Interview: Lessons with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants returns to Louisville to send off the last Waterfront Wednesday of the year. The band's other half, John Flansburgh, takes a moment to discuss the new record and sketchy situations.

We may not be aware, but we have all experienced They Might Be Giants in one form or another. As a child I unknowingly witnessed their work watching Tiny Toons and Malcom in the Middle and never imagined I’d be coming back to question the entity behind it all. They were still an established band long before this time and have maintained strong output of inventive art that marks them a beloved act by all audiences. Leading the forefront of the inevitable internet-music marriage, they were the first artists to self-run an online music store and release albums exclusively in MP3. The past few years have kept them involved in mostly youth culture (get ‘em while they’re young) with their last three albums directed at children. Today, the two Johns tour in support of their latest adult TMBG album in four years, Join Us, which has been received surprisingly well according to John Flansburgh.

I caught up with John to discuss music and their upcoming show at Waterfront Park, a free event hosted by WFPK in their final Waterfront Wednesday of the season. Through the thousands of interviews past, it was clear he knew how to throw one down and made good company for a relaxed conversation. Flansburgh says he’s looking forward to be back in Louisville; this time TMBG is joined by Baltimore’s J Roddy Waltson & The Business and Louisville pop posse The Deloreans. Although there probably won’t be science lessons on the set list, it shouldn’t discourage you from bringing along the kiddies anyway. It’s an awfully generous opportunity with a free event of this capacity, and could seriously handicap your credibility as a human being if you neglected the legs/nubs you were born and failed to attend. A free They Might Be Giants gig is more of a right than an opportunity; don’t waste it!

You’re going to be doing a free waterfront show here in September.

Right, right. It’ll be fun to be back in Louisville. You know, Louisville used to be very much on the circuit of cities that we played. And I’m not sure if the rock club that put them on the map closed down or…I can’t remember the name of the rectangular room we played in.

Was it Headliners? [Note: I later came to find it was Tewligan's, which is now Cahoots]

No, it wasn’t. I forget the name it was called. In fact, the name might have changed a couple times, but I remember at one point we were still touring in a van, so it must have been the early 90s. And somebody—a fan—stole a license plate off our van which was such a drag, because it was at the beginning of a month of touring. We would have t-shirts drop shipped to us every five or six days and we’d have to go to an airport to pick them up. So we’d go to a local airport in some city and pick them up wherever the drop shipping place was. And one might not know this—but they’ve done it—if you drive a van without a license plate onto an airport, they know right away. [Laughs]

Basically they tipped off a crazy set of police alarm bells. But fortunately we had paperwork from the Louisville police saying that our license plate had been stolen, but you can’t get a replacement plate until you actually get back to the state where the vehicle was registered. So, we had to wait a month. And we were driving around for a month without a license plate, so we got pulled over like a half-dozen times, which really sucked.

Wow, that’s really sketch!

Well what’s weird about it is they were, officially, our friends, you know? They were fans who were getting a souvenir, “ha-ha.” So that month was really shitty.

So, about how many interview do you think you’ve done?

Oh, I don’t know, probably a few thousand. We’ve probably done almost 2,000 shows, and we do at least an interview per show. And that’s actually probably a conservative number. I’m used to it.

The current tour is in support of your new album Join Us, and I've noticed through your Twitter feed that several of your shows have been free events. For a band of your notoriety, it seems odd you aren't asking for any kind of admission. Any reason why?

Well, we did a big free show in Brooklyn right as the album was being released and that was just a very celebratory thing. You know, we do a free show in New York and there are 10,000 people so it’s a way to celebrate the release. This radio show [WFPK] is just something that’s having a big event and we’re taking part in it. There’s nothing better than a free show; it’s a great vibe. And you kind of super-size your audience when you play a free show. You get the music out to more people, so it’s kind of a win-win situation.

What are your favorites to play live?

Well, whenever you play a super familiar song, it gets a different kind of response from the audience which is exciting. But I think on a musical level, it’s always interesting to have new songs in the show, whether they’re from the catalog or it’s an old repertoire that you brought back or brand new songs. Right now there’s a bunch of brand new songs from the album and they’re getting a very warm response which is…unusual. But it seems like people are paying a lot more attention to this record than typical. The typical thing is kind of a time delay on how audiences respond to songs. Like when they’re brand new, they tend to be kind of quiet.

Most of them don’t know or care to know about them yet.

That’s to be expected, but over time they become equally beloved. Although I have to say, this record’s getting a very different kind of response. Even the first couple times we played songs in the past couple weeks, certain new songs have just gotten a really big reaction, so it’s very exciting.

I think it might also be because your last releases have been children’s albums.

Oh, yeah. And that’s like a different audience entirely really. We don’t really mix those worlds. The stuff we do for adults is strictly for adults and what we do for kids is certainly for kids. So the shows are very distinctly different. We’re not into generating that level of confusion.

Right. So you’d take a different approach to making a kids album?

The things that are different are the things that are the same. You know, the challenge of writing a good song is always kind of there. Those things have a lot of common elements. They sort of function differently; it’s hard to say what the difference is, but I wouldn’t say they’re completely different.

Who writes more of the music/lyrics?

Well, we’re both songwriters and then we collaborate on things.

Has it varied over certain albums?

It really varies from song to song, but by large we typically just pull our efforts into the project. There’s a lot of experimentation in the way we approach collaborating. It’s not like one of us is a music guy and one of us is a lyrics guy. I would say a lot of songwriters work in sort a painterly way and a sculptural way- they kind of throw stuff out there and let it pile up, and there are people who are into editing and the subtractive kind of pruning of ideas. There’s a lot of peeling back of ideas in our work. To try to figure out how to arrange a song is always a big question for us.

TMBG has always been ahead of the curve in terms of adapting technology and alternative ways to distribute music. Where do you see this heading? Do you believe that file-sharing is a beneficial part of music's digital transition or does it do more harm than enrich?

In terms of the business of music, once you take the money out of it, it changes the talent pool. There was a time when a lot of very bright people were running record companies, because they were professionally ambitious. You know, people tend to look at the business of music from a very…they think about the artist and they kind about audiences, but they don’t think about how it functions as a business. There are advantages to having file-sharing and there’s things that are nice about artists being able to make a living. The economics right now are very different. And having been picking around this—you know, my first job was working in a record store when I was 17 years old; I’m 51 now. I’ve seen multiple formats come and go. I’ve seen generational shifts, and there was this period where. People always sentimentalize things. The truth of the matter is, in the 1950's there was a lot of crooks involved in music. A lot of those crooks kind of got pushed out by more legitimate business practices over the course of 30 years as the business got bigger and more corporate. And it’s hard to say. People talk about the 50’s like it was a glorious era, but it was an era where the only people managing bands were crooks and the people running record companies were crooks. So, how great is a business when it’s all run by crooks? I’m a little bit nervous that as the money marches out of the music business, it seems very likely that the crooks will return. But that’s just a guess. The music business is a very strange one.

This is totally on the side, but an interesting point. People are talking about schoolteachers and they’re complaining about…ah, it’s too complicated to explain. But it goes back to the idea of talent pools shifting. If you think of all the great women who are doctors, lawyers, engineers and business people- all the women in the workforce right now were doing all these amazing things. And imagine that all those women in a different generation would be teachers. Think about what a change in the talent pools for teachers it is. Just generationally. In one generation, it’s gone from being teaching and nursing were the professions of women and now women are everywhere in the business world. If you’re a teacher, and they change the culture of teaching. Because you just don’t have the best and the brightest in your work pool. And I have to say, I remember when there was a time when everybody’s kid wanted to be an intern at the record company. And when that changed, I really felt like, oh, music isn’t the business of future.

I also noticed your music video output has slowed since ’92.

Well, we’ve done three full length DVDs for kids in the past five years. There all like an hour long animated music video collection. MTV doesn’t really exist anymore. We’ve done lots of music video-type things, but the old fashioned music video doesn’t have as many outlets.

It’s definitely losing its value.

Yeah. And the shift in outlets and value kind of made the budgeting a really confusing thing. If you’re an established band and you try to make a rock video, people immediately want to attach a zero to the budget where it might not normally be because your presence makes it a bigger deal. But still, it’s a world of $5,000 rock videos now. It’s not a world of $50,000 rock videos and it doesn’t really make sense for us spend a whole ton of money on videos when there’s no place for them to get played. And they don’t hold people’s interest that much.

How did you get a spot on Xavier: Renegade Angel?

Oh, I’m friends with the people who put that show together and they asking if I could come in and do a thing. It’s very crazy.

What are your thoughts on the show? Did you have a fun experience?

It was very, very strange. I spent like an hour screaming at the top of my lungs. The production company that does those shows [PFFR], they also did Wonder Showzen, and they’re very creative people with loopy ideas. They’re neighbors of mine; just nice people.

It’s great; it really is. Do you have any current side-projects in the works?

No, we’re going on the road for six months, so my side-project is gonna be eating chicken wings at three in the morning.

They Might Be Giants will be performing with J Roddy Waltons & The Business and the Deloreans at Waterfront Park on Sept. 21st. Admission is FREE and all ages.

*This article also appears at Louisville.com.
Photo: Lastfm/TMBG photo album


Interview: Slug of Atmosphere and the Family Vacation

Atmosphere stops at Headliner's this Wednesday, Sept. 14th on vacation with labelmates Blueprint and Evidence. Sean Daley, the other half of Atmosphere, speaks about Eddie Murphy, his six day stint in Deep Puddle Dynamics and crybabies.

With Atmosphere as the driving force behind the movement of Twin Cities hip hop, Minneapolis breeds more than just bodies of water. It plays host to a thriving music scene of issue conscious rapppers and those willing to put their stories out there in a style defined by its candor and eccentricity. Under the umbrella of Rhymesayers Entertainment—a hip hop label founded by Atmosphere, Brent Sayers and Musab Saad—these artists are given a central hub to release records. However, you won’t catch them hanging around the office for a grip as they are currently on vacation with labelmates Blueprint and Evidence. Louisville will be one of the last handful of stops left on this excavation, a journey that began in Chicago at Lollapalooza and eventually brought them full circle around the nation. It was a really scattershot circle, though.

The tour is named after a signature hand gesture devised by Slug’s son, a gesture so commonly occurred that they decided to put it on the cover of their new record. Following up on the facts of life within 2009’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, things begin to get really slow. Usually this fixes everything; imagine any song with a beat and slow it down…that’s TENSE. Now, imagine the flow over top of this track spoken without much aggressive emphasis…that’s DYNAMICS. It doesn’t make much sense compared to the hip hop standards of violent subject matter and themes, but Atmosphere have been managing this sub-standard for a while. Piano trails littered the loungy, low-key nature of their last record, but now they’ve exchanged their coffee banter vibes with slithering psych-rock influenced platforms that conjure up enough texture to create its own natural system. In terms of where in the atmosphere this layer lies, it's the sub-stratosphere.

I didn't get into the scientific side of their music, but I feel some spark from Slug's very blatant answers. My spirit was crushed to hear Slug dismiss Deep Puddle Dymanics as a joke and was equally confused as to whether rewriting Eddie Murphy's "Boogie in Your Butt" is actually an ironic thing to do. I found him to be an extremely sincere guy serious with a respect for all art and the different purposes they serve.

I’m conducting this interview in the back kitchen of a head shop in Louisville. Where’s the strangest place you’ve done an interview?

I don’t know if I’ve ever done one in any strange places. Usually it’s over the phone, so it’s somewhere convenient.

That’s good. I’ve only seen a couple video interviews of you. I remember in one of them you said you became interested in writing hip hop from rewriting a really bad Eddie Murphy song…? Do you think if you chopped and screwed Kenny G it’d be any good?

I doubt it.

Is there no way of making it good?

No, I think it’s because the only reason someone would chop ‘n screw a Kenny G song would to be ironic, and I don’t think irony makes for very good art.

So you genuinely loved the Eddie Murphy song?

Which Eddie Murphy song-“Big Ol’ Butt?” “Put It In the Butt?” Yeah, that’s a great song- are you kidding me?

I’ve never heard it, but it’s definitely on the list to check out. (Note: I later came to find it’s titled “Boogie in your Butt,” something Eddie Murphy was not down with in the song.)

How does working in Atmosphere right now differ from your former rap group Deep Puddle Dynamics?

Deep Puddle Dyanmics was never a group. It was a thing, a side project that we did in 1998, but I’ve been in Atmosphere since 1989. Atmosphere has always been my group that I’ve been in. And then, a couple of dudes got together and said hey, let’s do this side project called Deep Puddle Dynamics and so we did that, and it was just a one-off. We only did one show because we all live in different parts of the country, so it was never really a group; it was just more like a recording project we did one time.

I meant that it was a group of people and collective effort.

Deep Puddle was never really work though, I don’t really know how to describe it. It was four guys who, for one week, smoked a whole bunch of weed and made a record. And so there’s really not a whole lot. Whereas Atmosphere is more like a machine, you know: a touring machine, recording machine. With Atmosphere I’ve put out about 7 official records, but we’ve put out about 15 records realistically. And Deep Puddle was something that lasted for six days. That’s what I’m saying, Deep Puddle wasn’t really a group, it was just a…a joke.

Well… I thought it was great.

Deep Puddle? Huh. That’s interesting.

I listen to it very often, actually.

You do?

Yeah, to this day.

Wow- right on, right on.

I just wanted to throw a question out there- I was genuinely curious.

I guess if I had to say it was different, I’d say that with Deep Puddle we didn’t really think about what we were doing. We were just doing whatever happened. We were under the pressure of time and six days together to make a record and so we just kinda did what happened without giving it too much thought. Whereas with Atmosphere, everything we do is very thought out; there’s a point to everything we do with Atmosphere.

I guess that’s why I like it- imperfect sound.


But with your newer stuff I noticed it’s becoming more positive- how have your audiences been responding so far?

So far, so good. Every time we make a record people have a tendency to go, “well I don’t know. I’ll really have to listen to it a couple times.” And then usually six months later they go, “wow this is great.” And I think this record is no different. When it first came out, everybody was like “well, it’s a little different, I don’t know,” and now that we’ve been out here for four months on the record everybody’s been starting to come around to it. I think people have this tendency to think they know us, or they know me. And so whenever I do something they think is outside of me, it’s like, they don’t know how to deal with it. They just all want me to be that guy that’s rapping about Lucy, and I haven’t mentioned Lucy on a record since 2002. So, Lucy’s been gone for about ten years. So when I quit doing it, cause I knew I had to move on and do something else—you can’t keep doing the same shit for more than two years, otherwise you’re a sellout—so, when I moved on…it’s like, audiences don’t move on. Things are timeless. Somebody today is hearing that Lucy shit for the first time ever, so they don’t put a time stamp on it. So you know, it’s more about when you take it in or how you take it in. For me, it’s more like it’s a straight line. Not a circle. And I guess that’s how it is for artists; they live on a straight line, however, for those of us that appreciate art you know, it’s circular, it’s a cycle.

Among your influences, what is the constant drive in your life?

Just my surroundings- the people that I’m surrounded by. I usually just steal my inspiration from my immediate surroundings.

What are your feelings on file-sharing? Do you believe it's beneficial to the music community or does more harm than good?

I don’t think I’d call it either; it’s just a way of the world, you know? It’s just the way things are today. When I was a kid we used to make mix tapes and share music with each other. People are always going to share music; that’s part of why music exists. I think that artists are being crybabies about not making any money because of file-sharing, because 100 years ago before the music industry existed, you would be lucky to get a pillow to lay your head on a bowl of soup for being able to sing a song. And then somebody invented this big scam called the music industry and a bunch of people got rich. Now, those rich people aren’t making as much money than they used to and they’re being little crybabies about it.

When you're writing, are you attentive to the pronunciation in how it affects the song in a sculptural way, or do you focus more on the words and their meanings?

I’d say, both.

Do you ever take breaks from writing or is it always a constant thing for you?

I take a break when I’m on tour.

Have you been through Louisville before?

Many, many times.

Any distinct memories?

None that I would talk about publically. I do like the airplane shoved into the side of the hill over there at Headliner’s.

Atmosphere will be performing with Blueprint and Evidence at Headliners Music Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 14th. Tickets are $20, available through ear-X-tacy, Headliners box office and Etix.com. Doors at 8PM. 18+ with I.D.

*This article also appears at Louisville.com
Photo:Lastfm/Slug photo album