River Journal Interview: They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants (TMBG) is a Grammy-winning band known for their unique alt-rock, indie and pop sound. They’ve recorded 23 studio albums, writing for TV, movies, and musicals, earning fans worldwide.

Formed in 1982 by John Linnell and John Flansburgh (“The Johns”), TMBG gained fame with hits like “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Ana Ng.” Their 1990 album, Flood, went platinum and features beloved tunes including “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”

TMBG is set to headline the Pleasantville Music Festival on July 8 in Pleasantville, NY. This legendary Brooklyn band will bring their distinctive song craft and tons of fun to Westchester!

In a recent interview, co-founder John Flansburgh shared insights into the band’s history and plans for the festival.

Elisa Zuckerberg: TMBG was formed in ‘82, 41 years ago. Did you and John Linnell hang out in high school?

John Flansburgh: Yeah. John and I both worked on the school paper together.

EZ: Were you writing songs then?

JF: Not really. John was in a high school cover band, and I was doing other things. I was exploring with feedback and sound pieces—sort of a 15 year old’s interpretation of a Brian Eno ambient music record.

EZ: Were you guys science nerds?

JF: No, we were rock nerds. We were really into rock music. It was really a lot of our cultural life. I had a fake I.D. and would go to rock clubs in Boston with friends Jimmy and John. We would see shows at The Rat. We actually saw The Cars’ second show ever. It was really interesting seeing a band that would go on to be so huge in such an embryonic state.

EZ: I’d like to talk about your recent project, BOOK.

JF: It’s a really cool project, just in and of itself. John and I collaborated with Paul Sahre, who’s our long-term designer. All the lyrics were typed up on a 1973 IBM Electric typewriter. Not too different than what Jack Nicholson was using in “The Shining” —an interesting object.

EZ: Are you going to play any new songs at the Pleasantville Music Festival?

JF: Not to give too much away, but we often start the show with “Synopsis for Latecomers,” which is the first song off the album. And it’s a really good show opener. We’re headlining the festival and will be on stage for an hour. We’ve gotta cram in a lot of those 40 years.

EZ: Your iconic 1990 album, Flood, was your best-selling album and an audience favorite, but you released 15 albums after that. How do you find the balance between playing audience favorites and also playing new stuff?

JF: Well, I think it’s very possible that there are people within our audience who would like us to simply just play Flood, but the truth is that there’s a real percentage of our audience that has been with the band for a long time and has tracked everything we’ve done. And there’s a whole set of songs before Flood and after Flood that they’re just as interested in. One nice thing about being in a band this long is it’s not hard putting a show together.

EZ: In the band’s earlier years, did you ever play covers?

JF: When we started touring, we did a show in Norfolk, Virginia, where we were contractually obliged to play two hours of non-repeating music. That was where we learned the covers. Two of the most successful covers that we do includes the song “Istanbul,” a song from the fifties although it was our intention to just do original songs.

EZ: I understand that “Particle Man,” a kid’s favorite, was written way before you started writing children’s music. You later wrote albums that were bestsellers for kids. Was writing children’s music just by chance or was that intentional?

JF: John and I got off of Elektra (Records) after 10 years and were immediately inundated with a lot of different offers. We started writing music for television and doing theme songs including one for the Austin Powers movie. One of the invitations was from the people at Rounder Records who were doing kid’s stuff. They said, if you’re interested in doing a one-off kid’s album, we would love to put it out. We poured a lot of our imagination into making this this first kid’s record, which is called “No”. I’m very proud of that one.

EZ: I would suspect that writing for kids, and at the same time their parents, you’ve broadened your audience.

JF: I don’t want to come across as like some super calculating marketing person, but right, it certainly does. We have tons of people coming out to our shows who’ve literally been listening to our music since they were five, and now they’re just full-blown adults.

EZ: Your seventh studio album released in 1999 called “Long Tall Weekend” was exclusively digitally. You embraced this format early. What are your thoughts about the recent popularity of vinyl?

JF: The vinyl thing is fascinating to me because it’s really turned into a cottage industry for us. I guess about five years ago we started seeing a steady spike in the amount of vinyl that we were selling. And so we’ve reissued or issued for the first time things on vinyl from our catalog.

EZ: When I asked Bruce Figler, The Pleasantville Music Festival’s Executive Director to share his thoughts with you about the upcoming event he said, “They should expect fun and enthusiastic crowd. They should expect people singing with them, and it will be a chill, fun evening in the shadows of their hometown.” Bruce lives in Pleasantville and said that “over the years, many Brooklynites moved up to Pleasantville and all of Westchester. Therefore, you might be running across some old friends.”

JF: Oh yeah, a drummer we worked with years ago is coming out and Metro North comes right through there so it’s a very easy commute for New Yorkers.

EZ: I asked Bruce if you would be playing as a duo or a band and he said that you’re actually bringing in a whole band and horns?

JF: Oh, yeah. It’s an eight-piece band. It will be a big night of music!

EZ: Lastly, are you bringing your custom iconic Chessmaker guitar to Pleasantville?

JF: I am not. It resides in my apartment in New York City. I do play it on a regular basis, but my guitar tech finds that it is not stable enough in the tuning department. It always makes a big splash whenever I play it cause it’s a crazy looking instrument. But it also has to work.

EZ: I can’t wait to see you guys play at the festival on July 8. It is going to be a lot of fun!

JF: Thank you so much. This was fun.

To hear or read the full interview for the link to HearItThere.com (embed https://hearitthere.com/hit-blog/ )

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About the Author: Elisa Zuckerberg