In a studio on the edge of Manhattan’s Garment District, John Linell and John Flansburgh are all ears as an onslaught of horns pour out of the speakers. The two friends behind perennial nerd-rock outfit They Might Be Giants tap their feet along to an unfinished track, “The Darlings of Lumber Land,” as does longtime producer Pat Dillett.
“That’s menacingly cartoony,” Flansburgh points out at a particular horn flare-up. The three start toying with and taking away audio tracks until they get the right arrangement for the song, which will most likely be on the group’s 16th studio album. The follow-up to 2011’s Join Us is set for release next year (a final track list and title have yet to be chosen).
After some subtractive mixing (as Linnell later describes the process), he and Flansburgh finally hear perfection in the slightly sparser section. Satisfied but with plenty more work ahead, Linnell and Flansburgh took some time to chat with Billboard about the challenges of working on the new album, the band’s ever-evolving songwriting style and a particularly gruesome pre-show accident.
Billboard: Do you see anything musically or lyrically that connects this collection of tracks?
Linell: Aside from the kids records that we’ve done, we’ve never had a thematic thing intentionally. The process of making the record is similar to the way we mix: we have more songs than we’re going to use, and we generally get rid of ones that seem redundant. With Join Us I think we had 30 tracks that we chose from.
Flansburgh: And we’ll probably have about 25 that we choose from this time. It makes it pretty malleable — you can really change the impression people are going get from the record by having that many songs to cull from.
What’s it like to be working on Album 16? Have you thought about it in the context of the previous 15?
Linell: I think we always, in the back of our minds, are trying to do something interesting. I feel personally like we don’t want to repeat ourselves, but as far as perception it would obviously be a bad thing if there was a sort of track-by-track comparison to the stuff we’ve done. I feel like we pulled it off with Join Us — it didn’t feel like anything we’d done up until then.
Flansburgh: We fooled a lot of people with that one.
Linell: It had a fresh quality. Every time we do that it’s a new challenge. Horrifyingly, there are no guarantees. No matter how many times we do it we have to pull it out and figure out a new thing to say. There isn’t some stylistic arc — it’s not like, ‘Oh now we’re entering our blue period.’ We never thought about it in those terms.
Flansburgh: I even think we think of it as–not to sound completely stoned–but I don’t think of it as a linear continuum: I feel like it’s music from planet They Might Be Giants. You know, here’s another installment of the thing. It’s not so much about topping ourselves–it’s just the additive process makes it feel a little bit richer and more its own thing. There is a very short song we’ve been working on recently — I think it’s probably 15 seconds long — called “Nouns,” and the refrain of the song is “We’re running out of nouns.” And I actually do feel like one of the curious things about having recorded approximately 300 songs, legitimately, then there’s 200 bastard children running around…
Linell: There’s like 700 songs on the site that tracks all our crap.
Flansburgh: If you call those songs. But there is this thing where you’re looking over your shoulder at your own body of work wondering how okay it is to just have another song with a bird in it.
Your songs often have these bizarre characters in them. What have you come up with for this record?
Linell: It’s funny, I don’t think of it as characters particularly. But I think it’s idea-driven. So maybe a better way of putting it is you wan to come up with a complete concept for a song each time. And it has this excitement, I think, to stepping outside something you’ve never done before.
Flansburgh: There’s a song about Tesla.
Linell: There is a song about Tesla, which is in the tradition of our biography material.
Flansburgh: We have some unreliable narrator songs.
Linell: We’ve certainly done those. I’m trying to think if there’s any real outlying type of material. We don’t have anything like, “this song’s actually an atom bomb, and not a song.” Because with Join Us there were a few, at press time we were like, ‘here’s a song that’s two songs played at the same time’–we did have that actually.
When you write songs together, how does that process go? Has it changed at all over the years?
Linell: I think we’ve added to the number of things we do. With the last album there were a number of cases where we were like, “Oh we’ve never tried this before,” and it was fruitful. And we’re still working in those departments.
Flansburgh: There’s the “You’re On Fire” song, there’s the “Nanobots” one, there’s “Dawn Divine,” with Mike Doughty. There’s a very sad ballad song called “Sometimes A Lonely Way” that’s incredibly austere and sad — that will probably surprise people, and suicide hotlines around the country will light up.
Linell: Are you going to try and address “Stalker In Reverse” before we finish this record?
Flansburgh: I don’t know. My list of songs missing a third verse is getting a little overwhelming. But I would like to finish this song.
Linell: There’s a bunch of tracks we’ve done where we need to finish the lyrics.
Are lyrics the most challenging part?
Linell: For me they are. If you don’t come up with the idea all at once, it can be a long laborious process to do something that you feel is satisfying lyrically. But occasionally that happens — like the idea comes 6 months later and you realize, “This is it.” But it can be a lot of work. Whereas for me, music is just playing. It is really just you’re in the play pen, the busy box, and it’s pure fun. If we only had to write music, someone else was giving us lyrics, that’d be the easiest gig in the world as far as I’m concerned.
You guys recently released a holiday-timed bundle of new merchandise, and it included some fliers that you guys used to hang up for your early shows. What was it like revisiting those? Did any shows jump out at you as particularly memorable?
Flansburgh: I remember lots of those shows, [and] at the time how serious it seemed. It seems really small-time now. One of the posters I believe is a show we did that was part of either the New Music Seminar or the CMJ — they sort of morphed from one to the other — but it was some sort of showcase at the height of the East Village scene at this place called 8BC, which was strategically located on 8th St. between Avenues B and C–which is a very good place to get mugged.
Linell: At the time. Now it’s a great place to get a mug [laughs].
Flansburgh: [laughs] Yes, of artisanal coffee — right. But I was putting the poster together at work and doing paste-ups. We worked with razor blades — this is pre-computer printing — and I actually cut one of my finger tips off with an exacto knife. Which, if you cut the tip of your finger off, it’s like some Will Ferrell skit of just blood going everywhere. I was surrounded by my co-workers, and I’m just like, “Ahhhhh what happened?!?” But we had the show two days later, or a day later, and it was so important that we do this show, that I actually got liquid skin — it’s basically like pouring crazy glue in an open wound — and then I hammered a thimble flat and then duct taped it to my finger so I had like a mini-slide on the end of my finger tip. And we just played the show that way. There was never a question in my mind that we were not going to do the show–it wasn’t like, “I’ve just cut of my finger tip, I guess I’m not doing the show.” Now, if I cut my finger tip off, I’d be like, “We will not be doing shows in the forseeable future.”
Did you discover anything new about They Might Be Giants while working on this record?
Flansburgh: I think our affinity for the bass clarinet, to be perfectly honest. There are more songs with bass clarinet on this album than any rock album made in the past 25 years.
Linell: In history! Our last album had one bass clarinet track, and that only whetted our appetite for more bass clarinet… I think there are three songs with bass clarinet on this album. Maybe more. Maybe we’ll be adding some bass clarinet overdubs.
Flansburgh: Yeah, and the album will be called Bass Clarinet [laughs].