They Might Be Giants:
nerdy by nature

An interview by Tom Knapp,
January 1996

Don't ask John Flansburgh where he and partner John Linnell come up with the quirky lyrics that made They Might Be Giants one of music's most famous obscure bands. "That's a question that's been stumping us for years," Flansburgh says. "Somehow, I feel like I've got to come up with a better answer than 'Gee, I'm not really sure.'"

He doesn't have one yet, but he takes a stab at it anyway. "A lot of times you come up with a phrase or a perspective on a character in a song, and you just try to amplify it," he explains. "There's this initial spark that you're not really sure where it comes from, and the rest of it is essentially process. It's the craft part of it, and it doesn't seem all that magical."

He's not happy with the explanation, so he falls back on standby: "It's basically pretty hard to say."

Of course, one shouldn't expect too much clear logic from the band whose landmark song, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," begins with the not-quite lucid refrain: "I'm your only friend, I'm not your only friend, but I'm a little glowing friend, but really I'm not actually your friend, but I am...."

They Might Be Giants has the image of an eccentric, somewhat nerdy band. But it's not an image the two Johns have tried to cultivate, Flansburgh insists -- their nerdiness comes honestly.

"I dress like my father. I couldn't fool anybody into thinking that I'm a cool dresser," he says. "It's a little weird, I'm in the same business that Prince is in. Sometimes I feel like I just can't compete. But you just work with what you got."

He doesn't really think of himself as a nerd. "I mean, I wash my hair," he says. "We're not trying to put over any image. ... It's just who we are as people. It would be really false to do something else."

To be honest, TMBG doesn't care much about image. "We're just not wrapped up enough in the whole rock star lifestyle," he adds. "I've been in enough hotel lobbies with rock bands to know what a life choice that is, when you dress the 'rock' way. But some people have got to be that way. They're caught up in expressing themselves that way. I'm not trying to judge them, but for me it would seem completely bogus."

While many of their tunes are pure whimsy -- "Particle Man," "Whistling in the Dark" and a cover of The Four Lads' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" -- others expose a serious vein. "Your Racist Friends," for instance, is a blatant pitch for tolerance, while "Lucky Ball & Chain" lightheartedly masks the poignancy of separation. "There aren't any hidden meetings," Flansburgh insists. "We're never willfully obscure."

On the other hand, he said, the band doesn't try to be funny, either. "We've never focused on the humor," he says. "I feel like this humorous element, the lighter spirit of the songs that we write, is really just a general reflection of our personalities. It's not like the band was designed to be a platform for this or that. It's always been about variety in general. I don't think we ever felt like there was a song that was too serious to be included in our repertoire. ... If we were just a band about gags, that would come up as a problem a lot more often. Ultimately, if it doesn't have a good melody we're not that interested. Whereas if it isn't funny, that really doesn't matter that much."

Variety is important, he says. "A lot of times you hear albums and it seems like the musicians are putting a harness over what they're doing because they're so afraid of being misunderstood. They say 'This is what I do' -- there are 10 songs and they're all in sort of the same vein. That's sort of depressing, that self-limitation."

The band's name was the title of a 1971 comedy starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. Flansburgh says neither he nor Linnell have any particular affinity for the film. "We liked the sound," he explains. "I think we liked the idea of how it would function as a band name more than anything else. It's not that we felt it was the most interesting set of words."

Call it a symptom of the '80s, he says. "It was at a time when bands were all called 'The Something.' That was the standard. And names like Liquid Liquid and Duran Duran were considered hip. The idea of a really long name ... it just appealed to us."

Truth be told, it was a choice made in ignorance. "Naming your band is the first thing you do. And it's the most uninformed thing a band ever does," he admits. "But we were at the beginning of the 'long and unwieldy band name' trend."

Flansburgh says the band's roots are in "that bedroom rock thing -- putting together songs for a very limited audience and never really worrying about where they were going to go. We worked that way for a number of years. And it's the spirit of that kind of music that we're trying to take to the stage."

That appeals to them more, he says, than music made "by committee ... fueled by beer in a garage. We wanted to do something a little more intense, and maybe capture something a little more personal." They Might Be Giants has been called an experimental band, but Flansburgh claims it's not really true. "I'm acquainted enough with stuff that really is experimental that I'd be just fooling myself not to 'fess up that I'm in a rock band. But within the realm of rock music, there's clearly good and bad. I like to think we're on the good side."

The two Johns met in the early '70s at the Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Massachusetts, where they worked on the school newspaper and drew comic strips together. Linnell was a musician, Flansburgh was not. "We were just pals," Flansburgh says. In 1981, both ended up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Flansburgh was attending art school and Linnell was trying to make it big with another band. They Might Be Giants was the unexpected result.

The band put out two independent albums -- their self-titled debut in 1986 and Lincoln in '88 -- before being signed by Elektra and releasing their biggest seller, Flood in 1990.

"I think in general, people sort of think of us like some kind of hyperactive project, but a lot of care goes into what we're doing," Flansburgh says. "It's not random at all. We're not trying to create noise."

Anyone who saw an early TMBG tour got an eyeful of the two Johns doing the duo thing. With the album John Henry, they started recording and touring with a larger band.

"It was something we just experimented with," Flansburgh explains. "There was no master plan to even stick with it. It's definitely more expensive to tour with the full band, it takes more planning and it requires that we get along with the people. ... But it feels really right. I can't imagine going back."

For their live shows, he wants people on the dance floor. "They need to strike that perfect balance between paying close attention and wild abandon."

[ by Tom Knapp ]