Jerry Orbach donated his eyes to science, to encourage people to be organ donors. And the thought of someone else walking around with Jerry Orbach’s eyeballs really delighted and freaked us out.
What have you been working on since The Else was finished? Well, we have wrapped up the next Disney DVD for kids, called “Here Come the 123s” and it’s a bunch of songs about numbers, as you might imagine. We wrote and recorded all the songs last year but we also had to cook up visual stuff for each of the songs and interstitial visual stuff which involves puppet versions of John and I introducing everything and trying to make jokes. So that’s done and it should be out momentarily. Aside from that, you know we toured to support The Else so we spent most of the fall just on the road not doing much besides performing, eating and sleeping. But we’re having discussions about our next set of projects.
What are you talking about? We’ve sort of cooked up a rough idea for the Disney DVD that will follow this one and at this point we’re thinking it will just generally be about science for kids. Besides that, we’re in the middle of being home and writing regular They Might Be Giants rock songs but there isn’t a particular schedule for another grown-up record yet.
In an interview Flansburgh described the band as "creatively born again" with The Else. Do you have the same feeling? [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like it’s a continual process and we’re always expanding the project each time out, because we really are serious about not repeating ourselves or basking in the glories of the past. As you get older it gets harder and harder to come up with something new and that we feel we can stand behind. It would be easier if we were willing to constantly lower our standards.
With songs like Withered Hope, The Else sounds groovier, more danceable than other albums. Was that something you were going for? Well, we didn’t have a specific charter. The main concrete decision we made was to work with The Dust Brothers, so some of the things that happened in the writing followed from the decision to work with them. But I don’t think we were very specific in our minds about what these things were going to be.
We’ve always done rock music and there’s always kind of a groove dance element in there somewhere. But maybe it was brought out a little more this time. It’s funny; it’s kind of an aggressive record. When we finished selecting the songs we recorded for the project, I think I said to John, “This is the least cuddly record we’ve ever made.” But I just got an email from Flans last week suggesting that we try to go for something cuddly next time out.
To what do you attribute your longevity as a band? I guess I’d have to say there would have to have been a reason for us to stop and I can’t search for an explanation for something that didn’t happen. There wasn’t any compelling reason for us to stop doing what we were doing. I think if I may speculate about why other bands break up I think there’s often a sense that everything interesting and fun that the band is going to do has already happened, so they feel sort of like they’re looking into the future and it doesn’t appeal to them. But we’ve never really figured out what it is we’re doing and we don’t really know what’s going to happen next and I don’t think we have a sense of what this is supposed to be. So maybe that plays a role in us staying with it for as long as we have.
How does making children’s albums inform your albums that are adult entertainment? I don’t know. Maybe, to the extent that this last record wasn’t as cuddly as the previous one, we’ve been siphoning off our cuddly material and The Else is what’s left. But I think in general we apply the same aesthetic to the kids’ material as to the adult material, which is to say we just do something that mainly we like – and obviously it has to be appropriate for kids. But I don’t think we’ve tried to alter our notion of what’s good. I think we feel the stuff that’s at the core of what we like is something adults and kids can both get.
Any songs you’re tired of playing that make you cringe when people request them? I think we get a lot of requests for the stuff we tend to already play a lot, the kind of crowd-pleasing stuff. I think we’re still trying to appeal to people who might be coming to see us for the first time as well as the longtime fans. So we do stuff in the show for both these groups; we play Birdhouse In Your Soul and then we play some oddball thing from the catalog. But I would say it’s still fun and interesting; we have a band that we like a lot and every night is different. I could see where on paper it seems kind of like it would drive you crazy to play the same song over and over again but we change up the show in so many ways that it really is kind of a minor concession to play Birdhouse or Particle Man night after night; it’s really not a problem.
I’ve seen some dudes in front of the stage at your shows, singing along to every word. Are you ever uncomfortable by the degree of fanaticism people bring to your shows? I’ll tell you what makes me uncomfortable: When I forget the words to the song I’m trying to sing and someone else is singing along to it and they’re getting it right. That definitely makes me feel bad.
One of the best concerts I’ve been to was in 1994 at The Ritz in North Carolina. A band called Tsunami was opening for you, and the show was delayed for a very long time. And during the show you stopped and told everyone that the really cool mosh pit was outside in the parking lot. Was moshing something you had to deal with a lot in the early 90s? Sure, yeah. It was a weird problem about performing in any band at that time. For some reason it didn’t matter what kind of music you were playing or what kind of band you were; everybody moshed to everything. It was just kind of the enforced rule of going to concerts. Thankfully it really did kind of settle down six or eight years ago; people stopped seeing that as an obligation. You know, it was funny because people would do it during quiet songs in our show, which just seemed bizarre.
One of the other best concerts I’ve been to was your show at the Prospect Park band shell in 2004, which was amazing. I read on your website this was one of the few shows where everyone in the band walked off stage and felt like it was great. Yeah, we don’t always agree, unfortunately. I think everybody’s kind of thinking about their own technical experience so even if it’s generally going well, if you as a band member played a wrong chord at some inopportune moment it can spoil the whole show for you. Or, you know, sometimes one of the five of us will just be in a grumpy mood. But yeah, that was a really fun show for me. I used to live across the street from the band shell there so it was incredibly convenient; I walked about 50 feet to get from the front door to the stage. We moved since then but it was a treat.
You once hurt your wrist in a cycling accident. Do you still ride a bike? I do, I bike in Prospect Park. We bike all over the joint, actually. We occasionally put the bikes in the car and go up to the West side or take the bike path that goes down the side of Brooklyn under the Verrazano. And Ocean Parkway has a great bike path so we do a lot of that stuff; Staten Island has a great bike path too on what I guess is the east coast of the island.
Is it true your bike was once stolen from you on the Williamsburg Bridge? It was. It used to be a much dodgier experience going over that bridge in the eighties. I was going uphill and someone ran up behind me and grabbed the underside of the seat and pulled the bike to a stop. And I looked at him and it was this guy who had what looked like a scimitar; I’m sure it was just like an ordinary knife but in my imagination the knife was like a Japanese sword or something like that. You know, he was perfectly welcome to take the bike at that point. I was happy to not have my throat cut.
There’s a lot of nostalgia now for the cultural life of the East Village around the time They Might Be Giants used to gig there; do you share any of that? It’s just been so long. That was the eighties, going back twenty years now. For years we were spending a lot of time there. Neither of us lived in the East Village but we were performing there and hanging out there before and after shows and there was such a local scene there. I guess my memory of it is pretty intact because I haven’t hung out in the East Village much since then and I still imagine it the way it was, I guess.
Are you still in touch with any of the people who were around then? I occasionally run into people from that period. Steve Buscemi lives in Park Slope so I bump into him occasionally. I performed with him then and we both have kids and it’s a completely different world now.
Are you still in Park Slope? No, I moved to Windsor Terrace.
Have a favorite restaurant these days? Well, I like our local bagel shop which I’m sure you’re familiar with.
Terrace? Yeah, yeah. Still go in there all the time. There are places that aren’t new but I occasionally go there with the family. The Chip Shop is one I like on Fifth Ave. A lot of the trendy places are on Fifth and in Williamsburg and I’m just very behind the eight ball about what’s groovy nowadays. My wife and I went to Dressler recently, we liked that. But I guess probably my favorite all time New York place is something like Katz’s. I like the very informal, brightly lit kinds of places.
Do you go check out much live music in New York these days? Most of them are my friends. As my wife says, I’m kind of in a rut of going to see people I know. I walk down to Barbes to go see some people I know performing. There’s a guy, Kurt Hoffman, who played in our band at one point and he has this great band called Les Chauds Lapins, which means Hot Rabbits. And they do sort of the equivalent of French pre-WWII kind of music. They’re wonderful. .
What’s the oddest fan interaction you’ve had in recent memory? There are absolutely crazy people out there, no question about it. And often those are the ones you encounter because the rational people who are enjoying the show are not anxious to push their way to the front and pass you some crazy note. But then, of course, there’s a whole category of people who are very just enthusiastic and yet not crazy; I don’t want to discount them or act like you have to be nuts to be passionate about seeing They Might Be Giants.
But yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s sort of an ordinary background level of craziness which is exemplified by the person who is talking to you while you’re performing. And I think this is probably true for any band; there’s someone in the front row who doesn’t seem to get the relationship between the audience and the band. While we’re actually in the middle of playing a song you can see their lips moving and they’re talking as though we’re having a conversation, you know. I find that pretty weird but fascinating. And people who have some really urgent message to get to the band and then [laughs] it doesn’t make any sense!
Do you have a weird New York story to share? Flansburgh and I were driving our new van around Manhattan and we came around a corner and almost ran over this guy who not only looked like he was homeless but apparently wouldn’t have minded if we’d run him over, he just had this incredibly nonchalant look to him. And then we realized it was the famous poet John Giorno we had almost killed in our van.