Interview: Guitarist John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants Discusses Their New Album, 'Join Us'
Best known for poppy anthems like “Don’t Let’s Start,” “Ana Ng” and the Malcom in the Middle theme song, “Boss of Me,” alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants decided to go in a different direction in 2002, when they released, No!, their debut as a children’s act.
“We were flipping the odometer on our 20th year as a band and had been touring and trying to make pop albums for a decade or so, and I think the idea of doing a kids’ album just seemed like a vacation from having to figure out how to make a song that would work for us on the charts,” said guitarist John Flansburgh. “It was essentially a way to make a psychedelic record.”
Since then, the band, rounded out by singer/keyboardist John Linnell, has put out three additional children’s albums and another three rock full-lengths, making for an impressive 15 studio albums in a quarter-century. On the duo’s decision to return to their roots for their recently released album, 2011's Join Us,, Flansburgh said, “This is what we’re about.”
“Some people pick up a guitar and can play without even trying. That was not my deal,” said the guitarist, who started playing with a “crappy Japanese guitar” as a teenager but now prefers to rock a variety of six- and 12-string electric and acoustic axes onstage, including a Gibson ES-335 and a Fender Telecaster.
Here's Guitar World's interview with Flansburgh, who’s preparing for a two-and-a-half-month cross-country tour in support of Join Us, which was released July 19 on Idlewild.
GUITAR WORLD: What first got you interested in the guitar?
I was a huge music fan as a teenager and just really lived for music and collecting records and listening to the radio and following the charts. I had a tape recorder and I was always very interested with the recording process and recorded sound, although I was honestly a little afraid to get into playing music. When I was 17, a friend of mine gave me his guitar and I just started making records and writing songs almost right away. That was the beginning of it for me.
Were there any particular bands or artists you were a fan of?
I was 17 in 1977, and a friend of mine worked for the local radio station in Boston and he got me the best fake ID you could ever have — I had an Assistant to Promotions ID from WBCN in Boston, which not only got me through the door at a lot of bars, but actually got me the front row table at a lot of bars. It seems really strange to me now, because we must’ve looked like such kids.
We would see all of these Boston and New York City bands that were very much in their first incarnation — I think I saw The Cars’ second show, saw the Ramones multiple times, saw Elvis Costello perform. I saw his performance debut at a place called the Nashville Room. I had bought his single that had come out a week earlier — this is really hard for me to believe, but I got tickets to his show because of his name. Somehow, the name “Elvis Costello” seemed so perverse. It was a really good show and I really liked the way he approached modernizing the song, because up until then, things were very jam-based and very, very loose. You had a lot of albums with eight songs on them.
Do you think They Might Be Giants has gained any fans from the name? It’s fairly unique.
I guess I don’t really have much perspective on it — I can’t tell if it’s a good name or not. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a rock critic, and I was trying to press him on it. We were talking about good names for bands versus bad names, because there are bands that transcend their bad name. He was really kind of mum about whether They Might Be Giants was a good name.
It’s definitely a good name.
I think the strange thing about it is how completely misunderstood it is. Our take, it sounds kind of outward-looking — it’s “they,” not “us,” but people automatically think we’re making a declaration about ourselves. That said, I think it’s got a hint of optimism, which is kind of an unusual thing. A lot of band names are disparaging or conspicuously badass. It probably suits us.
So was it your goal to have a career in music?
It seemed highly unlikely that anything was going to go my way professionally. I was so terrible that it would have been a total fantasy to think that. Being in They Might Be Giants has been a huge earn-as-you-learn project — I couldn’t really sing and play at the same time when we started. Doing a couple hundred shows before we made a record was definitely a real training ground for me. In college, I was in this band called The Blackouts with another friend of mine from high school, and we were playing at this place in Dayton, Ohio called Walnut Hills.
There was this really big turnout, like a lot of college bands. I can’t remember how much me made — I think we might’ve made $350 or $400 — but I remember being in the dressing room after the show, thinking, “Okay, if we made this much money in one night and we play four nights a week...” It’s not like were were ever going to play four nights a week, but it suddenly seemed much more plausible that you could actually make a living being in a band.
Was there a particular reason you guys started recording children’s music?
We were flipping the odometer on our 20th year as a band and had been touring and trying to make pop albums for a decade or so, and I think the idea of doing a kids’ album just seemed like a vacation from having to figure out how to make a song that would work for us on the charts. It was essentially a way to make a psychedelic record. We did the No! album, which really put us on the map within the kids’ world, and then it just immediately turned into a parallel career without very much effort on our part. It got a huge response from critics and families, and people were just totally into it. It’s been nuts.
So what brought you back to rock for Join Us?
It might even be wiser for us professionally to just move to being a kids’ act, but on a personal level, this is what we’re about. We’ve always been a rock act, and I think working the way we do, we’ve got our own thing going. The kids’ stuff is interesting, but over time it became a little more self-cautious for us. I don’t think we really want to be role models and we certainly don’t want to be television presenters. The longer you stick around in the kids’ world, you realize that those people are really public people. We just want to be weirdos.
Did you feel any pressure from your fans to go back to your more traditional style? Were they receptive to the children’s music?
A lot of them were and some weren’t, so it was kind of a mixed bag. Some people almost don’t feel like there’s a difference, especially when we do something like (2009 children’s album) Here Comes Science and all of these songs that are fact-filled and kind of eccentric — I think they hear it and think, “That’s They Might Be Giants.” We don’t really pay that much attention to that kind of stuff, although we’d probably be better off if we did. There’s not that much calculation. We just kind of charge ahead.