In spite of their unorthodox sound and nerdy science- and history-based lyrics, They Might Be Giants managed chart toppers and radio play with the best of them. And they've been at it, fresh and inspired, for a quarter century. "I think most things that have been around for 25 years tend to have this safe quality to them. They were probably already slick in the first place," says John Flansburgh, one of two Johns that founded the band in 1982. "The most interesting stuff from our culture doesn't usually stick around that long."
Backed by a drum machine, with Flansburgh on guitar duties and John Linnell manning the accordion and sax, TMBG got their start in New York City. These days, a full band takes the stage and turns out songs from 11 made-for-adults studio albums, but it's not a "best of" show. The ever-striving John and John released The Else in July, which was produced by the Dust Brothers (known for their work with The Beastie Boys and Beck). "We didn't know which way of working would be the most constructive," says Flansburgh. "But it seemed like experimenting with every way we could think of would be a good start."
Flansburgh thanks Lady Luck for keeping TMBG together and making new fans every year. No matter the reason (not to put too fine a point on it), we sure are glad she has.
What's the best line you ever wrote?
Oh, I don't know. That's not for me to say. Songs affect people so differently. What people want out of songs is so different from one person to another, in a way, I don't even want to spoil the effect. Even just declaring what your intentions are can diminish how people experience what you do. We want to just let the mystery be.
How do you stay in a band for 25 years?
It's gone by very quickly. It's been very eventful and very challenging and thrilling, but it's never felt disappointing. We've just been very lucky. That's the key. A lot of people in bands want to stay in their band, but the fates do not allow it. I guess it's just been our good fortune. We've always had some bit of modest success that's helped us move forward.
How have you grown as songwriters and musicians?
We're much better musicians now. That's the good news. There's something curious about what we're doing. There are a lot of things that are very unusual that don't get a lot of cultural hang time. You can see it now, but it won't be around later. What I appreciated about what we do, especially in the live stage show, is that it is an unusual band, and yet we've been able to work at our craft as performers long enough that we can present it in a really full-blooded way. I'm glad that we've been able to foist our obsessions on the world.
Any songs you're sick of playing?
The ones we don't play we're probably more sick of than the ones we do. There aren't too many songs that have been fully quarantined. There are songs that we don't really need to play for practice—the most popular songs of ours we know too well. When it comes time to play those songs in a show, the audience response is inevitably so powerful that it lifts your energy up to do it.
I actually saw The Rolling Stones performing "Satisfaction" at the Super Bowl. And I thought, "It must be so curious for them to be doing this song that's just so far on the horizon line from where they are now." They probably feel the same way. I'm glad we have brand-new songs that people are as excited to hear. We're in a cool place.
You have a lot of fans who've been with you since the beginning, right?
I don't know. There are a lot of people in their early 20s. As far as I can tell, we started making albums when those people were newborns. It would be nice to see some of our original fans in the audience, but I think they've got other things to do. They probably have to get up really early in the morning.
How have you adapted your live show to deal with different audiences?
It's definitely evolved. When we first started playing in New York, we played in a lot of art spaces where the audiences were a little bit older than us. As a performer, that's kind of a challenge. When you're playing for a group of people older than you, you never feel certain you're convincing them.
Do you write lyrics independently of each other?
We're both songwriters and we collaborate on this project on different levels. That's one of the things about being a songwriter: There is this problem that doing the same things over and over the same way doesn't necessarily yield better results. You kind of reinvent the process as you go. Sometimes you do things in very far-flung ways. You'll write an entire lyric without any music, or you'll finish a song without any lyric involved. That's just the way it works. It's an open assignment.