To follow the career of They Might Be Giants is like watching a carnival ride that has no “off” switch. Brooklyn’s quirk-rock masters are seemingly immersed in a constant stream of projects and shows.
The year 2015 was a particularly busy time for the band.
They Might Be Giants held a weekly residency at Music Hall of Williamsburg, putting a unique spin on each gig. A show in early December featured John Flansburgh and John Linnell performing the way they did in the group’s early days, accompanied only by a drum machine.
The band also resuscitated its infamous Dial-A-Song series, this time using a website instead of an answering machine to unveil a new song every Tuesday. While many artists can take years to generate new material, “the two Johns” churned out fresh tunes on a weekly basis, a staggering testament to the duo’s prolific songwriting genius.
They Might Be Giants also put out two new albums this year, including its latest collection of songs aimed at kids, Why? Released in late November, Why? marks They Might Be Giants’ fourth children’s release, as the band’s inherent whimsy and innocence has seamlessly provided a new calling as an act that can wow the preschool set as well as adults.
While prepping with Linnell for a series of New Year’s shows in Brooklyn, Flansburgh took time to chat with me about the bustle of the past year, writing songs for kids, and the excitement of holiday concert gigs.
In early January, you’ll be wrapping up your year-long residency at Music Hall of Williamsburg. What was that experience like? It seems like the Brooklyn shows gave you a lot of flexibility to perform in a variety of ways.
It’s been a real roller coaster. We basically took on the residency with the notion that we’d be approaching the shows a different way every time. That has meant a lot of rehearsal, and learning new repertoire. We’ve done some full-album shows; we’ve done some shows with a three-piece horn section. We did a set with just the drum machine format that we first started out with. That was very much a time travel experiment. And so it takes a fair amount of prep to do it, and it’s kind of nerve wracking.
I don’t think fans always realize how much a band has to rehearse sometimes to play their own material competently, especially if you haven’t played certain songs in a while.
It’s a little strange, and slightly embarrasing, to play a song that’s really well known, and still not know how to do it. (Laughs) And when people are singing along with the words, and you realize that you might not know the words as well the people in the audience. But we have a large repertoire of material to do. It’s worth it in terms of keeping the show fresh, but it’s a continuous challenge to be prepared enough.
With something like the recent [drum machine] show, we basically had to go back to drum machine programming that we had done in the ’80s, and had to figure out how to revise it. And with every song, there were so many different kinds of decisions to be made, in terms of how true we wanted it to be to the original, or how much we wanted to make it over or have it sound more contemporary. Overall, we’ve done a lot of things this year that we never thought we’d be doing, so it’s been a year of challenges.
Is there anything unique planned for the New Year’s Eve show?
New Year’s Eve is kind of like “Miller time” for us. I think we’re going to play a lot of songs from the more recent albums, and old material, and just do a good, lively rock and roll show. And it’ll be very celebratory. We’ll probably play the Destiny’s Child cover that we did earlier this year. And the following night, we’ll be playing all of Flood, in addition to a set of other songs.
What’s the most bizarre New Year’s Eve memory that you can recall with the band?
We did a New Year’s Eve show at the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco in the mid-’90s, and we were on a platform raised above the crowd. We were at the height of some of the guitars that were hanging on the wall. I actually took my guitar cable, plugged them into some of the guitars on the wall, and played them! There was one that belonged to Danzig’s guitar player or something. It was very interesting and strange.
We’ve done a lot of fun New Year’s Eve shows. Sometimes we’ve played two New Year’s Eve shows in one night—we’ll do one after midnight, and the audience is so completely drunk. It’s just hilarious, the total revelry. New Year’s is a great time to play; it’s always fun to play for that spirited of a crowd.
You just released your most recent children’s album, Why?, which is terrific. In recent years, you’ve definitely forged an identity for yourselves as a band that makes great children’s music. I’m curious how much you and John compartmentalize it in your heads—do you draw a distinction between the kids version of They Might Be Giants, and the version for adults?
This year, when we were going at this Dial-A-Song thing head-on, a lot of the kids stuff just happened at the same time. The strange thing about They Might Be Giants is we’ve done music for an adult audience that sounds almost exactly like traditional children’s music, but it’s not really for children at all. Meanwhile, we’ve done kid’s music that doesn’t sound that different from psychedic rock, power pop or hard rock. There’s a lot of full-bloodied arrangement in what we’re doing. I’m not sure where the premise of doing quiet music for kids came from, because obviously kids like celebratory music as much as anybody, but that was really our focus, to do something that was interesting on its own terms and not think too much about what the existing “scene” for kids was. Any time we’ve checked out kid’s music, it always seemed kind of terrible.
Do you remember the type of music you were into as a kid?
I grew up with The Beatles, and with pop radio in the ’60s and ’70s, which was a very kid-friendly time for pop music. There wasn’t much going on in pop music that didn’t make sense to kids. There were very catchy songs, really catchy beats—in some ways, it seemed like pop music was aimed at kids. For me, my kid’s music was The Beatles and James Brown, The Supremes and Jackson Five. That stuff was very formative to me, on every level. It’s the reason I became a musician.
When you’re writing songs targeted for kids, do you draw inspiration from any children’s books, or TV shows?
Things like Dr. Seuss are interesting examples for us, because of the way he wrote. He very famously said that he wrote for himself, and the fact that it worked for kids was kind of incidental. I can’t say that the fact that I know kids are the audience doesn’t cross my mind when writing, but I think his books do a very good job of capturing something delightful that is worth trying to emulate in music. I think a lot of children’s music tends to be a little pedantic, like it tells kids what to do or how to behave or just giving them facts. To me, that’s always a little bit treacherous. It’s different when you’re a kid. Sometimes you don’t want your entertainment to make you a better person, you just want to be entertained.
Do you consider the Dial-A-Song revival a success?
Yeah, it’s been great. What I’m happiest about is that it’s given our current audience a chance to participate in the joyful hyperactivity of something like Dial-A-Song. We’ve done lots of different projects over the years that were like it. And as the history of the band goes on, people kind of refer to things, and we don’t want to be a nostalgia act. So, it’s nice to push things forward and have everybody get a chance to be in the moment of what we’re doing.
Just mapping it all out and getting all the songs together, it was insane. There were so many songs. But I feel it has a huge payoff. It’s very exciting. All musicians want to have their music heard, and this is a great way to have so many different kinds of songs get their day in the sun. Unlike putting out an album, where there’s a lead single, and then there’s these other songs in service to the record, with Dial-A-Song, all these songs get to be out for a week. That doesn’t seem like a big interval of time, but each song is the “song of the week” and that’s kind of nice. There are definitely some different kinds of songs getting heard more than if they were album cuts.
True. You could never release a 52-song album, but Dial-A-Song gives you the freedom to get those songs heard. And I feel it matches the way the modern generation listens to music. Most people are downloading or listening to single tracks on their phone and don’t always listen to albums in their entirety anymore.
Exactly. And it’s nice to be in people’s social media lives. People look every Tuesday morning for a new They Might Be Giants song, and it becomes part of their schedule and their world. Social media has really changed the way that people discover songs, and I feel Dial-A-Song just gives us another crack at it.
This year was a busy one for They Might Be Giants. How do you possibly top it in 2016?
I think we’ll end up going in a completely different direction. I think we’ll probably make another record, but do it in secret and just have it emerge with a bunch of touring at some interval of time later. I don’t know—2016 might be sort of a silent year for us, while we toil away in our secret mountain laboratory.
They Might Be Giants performs on Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY. For more information, go to theymightbegiants.com.