Definitely Giants

John Flansburgh bares his soul and the little birdhouse that lies within

John Flansburgh is enduring another press day before his band, They Might Be Giants, heads out for a fall U.S. tour--the very same tour bringing the band to the Rialto Theatre as part of Fall Club Crawl™.

I hadn't talked to Flansburgh before--I got the "other" John (Linnell) when I covered them a decade or so ago--but the guy was animated and happy to be doing back-to-back phone interviews with eager college papers and free weeklies ... the usual suspects.

They say newspapers are dying, but ask anyone at the end of a pre-tour press day. I couldn't help but question Flansburgh about what everyone was asking this year.

"Oh, man, there's a huge range of stuff," he says. "That's OK; I'm still thrilled when someone actually asks us where we got our name." (I didn't ask. I already knew--look it up.)

The day I caught up to him, Flansburgh was jazzed by the story of the guy who figured out a little web app that tracked who exactly was updating their Wikipedia entries.

"I love this--some 20-year-old guy catching politicians and government agencies 'cleaning up' their Wikipedia pages. Like the CIA extracting text about 35-year-old operations. Chemical companies ..."

The Australian Ministry of Defense ...

"Yeah ... I mean, it's sort of like the old Soviet Union manufacturing history according to what was most convenient at the time."

I've been skeptical about Wikipedia all along. Collective encyclopedia? I'm as dedicated as anyone to thrashing the elite, but sooner or later, you have to put a stake in the ground and say that a fact is a fact, period.

"Yeah, but ..." Flansburgh wincing, "... there's something to be said for every viewpoint having its voice out there. Have you seen that great Wikipedia parody site out there? Looked us up and read their description of us, and it really, really hurt my feelings ... until I looked at Nirvana's, and they were even more cruel to them."

Well, OK, the Internet... but you've got a new record out, the angularly satisfying The Else, produced by the elusive and maniacally genius Dust Brothers (Korn, Beck, Linkin Park), swinging between high-calorie library pop like "The Mesopotamians," the snarky tinfoil-hat burlesque of "The Shadow Government," the geeky testimonials of liberation ("I'm Impressed," "Take Out The Trash") and howls of psycho-torque ("Climbing the Walls").

"This is a tough, muscular They Might Be Giants record. Just about everything on it is up-tempo or at least midtempo--more than usual I think.

"The Dust Brothers definitely brought a new level of sonic maturity to what we do. I mean, while we're kind of used to a 'good enough is good enough' kind of approach, they will spend hours on how a particular guitar sound comes out or the mechanics of a particular rhythm. It was a little weird for us."

Sort of a post-millennial Becker and Fagan?

"Exactly! We approached these guys because we had huge respect for their output. You can tell they just really, really care about how their records sound. And it was great to see that up close. ... I mean, I had John King actually changing the settings on my fuzz box. I don't think I had ever even touched the thing in all the years I've had it."

The Dust Brothers also played a role in the CD's sequencing. I got tripped up when I pulled the record down from iTunes (Flansburgh was duly pleased to hear a critic actually bought their CD) and accidentally scrambled the sequence to sort songs alphabetically by title. Maybe it's just They Might Be Giants pulling some sinister brain-control thing, something from a Wilson Bryan Key nightmare, but we told Flansburgh the record sounded much different that way.

"Absolutely. There's a whole psychology about that that's fascinated me, the whole psychology of crowds, how you telegraph an idea. Yeah, we spent a lot of time working out the sequencing, especially as they bled some songs into the next ones. But that's funny about how the lead-off song, the first one you hear, always leaves an impression that lingers through the whole CD. We could have put 'I'm Impressed' as the lead single and made the rest of the songs ballads, and people would been like, 'Yep, They Might Be Giants are back with a bang!'"

The Else will be also released on full-length vinyl--in a gatefold package. "I think the first pressing is already sold out. But ... a gatefold ! You can clean your pot on it!"

Rolling and bouncing little seeds aside, The Else combines an elegant fluency with subversively literate nerd rock with an abiding gift for stylistic proto-classicism, all without having to rise to anyone's idea of two-dimensional greatness or betraying TMBG's dedication to the spirit of perpetual underachievement.

"I remember when back in the early 1990s, we had a hit in the U.K.--can't even remember what it was now--and we went over for a rare tour there. We did this NME interview for their cover story, and they were like, 'Yes, so, you're definitely a lot like Dylan and Hendrix combined, although more Dylan, wouldn't you say?' I knew what the press was like over there, how they hype things one week and tear them down two weeks later, and just thinking, 'Man, I really don't want to be shot out of this cannon.'

"And sure enough, when we came back two years later, we barely got a mention as washed-up has-beens. "But we're in a good place. We have our very modest place in the culture, and people whose careers depend on us learn quickly that we thrive on failure."

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