Q&A: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants

Nonstop Sound spoke with founding They Might Be Giants member John Flansburgh about what the band is up to these days, 30 years after they got their start. The band has hit the road with Jonathan Coulton, making it to Terminal 5 on March 10.
Nonstop Sound: After 30 years of this, where do you find the energy to continue this?
John Flansburgh: "I believe it can be found at the bottom of a very large cup of coffee. But it’s a fun thing to be involved in, recording and experimenting with sound. There are duller tasks in life. I parked cars for a living for six months and it was not nearly as fun as this. My freshman year of college, I ran the booth at a parking garage at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.
Because I was working evenings, I taught myself to play guitar in the booth. That was my woodshedding situation. I was woodshedding in a structure about the size of a woodshed.  
Actually, there was somebody murdered in the garage while I was working. I should clarify this: There was a pile of blood and the cops came, telling me there was so much blood there’s no way whoever it belonged to walked off. I was completely unaware of this as it was happening."
NS: So then you moved up to New York City and got the band together?
JF: "I went to school in Antioch, Ohio for a couple years after that. Then I came to New York to go to Pratt and moved into the same building that John Linell was in. He was with a band called the Mundanes. We just kind of starting sharing music equipment in our apartment building, as we each had a small studio. It was very organic. Then we started doing a two-man show with a drum machine. Accordion, guitar and drum machine. We played to a tape."
NS: Sort of like Cocteau Twins?
JF: "It was definitely in that moment. Actually, when our first record came out, it also came out in the UK. There was another band, Young Marble Giants, who were a trio, using a drum machine heavily, and they were also on Rough Trade, I think. I remember when we first started doing press in the UK, reporters confused Young Marble Giants with They Might Be Giants, always asking, 'What happened to the girl?' They had a similar set of consonants."
NS: Over the years, They Might Be Giants hasn’t shied away from commercial licensing of the band’s music. That philosophy took backlash in 2011, with the Occupy movement spurring some disdain of commercialism. Where does the band stand on that issue now?
JF: "Well, at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I’m not particularly into it. My personal thing with just being on a creative trajectory, if music and image are to be put together, it’s a question of if they’re both original. We’ve written jingles for advertisements on a number of commercials now, and it’s kind of cool to put together arrangements that have nothing to do with your particular sound: hip-hop funk, or disco or thing.
It gets more complicated when you get into the band’s identity. There’s a tacit assumption that a band’s approval is attached to a commercial sale. There’s a notion that if something’s licensed that it’s agreed on. We live in a different time of commercial sale. I grew up during a time of The Beatles, when the idea of licensing a song was completely toxic, irradiated, it would be considered such a strange thing to do. For us, it was such a big adjustment just to think that was OK.
Once, a movie company that was putting together a movie soundtrack approached us. They provided a substantial advance, like a house-buying advance, from Warner/Chappell. It was for a movie starring a young Christian Slater, about a kid who has a pirate radio station in his house [Ed. note: 'Pump Up The Volume']. And we weren’t so excited about that, thinking, 'People are going to think we’re approving this movie,' on some artistic level, so we passed. And then Charles Thompson from The Pixies had this deal run past him, and he was like sure ... The soundtrack album for that movie went gold or something. I think you could put a few kids through college with that.
Strange opportunities come to bands. Somebody had run the idea of writing the 'Friends' theme past us. If you’re in the songwriting game, people call you to write things on spec. We wrote a song for 'That Thing You Do.' Somewhere I have a cassette tape of a song far less developed than the one Tom Hanks played."
NS: What about playing for children? How did that get started?
JF: "That started out really random. We had no ambitions to get into the children’s music world. We were offered a side deal to our recording contract. And we were sort of looking for a way to not be on the road. On a practical level, creative level, writing songs that weren’t just in that world of rock music. Just breaking free of the gravitational pull of rock critics and radio programmers. We’d been in the write/record/tour cycle for about 10 years. I don’t think we had any ambitions about becoming stars in the world of kid’s music. After like 20 years of playing for drunks, it’s really hard to switch gears and be as earnest one should probably be to play to children."
NS: How do you feel about bands such as The Black Keys, The Arcade Fire, and Hall and Oates doing things similar to your Dial-A-Song service?
JF: "Good luck to all stuntmen, I say. There are a lot of different ways to approach doing those kinds of projects, which is to say, music is such an ethereal thing. A song is such a hypothetical thing. When you do a video for a song, is it a promo piece or a piece of artistic expression? It’s kind of a melding of both. It’s never a mistake to get ambitious about anything that has your name on it. It can be an opportunity to do something cool, lighthearted. Nice thing was it gave us an excuse to write music in regular intervals. Especially when you start, you don’t really know how to motivate yourself. You don’t really know what keeps your creative fire lit, it can be kind of mysterious.
That’s really part of what gets us going for this period of time. I don’t think we’ve ever tired of the idea of writing. The actual stuff of making music, not just making songs and performing but making new songs has always been Job 1. We’ve been making a lot of videos for YouTube lately, whatever you would call potentially viral videos, if one of them was to get a virus. For a long time, we left rock video in the ‘90s. We’ve done a few viral videos – they’ve reset the production bar in a way. Even though the common denominator is that they’re very simple.
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