They Might Be Giants have all kinds of projects up their sleeves--they do just about everything, from kids' books and albums to collaborations with the guys who run the animated Web site Homestar Runner (homestarrunner.com), to The Future Soundtrack of America, a compilation organized by Flansburgh and released on Barsuk Records as a fund-raiser for grassroots political organization MoveOn.org (see "Rhythm and Views," page 66). John Flansburgh took a little time out of his busy schedule to talk to the Tucson Weekly over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tucson Weekly: So, The Spine is your 10th album, and it even says on the record that it's the 10th album; why such a focus on the 10th album?
John Flansburgh: Well, you know, when you're going along as a band, it's very easy to kind of lose focus of where you are. Your first album, your second album, your third album, everyone's kind of comparing them to each other and thinking about this thing and that thing, you know what I mean? It's like the artistic development of the band is really well-tracked in the beginning of your career, and then at a certain point, somewhere around year 15 and album seven, there's just a general tendency to go like, "Ah, it's just another album by those guys," and I think the fact that we've made 10 albums is something to be proud of, and to celebrate. I think we've dealt with our longevity in a kind of refreshingly non-neurotic way; we've never crashed into the side of the mountain; we've never imploded; we've never stopped and then started back up again. We've kind of just evolved and expanded as a band, and we've never really lost our focus about the kind of band we want to be. Basically, when I was sifting through our discography and trying to figure out what album this actually would be, what number it would be, I was happy to see that it would be our 10th album.
TW: You mentioned you think that you guys have maintained your longevity well. I agree, and I'm wondering how you think you have done that so well.
JF: I think not being self-satisfied is the key. It's a whole compilation of lucky things. ... I think the fact that our most hardcore audience, the front row at our shows, is actually very interested in the most adventurous stuff that we do, so that kind of gives us license to keep it moving. I think a lot of bands don't get that kind of encouragement from their fans; I think a lot of bands actually sort of suffer from audiences that are much more conservative than they are, and they want to hear the band doing their most essential thing. So I feel like we're lucky that the people who like They Might Be Giants ... are the most up for the more experimental stuff that we make.
For us, creatively, getting back to not being too self-satisfied, I think we feel like we still are getting better as songwriters and we're getting better as performers, and we still have a lot to prove to ourselves about what we're capable of, so I think we're kind of hungry for taking it to another level.
TW: How is it that you are constantly making songs that are consistently clever and catchy? I always imagined that there's some kind of secret recipe for a They Might Be Giants Song.
JF: Well, you take a half-pound of coffee. ... We don't write as much as you might think, and as we've gone on, I think we have raised the stakes in terms of what we want the songs to accomplish. But even from the very beginning, we really wanted to write songs that hold up to repeated listening. The thing about incorporating humor into music is that the power of humor really fades with repetition. It's just not that effective; it's really startling at first, and then the next time you hear it, it's not that interesting. I think that's why comedy albums don't do so well-- it's just not the kind of thing you want to hear over and over again. So I think, as we were making the transition from a live band to being a recording band, we realized that there were certain things we were doing in the show that weren't really transferable. And now that we've recorded a lot of songs, I think it's more important to us now that the songs that we put on our albums really are important songs.
In a way, we've found appropriate places for our more lighthearted efforts. ... We can make more stuff than we might want to put on a record, and it's nice to have the outlets for that other kind of material. We actually have an EP that just came out in tandem with The Spine called The Spine Surfs Alone that's basically a bunch of sick, macabre songs; they're pretty consistently dark, but they're really unimportant songs, for the most part. I think in some ways, a lot of them are great songs, and there's something about them that's super special, but I wouldn't want to read what a rock critic would say about them.
Then again, you know, it's so relative: How important is rock music to life? How important, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, how important is important in a pop song? It seems like the best pop songs are the ones that are just kind of carefree. I'm just glad that we have different avenues available to us to get our stuff into the world. Being able to give away MP3s and being able to have something like Dial-a-Song is a really liberating device for our creative impulses. It seems appropriate that if you just put together some crazy songs, you can just get them into the world without making people buy them. It's a neat way to keep it all going.
TW: I wanted to ask you about the Homestar Runner collaboration. How did that come about?
JF: It was very circuitous. ... A photograph was taken of me wearing a Homsar shirt, which is one of the more obscure characters in Homestar. I was at an in-store thing wearing this shirt and a fan had taken a photograph of me signing their book or whatever, and the photograph of me showed up in some blog, and somebody made them aware of it. They were like, "Hey look, they're wearing your shirt, you guys," and so they knew that we were fans. And I guess Linnell kind of reached out to them and said, "You know, if there's anything you want us to do, if you have any musical needs for your site or whatever, we'd be certainly happy to help you guys out," and they took us up on that offer. We did a bunch of things with them-- we did a jam session with the Homestar puppet, and they did this video for "Experimental Film"--and it's kind of a mutual admiration society. We really enjoy what they do.
TW: What are the guys behind Homestar Runner like?
JF: They're really like a lot of people who do creative stuff. ... They're totally nice guys; they're essentially normal people. In a lot of ways, their impulses really remind me of me and John when we started, which is that we were very excited by there being no context for what we were doing. ... I think they really enjoy their status as an Internet phenomenon. They're not owned by Fox; they're not beholden to MTV.
TW: I read in one of the interviews in the press kit that they did an "Experimental Film" video on their site, and you're doing a different one for MTV, because you were afraid that "if Homestar Runner and MTV collided, the world might explode."
JF: (Laughs) That is very true. Well, you know the Homestar video is getting played on MTV in England, so it is finding some legitimate video life. Although I can't imagine ... if you didn't know what Homestar Runner was, what it would it look like to you. It would probably seem like a dream.
TW: I also wanted to ask about the MoveOn.org compilation. What inspired you to put that together?
JF: I think, like a lot of people, I was spending more and more time watching the news and shaking my fists at the TV. ... I've done a lot of benefits for AIDS organizations, and a couple years ago, we contributed a track to the Harvey Milk School benefit, which is for gay teens in New York City, so we've done things that are sort of political, but in a larger social context; I've never done anything that actually came so close to being a partisan act. I'm very enthusiastic about the idea of MoveOn.org as an entity that exists outside of the regular party system; the fact that it's a citizens group I think is really important. I did this more as a citizen than as a public person.
I guess the idea came up in January or February of this year, and I felt like the situation with the war had gotten so bad and my frustration with the administration had gotten so oppressive that I just felt like as a citizen I had to do something to change the setup. I just thought of all the things I could do and what would have the biggest impact, and what was within my skill set, and putting together this compilation record seemed like something I could actually do.
With a compilation like the MoveOn.org comp, it was very important that it be thoughtfully done. I don't think anyone was particularly interested in making some grandstanding sort of Bush-bashing record--it seemed like it would just be more noise. But it was very exciting how positive the response was once we got the word out that we were putting it together, because people really lined up behind the project very quickly, and so many national acts got into it that it was overstuffed with name talent. Some of the very first people I asked to be a part of it were local New York musicians that, by the end, I couldn't really justify how to keep them in the project; they were just being so eclipsed by the Flaming Lips, R.E.M, blink-182--the name recognition of the roster just kept on getting more and more intense. ...
TW: Ok, so you've released 10 albums, the Homestar Runner thing, the MoveOn.org compilation ... what's next on the horizon?
JF: Well, we're working on this big DVD project; it's for kids. It's an ABC project, so it's all songs about the alphabet. And it's very multimedia; it's been very exciting to put together, because we've been working with all these animators, and there's a whole puppet component that's very cool. ... That will be coming out this fall, and after that, we've got another book to do ... so there's a lot on our plate. I'm playing Ruff the Homeowner in this show called People Are Wrong that's going off-Broadway in October, and it's being put on by the people who did Avenue Q. So it's very exciting. I'm going to be a thespian.
TW: Who's the crazy bastard that wants to hit you? (See track seven on The Spine. )
JF: That's just a made-up song. It's a perfectly valid question. I wish I had a better answer.
TW: Darn. We were hoping there would actually be somebody.
JF: (Sarcastically) It's Lars Ulrich, of Metallica.
TW: I'm sure he'll be surprised to find that out.