They Might Be Giants Talk 20th Album 'I Like Fun' & Aspirations to Write for Pixar
They Might Be Giants, the Brooklyn-based duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, has had perhaps one of the most interesting, participatory careers in the music industry—they’ve dabbled in it all over the past three decades.
Including new LP I Like Fun, the band has 20 albums of alt-rock music under its belt, all while rebuffing the idea of “selling out.” They’ve recorded advertising themes, including 14 tunes for Dunkin' Donuts, as well as one-off soundtracks, including the theme from Malcolm in the Middle, “Boss of Me.” There was the Dial-A-Song series, in which magazine and newspaper ads encouraged listeners to call a phone number to hear music via an answering machine. And they've also released a series of children’s albums—Here Come the ABCs, Here Comes Science and the Grammy-winning 2008 release, Here Come the 123s. All have been certified gold; in all, the band has sold over four million records.
Known for crunchy power-pop and hooks, they employ all their earworm tricks on I Like Fun, from kazoos to zany cut-and-paste songwriting to R&B horns.
Billboard caught up with Flansburgh in early January to discuss the new LP, the ongoing Dial-A-Song project, the current music industry and more.
Hey John, how ya living?
I’m doing good, though I didn’t get much sleep last night. We played a show in Boston, then grabbed dinner, but then I had to drive our drummer back to Brooklyn at 11PM. It’s a five-hour drive and… it was not a good plan.
How were the holidays for you and your family?
I was with my mom. She hates my driving. I stressed her out a bit. But other than that, it was lovely.
Is your mom into music?
There was a small set of records that my mother would vacuum the house to when I was a kid. My dad was a big hi-fi enthusiast. So, we had a loud record player when I was a kid. She would jack up the stereo and vacuum. It was a specific set of records. Cabaret. Broadway. A few original soundtracks. Louis Armstrong’s record Hello, Dolly!, The Threepenny Opera. I put those on and she gets all warm and fuzzy.
Let’s talk about the new album. Why did you call it I Like Fun?
It’s a little bit paradoxical. I don’t want to say it’s ironic. There is a song on the record called “I Like Fun.” The song is more complicated than its title. In short, it seemed like a very odd way to put an optimistic message out. Everybody likes fun. But it’s a weird statement. It’s like, I like being happy. It raises as many questions as answers. There’s so much ominous material in the record, that I could see going in the completely opposite direction for the title.
The song “I Like Fun” is about being out of control and wanting to be out of control. Writing a song is a task in itself. You’re not thinking about how the song you’re putting together is going stack up with a bunch of other songs. Once they’re all together, they create a different shape. You realize that’s the zeitgeist of the project. These have been such strange days and we soon realized that this record is very much wrapped up in right now.
How do you approach making your 20th record?
Good question [laughs]. To be candid, songwriters know they have certain strengths and can venture away from those strengths. You want to go as far as you can, but still land the song. Subjectively, you know what a good song sounds like. You can pour a lot of quality ingredients into a song and still make a stock piece of music. It’s not good enough to just write another good song. You need to reinvent yourself. We’ve come to the realization that if we continue this exploration we can expand our base of what kind of songs we can succeed at writing. We’re pretty critical of ourselves and of one another. When you hear of a songwriter being prolific, you think they’re perhaps lazy in their assessment of their work. They think “That’s great! Everything we do is great!” But that’s not the way this band works. We’re pretty uptight about what we do. We need it to be good. We’re not that easily satisfied with our efforts.
The new single, “I Left My Body”—have you ever had an out of body experience?
I have not. I’ve been anesthetized a few times in my life. But I don’t think I’ve had an out of body experience. But that song stems from John Linnell. When he presented the song, it really reminded of a class I took in high school on Russian literature. There are a lot of parallels to that kind of writing. Even though it’s about a psychedelic experience, there’s something very earthbound about it. There are prosaic details in it that make the story seem richer as a song.
What’s your favorite song on the new LP?
I love the arrangement of the title track. There’s something weird about it. For people not familiar with a Mellotron, it’s the first iteration of a sampling device. It’s an octave and a half and each note plays its own discreet tape. You know, it’s the sound of the flutes in the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It’s a familiar sound. Rock stars in the late 1960s all bought Mellotrons and if you were ambitious about it, you could create your own library of sound samples. So on “I Like Fun," there’s a vocal Mellotron that’s a homemade vocal sample created by Jack Bruce of Cream.
Yeah! Jack Bruce made a simple set of sounds of him singing. So when you play a chord you have a choir of yourself playing these notes. The sampler is reanimating Jack Bruce. These sound libraries are all available online. It’s super weird. I was going thru these sound libraries and I was like, ‘Is this what I think it is? IT IS.’ I realize I’m getting lost in the weeds here. But… you actually hear that he uses a glockenspiel as a pitch reference. He hits the tone and sings, “ahhhhhhhhh.” I like the idea of Jack Bruce at home with a tape recorder and a glockenspiel, singing a scale, cutting up tape and feeding this contraption in his own personal bedroom. That's dedication.
Which song on the record was most difficult to write or record?
“All Time Flood” wasn’t necessarily hard to record, but it is an odd example of Frankenstein-ing two songs together. There was a completely different song called “Completelyer,” which is not a real word. But it had all the lyrics of the song. But it was not a great song. I liked the lyrics, but I didn’t like the way the song ended up. So, we scuttled it. We finished the track for the last album, Nanobots, but I was like, ‘This song isn’t as good as the lyrics. I want to hold on to it and write a better song to it.’ It’s a hard process to recast a melody to a lyric once it’s already been done. I’ve done it on more than one occasion. John Lennon gave songwriting advice once, ‘When you start writing a song, just try to finish as much of it as you can in the first go because it’ll all come easily and it’s so much harder to crack open again.’ That’s very good advice. The Malcolm in the Middle theme song was essentially a piece of a song that was deemed unfinishable because the 30 seconds that is the theme was the beginning of something we couldn’t take any further. Then when the idea of doing a TV theme came around, we decided to use that because we couldn’t figure out how to make it a full-length tune.
You’ve had incredible ownership of your career. What do you make of the current industry and streaming?
It’s a complicated environment. The music business is in a transitional time. But I’m more optimistic now that I was 10 years ago, when it seemed like everything was on fire and was being gutted. Audiences and musicians understand each other intrinsically. That’s the link that’s not going to be broken. But the radio is broken. The record business is broken. Music publishing is broken. The business side is a burning husk. But music is such an important part of people’s life that it will just endure. Musicians have good reason to be skeptical of streaming or of any reshuffling of the deck, because a new deal is usually worse than the last deal. But if streaming works it can stabilize the future of music. It’s providing what people want, the way they want it, in a way that can be monetized.
What are you obsessing over these days?
I just discovered the Gimlet Media podcasts. I also really like that Lizzo song “Good As Hell” [He breaks into song, singing, “I put my hair back…”]. It just puts me in the best mood imaginable. To have a song lift me up like that is just magnificent. It’s a feeling I’d like to revisit as often as possible.
What’s up with Dial-A-Song?
In 2018 we’re doing another Dial-A-Song. It’s going to be a huge year. We’re well on our way to having it put together. We’ll be on the road as we go, so we need to do a lot of prep work and homework. But we have enough songs in the bank to be pretty much good until August or September. That’s what we’ve been working on for almost the past two years, just banking up a huge pile of songs.
TMBG have done so much in music, from children’s LPs to soundtracks. What has been the most rewarding?
It’s all really fun and satisfying. It’s a great way to live your life. Writing songs is a reward in itself. Songs can travel so many different places. It’s nice to be able to have your songs land in different ways. We just contributed a song to the SpongeBob SquarePants musical called “I’m Not a Loser.” It’s written for one of the characters, so it’s a custom job. But the song itself is very simple. So when the people producing the musical got a hold of it, they turned this song into this enormous production number. It’s amazing how much more they added to it—orchestration, a tap dance routine. Even the staging for our song in the show is completely over the top. Seeing that evolution is very satisfying. So is having a song on TV. We did a Bob Mould composition for The Daily Show and it was on the air forever. It’s still on the air in a remixed form. And to hear our band rocking out to this Bob Mould song coming from TVs everywhere is just always a thrill.
What do you want to do in music that you haven’t?
I would like Lee Unkrich from Pixar to call us and say that he wants to collaborate with us on an animated film project. That’s exactly what I want to happen. So, Lee, if you’re out there and reading this article, call us. If you print this, I’m certain it will happen. I’ll give you a percentage. You name the restaurant—no limit!