They used to write songs about birdhouses in your soul and ancient cities but now they’ve moved onto microscopic robots, Nikola Tesla, and insect hospitals. John Flansburgh of New York duo They Might Be Giants talks to Alan Corr about working with Bryan Cranston (before he was the one who knocks), weird science, and why they owe their rabid minor success to an Irishman
Ten minutes into talking to John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants and I make the potential error of asking him if he worries about The Singularity. There follows a good (a very good) seven-minute answer involving Robert Moog, nanoscience, and, obviously, zombie cult movies.
Of course, it’s all delivered with a mischief and inventiveness that has been the New York duo’s calling card since they formed as an art-pop act 30 years ago in the East Village before evolving into college rock heroes in the late eighties and early nineties.
Two Grammys, 15 albums, a number of TV theme tunes (including Malcolm in The Middle) and film soundtracks later and TMBG's universe of possibilities is still expanding.
Named after an 1971 George C Scott movie by way of Don Quixote, Flansburgh and John Linnell may be a cerebral rock `n’ roll proposition more likely to whip out an accordion than a guitar but they’re also very, very funny. TMBG may blind you with science but then they’ll enlighten you with clever, tightly-spun melodies and lyrics.
Earlier this year they marked their 30th year together as John and John. THey've always seemed ahead of the curve musically and one mathematical equation remains true - two Johns do make a right.
TMBG's new album is called Nanobots and it's their 16th. It has 25 songs, from zippy considerations of insect hospitals, to musings on the often-overlooked but hugely important subject of nouns, a track called There, and a track about circular karate chops.
While other, sometimes lesser, bands try to rugby tackle the meaning of life and love into a strangle-hold, TMBG consider the important stuff that makes the world really interesting. So it is little wonder why there is so much love in their fan base, a love reflected in their fan wiki page , a limitless resource of exhaustive detail featuring set lists, interviews, chart positions, flexi disc recordings and chord charts.
In fact, TMBG fans have been known to follow the obscure objects of their desire around like a cavalcade of college rock drop outs in the grand Grateful Dead tradition.
“Our fans come in all different kinds. We play in bars to people who party their brains out and we play shows for people who are very thoughtful and really pay attention to the lyrics," says Flansburgh.
“The more I know about our audience the more I realise how different they are from one another. Our audience is half men and half women and that actually is very unusual. Most bands are predominately one of the other. If you go and see Scorpions, you’re going to be sitting in a very large group of young man and if you go see Sara McLaughlin you’re going to be sitting in a very large group of women and there is nothing wrong with either scenario.”
Gender neutral audiences aside, the title of Nanobots triggers my question about whether Flansburgh is worried about The Singularity. “I have friends who are very, very preoccupied with The Singularity. I don’t believe in The Singularity but for people who don’t know what it is, there’s this fellow Kurzweil who predicts that the advance of artificial intelligence is coming at such a rate that AI will overtake human intelligence by 2029.
“I don’t know much about Kurzweil but I have used his musical gear because, besides being a science writer, he also designs musical instruments and Kurzweil is no Robert Moog I can tell you that! His instruments aren’t difficult to play; they’re kinda boring. Hahahaha. I say that in jest but I hope The Singularity doesn’t come too soon because I’m enjoying my place at the top of the mental food chain. Hang on, `the mental food chain' sounds like a zombie cult movie . . . ”
Speaking of movies, TMBG of course sang Boss of Me, the theme tune to most excellent 90's TV comedy Malcolm in The Middle which starred Bryan Cranston. Have they seen him since his star turn in arguably the best TV show of the past decade, Breaking Bad?
“We just worked with him on Malcolm but we knew he was exceptional back then and we’ve very proud to have been involved in his ascent into superstardom. I love Bryan Cranston and I’m very excited at the notion that he is going to get to do other roles because he is a very, very good actor and for a long time he was stuck in a Phil Hartman substitute position.
“He’s a very talented fellow and good things are going to happen. It’s exciting to me when people break out in that way. It’s exciting when older actors get momentum. The young stars are just going to get shoved into the star-making machinery. When someone like Bryan Cranston gets a break at his age it just means that movies are going to have to bend to suit his talent.”
For an act with such an infectious sense of wonder and innocence it's apt that TMBG also record children’s records. One of the songs on the new album started life as a kids’ number. The tune in question is about Nikola Tesla, the inventor and scientist whose genius bequeathed the world x-ray, radio (arguably), neon and whom was played so memorably by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige.
“I was trying to write a song about the rivalry between Edison and Tesla but I just couldn’t get it together," says Flansburgh. "The fact of Tesla’s life is so clouded in disputed fact because there were a lot of people working on inventions at the same time although at this point I think it’s pretty much undisputed that Tesla did invent the radio although if we were talking in Italy people would be yelling Marconi loudly.
"During the time we were working on the song, Tesla became an internet meme, there was this whole Tesla museum crowd-sourcing phenomenon going on so when we finally released the song, there was a whole world of people pre-occupied with the story of Nikola Tesla.”
It was Irishman Tom Prendergast who got the ball rolling all those years ago for TMBG. He signed the band to his Bar None Records imprint and released their breakthrough album, Lincoln. “Tom yes! He was the guy who dragged us from a life of obscurity,” says Flansburgh. “They’d just closed Maxwells in Hoeboken which is where he made us their big indie record offer after one of our shows. He also had a lot to do with discovering Freedy Johnston, Luka Bloom and all sort of people. He did lots of things in the US.”
In the final analysis, scientific or otherwise, would John and his fellow John like to be regarded as surrealists? “I think we’re songwriters who are trying to push the scope of what we’re doing, push the edges of what you can do in a popular song,” he says after a pause.
“We grew up with The Beatles, we grew up in the psychedelic era where everyone really loved The Song. There wasn’t any question about whether the pop song was a fantastic thing - whether it was Tommy James and The Shondells or Buddy Holly or whatever.
“The power of a song is not just one thing: it’s a constellation of things . . . it’s like trying to describe the night sky. It’s beautiful because you can’t describe it. Trying to find a balance between all those elements is lifelong pursuit. The first time I thought about writing a song, I ran home so I could do it. To me it’s always been the happiest kind of mental illness you can have.”
They Might be Giants play Vicar Street, Dublin on November 18. Nanobots is out now on Lojinx