They Might Be Giants' Own

John Flansburgh

It's the day before They Might Be Giants hits the road for a two-month tour that will bring them to Storrs [CT], May 1 [1994], and New London [CT], May 7 [1994] and guitarist/vocalist John Flansburgh is home in Brooklyn doing the washing up. This isn't easy because his apartment has no cold water in the kitchen and a pre-historic hot water system that requires advance planning if he wants to take a bath. He dreams of one day living somewhere with a shower, but for now, Brooklyn suits him. He's lived there since the '80's and his bandmate John Linnel (accordion, sax, vocals) lives around the corner.

For almost a decade They Might Be Giants was just two Johns but for this tour they've teamed up with drummer Brian Doherty (formerly of the Silos), Pere Ubu's bass player Tony Malmone, sax/keyboard player Kurt Hoffman (formerly of the Ordinaires, current leader of Band of Weeds) and Steven Berstein on trumpet. The group's latest releases O Tannenbaum 7" and Why Does the Sun Shine, CD5, came out on Elektra kast year, so these shows will be full of new material. A 20-song album called John Henry is scheduled for release in August, making it the band's 17th record to date. Between dishes, Flansburgh talks about life in the land of the giants.


Q. After years playing as a duo what's it like playing with a full band?

A. It's like Est only more melodic. It's pretty different. It's way louder than it used to be -- everyone's competing for that rarefied "loudest guy in the band" status. It's a lot of fun. We worked as a duo for nine years. We really had the opportunity to create something that was not by committee, and the spirit of the band really hasn't changed but I feel like there's another dimension to it. For me to be playing with people of that caliber of musicianship, it really makes me stand up a little staighter and play a little bit better when you've got someone who's going to glare at you when you blow it. We really rehearse a lot more. We really address the performing aspect.


Q. So what's the pecking order in this new line-up?

A. I am the official king of the band. We try not to peck. John and I are the band leaders so the rules are pretty clear cut. It's not like being in a band where the drummer wants to do his tunes.


Q. What's your relationship with John Linnell like? After all these years together you must feel like brithers.

A. We probably are like brothers in the sense that we hide a lot of our feelings. I think we have a pretty good working relationship. We're sort of forced to be together more than [most] people and it's very difficult to be around someone without them getting on your netves. We try to be respectful of each other. In an iunterview John said, "At a certain point you just get tired of the way the other person breathes," and I took that pretty hard because I, personally, am infatuated with the way John breathes. We met in high school. We worked on the school paper together. I wasn't into music at the time. I didn't play the guitar until the punk rock explosion of 1977.


Q. Why then?

A. For somebody like me who's not an intuitive musician -- I could never pick up an instument and play it -- I clearly wasn't good enough. It just didn't seem possible. Then really the spirit of the times was much more forgiving for someone like me. I was kind of an unfocused person but I felt like I was a creative person. Punk rock offered an open-ended idea of what a band could be.


Q. How do you write music now?

A. The writing process is interesting. There's this moment of inspiration that seems like it's not part of your experience. Then there's this craft part that's more like a job because you go, "I've got the first two lines of a chorus and I've got to fill the rest around it." I feel like I've gotten better at it, which was why our songs have gone from two minutes long to three minutes long. I think people thought we had this short attention span agenda, but we didn't have the craft to do it. I feel like I've figured out how to write bridges, so we write longer songs.


Q. You've been doing a lot of talk shows recently, three times on David Letterman, twice on the "Tonight Show" and once with Conan O'Brian. What's it like behind the scenes?

A. You think of the Tonight Show like it's the ultimate cocktail zone. The Tonight Show is kind of in this gymnasiusm complex, so it has this weird middle of nowhere quality to it. That bunch of people, they were incredibly conscientious. They were just very confident there weren't going to be any problems. The newer shows people are more up-tight.

I think that nothing is as weird behind the scenes as the actual feeling you get being on TV. It's like being in a sensory wind tunnel. You've never thought so hard about if you're spitting. I swear a lot so it's very difficult for me to hold back the swear words and to hold back the use of the word "like." I don't want to sound like some wasted surfer guy, but I inevitably do. My father is always busting me on that. He'll say, "Is that what you mean or is that like what you mean?"


Q. Talk shows are, of course, a traditional way to reach people. You, on the other hand, favor the non-traditional, for instance, the Dial-A-Song service you started in 1983. [Call (718)387-6962 and hear a different They Might Be Giants song every day.] Why did you decide to start that?

A. We recognized early on we were not your typical bar band rock thing. Part of it was knowing we'd have to get people to check us out a little bit more. We're not hot, you know what I mean? No one's going to say, "Oh, there's this really happening band." We're not fashionable. We don't dress up a lot. It was just a way to get the word out about us in the best way possible. They hear our music and it sort of worked. We realize now there are a lot of people who are into the band who never go to the shows. I don't ho to clubs anymore. They're too fucking loud and they're filled with smoke and creeps - so come to our show where it's really loud and smoke-filled. Meet the creeps!


Q. How many calls do you get a day?

A. We get a couple of hundred a day. We don't listen to the calls anymore because it's a real time disaster. We get calls from all over the world. There are some people who call every day, they're obsesses, and then there are people who'll read your article. About a year-and-a-half ago, a friend of mine and I started the Hello CD of the Month Club. We do 10 releases a year and people subscribe for a year. [Call 1-800-HELLO-41]. It's by the homebound for the homebound.


Q. But you're not homebound. In fact, you're on the road a lot. Who changes the tapes for Dial A Song when you're away on tour?

A. It's a computer based thing. My landlady used to come down and change it. She was so great about it. I have a very cool landlady. When I don't pay my electrical bill she just doesn't let the guy in [to shut it off].


Q. I suppose that kind of thing happens when you're on tour. How does being on the road affect you?

A. It's ruined my credit rating. I went from being sort of affable young man to being an extremely cranky old man and I never came back. I have a very old acoustic guitar and we went away on tour for a month and a half. I had it in my room, nowhere near the stream heat, but the whole guitar had exploded. It looked like a pretzel. It was a guitar from the 40's. Kind of made me feel like a jerk.


Reprinted without permission from "Music Preview" by Jayne Keedle

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