John Flansburgh is one half of the alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants along with John Linnell. Since forming the band in 1982, they have toured the world, released 20 studio albums (including 5 children’s albums) with two more in production, have won 2 Grammy awards and recently contributed music to Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical for which they were nominated for a Tony award. John recently took the time to chat with me about shopping in Sam Ash Music during their early years, the creation and rebirth of “Dial-A-Song”, music gear they are currently experimenting with, and more!
What inspired you to play guitar?
I started playing the guitar in the fall of 1978; I basically spent the previous 12 months seeing a lot of bands in Boston and then some in London. I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads a few times, Elvis Costello; so that core first wave of punk rock bands were very much on my mind. I loved Television and there were a million other bands that were fascinating to me; Pere Ubu, Blondie, The Tough Darts with Robert Gordon who later had a rockabilly career, and a clutch of Boston bands I saw many, many times; Human Sexual Response, The Real Kids, bands that people might not know but were very important to me. There was a band called The Molls that was Boston’s answer to Pere Ubu.
I think the real thing was that the song itself was being resuscitated: the idea of a short, powerful, melodic song was being resuscitated and being reclaimed from the general trends in rock music which were longer songs, more improvisation, more solos, etc. Whether it was prog rock or California rock, songs had gone from being 2 and a half minutes long to 6 minutes long and I think in general whatever style of song exploration you’re interested in, there was just a general notion that a short, powerful song was the vehicle that was the best way to express an idea.
What is the first instrument you ever received and do you still have it?
My mother gave me her Harmony ukulele from 1935 and I still have it! It’s bright red and a very bold looking instrument that sits on my shelf at home.
Is there a piece of music equipment you wish you owned?
A couple of years ago, the band acquired a modern version of a Mellotron and that was something that I had always been captivated by. I would be intrigued to have a Fairlight. On our eponymous debut album, there’s a couple of songs that linger heavily on Fairlight sounds the Fairlight was an early sample-based synthesizer that was really the exclusive domain of rock stars except for the fact that we were working in a place called “Public Access Synthesizer Studio” in New York that for some flukey reason happened to be in possession of one of these very, very expensive instruments. Originally they cost something like $200-300,000. They were computer-based keyboards that played samples of sounds that you could sort of feed into it and synthesize. They were very kooky and idiosyncratic instruments and weren’t particularly high fidelity. I think the best known Fairlight driven track is the opening of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and all of the songs by Art of Noise including ”Close To The Edit”, and “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren is all Fairlight. It’s a very otherworldly sounding library of sound. It’s extremely dated now. You know what the most dated sound from the Fairlight is? The orchestral stab in “View to Kill” by Duran Duran which is like a screeching car horn of a symphony orchestra.
They’ve been re-purposing that A LOT in modern music.
That’s a Fairlight sound. That’s right in the Fairlight library. It’s in all of the productions Trevor Horn of The Buggles worked on including Frankie Goes to Hollywood. What’s the other thing that has that sound that Yes did?
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”?
Right! THAT’S a Fairlight! There are a lot of distinct sounds from the Fairlight but there’s a host of other strange sounds and had really cool electronic drum sounds.
You’ve written or showcased your music in a lot of television and movie projects like “Kablam!”, “Tiny Toon Adventures”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, “Home Movies”, “Austin Powers” and more. How did that all come about?
Each of those projects has their own answer so it’s not like this one strategy that has brought us to all of these different jobs. To some degree, we were available. Robert Krulwich who now does the program “Radiolab” used to be a correspondent at ABC TV and had heard about the band and knew we had worked with McSweeney’s on a project so he said he was doing a summer replacement series with Ted Koppel and I’ll get these guys because I know they can do fact-based songs so we’ll get them to explain some of the concepts in this science show that we’re doing and they’ll just write songs for this broadcast and it’d be a way to make an entertaining show out of what would otherwise be a little bit dense material for an audience. While doing that job, they asked us if we’d be interested in doing a faux-orchestral score for the program and the previous stuff they’d done like the ABC News theme was done by John Williams so it was a very established classic scoring work to do news program kind of scoring work so we did that on the side and the producers of the Daily Show heard the program while going through all the current news programs that had orchestral scores and they saw the They Might Be Giants had done it for this science program and it sounded like news music and “real” enough for them to consider since they thought we were an interesting band and that we were able to make this orchestral stuff so we’ll get them to make the fake news music for the Daily Show so that’s how we got that job.
What is the best gig you ever played?
We’ve had a lot of fun shows so I feel like half the shows of the past few weeks have been some of the most fun in our entire career. We’re working with this trumpet player Kurt Ramm who brings an extra dimension to what we’re doing which is very, very exciting.
What about the worst gig?
In terms of bad gigs, we did a terrible show in Calgary years ago where we basically ended up performing in the dark outside and we couldn’t even see the equipment and the equipment was all rented. We missed our soundcheck and as we got on stage, the temperature dropped precipitously about 15-20 degrees from 70 to 50 or maybe even lower. We also did another show in St. Louis around Mardi Gras time in the early spring and it was below freezing when we were playing on stage and we actually bought gloves and cut the tips off the fingers so we could play our instruments but not lose the feeling in our hands and that was kind of pointless. The strangest thing about it was we were playing outside and the dressing room was inside a VFW hall that had a full stage and would’ve easily accommodated all of the people who came to the show.
Hindsight is 20/20.
We were basically playing outside in incredible discomfort for no particular reason.
When did you know that you had made it?
My mom felt relieved when we got our first Grammy. I think that was a very legitimizing thing for her. It was something she could tell her friends about and that was good. We’ve achieved a lot of things over the years, but they have been slow in coming. We’ve had a very different kind of musical career than most.
They Might Be Giants has been Conan O’Brien’s musical guest more than any other band, correct? 14 Times?
Yes! I think we will go down in the history books as the Tony Randall of musical acts for Conan O’Brien.
Where did that friendship and fandom start and how did it evolve into you being asked back so many times?
We had been on the Letterman show as a sub band a few times; some very famous acts canceled last minute and we were just a subway ride away so there was already a notion that we were around and available if somebody canceled. In the early days of Letterman and Conan, the shows weren’t that highly regarded in the music industry to play, so what happened was, there would be big time acts scheduled, and if something came up, someone got a cold, had a conflict, etc. they’d cancel their appearance and we would end up subbing because we were cheap and cheerful and that just began the bookings that would end up being a regular part of our schedule.
Once upon a time, you guys created “Dial-A-Song” where anyone could call a phone number and hear your music on a message machine, a concept decades ahead of streaming music. What inspired the two of you to decide to do that on a whim and what made you reintroduce it into the modern age?
The initial thing was it was very low stakes; we didn’t have that much going on and we were generating a lot of home recordings that I think we wanted people to hear and that just seemed like a platform for people to be familiar with what we were doing. Also, we were already working in New York City and not just as a band but we had day jobs and I think we were kind of aware of the notion that not everybody interested in music would go out to night clubs. We started “Dial-A-Song” at a time when night life in New York was especially late. I believe the first couple of years we played we played WAY before midnight in any of the real clubs we were working at. If you had a regular job, you probably weren’t going out to clubs. In a way, “Dial-A-Song” was a way to reach regular people. It was really an experiment. We didn’t have any big goal in mind for what it was going to accomplish or where it was going to go. Ultimately, it became a much bigger deal than I think we ever dreamed it would be. Part of it was just the phone machine technology was an emerging thing and it was available. You could buy a phone machine which meant you could do it. Phone machines were brand new and were very much a New York phenomenon so we were just thinking what was possible with these phone machines. The reason we brought it back is because the nature of social media and the way people kind of consume music now recreating the illusion of hyperactivity seems like it was a way to hold people’s interests. It’s nice to have people be able to participate in this thing that we’re kind of notorious for, the fact that someone just discovering They Might Be Giants now can go to our Facebook page or go to Twitter and just see something that just got posted this week. There’s something exciting about that to keep the ball rolling.
What are the songwriting duties you and John have for the most part? Is there anything either of you specializes in, such as whether who does the lyrics or the instrumentation? Do either of you prefer writing verses, choruses or bridges?
John is the most inspired writer and has boundless energy for making stuff and extending ideas. We’ve always written songs apart, but we’ve also always collaborated. Sometimes it’s just handing off a lyric or a sample or a beat or a chord progression, sometimes it’s more of an experiment. There is a song on Dial-A-Song called “I Haven’t Been Right Yet” that is a good example of how circuitous it can get. John had put together a set of chords, essentially a kind of blues progression but in a microtonal scale that he had concocted on some tunable synths, and sampled them. I took the chords and repurposed it into a kind of swingy progression using the Ableton Push against a kind of cliché jazz ride pattern, and passed it back to him. It sounds very cool unto itself, but it wasn’t exactly a complete instrumental and it certainly wasn’t a song, but it was something kind of cool. I think three or four months went by, and I kind of figured it had just been shuffled away, but then he brought the track in and had written the vocal and clarinet thing straight over the audio I put together on Push. Marty [Beller] did a full-blown swinging drum thing and the song really became something quite complete.
Can you remember a specific, stand-out moment that inspired you to write a song and what song did that turn out to be?
John often just says “we make songs up” and I think there is a subtle truth in that. While the ideas in our songs are ours, they aren’t based on direct personal experience as much as taking a simple abstract idea and blowing it out. It seems like many of our songs start with a “kicker line” (as they say in Nashville) and that is the starter dough for a song–just a phrase that kind of wakes us up, or sets a vivid scene. I have written just driving in a car or riding on a bike. For many years I would go to my studio, set up, walk out to grab a cup of coffee, then have an idea for a song on my way back, start singing it to myself and then run into a friend, I’d be forced to say “I can’t talk now because I’m going to forget this idea in my head” and nervously run away. It makes a weird impression. Having a smartphone has helped me a lot in recent years.
Do you have any stories or anecdotes about going to Sam Ash Music?
Oh sure! We bought the most “white elephant” keyboards probably ever created there. I’m sure many of the people reading this are familiar with the Akai MPC 60. Akai made a version of the MPC in a keyboard form that seemed like it was 4 or 5 feet long and weighed 80 pounds. It was a complete “white elephant”; nobody wanted it. When we started, we took full advantage of all the Sam Ash Music Super Sales and we both got Akai S1000KB keyboards. They’re very, very strange but the main thing was that they were almost impossible to move, but they had great sounds and a full-sized keyboard so it was practical and we got them for almost nothing. We also got a very cheap version of the Yamaha DX7 called the TX-81Z that many of the bass sounds on our album “Flood” were generated on. We bought a Casio FZ-1 which was a great prosumer sampler that you could very easily make samples of yourself with, and that was just fantastic; on the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” every sound on the recording save for the vocals, violin and trumpet, was sampled on the FZ-1. Of course, I’ve bought many guitars at Sam Ash. I bought a Japanese Telecaster in the 80s which was the first real guitar I ever had. I remember buying it with my first royalty check. We got a publishing royalty check and I thought, “This is great! I can get a real guitar!”
What does you gear set up consist of in the studio compared to your touring rig?
They are completely different, although I often wish I had my live rig in the studio and at my project studio as it’s the setup with the fullest tone. I only play one guitar on stage and that is a Fender Custom Shop Tele made for me by Dennis Galuszka. I purchased a Matchless DC-30 about 20 years ago for what seemed like a small fortune, but it has been around the world a few times and has never failed. I needed something with a strong gain set up, but not for a heavy metal effect. I have a small set of pedals that I leave on all the time, set to extremely low settings just to sweeten things. A Strymon Flint reverb and tremolo, a Walrus Audio Julia chorus, and a ZVex Effects Box of Rock as a boost. I happily endorse all of them as reliable, even on stages with the dirtiest power. I recently got the Boss VB-2W Vibrato Waza Craft which I am in love with. I had one through the 90s but lost it when our whole truck of gear was stolen. The pedal had been discontinued so quickly, I never could find a replacement. On its own, it’s really a dumb pitch wiggling “gawah-ah-wah-ah” sound, but when everything is really cranked up it adds a certain kind of mania that I really love. It’s like driving a car, smashing into one side of the guard rails, and then crossing the road to hit the other side of guard rails.
What is your practice regimen, if you have one? How do you keep yourself focused to get better?
Well, the biggest challenge is keeping my scene together vocally on tour. With the amount of legit singing combined with screaming I do, I needed to find some strategies. I do a half hour of vocal warm-up before the show and have even gotten into doing warm downs, which has to be the most tedious thing ever conceived of for my bandmates to endure, even if it’s through a door.
Other than that, does TMBG have any pre-show rituals?
There are a few fist bumps but nothing too elaborate.
Very few bands that started around the same time you did are still around today. If they are, they don’t tour, perform, or put out music as frequently as They Might Be Giants do. What do you think is a reason for the relevance and longevity of your band, both internally and externally?
That is a very kind thing to say. There are probably about a dozen factors of about equal value that completely play into it. Having artistic ambitions greater than our professional ambitions, coffee, a great audience, some good luck but not too much, the same great people working behind the scenes on our behalf for 30 years, great musicians, not too many drinks or drugs, a public profile that doesn’t rely on being fashionable, a kind of square work ethic, an appreciation of melody, an appreciation of a tight show. Not being too afraid of being a little bit broke for a long time. But really the easiest way to keep going is to just keep going.
You and John Linnell seem to be able to play, or have at least utilized, every instrument under the sun. Of these, which is your favorite?
For me having the ability to program drums electronically is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I like experimenting with sounds, and love all the gear and gizmos, but just being able to play a keyboard or guitar against my own beats really opens everything up.
What music are you listening to that other people would be surprised you enjoy?
I really don’t know what would surprise people. I listen to a lot of Sondheim. These are the 20 most recent artists I have added to my Spotify: Moondog, P.P Arnold, Courtney Barnett, The Reigning Sound, Girlpool, JD McPherson, Robyn, Eric B. & Rakim, The Oblivians, Jeff Beck, Awkwafina, The Greyboy Allstars, Tracey Thorn, Swamp Dogg, Norma Fraser, The Kinks, Ida Maria, Lotte Lenya, Ohio Players, and Tweet.
Any advice for aspiring musicians you would like to pass on to others?
The most practical advice I would have for a touring musician would be to get a backup instrument and buy a Shure SM58 because the ones you’re going to be singing into are going to smell terrible. Even if it’s just a standard mic, it’s a great way to not only have a mic that is probably louder than the crappy mics they have but it’s like sharing a toothbrush; I hate singing into other people’s microphones. It’s too nasty.
If you could pick up an instrument tomorrow and be the best at it from note one, why would it be the Irish Penny Whistle?
BECAUSE the penny whistle is the PARTY STARTER.
Have you ever thought about adding more Johns to the band? In your opinion, how many Johns is too many Johns?
In the late 80s we had an all John road crew with John Gernand who now works at Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon, and John Hobbs who is an experimental musician in the UK. It was funny at first.
How would you define yourself in one word?
You can find more information about They Might Be Giants, their tour dates, “Dial-A-Song” and more at their website: https://www.theymightbegiants.com/
You can also find They Might Be Giants and John Flansburgh on social media:
Facebook: They Might Be Giants
Check out this playlist of songs mentioned in the article, along with other They Might Be Giants tracks to enjoy!