For most bands, ending a contract with a major label like Elektra would signal--at best--some down time. But since then, They Might Be Giants have released Long Tall Weekend, an album only available in MP3 format. They are working on another "in store shelves" release, and have designs on a children's album. They recorded "Doctor Evil," the opening and closing theme to this summer's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (sadly, since the song was a last-minute addition, it didn't make its way onto the "first" soundtrack), as well as songs for upcoming Disney releases such as Peter and Jane, the home video sequel to Peter Pan. Television? There, too, with performance segments directed by Flansburgh for five episodes of ABC Nightline Primetime's "Brave New World," and the theme and incidental music for an upcoming Fox sitcom. Somewhere in there, Flansburgh has found time to write and record a theme song for The Smoking Gun website, Linnell has finished State Songs, his first solo album, and they've managed to maintain their Dial-a-Song service--a rotating selection of original tunes on an answering machine at (718)387-6962, free except for regular long distance charges--and even transformed it to a less fragile website. Most recently, they have launched Radio They Might Be Giants, a netcasting mix of "things Giant."
Due to the (somewhat unexpected) success of Long Tall Weekend, label/distributor EMusic sponsored the band on a two-month nationwide tour. Forced to take a break from this hectic agenda of multimedia domination--at least between soundcheck and showtime--Earpollution finally had a chance to allow John Flansburgh the opportunity to catch his breath and do some looking forward, a little back...and plenty sideways.
You're playing almost every night, now--must be getting a little bit hectic.
John Flansburgh: That's pretty much the way touring is--it's all just one night stands. To be perfectly honest, I've been doing it so long, I'm kinda used to it.
Often, there's an opening band that's never done it before, and it's interesting...touring used to just seem like the most impossible thing. I just remember our first couple of tours, I was so exhausted and blown away--just the whole pace of it was really crazy. But now it actually kind of seems like a vacation sometimes, to be perfectly honest.
Like when you get used to working out, and don't go for a while you don't feel right.
John: Or maybe, like...becoming a heroin addict. [laughs] Part of it is that you resign yourself to some of the tedium, too. I remember being frustrated by how little I could get done outside of touring. You basically get to do a show and then you get to kill a lot of time. I used to find the killing time thing to be really frustrating, and now I'm just kind of, "whatever."
Once you get to the point you don't have to drive your own van...
Last year's Bumbershoot was a great show, by they way.
John: Oh, yeah! That, specifically, was a high point of that tour; it was really fun. What a weird hockey rink of a place that was, though.
Oh, the Rock Arena is horrible.
John: Yeah, but it didn't matter. It seemed like a really great crowd.
I was in a seat up on the side. I remember sitting there watching the people bouncing around to "Birdhouse in Your Soul"--people with dyed blue hair and all kinds of different types of people--and thinking, "you know, maybe there is hope for humanity when they can enjoy songs like this." [and ended up putting it on my "best and the rest" list for this year]
John: Well, we do get a very diverse audience, and...it's very strange for us, because a lot of times we'll talk to reporters and they're really hell-bent on pigeonholing us and pigeonholing our crowd: "you guys are nerds, you're so geeky!" And what's strange is that, for a lot of people, we're essentially a party band. They take it at face value, and they enjoy the humor of it, and they don't mind...it's just a completely different thing.
Y'know, there are a lot of Pearl Jam t-shirts in the audience. It's a pretty general audience in a lot of ways, and I think that's a good thing. We don't expect people to only be into us--we're not only into us. We like a lot of different kinds of music, and I think that people can be into more than one kind of music. I just think there's something very short-sighted about the way the music press talks about what it means to be a music fan. I've got Hank Williams records--that doesn't mean I wear a ten-gallon hat. You can like stuff that's outside of your culture and outside of your lifestyle, and you can be fully into it--you can be a dedicated, long-term fan. It's not an experiment; it's not "checking it out."
I think I've bought every ZZ Top record made in the past 15 years; I don't think anyone would peg me for a ZZ Top fan, but I am! There you go...people like different stuff, people can like more than one kind of thing. We really respect that about our audience. It's not, "Oh, they like something else, too." We sort of think of ourselves as being out there on the left hand side of people's record collections, and that's a cool place to be.
I was looking through a bunch of reviews and bios, and wondering if you'd grown tired of the terms "quirky" and "eclectic" to describe you yet.
John: I think anything with the amount of variety in it that we have, in terms of rhythms and the style...to say we're eclectic is probably just an accurate description. It is kind of a grab bag, so it's perfectly valid. And quirky is probably valid, too. It is quirky, so it's not inaccurate. But am I tired of it? Sure.
[laughs] It seems like almost every blurb uses those words.
John: Well, they're in the business of summing stuff up, and that in and of itself is an odd thing to have to do. But you write reviews, you know what I'm talking about--it's hard to sum things up.
I had a weird experience yesterday--I did an interview on the radio in Spokane, Washington, and the interviewer asked me why John and I had switched roles. Like it used to be that I sang the weird songs and John sang the sweet pop songs, and now I sing the sweet pop songs and he sings the weird songs. And I just never think of it that way. I mean, the guy was obviously "pro weirdo"--he obviously didn't really care for sweet pop songs. Then I read a review in the paper that also kind of did this weird divvying up between my role and John's and said that I had become "bitter and condescending." I started reviewing the songs I'd written or performed--the big contributions of mine to the records we've done the past couple years. I thought of the song "First Kiss" that's one of the new songs on Severe Tire Damage, and it's a love song to my wife. It's embarrassingly earnest; it's totally without double meaning, just an "I love you so much, baby, baby" kind of thing. I don't know, it's sort of...I guess the thing about reading any kind of review is that you shouldn't really listen to too much of any of it, because it doesn't really help. But I always wonder how people perceive things.
To be honest, it sort of shook me up, to have somebody say that I personally had become bitter. It kind of blew my mind, because I feel that there are a lot of things about my life that would almost demand that I become bitter. I think everyone feels tested by their lives, and I feel that I work really hard to not be bitter. We do a lot of the same things over and over again, and sometimes you feel like you're just pushing the big rock up the hill and it would be really easy to give in to...frankly, I'm kind of amazed that I'm not more bitter. But it knocked me back, I have to say.
John: We left Elektra last year, and in spite of what you read in the paper, we weren't exactly dropped--we had come to some serious loggerheads with our little label there. But we left Elektra, and we had a bunch of songs that we had been working on. We wanted to get them out and into the world before we put out our next regular CD. It doesn't seem very healthy to have a big pile of songs that just get kind of lost. So, in some ways, it probably appears more like a hodge-podge of songs than it actually is. It is all from the last couple years, and a couple songs--specifically, "Older" and "She Thinks She's Edith Head"--are slated to be on our next CD. So, the people at EMusic approached us about doing a project; I think they were just interested in licensing our catalog. We sort of suggested, "why don't we do this, because we want to get something happening now," and it just seemed like a neat idea.
I picked up Long Tall Weekend, and that was actually my first MP3 experience.
John: And did it work?
It worked. I wasn't, I guess...terribly happy with the whole experience. It's neat, it's cool to get the technology...but the distribution of it had me craving liner notes...or an album cover.
John: There are liner notes. But, what did you get when you got it, because that's one thing that I haven't...
Oh, you haven't done that yet?
John: No. You know, I should talk to the guys at EMusic, because we actually have this whole illustrated lyric sheet that's many, many pages, and we should send it off to everyone who has bought it.
I haven't seen that at all.
John: I've got to put that on my list of things to do.
I was even trying to hunt down a decent image of the cover to print out, because one of the first things I did was convert it to .WAV and burn it to a CD at work, so I could take it with me and carry it around with me.
John: Right, right. It's strange, because I know a lot of people who have been doing stuff with MP3 over the past few years, but it's just now, all of a sudden, the "MP3 moment." It's interesting, because I didn't really expect there to be as big a response as there has been.
I think a lot of it is just the availability of decent players. But just my little experience with it, I wasn't fully happy. I mean, I want something that I can take that little silver disc and just slap it in someplace and press play.
John: Sounds like you're a real CD fan.
Yeah. I'm very fond of the convenience of a CD.
John: It's interesting to me, as someone who basically started with 45s...I'm sure there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that people think of CDs with the same fondness that our parents or grandparents might have thought of 78s. Because they will be outmoded.
Or they'll think, "Oh my gosh, you actually had to store those in your house?"
John: "In those stupid little cases that break so easily?"
John: "Couldn't they have ever come up with a better design?" Yeah, it's strange that all these mediums...people grow so fond of them. I remember when I was a teenager, thinking that the 8-track format just seemed horrible. It was such a bad idea. Yet now when I see 8-tracks, I can't help but kind of feel like, "hey, that's kind of sweet."
But a lot of people...when I was running "Hello"--basically, we only really had the ability to afford doing it in one medium. It was sort of at the same moment as the Sub Pop singles club, and I just thought that making 45rpm records was really expensive and the quality was pretty low and mailing them was kind of expensive--it actually costs more to mail a 45 than it does a CD. And I just thought, "Hell, everybody's into CDs. There's this weird perceived value that CDs are fancy, yet they cost less to manufacture. So I'll just do it on CD." And I was surprised at how much...it made me realize how much political correctness there is in the world. Especially fringe music. Among people who are into stuff that's kind of beyond the obvious--people who are more of actual music lovers--there's a lot of snobbishness about certain things. And what's really odd is that a lot of people thought it should be on cassette. I thought, "Well, that's not exactly a present to the songwriters, to put it on this format that just sounds godawful." I use cassettes everyday; I love cassettes, but for a different reason. I don't know, I guess I don't really have that emotional attachment to any of the stuff...except maybe records. And that just seems hopeless at this point.