Interview: They Might Be Giants
Published on March 5th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
This week sees the release of Nanobots, the absolutely sparkling sixteenth album by They Might Be Giants – so Rocksucker fired some questions over to the band and were thrilled to receive back the following set of replies from John Flansburgh, one half of this enduring songwriting duo alongside John Linnell…
Congratulations on yet another superb album – to still be on such form 16 albums in is quite extraordinary. Have you given up on the notion of mainstream acceptance, and if so when about did this occur? Was it ever a concern?
Thank you. Although it might be heretical in the “all fame is good” era in which we live, mainstream acceptance has always been a pretty alien notion to us, and was never a serious goal of ours. Pardon me for taking issue with the premise of the question, but from our perspective–with television projects and kids stuff along with some pretty stuffy awards–I feel like our work has been accepted by the general public far beyond any reasonable expectation for this kind of musical outfit–but maybe I’m just a glass-half-full guy!
Why are there so many songs under a minute long? Were they just ideas that you saw no need to extrapolate or elaborate upon, or did you set out to write them that way?
It seemed like a good way to motor the album sequence forward, and shake up the notion that everything you hear is going to be a set, song-length experience.
There are so many talking points/points of interest to your songs, both musically and lyrically. Does it frustrate you when you listen to bands who don’t really bother with that surprise factor? Do you feel it your obligation to uphold such values, or is it just “how you roll”?
There are a lot of ways to create an effective song, and there are all kinds of music making that is of interest to us that are also worlds away from our output. I suspect a lot of other songwriters would find our songs kind of awkward or too oddball in its subject matter to suit them. It’s really a matter of personal taste.
How much fun was it getting a backing vocalist in to sing the refrain “combustible head!”? The very idea tickles me so I’d love to know whether she had any questions about it or just got on with the task at hand.
That’s my wife Robin Goldwasser screaming her head off. She knew what to do.
What was the thinking behind titling the album Nanobots, other than it already being the name of one of the tracks?
It’s a very good question, but we don’t have such a great answer. It just seemed different than our other titles and kind of unknowable (which is always nice). It’s an evocative title but the album itself is not as futuristic as the title suggests. I guess there is a natural tie-in between the prefix “nano” and the short songs, but it wasn’t really what drove us to the name.
Re: the song “Black Ops”: are you keen players of the video game of the same name, or indeed of video games in general? If so, do you glean much inspiration from them?
I know exactly nothing of games post Tetris! I was unaware of the game until the song came out, but I now know many folks think they’re related.
Can I just commend you on rhyming “spot you missed” with “communist”? (That’s not really a question so don’t feel obliged to answer!)
Was the piano at the beginning of “Call You Mom” and “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” a deliberate nod to Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”?
“Virginia Plain” is a great track, but I think John L. is just doing his version of straight up rock’n’roll piano playing–which is probably what Roxy was drawing on as well.
Who sings on “Decision Makers” and “There”?
Jedediah Parish sang on “Decision Makers”–years ago his band opened for us and he just has a very intense voice that seemed to fit the song. And my wife Robin Goldwasser sings all the vocal parts on “There”.
Is the “’cause we are like literally” line on “Insect Hospital” an irritated swipe at, or benevolent embracing of, ‘youthspeak’? How do you feel about the modern misappropriation of the word ‘random’?
The casual use of the word literally has been around since I was a kid–I can remember discussing how odd that use was in high school so it’s didn’t just arrive with current slang. Personally, I don’t have a big issue with the random use of the word random although I have friends who are unnerved by it. I might even be guilty of using it less than specifically myself.
What happened to “Lucky You”, “Stalker in Reverse” and “Dawn Divine”? Did they not make the cut, or were their names changed?
As we were wrapping the album up, and had to decide what tracks we had time to finish. We actually were in very good shape, set a delivery and release date with our new distribution partner Megaforce, and about three days later Sandy hit NYC and we were suddenly behind schedule by over a week with just two weeks of studio time available. Those songs will all get wrapped up soon I’m sure.
I love little touches like the overlapping backing chants on “Nanobots” and the snatches of chopped up vocal on “Sleep”. Do these things tend to emerge more by accident or design?
Can you see yourself doing any more ‘themed’ LPs in the future? In fact, seeing as you’re so prolific, have you given much thought yet to your next project? If so, what can you tell us about it at this stage?
The kids stuff has had real themes for the last three projects. We’ve discussed doing a history album for kids, but our lefty politics might annoy people beyond the breaking point.
Do you know yet which festivals you might be playing this summer?
John Linnell’s food diary for Food Grub New York is really entertainingly written. Do either of you ever think about getting into writing in any way?
It wouldn’t be the biggest lateral move, but right now the music thing seems to be keeping us happy and busy.
I hope you’ll forgive me a vaguely Malcolm-related question, as I love the show. Did you get to know the cast at all? And have you seen much of Breaking Bad? Bryan Cranston’s character in it is just a little bit different to Hal…
From working on the pilot of Malcolm on, I was quite specifically a very big Bryan Cranston fan–he was sparky and a real stand out in the cast. I only met him once at a PR event around the time we got the Grammy for the theme. He was a real gent, and I am happy that he has had a chance to do different and bigger things.
Which were your albums of 2012? Are there any that you’re particularly looking forward to in 2013, other than your own?
Redd Kross, Fiona Apple, Ty Segall, Aimee Mann and Dirty Projectors are the only contemporary albums I can think of. I bought a lot of old music in 2012: Shuggie Otis, Dr. John, Shirley & Lee, the Golden Gate Quartet, The Springfields, Quincy Jone’s bossa nova album–that’s what I’ve been listening to the most.
Finally, if you had to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, with the entire works of just five different artists (musical or otherwise) for company, whose would you choose?
Just Ivor Cutler.
John Flansburgh, thank you.
Nanobots is out now on Lojinx in the UK and Europe, Idlewild in the US and Breakaway in Australia. For more information, please visit www.theymightbegiants.com