They Might Be Giants are one of the most prolific bands I can think of. Since forming in the 1980s, they’ve released 17 studio albums, 18 EP’s, seven live albums, and a veritable fuckload of songs through their Dial-A-Song project – which, in short, was a new song posted to their website every week (or emailed to you, or through their apps or on their YouTube channel – because these guys are awesome like that). Ahead of their Australian tour, John Flansburgh had a chat with IPHYB about the tour, and how they keep it fresh after so many years!
Dave Mullins: Are you getting excited for the Australian tour?
John Flansburgh: I am, we’re doing so many kinds of different musical works this year, I’m just a little overwhelmed to be honest. We’re doing a show with a horn section this Sunday, in New York. So we’re doing all these songs that we have not done, in recent memory, with the horns. So I have to learn a whole bunch of things for tomorrow, so I’m a little bit daunted by promises I’ve already made. But the thing I can say about our Australian tour that will be of real interest to people who say us last time we came through is – the show is very different than the last time we played there. The repertoire is going to be quite a different compliment of songs, so I think if people are nervous about coming back to see a show, just a year and a half later or whatever, I want to tell people to put those fears aside. We have a tonne of different stuff happening in the live show.
Dave Mullins: Sure, over 17 albums and a bunch of EP’s you’ve got a pretty huge catalogue of music to draw from. So I can’t imagine it’d just be the same old thing over and over.
John Flansburgh: No, but then again there are a lot of legacy bands, there are a lot of bands that are still doing it. I remember, I was talking to one of our sound men who worked with an act from the ‘70s, that will go unnamed, and they literally have been doing the same show for 15 years. And they’ve made many albums, but the truth is there’s just a handful of songs that people want to hear – and that’s just what they do. Which sounds like death to me, just on a creative level, seems like time to hang up your holster. But I dunno, it’s a big challenge, keeping it fresh.
Dave Mullins: And how do you manage it? How do you play the songs people want to hear and do the songs you want to do?
John Flansburgh: Yeah, well with a song like Birdhouse, we do it virtually every show, that’s not something we really need to rehearse. But there are other songs that might be people’s favourite songs that aren’t always in the repertoire, it really changes. I guess we have a lot of excitement and interest in doing the best songs that we’ve recently put together. This year we’ve been doing this Dial-A-Song project where we post a new song every week. And I think there’s a half-dozen songs from that, over the course over the first 42 weeks that we feel are pretty bulletproof songs. We’re doing a bunch of the songs – there’s a song called ‘Answer’ that’s off the Glean album that came out in the spring, and there’s the song ‘Music Jail’ that we do that gets a really big response. We’re sort of the opposite of a shoegaze band, we’re not trying to pander to the audience but we’re definitely trying to please the audience, in a way. I feel like we’re very responsible to the crowd to, kind of ‘get it going’. It’s hard to talk about really, I think that people who have seen know the generosity of spirit that we try to bring to it. We’re not such good actors that we can pretend to be enthusiastic about material that is boring to us. So it’s not just for the audience’s sake, it’s also for our own headspace.
John Flansburgh: It’s a very strange time we live in, it’s like an interesting ‘transitional’ time. I actually feel like many people are discovering us now, for the very first time. In a way, I think the press … there’s very little doubt in their mind that the people who know who we are, the might be interested in who we are – it’s a very finite group of people. That we, sort of fall under the category of a ‘cult band’. That we found our crowd and we do the work that we do and we work at the level that we work at. But what’s interesting for us and something that we experience all the time is that for various reason, it’s an ever-changing group of people – that is, really the big surprise. Virtually no body who followed us 25 years ago is coming out to the shows now, it’s a completely refreshed crowd and a lot of people who are coming out are just regular concert goers who have been following the band for the last couple of years. A lot of people have found us online, a lot of people have found us through music streaming services – that’s a huge democratiser. And it’s sort of an interesting phenomenon, whatever music tastes you have get amplified and branch out from there. We find that there are a surprising number of new people in the They Might Be Giants tent, and that’s pretty exciting for us.
Dave Mullins: And that’s cool. One thing I have noticed, with your band in particular, is that people either know you well, or maybe only know a few songs – which turns out that they know maybe 12 or 15 of your songs, which they are fans of – you know “oh that song was cool and that song was cool”.
John Flansburgh: The oddest thing, in Australia is the song ‘Doctor Worm’ got played on Triple J, quite a bit. I mean, I think it’s a quality song, it’s a very unusual song, but we’ve played it at the show quite a lot, just because it is a solid song that people like. But its place in the history of Australian radio is so different … I feel like it’s what ‘Sex Farm’ was for Spinal Tap in Japan – Doctor Worm is for They Might Be Giants in Australia.
Dave Mullins: Oh yeah man, absolutely, everyone knows that song.
John Flansburgh: That is so weird! [laughs] It’s fantastic.
Dave Mullins: Speaking of other, weird, songs. Someone mentioned asking why you guys don’t make songs like ‘Istanbul’ anymore?
John Flansburgh: Why don’t we make songs like ‘Istanbul’ anymore? Do you mean like songs in a minor key? I don’t exactly know how to answer that question. I think technically if they specifically like the vibe of ‘Istanbul’ (not Constantinople), they should actually investigate the song ‘Music Jail’, that just came out on the Glean album, simply because it has similar harmonic minor qualities to it. But part of me thinks it’s like asking someone why they aren’t young anymore. I fear that that’s the real question but I don’t have a better answer.
Dave Mullins: No that’s okay, I just thought I’d ask the question since we vaguely went into that territory.
John Flansburgh: I mean it is a cover, we didn’t write the song – it was written in the early ‘50s, and it’s a strange song because it was, in many ways it was kind of a sound-alike to the song ‘Putting on the Ritz’, it’s really a classic early ‘50s novelty song … it was really just a little slice of exotica, not that different to ‘Tennessee Waltz’ or ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’. There was this whole moment in pop music in the ‘50s that it a lot of ways the early rock ‘n’ roll stuff was, sort of, in response to the strange ‘vibe’ that all this early ‘50s music was about. Some of it’s good, some of it is not so great, but it’s yeah, it’s a weird song.
Dave Mullins: We’re sort of running out of time. So you’re on your way to Australia, you’ve toured for 30 years. Is there anywhere else in the world you’d like to tour? Certain bands are starting to tour places they haven’t been or that bands rarely go, is there anything in mind, like that, for you?
John Flansburgh: Well we were hoping to get to Japan on this tour, unfortunately, the economics of actually touring in Japan have gotten really tough over the past few years. The economy there is not what it once was. It’s interesting to me how, I don’t think of myself as an inflexible person, but my impressions of the world as a young man in so many ways, I just never thought anything would ever change. When we first started touring we were playing Germany all the time, and one of the things about Germany was that Germany was a really, really, wealthy country, and the dollar was really weak in Germany. So as an American band, it seemed like you were getting paid a lot to tour there. And I just thought that “oh this is great, we’ll be touring Germany for the rest of our lives” but everything changed when the wall came down. The economy of Germany really kind of flipped and we really haven’t played there very much since the ‘80s, and it’s just very strange. We’ve played in Japan quite regularly all through the ‘90s and the early ‘00s I guess and haven’t really been back since. But I dunno, I thought New York would always have graffiti, so what do I know?
Dave Mullins: That’s a good answer. I guess it’s something that you don’t think about – that these things do change. So … fair call.
John Flansburgh: Yeah, especially countries getting wealthier and less wealthy. And also the music culture is changing so much … the other thing that is strange is the tide is really going out on the music business. But for a band like us, the fact that we can do solid business, that we are an established band, makes us a little more valuable in the world than we might have been otherwise. It’s not just ‘make way for the next major label big push’. It’s a weird business.
Dave Mullins: And it’s constantly evolving I guess, but we’ll see what happens in the future.
John Flansburgh: Well we’re just very happy to back in Australia. Australia is a very fun place to tour for us. In spite of the plane travel, which is brutal – just getting there and also just all the travel, day out is a joke but they’re always fun shows.