(c) 1990, Derek Thomas THIS WORK MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED BY MEANS WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION
(c) 1990, Derek Thomas
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED BY MEANS WITHOUT EXPRESS
PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.
[from the August 1990 issue of THROTTLE, P.O. Box 7122, Richmond
Dial-A-Song works like this: dial 1-(718)-387-6962 and
listen carefully. Sing along, if you like. Tape it, if you have
the technology. This isn't just any Dial-A-Song service. This
line goes directly into the Brooklyn home of They Might Be
Neither John Flansburgh, the guitar half of They Might Be
Giants, nor John Linnell, the accordion half, make money from
their Dial-A-Song service. It's simply part of their crusade as
Brooklyn's ambassadors of love.
They Might Be Giants have been making quirky music with
absurd, non sequitur lyrics since 1983. Their first album,
sporting such gems as "Rabid Child" and "Nothing's Gonna Change
My Clothes," received considerable college radio airplay in 1987.
Their second album "Lincoln," leading off with the enigmatic "Ana
Ng," landed them a spot on David Letterman. The boys signed with
Elektra and released "Flood" this year, resulting in the unlikely
hits "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not
Throttle spoke with John Flansburgh on his cellular phone as
the band headed south on I-95 to their show at the 930 Club, 31
THROTTLE: John, are the songs you sing and the songs John sings
the songs that each of you write?
FLANSBURGH: Pretty much. We've collaborated on some things. We
often both sing on songs.
T: The songs you sing seem to be more issue-oriented, like "Your
Racist Friend," whereas John's seem more nonsensical or
absurdist, like "Particle Man."
F: Well, those two examples certainly support your argument, but
I think I've written some pretty nonsensical songs. John and I do
have different styles. There are things we do better than the
other. But I feel there's an overall style to the band that we're
both working in.
T: You seem to be more outspoken than John. Does he do many
interviews? He seems sort of shy and delicate.
F: I don't know. Hey, Linnell, are you shy and delicate? John
just did the last two interviews. We split them up fifty-fifty.
We're a democracy.
T: There are a lot more songs on Dial-A-Song than are ever
released. How do you decide what goes on your album?
F: We put the good ones on. I think most of the good songs that
appear on Dial-A-Song will eventually appear on records.
T: Why do you fancy yourselves Brooklyn's ambassadors of love?
F: When people think of Brooklyn, they don't really think of nice
people. The slogan underscores the fact that we are from Brooklyn
and are essentially nice people. And being an ambassador is like
being the guy standing between the two parties shaking hands. The
world needs more love, and we're here to present you with the
love, direct from Brooklyn.
T: You seem like such wholesome kids--is it really all an act?
F: If it is an act, it's not very well planned out. We're not
that wholesome. But compared to Axl Rose, we're probably
downright conservative. We're private people. We present a lot of
complicated stuff in our work, and we feel that's challenging
enough to our audience. It's both not our personal style and not
really important that we put on airs about who we are. When you
say we're wholesome guys, well, we're just as embittered and
angry as anybody. There are a lot of performers whose work and
personas are very wrapped up together, and their songs are almost
a form of autobiography. But I think our songs are a little more
idea-oriented. I don't think other people could write the songs
we write. When I look at people like Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious, I
think of how much their persona went ahead of what they actually
did. I don't know how important Sid Vicious's music really is,
compared to Sid Vicious as a cultural figure. We're not into
being heroic. We don't want to be somebody's hero.
T: And yet somehow I think you are the hero of millions.
F: A few thousand maybe.
T: Can you release any songs you want or does your record company
give you a hard time about what songs they want on the records?
F: I guess we get to release whatever we want. No one's ever
tried to stop us.
T: There was a Dial-A-Song version of "Your Racist Friend" where
you said "bullshit" but on the record you say "madness." Was that
record company pressure?
F: Oh, no, that was personal. I'm sure the record company would
be more than happy if we swore on our records, stirred up a
little controversy. "Bullshit" just sort of stuck out too much.
There are a lot of things about the songs that get changed as
they evolve. I think part of it is that when you're writing a
song, you're trying to create something that is going to hold up
to repeated listenings. So there are things that might have an
immediate impact, that seem kind of cool, but over the long run
they seem kind of bogus. Just the notion of saying the word
"bullshit" over and over again seemed inarticulate.
T: You've released two different versions of "Kiss Me, Son of
God," one on the B-side to "Don't Let's Start," the other on
F: The single version is way we've always done it live. The one
on the record was an experiment. Fritz Van Orden of the
Ordinaires did the arrangement of the strings and brass. It
doesn't sound exactly like what we do. It has that thirties
proto-swing band sound to it. I like the way it came out. The
hardest part for me was that the chords and the bridge got
changed, so I had to change my harmony part which was already on
the Andrew Sisters side of difficulty.
T: Some of your songs sound big band-influenced, like "I'll Sink
F: We have in the past few years listened to more pre-rock music.
It's definitely a particular fascination of ours. We both listen
to a lot of swing and vocal music from the fifties and forties
and even the thirties. We listen to a lot of Ink Spots and early
Mills Brothers. There's something very appealing about it. It's
got a very live quality that you don't find in a lot of
contemporary music. And it takes advantage of singing more, like
singing in full voice, which I think is always kind of exciting.
T: How old are you guys?
F: I'm 30. John is 31. We're officially old by rock standards
T: How long have you been playing together?
F: Since 1983.
T: And your album came out in...
T: So what were you doing in those three years?
F: We were basking in total obscurity. We were writing a lot of
songs. We were doing a lot of shows in Manhattan, being a local
band, paying our dues. It was a very fun time. In fact, 1985 was
a tremendously exciting year because everything was very, very
new. I have strong memories of doing our first interview and
being completely nervous.
T: How many songs have you guys written and demoed, like what we
hear on Dial-A-Song, that have never made it onto record?
F: Probably over a hundred. We've released about eighty songs on
record. There's still a healthy number of unhealthy songs left.
From this point on, most of the songs that are going to appear on
our records will be new songs. We have had pretty much luck
writing new songs. Our success rate is much higher now. And we've
pretty much taken all the good songs from the back catalog and
used them. Like "Letterbox" was a really old song, and for it to
show up on the third album, you know, we're definitely doing some
T: So where's the Dial-A-Song machine?
F: It's in my house. In fact, I just left it today, and for the
first time ever, Dial-A-Song is going on vacation for two weeks.
It's just going to play one song for two weeks because my
landlady is out of town and I'm out of town and it's too hard to
organize someone to come into the building and change it
everyday. There's no brand new songs on it anyway. All the very
best songs have all been eaten by the machine because they've
been played a little too much. I just put one song on and the
schedule of the tour and said, "Call back in two weeks." It's
kind of depressing in a way. It's an all-time low for Dial-A-
Song. We've been doing it for five years and we've been pretty
conscientious about it. Unfortunately, this year of touring has
kind of overwhelmed us.
T: I know this is the third time you've been to Washington since
F: I guess so. That's pretty fucking ridiculous. I mean, it's
virtually the same show. It's kind of hard to think what we can
do to spice it up. We'd better do something.
T: At the show at Georgetown University in May, you seemed to be
doing a lot more songs acoustically, without your backing tapes.
F: I think that's been the trend over the past couple of years.
We've moved more towards exploiting what we can do as a duo. I
think we've realized that that can be a real show-stopping
moment. A lot of times when people hear the drum machine and hear
how complete it sounds, they don't realize how much of the sound
is being generated by us. It's actually very lucky that John
plays the accordion and I play the guitar because they can both
function as rhythm instruments and lead instruments. So you can
do a lot of arranging within a song with just those two
instruments and still have a very full sound. If I was playing
the pennywhistle and John was playing the recorder, I don't think
it would be as full-bodied a sound.
T: Where do you get the samples you use, like the conversation in
"Snowball in Hell"?
F: That's from a cassette that our sound man bought at a flea
market for 25 cents. It's a How-to-Organize-Yourself, self-help
cassette, and it's pretty odd. That whole thing is part of a "How
to Get Your Shit Together" skit. It's a really silly tape. It
really has no useful tips as to how to be more organized.
T: You probably didn't need to get permission to use that did,
F: Well, we probably did need to get permission, but we didn't.
We've been very bad about getting permission on sampled things. I
hope we don't get sued.
T: What does "Ana Ng" mean?
F: Ng is a Vietnamese name. The song is about someone who's
thinking about a person on the exact opposite side of the world.
John looked at a globe and figured out that if Ana Ng is in
Vietnam and the person is on the other side of the world, then it
must be written by someone in Peru.
T: What about the song "They Might Be Giants"?
F: That again is a really, really old song. We actually recorded
that in 1985, originally. We thought about doing it for the
second album as well. Basically, we didn't want to put it on the
first album because it seemed too weird. It just seemed perfect
to have our theme song on our third album. It's a very
complicated song, actually. When we did it originally, we
recorded it on a four track and we just did millions and millions
of overdubs and created this very tracked-out, complicated
arrangement. And since we started working on an eight track, we
tended to strip things down a little bit more. So when we came
back to "They Might Be Giants," we found ourselves trying to
recreate something we did pretty effortlessly on a four track,
but when we were actually trying to use big, studio recording
techniques, it became an incredibly complicated piece to put back
together again. There's a ton of vocals on it, two guitars, two
T: It's a lovely piece of work.
F: Well, thank you.
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