In the lead up to their Australian tour, John Flansburgh—who co-formed They Might Be Giants in 1982—found some time to chat with Grok Magazine.
My alarm goes off at 6AM.
If I’m honest, I’m a little hungover, so I’m really questioning why I voluntarily made this interview so early. I wake up to a text message from John, who has sent me an AV Club article—an interview with TMBG from 2009.
The first sentence basically reads, in the 27 years they’ve been together they have done a shit ton of interviews; so, naturally, I begin to panic. And then I hit the snooze button.
They Might Be Giants have been around for a long time, so what can I possibly ask that you haven’t already heard a thousand times. You obviously get a lot of questions about the name.
I think that comes from newspaper writers, who are really hard-wired to do the “who, what, when, where”. It’s like, “this thing has a name, why does it have a name”. I totally understand why they ask, but it’s one of those things where, it just makes you feel like, you know, did they not invent the internet yet?[laughs].
It’s almost like you need a pre-recorded FAQ message before an interview.
FAQs could be good, but I think everyone wants the personal touch. But the other thing, that I don’t even think that article touches on is this new phenomenon, it’s this whole new thing of asking performers to write their own articles. Which leads to some very strange results … What’s the worst interview you’ve ever done?
I actually write about economics, so I’ve only done four interviews.
Oh really? What kind of economics?
I like to write about social economics.
So economics with a social justice perspective?
I was just recently explaining the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy. But I didn’t really understand it at all.
For an interview?
No I was just talking to somebody about the way governments work, and I think I sorted of conflated the two. Then I was corrected [laughs].
What is the weirdest question you’ve been asked?
[Laughs] Well, the “why are you still beating your wife” question is the one that really comes up, from people who are basically record reviewers, who have never gone to journalism school, or don’t really understand how to even frame a question. They don’t realise that they are baking in an assumption into the question that you might not agree with. Sometimes I find myself doing interviews where I’m basically walking back every single question, because everything they are saying is based on an assumption about our intentions. There is a really funny video, it’s actually with an Australian interviewer, where we’d clearly just gotten off the plane, and we kind of look like zombies or heroin addicts. John and I are just sort of sitting there, in this half REM sleep-state getting asked questions. And the interviewer clearly thinks we are a comedy act, and that, for some reason, that’s why we have become very successful. Which is kind of understandable but it’s also very limited. What’s strange is she asks the same question five different ways, which is “what are you going to do when you realise that this funny stuff you’re doing isn’t funny anymore”. And we’re just like, “Uh, lady, that’s not really what we’re doing”. We were very polite about it, but it’s just strange how much she drills down on this idea that someday the magic of our comedy is going to wear off.
Could you possibly have a doppelganger comedy act out there?
I think it’s just sort of evident that anything in rock music that doesn’t take itself deadly serious, runs the risk of being misunderstood on a pretty immediate level. Rock is such a strange enterprise. It’s very much like teenagers. Teenagers are very nervous about their identity, and they want their identity to be understood. It’s very important to be understood, and you want to be taken the right way. And I completely get that. Comedians are like that too. Speaking of comedians, I have friends who are comedians, and one of the things they talk about is when they have a show that goes over with the audience, but they feel like it’s not going over the right way. Which is really interesting, because I think musicians are just so attention happy, it’s just like, “You like me. You misunderstand me? No problem, that’s fine. Whatever works for you.” We’re a band and it’s easy to misunderstand where we’re coming from. The truth is we’re basically like art-rock guys, that do it with this dash of absurd humour in it. But we’re just as pretentious as any pretentious band out there … Have I answered your question?
I can’t even remember what it was any more.
Me too. I kind of rode it down a rabbit-hole there.
I enjoyed it. Do you still enjoy interviews, or do you go through phases with them?
By and large, we don’t do interviews with high school or college papers that much anymore. That’s usually where it gets the most squirrelly. We still do interviews on the radio, with like morning DJ guys, and that can be a little bit weird, because their sexual politics can get a little bit Cro-Magnon, and they’re very insistent that everybody be along for the ride. It’s not the place to have the conversation about third-wave feminism, but you kind of want to have it anyway.
Are there questions that you wish people would ask?
I think that context is the thing that makes you take it on more seriously or not. A lot of good interviewers ask very basic questions, and somehow, they manage to frame it in a way that makes it seem more vital, like there’s something more important about it. But you know, as long as I have a strong cup of coffee before I’m pretty well set.
I haven’t had any coffee.
I apologise. This is the beginning of the day for you.
Six-thirty—well, seven now.
Oh my god.
It’s okay, it’s a good way to start the day.
You’re in Perth right? Perth seems to have changed quite a bit. Isn’t there mining and all sorts of stuff happening on the outskirts of town?
Yeah, it’s definitely what we’re known for.
For our touring party, the Perth show is often the smallest venue of the tour, as well as the greatest distance. We’ll have like a tech person that says, “why are we doing this?“. But you can’t have an Australian tour and not do Perth. Coming to Perth, as we got on stage, the crowd was pounding the stage with their fists. It really felt like we were playing at San Quentin or something—it was very exciting, but also a little bit scary [laughs]. But it was a great show.
The great thing about Perth audiences, is when a band makes the effort to come here, people really do appreciate it. We get very excited.
We had a blast last time we came to Perth.
What aspects of touring have changed over the 30 or so years you’ve been doing it?
When we started, it was profoundly uncomfortable, in ways that were beyond belief. We would play six or seven shows a week, we would often have to drive extraordinary amounts during the day, and sleep on the floor of the van. But it didn’t matter, because we were such fine physical specimens that it didn’t really knock us back. But now we’re so fragile and old, even though we have a relatively pleasant touring experience, it’s like, just the show by itself is enough to wipe us out. Basically, we just dedicate our entire existence when we’re on the road to simply being ready for the show. Like, that’s the thing that you kind of learn over time, is that as much as you want to see the world and get out and about, just holding onto whatever physical and mental health you have is really a full-time job. The show is a couple of hours long, so I do vocal warm ups, which just seems like something an actor would do. It doesn’t feel like me at all, I don’t feel like I’m the kind of person who does vocal exercises, or even guitar warm ups. But I do all the stuff that people do, that I didn’t do twenty years ago. It feels like a life in the theatre.
They Might Be Giants will be in Perth on Wednesday 27 February 2019 as part of their Australian tour.
For more information and tickets head here.