Loyal fans trail them from show to show like a comet's tail, and TMBG reciprocates the goodwill in 2011 with their first full studio release (geared toward an adult audience) since 2007. We spoke with John Flansburgh, who along with John Linnell, makes up half of TMBG. Among the topics, Jon Stewart, playing for kids vs. adults, and how a weird town name in New York state became a song.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): I'm going to bounce all over the boards, so forgive me. It was difficult, because you have so much material. Is there a Morse code in "Pencil Rain"?
John Flansburgh: There's Morse code in "Pencil Rain," yes.
Songfacts: There is? Ooo. Can you tell me what it says, or is that a secret?
John: Well, if you know Morse code you can figure it out. (laughing) I'm actually not sure what it says. I forget what it says. It was recorded a long time ago.
Songfacts: Somebody said it says something in Spanish. Yeah, I know it was a long time ago.
John: As if it's not difficult enough to be in Morse code, I don't think it's in Spanish. (laughing) But I really can't remember.
Songfacts: Let's talk about "Dr. Worm." I know that's not on a children's album, and I want to know who is Dr. Worm and where in the world did that come from?
Songfacts: Okay. Who is "Hot Cha"?
John: There's an old Parker Brothers racehorse game called Derby Day. It's like the people that made Monopoly sort of failed in an attempt at doing a race game with dice. And there's six horses and one of them is actually named Hot Cha. And I don't think as a kid I even knew what Hot Cha was. It's basically just a jazz expression. So it's like a horse name - you know the way when you're watching the Kentucky Derby, all the horses have names that aren't names? Well, Hot Cha is the really typical horse name, because it's not really a name. And this is a game that we actually had at my grandparents' house. So the song has sort of got a prodigal son thing about it. Just thinking about families and so it was just part of my deep childhood background, and that was just the basis of it. On the surface it doesn't seem to make any sense. But it really is about sort of a character named Hot Cha and that image comes directly from my own family.
They know Jon Stewart of The Daily Show from his drink-slinging days at the bar where they used to play
John: I think it's about wandering kids in general. I mean, it really is a character song. But the detail was drawn from my own family. I mean, I think it's sort of a mystery song. Nobody in my family is that big a mystery.
Songfacts: (laughing) I think all of your songs are mysteries.
John: I'll take that as a compliment.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's original. You guys are one of the most original bands I have ever run across. "Four of Two," I want to know about why you took such a dark song and made it into a children's song.
John: Well, there's not a big difference between the way we approach the kids stuff and the adult stuff. Which is probably why those things appeal to people. We don't really second guess this stuff too much. I mean, basically, we take out the LSD imagery and the death imagery for the kids' stuff, but that could change.
Songfacts: So you've done that with more than just that song?
John: Well, we write a lot of different songs, and sometimes when the kids' stuff comes up they're a little bit on deadline. So we'll have some idea of the song kicking around that was originally written for adults and just sort of morph it.
Songfacts: Okay. And "Your Racist Friend," is that at all a true experience?
John: I think everybody in the world has had an experience kind of like that. It's really about the problem of just getting through the world and understanding how prejudice exists in the world. You can't confront every person who's making an ass of themselves. But there are times when you want to. So it's really about a subtler idea than over-the-top expressions of race hate. It's more just about the culture.
Songfacts: So it's not like you were actually at a party and you heard this and then went home and wrote this?
John: No, no. But I think anybody has had that - you go somewhere, you go to a dinner party, you go to a regular party, you go hang out with distant relatives, whatever, you're going to experience people making casual weird comments, unexamined comments that you wish they would examine. That's now the world we live in. And I think in a way the song's kind of just venting.
Songfacts: Perfect. I wanted to hit a couple of songs on the upcoming album. "Can't Keep Johnny Down," is that going to be a single?
John: By popular demand, it seems like it's going to be a single. We just thought it was a good track to put out in advance. But the response has been so strong it seems like it's going to kind of lead the charge for the record. We're actually going to make a video for it, so that's exciting.
Songfacts: I'm wondering about all the "dicks" in the song. Are you gonna have to bleep those out? (laughing)
John: Oh, I don't know. I don't think so. I think you can say that, can't you? We're not really up to date on what words you can say and can't say. But I think in 2011 that might not be considered an actual bona fide swear. Maybe it is, who knows?
They hate being described as "quirky"
John: Oh, we've never really done that many kids shows. I mean, we've only done a couple dozen. You know, we've done two thousand shows for adults, and only a couple of dozen of them have been for kids. It's hard to play for kids, they're a very strange audience. They're really into sensation. We definitely bumped up the amount of confetti in the show to keep the kids interested.
Songfacts: Adults like that, too. (laughing)
John: We love playing for adults. The amount of focus that adult audiences put on what you're doing is really exciting for a performer. It's very flattering. And I think doing kids' shows actually reminded us of how satisfying it is to play for adults, because they're really in it for the long haul. You can do stuff in a show and then call back something that happened 45 minutes earlier and people will just appreciate it even more. That doesn't really go that way with kids. (laughs)
John: It's a town in New York State. I want to say upstate New York, but everything's upstate for people who live in New York City. But yeah, Canajoharie is a town with an old Indian name. And I don't even think that is the proper pronunciation. There are a lot of towns in New York State that have these kind of mumbled up Indian names. But all these towns are super historic and have really big graveyards.
Songfacts: Is that what this is about, a graveyard?
John: Well, the graveyard sort of plays into it. All our songs have graveyards in them.
Songfacts: Okay. (laughing) There's a little clue that I hadn't known.
John: Right. Look for the graveyard, it's somewhere in verse 3.
Songfacts: Interesting. "Cloisonné," what is a Sleestak?
John: You know, I did not know what a Sleestak was until I met my wife, who does an imitation of a Sleestak, which is, I guess, a creature from a television program called Land of the Lost. I'm exactly too old to be familiar with the program, but it's the monsters in The Land of the Lost.
Songfacts: You need to see the Will Ferrell movie, then.
John: I'm sure there are Sleestaks in the Will Ferrell movie. It's like some kind of monster. I've never seen the Will Ferrell movie, I've never seen Land of the Lost, so even the character in the song is this very unreasonable guy who seems kind of out of it. I actually captured the out-of-it-ness from my own personal experience. Because it's such a weird thing - do you have any friends from the UK? Because becoming friends with people from the UK, they all know this program Dr. Who, like in this encyclopedic way. It would be like if Star Trek and Star Wars was combined, it's this incredible big deal for people from the UK, and they're constantly referencing things from Dr. Who that I have no idea what it is. But the way they reference it is so casual, it's not like they say, "Oh, it's like Uhura and the way she talks into the little teleporter thing." They don't even say what it's about. They just say the character's name. Like they would just be like, "That's like Uhura."
Songfacts: Right, it's like an inside thing.
John: Yeah, it's like an inside thing that everybody knows. And so that's kind of what that song, that reference is about. It's that weird thing - there are touchstones in the culture that are ubiquitous to some people that are actually complete mysteries to others. But Sleestak is so much fun to say. Capitalized, by the way. You gotta capitalize it. I don't know why, but that's what our copy editor says.
Songfacts: Tell me about "Never Knew Love," where's that coming from?
John: That's a collabo that John and I put together. I think the idea was to put together something that was split. Kind of the meat of the song is this very simple slow unwinding chorus with the phrase "never knew love like this before," and it's very pretty and kind of dreamy in an electronic kind of way. And then the verses are these raging rock moments and very dense with words and very dense with ideas. It's a lot of crazy, compressed thought in the verses. So it's like any kind of musical duet where the roles are really divvied up, like the part that I sing is very rapid fire. And I can't even explain the point of view in the lyrics, which is coming from a very odd place. But it is on the topic of new love, but it just makes it much more mysterious a topic than new love really is. I mean, the first verse is all about how it sort of makes love seem like it's mountain climbing or something, that it's like this crazy adventure that you might not survive. But that's the story with They Might Be Giants, making the clear and obvious difficult and incomprehensible.
John: Exactly, the beauty of They Might Be Giants. Adding a lot of confusion to common sense since 1982.
Songfacts: You're the first person I've talked to who's been on The Daily Show.
John: We were on The Daily Show September 10th, 2001. And we did the Millennium Show before we were guests on the show. We sort of became friends of the show early on and got called in to do a sound package of stuff. We had done all this kind of low-rent John Williams music for ABC Nightline, we'd done a bunch of orchestral type queues for Nightline. And the people at The Daily Show watch Nightline pretty religiously for various reasons. Just a lot of their tone choices are keyed into the way Nightline ran their show. And I think they were surprised to see us involved in the music part of things there. So they hired us to do a bunch of John Williams-like queues for them, and so we've done the sort of bombastic music on The Daily Show for years.
Songfacts: He was talking about how when you guys met, he was a bartender.
John: I think I was the one who brought that up. Just because it was so funny to me that he had evolved into being the guy that he is. When we first met him, he really was a bartender.
Until their fourth release, they toured with a backing tape in lieu of an actual band
John: Yeah, I mean, obviously he was a very smart bartender. But he was also a really appealing bartender. He was as much of an MTV VJ guy. He was this very handsome, smart, sharp young guy in that kind of smart alecky way that a cool guy could be.
Songfacts: So that's why you guys get along so well, because you're so cool.
John: Oh, you know, he's ten times cooler than we'll ever be.
Songfacts: They don't hold up "applause" signs do they? Or "laughter"?
John: All TV shows hold up "applause" signs. All TV shows have the guy that comes out at the beginning who says, "You know (whatever the name the host is), he always says it's all about the audience. You're a really important part of what makes the show special." All TV is the same. And you know what? All photographs and magazines have a little bit of air brushing these days. Too easy to do.
Songfacts: Have you ever been air brushed to the point where you don't recognize yourself?
John: Yes, a couple of years ago. I'm 50 years old. You can saw me in half and count the rings if you want, but I've lived every one of those 50 years. I'm not exactly proud of the enormous bags under my eyes, or my girth. But I'm happy, I'm content with who I am. And we got a bunch of photographs back from a photo shoot for some kids' things that we're doing. And I guess there's an emphasis on family entertainers being youthful. And I look like Joan Rivers' freaky cousin. (laughs) They'd given me this photographic facelift that was truly shocking. Half my head had been removed. It was very strange. But everybody else was happy with it, so I just grinned and waved it through.
Although, to be honest, I've never seen those reproduced. I think they were too weird for outlets. I think people saw them and said, "This doesn't look right."
Songfacts: Yes, let's segue into your tour. I want to know what you have against Phoenix? Why aren't you guys coming to Phoenix?
John: Um, uh… I have nothing against Phoenix. I have fond memories of Phoenix. I once hitchhiked through Phoenix and got picked up by a couple of local cops who put us up in their house.
Despite their successful children's CD Here Comes Science, they claim they don't know any more about the subject than the average member of their audience
John: No, no, not in the cop house. (laughing) We needed a place to stay, and it was like, "You can crash on our couch."
John: Super nice. And they were cops. (laughing) And I mean, think of the normal response of a cop to a hitchhiker. We were probably like two feet off the state highway, and they were cool with it. But only the first leg of the tour has been announced. That's not even half the shows. There's like a second leg and a third leg. We're going to be on the road for a long time.
We talked with John Flansburgh on April 23, 2011.
Visit their Web site, get turned on to everything TMBG, and order their new CD Join Us at theymightbegiants.com
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