Hard to believe that it's been over three decades since John Flansburgh and John Linnell first started playing music as They Might Be Giants. What started as two nerds and a drum machine has slowly evolved into a multi-media company with two distinct divisions: indie rock and children's music.
Speaking from his apartment in Brooklyn and in anticipation for tonight's show at the House of Blues, Flansburgh spoke with DC9 about his memories of Dallas and how his band has managed to survive the changing tides of the music industry by embracing technology and never standing pat.
What memories do you have about your many trips to Dallas?
The fifth floor museum will always stick out. That place is so visceral. The sheer physicality about it tells a story.
Did you ever get to talk to some of the conspiracy nut jobs that hang out there?
No, I didn't. I can imagine that it's a constant drumbeat. Isn't it weird enough?
Wouldn't that be good fodder for a They Might Be Giants song?
It could be, and then we would have those kinds of people hanging outside our apartments, people hanging out handing out leaflets. We don't need any more of those.
Your band has been together over thirty years. What has been the biggest change in the music industry?
A lot of things haven't changed. I think we are really excited about our new project [Nanobots] and that we have found the audience that we have. It is a challenge to keep it fresh and to keep on evolving. It is important to us that what we are doing gets good notices. There's a bar that we have to reach every time we do something. Sometimes, it's easier to reach that bar than others. This album, I still think we are on a roll from the last one, Join Us. We're just kind of rolling with the good times.
Weren't you the first band to release an album in MP3 format? [1999's Long Tall Weekend]
I think that is true. That was a crazy, dot com moment where money was around like plastic bags in a McDonald's parking lot. It was very easy to say yes. We just did it. The truth is that we are always interested in having people hear our music. By keeping up with emerging technology, that's a good way to get noticed. They just put out an iPhone app on iTunes. It's a really cool device that is simple and beautiful. It's a way for people to hear our songs. We are not on the radio. We are not particularly high profile. We are not notorious. We just have to find an angle. Having simple, interesting new ways of listening to our music is the best gimmick for us.
You walk the line between children's and adult music. You've had a lot of success with kid's music. Is there the temptation to keep with that genre?
Playing for adults is a much more dynamic and challenging thing for us. It's really fun playing live shows even in the dingiest club. Playing for kids is a challenge, but it feels a little futile. My respect for school teachers has really grown having done a bunch of shows for kids. Kids are a really difficult audience. I wish playing for kids was as interesting as writing for kids. Writing for kids is a great, open-ended assignment. Playing for kids, after years of playing for rock audiences where you are the main event, you come to realize that the balloon in their hand is the main event. You are a distraction. It hurts my sense of ego.
My daughter really liked the children's album No. One of the reasons was that she felt that the songs were talking down to children.
I think that is part of what works about our kids stuff is it's about the world of imagination. It doesn't have that namby-pamby, quiet thing that a lot of kid's stuff has. I'm not sure if the soft thing is just easier on the parents or what.
We need Motorhead to make a kid's album.
I think every Motorhead album is a kid's record.
After the release of Apollo 18 in 1992, you decided to move from being a duo to having a full band. Why change at that time?
We had done a lot of touring and we wanted a way to make the show more spontaneous and flexible. That's why we started working with live musicians. It was an experiment, but it worked. A lot of times, we were not sure how things were going to go. And we have made our fair share of mistakes over the years. Working with a band has turned out kind of great. There is more going on sonically and the musicianship is higher. It's just more fun. There is this social component to it. We get to share our misery.
But with a full band, are there more mistakes that can be made?
Well, no one is keeping count. The truth is that we are just tumbling through this world. There are a lot of mistakes being made. Sometimes, entire shows are mistakes. We have a huge repertoire with the band that we can draw on. That makes doing a totally different show every night very easy. It's important to keep it interesting for yourself. I think audiences can tell if you've done too many shows or too many sets. A lot of bands try to cook up the perfect set and they stick to it. They don't understand that you have to keep it fresh.
Much of your music has been used in Television and in film. Many people have heard of the band via theme songs such as for the show Malcolm in the Middle. What about your music appeals to producers of shows and films?
I'm not sure I can answer that. We got the Malcolm thing through a cold call. The producer of the show called up our management and asked if we would be willing to do it. At that moment, we were feeling especially broke, so it was easy to say yes. Some of the television jobs come from getting a Grammy. I think some people wanted us to do television work, but they couldn't get approval from their boss. We were considered too left field. But from the moment we won a Grammy, it's been easier; we've become an easier sell in the inner office politics of television studios.
You've won two Grammies and you've had an album [Flood] go platinum. Not a lot of artists can say that.
And yet people still don't know we're famous.
They Might Be Giants perform with Moon Hooch tonight, March 12, at the House of Blues