Truly Gigantic!- An Interview with They Might Be Giants
Maybe you stumbled upon this quirky alternative-pop duo back in the 80's because of the wild underground street buzz that was generated by their unpredictable Dial-a-Song answering machine. I remember it was a (718) area code number and you could call it every day. And every day you would get a different song; each and every day. Now that's a lot of songwriting but it earned them the attention of Bar/none records. This was alternative in it's truest form.
Maybe you were introduced to them via the '80s MTV generation video and called "Don't Let's Start." It was considered eclectic alternative back in the day. Well, guess what? They Might Be Giants are now celebrating their twentieth anniversary, which in the world of music is a very notable benchmark, given the number of bands that disappear long before their tenth anniversary. So here's to John and John - thank for years of unstoppable song craftmanship, peculiar pop hits, rapier sharp wit and truly memorable live performances.
Guitar.com got a few minutes to chat with John (Flansburgh, that is) right after the World Premier of their recent Bonfire Films of Amercia release, "Gigantic," a unique documentary looking inside the very unique world of TMBG.
Guitar.com: Hey John, why don't we start off with your set-up. I know you've played a couple different guitars over the years.
John Flansburgh: I'm basically a one-guitar guy. I play a Gibson ES-335 mainly. I played a Telecaster for years, probably the first ten years of the band, and every seventh or eighth or ninth show there would some electronic complication that would create this unfortunate buzz. You start to really appreciate humbuckers after that.
Guitar.com: Isn't that the wild, flatboard guitar you have?
John Flansburgh: No the Gibson ES35 is the Chuck Berry guitar. It's a very classic rock guitar. But I have a whole array of guitars. I have a Coral Longhorn, which is sort of a hollow-body thing, a Les Paul Classic, but the guitar you're talking about is a custom-made Mojo. It's a square, well, I guess it's a sort of "cozy"(laughs) mounted on top so it fits in the case properly. You look at those older, sort of geometric cases, and I got a geometric guitar to fit inside.
Guitar.com: The reason it sticks out in the mind is because it's featured very prominently on the back of Severe Tire Damage. People point that out as the quintessential Flansburgh guitar because they only see you playing it.
John Flansburgh: Yeah, it's definitely one of a kind. The Coral Longhorn is fairly unusual-looking, too.
Guitar.com: What sort of pedals or effects do you use, particularly when you have to cut it down for a TV appearance?
John Flansburgh: Sometimes if we do a TV show, I actually won't use any effects at all, particularly if we're only doing one song. It's amazing how simple it can be. You basically get one shot, when you're performing on the Tonight Show, or Letterman, or Conan, so it's best to not have anything extra that can go wrong. Pedals tend to fall apart at the worst times, so a lot of the time, when doing a television show, we try to keep [the setup] super-duper simple. Otherwise, I've got this nice "road-case" style effects box. I've used a lot the Line 6 effects stuff. They're quite good, quite reliable.
Guitar.com: So , when you're performing live, you're a little bit more concerned with how reliable it is, rather than how glossy it sounds?
John Flansburgh: (drawn out) Yeeeeaaaahhh, well, I think... well, we do a ton of shows, and a lot of times we travel by plane. You can't really have something that ISN'T reliable. You sort of develop a mindset where you need to deliver consistently, and then let all the frills rise in.
Actually, a couple of years ago, I decided to completely replace EVERYTHING I had. I said "I'm bored of my sound," which is the sound I use when I'm not playing straight into the amp, but for the special effects I've cultivated in a sort of subtle way over the years. I have a great guitar, I have a great amp - I actually use two different amps, one for clean and one for distorted - but being an electric guitar, more importantly, a rhythm guitar player, you're somewhat limited in what you'll be playing, almost always somewhere in that rhythm section. That said, I love being a rhythm player, and the Line 6 stuff is really good for that.
Guitar.com: Well, if you just changed your whole gear set-up a couple years ago, is there anything you haven't gotten yet that you're still looking for?
John Flansburgh: Well, you what I'm still looking for is an overdrive pedal that's somewhere between - - I can get a crunchy sound or a screaming lead, I can get almost any sound out of it, it's incredibly versatile - but I'm looking for an overdrive pedal that isn't like a big volume boost, but would actually take it over the top, kind of like a turbo-overdrive kind of way. I've tried a lot of different overdrives and fuzz effects, and the problem is that it's all straight volume, which is not always what I'm trying to do. It's a subtle effect. It's probably the only effect I've ever developed subtlety, which is what makes it so hard to find. I'm looking for something fat-sounding, that has a solid low-drive crunch, but with more, FULL crunch. And I don't think I'm the only person looking for it, because you see so many products trying to do that.
Guitar.com: You mentioned you're a rhythm player. For the first ten years of They Might Be Giants, it was just you and John Linnell. Then you picked up the live band, and just in the last five years or so you picked up the Band of Dans. How has playing in the band evolved with these different incarnations?
John Flansburgh: Well, the last ten years have been completely different from the first ten years. The first era was just John and I, and the second era was John and I and other people. We've had a couple different lead guitarist over the years. It's been a huge kick in the pants, musically, working with sidemen. We gained a really solid reputation for ourselves as a live band for ten years, as a very unusual kind of show, and it was very personal to us. And then we brought out the band to really... fill out the show. We started to experiment, we started doing more international touring. When we brought on the band, we actually changed our show a lot. John and I were crazy about rehearsing. We'd rehearse every night for the first five years of the band. We'd rehearse a very short period of time every single night. We were so disciplined about it. It really was the kind of golden period for us, because audiences weren't as concerned about actual musicianship as we were. I don't think audiences are as concerned about "tightness" as musicians are. There's a lot of good, quality bands that are essentially musicians playing for other musicians. But I think audiences are very happy to see people confident and sure of themselves. We dedicated a lot of energy to making whatever we do look relatively easy. And we kind of set up a style for ourselves that was very... Essentially the arrangement was a lot of interesting musical ideas, but very clean, where you could hear all the parts.
So bringing on sidemen... the strange thing is, if you're a good musician, and you're hiring a sidemen, you can choose to work with a musician who technically much better than you right away. Nobody working as a sideman can't cut it playing by themselves. If you put an ad in the paper, especially in New York, you're going to meet five people who play a lot better than you. It puts you in a very unusual situation, where the question is, what are you bringing to the group and what are they bringing to the group? It's hard to describe, because on some levels, whoever it is, they're technically great, but that's not all there is to music. It's very easy to just do what's been before, to regurgitate it, but being original is a whole other struggle.
It was hard adjusting to having a band, because originally, since it was just John playing keyboards or accordion, me playing electric guitar, and a drum machine, even if we did a Beatles cover, it would still sound like They Might Be Giants, particularly with the drum machine. So when we brought on sidemen, we sort of had to re-rig our whole setup, to having it really sound as original as it wanted it to be. In some ways, I think there's something a little mild about our first efforts with a live band due to that. But it was worth it, and it's exciting to realize ideas beyond your own wavelength.
Guitar.com: So does working with The Dans, specifically Dan Miller, open up your songwriting process?
John Flansburgh: Dan Miller is an amazing musician. He's not famous, in the way Lyle Workman is (session player, well known for his work with Frank Black). He's the kind of player, where if you're interested in guitar-playing, he will blow you away. And he's really a joy to be around. He's very easy to hang out with, very funny, very smart, and incredibly talented. I don't think he realizes how talented, which is kind of a relief for everyone.
He's an amazing addition to the show. I've done hundreds of shows with him, and there's always a couple moments in the show where it comes down to his improvisational skill, and I've just seen him blow the room away over and over again.
John Flansburgh: If you seen the "Chet Baker: Let's Get Lost" video, there's a point where Jack Sheldon, another trumpet player for big band stuff, and he was talking about Chet Baker, and how when he saw Chet Baker, how easily it came to him. That's kind of how I feel about Dan. I would love to be able to copy whatever thought process he has, but he's so natural and intuitive, there's no way to get inside that. He can approach any musical idea with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of what would make it shift from one genre to another. To the layperson, it would be incredibly subtle distinctions, but he basically has the entire history of 20th century on-hand.
Guitar.com: How much of the songwriting that you do involves the rest of the band? Do you bring them a half-written song, or do you write material that's immediately ready to be played.
John Flansburgh: That depends on the song. Take, for example, "Cyclops Rock" from Mink Car. I had written the verses and the chorus, and instead of making the demo just by myself, as a songwriter's demo, I brought in [bassist] Danny Weinkauf to open things up. And he came in and created the riff that not only became the bassline, but also ended up being the guitar solo.
The collaboration between songwriter and the rest of the band is an open-ended job description. We could give the guys parts, and we have, but then there are other times where they can lead the song in a different direction. There's a song on our children's album NO! called "Fibber Island." I wrote Fibber Island in the morning, just the verses, and everything about the song just developed spontaneously. It opens up with a beautiful art from Dan Miller that was conceived on the spot. It's very beautiful in a James Taylor kind of way, and we didn't expect that.
Guitar.com: You played a batch of kid's shows on your last tour, so there was a lot of material from NO! Is there a dramatic difference between writing the kid's album versus writing other studio albums?
John Flansburgh: Writing for kids and writing for ourselves, there are very subtle differences. I think the strength of NO! is that it's a very uncompromised album. It doesn't have that smarmy, condescending way that other children's records have.
But as a show, there's a huge difference between playing for kids and playing for drunks. You can take our material and go a lot of different ways. There's a song, "Clap Your Hands," where if it was played for adults, it might as well be called "Get Up Off Your Ass." We like to open our shows with that one, because it has a funky Meters-y feel. But playing for kids is super weird. Writing is very easy, obvious, but playing is strange. I feel like Krusty the Clown when playing for kids. I have to turn off a part of my adult brain.
We've been playing live for twenty years, and I think in the last ten years, we've gone from being an okay live band with interesting songs to a really solid, interesting, spontaneous live band. It takes a lot on energy to have room for improvisation with out leaving parts of the show kind of sketchy. I'm very happy and proud about where the show is that.
But part of that is, as the circus barker-front man guy, is that you adapt this unpredictable tourette's state. I would never want my parents to see our live show. There are parts of the show that are crazy and obscene, which is part of giving in to the show, but you just can't do that playing for kids. It's scary, because I'm very used to swearing.
Guitar.com: Shifting gears a second. You're a rhythm guitar player. Has it always been that way? Was your first guitar electric?
John Flansburgh: My first guitar was electric. It was a baby-blue Fender Mustang. I learned to play while working at a parking lot in Washington D.C. I was in a little booth, practically an outhouse. I started writing my own songs straight away, because it was easier to play your own songs than to learn other people's.
Guitar.com: During concerts, you and John make comments, poking fun at the idea that They Might Be Giants don't really care what's going on in the audience. Is it safe to say the audience is in on the joke?
John Flansburgh: I think it's fairly obvious that it's an audience-oriented show. A lot of what we say onstage is just crazy talk. I think part of it is that if you spend a lot of time talking TO the audience, you run the risk of losing control of your own show, and that's where our "emotionally unavailable" thing comes from.
Guitar.com: The big thing for you guys this summer is the national release of the documentary "Gigantic." So the makers of that film, followed you for a year?
John Flansburgh: Yeah, pretty much, off and on.
Guitar.com: Did the filming process become part of your lives; having the crew follow you around?
John Flansburgh: It was usually more over the course the day where it happened. At the beginning of the day, you're very self-conscious about it, but as you face the different challenges of the day it fades into the background. The crew was always very small, just one or two people. They did a very good job of being out of the way. They were more interested in getting the regular tone of the band. It's not like they were obsessed with the drama. They were after a much subtler thing.
You really get a full whiff of the total lack of glamour in our lives. The funny thing is, people think that when you get off the stage, the band rushes back to some opulent place between the show and the encore. And usually, you're just happy to get out of that little dressing room.
Guitar.com: One final question. "Thunderbird:" What gives?
John Flansburgh: [The song] will be on something very soon.