The holidays are a particularly festive time for local fans of They Might Be Giants, as the quirky rock duo conducts its annual New Year’s Eve gigs in its home borough of Brooklyn.
After the hometown shows, John Flansburgh and John Linnell will ring in the new year with a whirlwind of activity. In addition to releasing new album, I Like Fun, on Jan. 19, They Might Be Giants will launch a 50-city U.S. tour that month, then head to other parts of the world.
The 15-track I Like Fun was created with Flansburgh and Linnell’s longtime live band of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Bellerand, and recorded at New York City’s new Reservoir Studios, formerly Skyline Studios, where the group recorded its signature 1990 release, Flood.
The band will also revive its popular Dial-A-Song service next year, releasing new music each week through a toll-free number (1-844-387-6962) and the band’s website.
Dial-A-Song originated in 1983 using the group’s answering machine, as Flansburgh and Linnell would record a new song on the outgoing message and change it daily, a project that fostered hundreds of songs over the years.
I recently chatted with Flansburgh by phone to get the latest details on the band’s activities, reflections on the band’s career, and his hope for future projects.
Your New Year’s shows in Brooklyn are coming up, and these gigs have become an annual tradition for the band. Do you have anything special planned for this year’s shows?
We’re working on a new show for the tour, and we’re looking at a lot of different repertoire from the past. We’ve enlisted Curt Ramm, who’s been playing trumpet with Bruce Springsteen for a while, and has also worked with Nile Rogers for a long time. He’s a ringer. We’ve played with him periodically in New York, and he’d always come in to solo on like four or five songs and kind of blew the room away. We always thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a show with Curt to show people what’s possible?” So, we’ve been kind of building a bit of the show around him, and that will really start with the New Year’s shows.
We’re doing a song from very early on called, “Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal,” that was the B-side of “Don’t Let’s Start,” and it’s a completely ripping song. We’ve done it with horns and it seems like the horns really made it a showstopper, so having Curt on board, we can do that. It just kind of expands what’s possible. We’ll have a six-piece band, so it’ll be quite the celebration.
How much new material will you add to your set list before the record comes out?
We have everything in doable doses. We’re rehearsing a lot of the new material, but I think we’ll roll it out slowly as time goes on and keep it tolerable for the back row. At any one show, there are different kinds of people. There are people in the front row who are up for anything, the people in the back who definitely want to hear the favorites, and our aim is to satisfy everybody, including ourselves. I think it’s got to be a musical challenge for us.
Let’s talk about the new album. I enjoy the title, because it seems like this is a really depressing time in America right now, and we could all use a little fun. How long did the recording process take?
We’d been really sequestered in the studio for about a year and a half. We got off the road in the spring of 2016 and pretty soon afterward, we started writing new material. We started recording it in the fall of 2016, and were in and out of the studio for a little bit over a year. We really had a big stack of material, and the record was culled from quite a few tracks, mostly for variety. There’s a lot of different kinds of songs on the record. It’s a strange process because we’re involved in these all-you-can-write marathons with the Dial-A-Song project and the album projects that we’re doing, so there’s a lot of work.
How many songs have you prepared for Dial-A-Song in 2018?
We’re putting this album out simultaneously and songs on this will be featured on Dial-A-Song for first three months of the year. I think we’ve probably banked about another 20 songs right now, so we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got stuff done until September. We have some time off in the summer from touring, so we can catch up then.
Back in the early days of Dial-A-Song, you were kind of foreshadowing how artists would one day share their music through other forums. Rather than fans hearing a full album right now, they tend to hear individual songs on the Internet and social media.
It definitely helped us adjust our head space to a lot of things. I remember when the whole Napster event happened, it seemed like a lot of people on the record business side of things took issue with the idea of something being free, which was paradoxical to me because the radio is free, and the radio was the number one way that people used to find out about music. That was an idea that we were already fully acclimated to. We had already found our audience kind of on our own through this freeware device we had created with a phone machine. So, it was not a big adjustment for us.
They Might Be Giants have now been touring for decades. How has the concert experience changed for you over the years?
I think we’ve enjoyed a lot of different experiences. We weren’t really natural performers when we first started. We got more comfortable in our own skin over the years. I remember both of us losing our voices early on and not really understanding why, and it was really just nerves. Playing in front of crowds was just really nerve-wracking.
When we started, there were no barricades at shows, and there was a tremendous amount of dancing and moshing. As a band, you sort of became aware of the audience as a living organism — how much oxygen are you gonna feed this fire in front of you, and not accidentally get your band knocked over? Sometimes it was out of our control, but sometimes you could contour what was happening.
I think one of the unintended consequences of introducing gigantic metal barricades and the stagediving ritual almost weaponizing the idea of moshing at shows, is it made the stage a safe zone that was separate from people. But the thing that was sad about it is, one of the coolest things about doing a club show is you’re right next to someone in the audience. They’re having a very intense, personal musical experience. Not to sound like some old hippie, but there’s something very real about that sort of direct communication. And the whole barricade routine, and security guards who seemed like they’d been rented out from the World Wrestling Federation, just made for a hostile work environment. Even now, decades after grunge has blown over completely, we’ll still go into places and they’ll still insist on having a barrier. Can’t we just take down the moat between us and the audience?
You and John Linnell are incredibly prolific songwriters and churn out original material on a routine basis. You’re like this geyser spewing out songs. Do you ever suffer from bouts of writer’s block?
We definitely have extended periods of writer’s block. It’s hard to say when it works, or why it works. I think one of the things about the way we record is, we don’t try to second-guess too much, or don’t push things that aren’t working too hard.
On the practical side of things, we’ve done incidental music for television, which is a very unglamorous kind of gig. One of the things you learn when you’re doing it is, you come up with strategies to create things that sound relatively finished extremely quickly. And just having toiled in that world after having been recording artists for a decade before, suddenly realizing we don’t have to finish the project this month, we have to finish the project this afternoon! So, that was a real eye-opener to us. But in terms of inspiration, it’s a lot more abstract.
Is there one type of project the band hasn’t tackled yet that you’d really like to get involved in?
There’s a ton of projects we would want to be involved with. I think it would be a real technical challenge to work on a Pixar movie. With the right project, I think it would a very natural fit and we could do some very good work for them.
We actually have a song in this new SpongeBob SquarePants musical, which is premiering on Broadway. From what I’ve heard from multiple sources, our song is kind of like the showstopper — which is, to paraphrase my mother-in-law, a “delicious place to be.”
But I’ll be honest with you, I Iike making rock music. Even in 2017, when making albums seems like this completely archaic, self-imposed duty, I think albums are great, and I think there’s something about the album experience that is kind of mind-expanding. It’s a really successful vehicle for music, and I don’t feel limited by it. I think making an album is like an open invitation to do something good, and I hope we keep on making them.
They Might Be Giants perform on Dec. 30 and 31 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY.