John Flansburgh (right) sums up TMBG''s niche in popular culture: “On some level, we like to think of ourselves as floating somewhere outside the earth''s gravitational pull.”
Photography by Michael Lavine except where noted othewise.
If you've ever attended a They Might Be Giants concert, you know what an enthusiastic audience the band has. You also know that John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the founders and core members of TMBG, are two of the most inventive, original, and prolific songwriters you'll find anywhere. Based in New York, the two Johns (as they're affectionately called by their fans) have been writing, recording, and performing songs together since 1982.
Linnell and Flansburgh spent their early years performing as a duo in alternative rock clubs and performance-art spaces, quickly attracting a dedicated following and eventually landing airplay, first on college radio and soon thereafter on MTV and Nickelodeon. Their breakthrough 1990 album, Flood, yielded two of their most enduring hits: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and a remake of the 1953 classic by the Four Lads, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Their popular Dial-A-Song telephone service has been available since 1984, and they've been distributing their music on the Web for more than a decade, with free and paid MP3 downloads and frequent Podcasts.
In 2002 TMBG won a Grammy for the theme song to the TV show Malcolm in the Middle. They also recorded the theme and created the incidental music for Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Just describing all their accomplishments could easily fill a feature-length article.
I recently caught up with the two Johns shortly before a performance at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. They invited me aboard their tour bus and graciously answered more questions than EM has room to print. You can find an extended version of this interview at www.emusician.com (see the online bonus material).
DO YOU HAVE PERSONAL STUDIOS IN YOUR HOMES?
JF: I have two personal studios. I have my studio in Brooklyn that we used to rehearse at and one upstate in the Catskills. I spend about half my time up there.
WHAT KIND OF SETUP DO YOU HAVE?
JF: Our setups are pretty simple. Basically, we're just running Digital Performer and a bunch of [MIDI modules].
JL: We recently moved over to a lot of software — samplers and synths — from unreliable hardware. We have [Mac] G5s.
JF: We kind of came up with MIDI before digital recording.
YOU USED THE ORIGINAL MOTU PERFORMER, DIDN'T YOU?
JL: Yeah, exactly.
JF: I think our very first album has some Performer tracks.
JL: Well, no, the first album was all drum machine synced to the timecode on one of the tracks on the 8-track. And then the second record, we got the Mac Plus running Performer — version 1, I think. Pretty much just the drums and bass were on the computer. For some moronic reason, I insisted on playing the keyboards live, even though we'd already learned to start doing that stuff. Lincoln is all human, nonquantized keyboards.
YOU DIDN'T WANT TO SEQUENCE THE KEYBOARDS?
JL: We were just dipping our toe into sequencing at that point.
DOES TECHNOLOGY GET IN YOUR WAY A LOT WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO GET AN IDEA DOWN?
JL: Absolutely, yeah. I thought that's what it was for [laughs].
YOU'VE WORKED WITH A LOT OF PRETTY ACCOMPLISHED PRODUCERS OVER THE YEARS, AND YOU'VE PRODUCED YOURSELF ON A FEW ALBUMS. HOW DID THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH THE DUST BROTHERS COMPARE?
JL: It was completely different from everything we've done before. We worked with producers who, in a certain way, were kind of traditional. They want to take the material and just sort of polish it, and [the Dust Brothers] were not interested in that approach. It was a great, different direction for us to go into, because they were willing to [mess things] up. It's just like, throw all the cards in the air and try something else. In some ways the actual process was frustrating, because they work so differently from the way we work that it took some patience on our part to get to that.
JF: It's hard to explain the difference between them and other producers. Because they are coming from sort of a hip-hop background, they're not worried about preparation time. They're in the studio trying things every which way they can imagine. Even if they think they've got something that's good, they're interested in experimenting to some degree to make something great. John and I tend to give ourselves very free rein when we're off the clock. If we're in a project studio, we do all these very time-intensive things that sometimes [are] fruitful and sometimes aren't. But then when we actually get into the studio and we're working with our band, we're quite deliberate and quite focused and tend to work extremely fast.
Most engineers that we work with have a hard time keeping up with us. One of the things about working with Pat Dillett, our long-term collaborator and coproducer, is that he's one of the few people who's really capable of working at this manic pace that we're working.
Working with the Dust Brothers was a big lifestyle adjustment for us because we had to accommodate their pace, which was just much, much slower. Sometimes it was hard to know even what we were trying to achieve. We would have already recorded the track that would be the final track, but we were trying to figure out if we could top it. That's just a luxury that we've never afforded ourselves. We've always had small budgets, and we just kind of came up that way. The time that you're in the studio, you're on the clock.
“If you can think up the lyrics and the melody and everything at the same time,” says John Linnell (left), “you''ve had some strong coffee. But I find it really challenging to make it all come together at once.”
IT SOUNDS LIKE THEIR APPROACH WAS THAT TIME, AND THEREFORE MONEY, WAS NO OBJECT — AND YOU OBJECTED TO THAT.
JF: Yeah, exactly. But they're extremely successful producers. They're very dedicated to doing outstanding work. We weren't trying to turn them into hacks.
JL: But they were very true-blue in their approach. They were not willing to accept an unfinished or mediocre project, and that was great. That part of it was exactly how we feel about it.
JF: I think one of my strongest memories was being up in Pat's room, like a little project room, where we were just doing some really crazy guitar overdub on “Withered Hope.” It was so weird — I didn't even really know what we were going for, and it was all on me, and it was just this totally wide-open, nutso improvisational thing. I didn't even know how John King was going to edit it together. It was just kind of unclear what we were doing, although the result actually seems quite purposeful. I remember saying, “I think that's good.” And John King, with this very crazy look in his eye, but very seriously, said, “It's good, but is it awesome?” I don't know. I don't know what awesome is.
YOU'VE WORKED WITH DILLETT FOR SO LONG. IS HE LIKE THE UNOFFICIAL THIRD PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE BAND?
JF: Yeah, he's like the third Beatle. He was an assistant engineer at Skyline when we were making Flood, and he worked with Nile Rodgers. Skyline was in many ways one of the studios in that last era of great New York studios that had a formal — I don't even know what you'd call it. Engineers were really taught how to work this certain way. It had more to do with the way people made records in the '50s and '60s than with the way things are made now. [Pat] comes at it with a lot of skills that you're not going to learn on your own.
AND YOU'RE DEPENDENT ON HIM.
JF: We're very dependent on him. The sonic things that really speak on the record are often coming from his side of things. And so when we went to working with the Dust Brothers, one of the things we wanted to do — since they were only working on half the record — was to avoid a sort of schizophrenic project. Pat and the band are consistent throughout the whole project.
THAT'S SOMETHING THAT REALLY IMPRESSED ME ABOUT THE ELSE. EVEN THOUGH VARIOUS PEOPLE PRODUCED DIFFERENT SONGS, IT ALL SOUNDS VERY COHESIVE.
JF: Yeah, well, it was all mixed by Pat. That was by design. From the experience we had with Mink Car, which was kind of a similar mixed bag, we just wanted to make sure that this had more sonic continuity.
YOU'VE WORKED WITH MAJOR LABELS — ELEKTRA BEING THE BIGGEST — AND YOU'VE WORKED INDEPENDENTLY. HOW DO THOSE EXPERIENCES COMPARE?
JL: Sometimes I think it's less and less relevant whether we're on a major or whatever. We've very much established the way that we like to work, and that is the principal thing — that we're kind of figuring out the scheduling and who's producing, what hours we're going to work, the atmosphere in the studio — things like that. That to me is the key ingredient: how we actually work day to day, not so much what organization is producing the record.
JUST HOW MUCH OF YOUR SONGWRITING TIME DO YOU SPEND TOGETHER?
JL: Not very much. Now, John mostly works up in the Catskills when he's writing, and I'm in Brooklyn; that's where my studio is. We write pretty independently, and we've had a number of tracks in the recent past where we've collaborated. The song “Mink Car,” off of [the album] Mink Car, we actually wrote sitting at a piano in this Leopold and Loeb sort of way. We don't really ever do that.
JF: More likely, these days it'll be handing off a file. Sometimes it's just small things, like specialty items that need to be addressed.
JL: Here's a sort of happy way that we collaborated on the last record. One example is I sent my demo of the first track, “I'm Impressed,” to John. I emailed it to him.
JF: MP3. Really lo-fi MP3.
JL: At some point I gave John the OMF, which just has the vocal and the drum reference and the chords. He took that and constructed a whole new track just behind the vocal. So he basically created a completely new track based on what I'd given him. Then we [brought] the OMF to Pat Dillett.
JF: Although what's funny is the vocal that's on the track is from the MP3. If you wonder how we capture that really crummy sound, it is that familiar sound of kind of a low-res MP3. We listened to [the vocal track], and part of it just had some slightly distressed effect on it.
JL: Sort of a murky sound to it.
JF: And combined with the original source and the effect, it did seem more interesting than just a straight vocal.
JL: I think the MP3 had the effects I had put on it in my home studio. The OMF we brought to Pat of the original full-bandwidth vocal didn't have the effects that I'd put on the demo. And we're like, “Well, how do we get these effects?” And Pat was like, “Well, why don't you just use this track — this perfectly good MP3 track?”
Although Linnell is well known as an accordion player, he started playing keyboards in rock bands before he ever touched an accordion. “I''m very self-taught. I use the left hand pretty much just for bass notes. I don''t really play the chords,” he says.
Photo: Geary Yelton
DO YOU TRACK AND MIX IN THE SAME STUDIO?
JF: No, we tracked in a bunch of different places, mostly to get bigger drum sounds. When we do tracking, we are very purposefully thinking, “We've got everything we need here, and now we can move on to the next stage.” It's almost like you're doing yourself a favor to have a process that says that chapter is over.
JL: I think it helps to have a sense that you know what you're doing rather than hope it will all get sorted out at the end. You actually have to put together the whole project in your head. It's how they make movies; you have to shoot everything and know that you've got everything you need, rather than go, “Maybe we'll fix this later on.”
JF: But in spite of the fact that we work electronically in the early stages of what we do, we do a lot of recording in very traditional ways. We'll set up the full band to record and track with everybody playing at the same time.
THAT IS VERY TRADITIONAL.
JF: The reason we started doing it was very practical. We didn't do it until we started doing the incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle, and then the deadlines were so fast, we were basically totally in over our heads. We had way more work to do than we knew how to finish, and so it was just kind of an all-hands-on-deck moment professionally. And then, as we were working in this kind of panic-stricken way, the efficiencies of working that way just kind of appeared to us.
JL: The great thing about our situation now is that we also have these very competent musicians who are deeply concerned about how integrated their parts are with one another. They'll go back and do it again if they feel like the bass and the kick aren't agreeing, if the part's not working, or if the performance isn't working. And all these issues can be [decided] simultaneously to the recording being made. I think that's a really valuable thing about the band.
HOW EARLY IN THE SONGWRITING PROCESS DO YOU BRING THE BAND IN? DO YOU GET IDEAS FROM THEM WHILE YOU'RE WRITING A SONG?
JF: It really varies from song to song. If you have a song that's got a more organic feel, you can leave it in a more skeletal way, and then just present it to the band and kind of work it up together. And what the band will bring to it will really amplify all those qualities.
JL: I'll tell you we always start with something before the band hears the song. We start with some kind of arrangement concept, and then that can be completely thrown out the window when the band gets there. But John and I always demo everything before the band hears it.
DO YOU STILL DO ANY TRACKING WITH THE DRUM MACHINE?
JF: Yeah. “I'm Impressed” is all drum machine.
JL: We also have done a lot of stuff more recently, particularly with the Dust Brothers, where we take the drum loops and use that as the basis for the track. And then, in most every case on this record, we've had Marty [Beller, the drummer] come in and replace the loop with his own version of the loop — in other words, play along and then loop what he's doing — and that becomes the more deliberate [part].
DO YOU WORK WITH BFD OR DRUMCORE OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT?
JL: We actually have worked with DrumCore; that's something that both of us have used a bunch. But again, that's more of a reference material. Marty will eventually be the arbiter of good taste in those situations.
DO YOU USE A SAMPLER FOR MUCH THESE DAYS?
JL: We both have been using [MOTU] MachFive, the software sampler.
I NOTICED YOU HAVE A NEW ROLAND FANTOM X8. I DIDN'T SEE THAT ON YOUR LAST TOUR.
JL: Yeah, that's new. I found out installing third-party chips in the [E-mu] Proteus 2000 does something completely weird to them that more or less makes them unreliable onstage after a couple of years. As soon as they started to warm up, the pitch would get crazy. So in frustration, I finally just completely changed my setup, and now I'm in the Roland world. I used to have the [Boss] Dr. Sample sitting on top, and now it's actually incorporated into the keyboard, so there's the familiar 16 glowing buttons. So the whole thing has gotten a lot more streamlined.
WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE YOU CHOOSE THE ROLAND OVER THE KORG OR THE YAMAHA?
JL: I tried a bunch of things, and that one had the 16 pads, which weren't included on most of the other ones. It seems like the simplest architecture; it's not simple, but I guess I'm just used to the Roland thing from the Dr. Sample. So it's just like what you know. It's like DP; DP is by no means the best.
JF: Easy there, brother.
JL: But I must say, we've been using it for almost 20 years. The guys in our band are all swearing by Logic, and John and I have not made the leap yet.
JF: Personally, I really love all the kooky little plug-ins that come with the new version of DP. That Model 12 thing is superphenomenal and totally came into play on a lot of things on The Else.
JL: There's still a lot of distinct, really useful things that nobody else seems to do that DP has, like Spectral Effects. That's a big part of our lives.
JF: We tried other plug-in versions that do similar things, and none of them have as much character, and none of them track as well.
JL: The other thing that's cool in DP: pitch correction. Nobody else does it that way. It's very interesting; it's a really useful way of doing pitch correction.
ARE YOU A STOMPBOX KINDA GUY?
JF: I'm a stompbox addict.
ARE YOU CONSTANTLY LOOKING FOR STOMPBOXES WITH NEW SOUNDS?
JF: I am. I'm constantly looking for extreme sounds, and that's very frustrating because most of the orientation [of stompbox manufacturers] is towards very orthodox sounds. I'm using a [Electro-Harmonix] POG a lot right now. I guess the things that introduce some form of synthesis to the guitar always kind of catch my ear a little bit more. I've wasted extraordinary amounts of money on fuzz boxes; they all just sound distorted.
WHAT'S THE MOST RECENT STOMPBOX YOU'VE ADDED TO YOUR LIVE SETUP?
JF: I just got this thing called the [Emma] Discombobulator, which is actually like a Mu-Tron envelope-follower box. It's made in Denmark, and it's probably not that different from a Moogerfooger-type thing, but it has a very wide level of control. And it sounds kind of crazy.
I LOVE THE ELECTRONIC INTRO TO “CAREFUL WHAT YOU PACK.” WHAT WAS THAT?
JF: Oh, the sort of ping-ponging keyboard sound is just a delay on a synth.
JL: It's the [MOTU] MX4, but there's some backwards drums in there as well, as part of the sound. It's like a loop of a lot of different drums. Some of it is backwards.
JF: That song was written for the movie Coraline for the opening sequence and was cut out of the movie. We contributed a lot of songs to this movie, and the whole movie just changed direction midway through. We were brought in very early, so our stuff has had every chance to be shot down.
JL: Obviously, when something happens over and over again, you start to wonder how much is on your own end. We cooked up a lot of songs, and then we realized that this project was moving at about a tenth the speed that we're used to going. We probably would have been wise to slow down our own engine.
“The idea of electronic music equaling experimental music has completely gone by the wayside,” says Flansburgh. “And maybe that''s fine. But for us, sort of bridging those worlds was actually kind of interesting.”
IN THE STUDIO, WHO'S IN CHARGE OF THE INSTRUMENTATION AND ARRANGING?
JF: I think we both kind of lead the songs that we write. But in a weird way, our skill sets overlap tremendously. Our collaboration, aesthetically, is extremely active and very real. We both challenge each other is ways that are incredibly profound and hard to even quantify.
JL: We're still scared of each other.
JF: When we go into the studio and there's chart arranging, it falls to John. If there's horns or strings coming in — especially when we're doing outside work, work-for-hire stuff for TV or movies or whatever — a lot of times, I'm the de facto producer. I think we both have the x-y axis of our skill sets. I think we've learned where our strengths lie.
JL: Yeah, that's right.
JF: And it's not like we don't defer to the other one in a million different ways all the time, and it's not like it isn't a collaboration. We recognize that the other one can bring something really powerful to the thing.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR NEW DISNEY ALBUM,HERE COME THE 123S?
JF: We made it at the same time as we made The Else. We were working on these two projects. In some ways, the fact that we were making a children's record while we were making an adult rock record probably made The Else acerbic [and] masculine-like.
JL: I was saying to John while we were making it, “Boy, this is like the least cuddly record that we've ever made.”
JF: If something suddenly seemed adorable, we would put it on the children's record right away. But there's a track on the album that we did with the Dust Brothers, which is a very cool piece of music called “Seven.” It really has their stamp on it, too. I think if you ask anybody who's written kid stuff, it's so much fun for the writer. It's such a blank check. You really have license to do almost anything you've ever wanted to do.
JL: This is one thing that I feel like we're very off the hook with (off the hook in the old-fashioned sense), which is that the Disney stuff is not going to be judged in the context of rock music. People aren't going to listen to it and go, “Well, it pales before Exile on Main Street.” It's actually going to be judged by young people who don't have any context, for the most part, very little context, or a very strange context.
THERE'S YOUR FUTURE AUDIENCE.
JL: So a lot of the stuff we're doing, they're hearing an entire genre for the first time in this one particular song. This will be the very first ska-like music that this child will ever hear. They don't really care that it doesn't sound authentic. There's the huge freedom that you have writing for kids, because you're just trying to make it interesting or entertaining or fun or wake them up in some way. Those are the primary concerns for the adult stuff, but often we feel like we are kind of in the spotlight in a way when we're doing adult material.
JF: Where we land in the culture is basically just a source of confusion for us. We don't feel like we're part of the pop world, but that's the only place that our work makes sense. When we're writing songs, we're trying to write songs that will be worthy of repeated listening, just like any other songwriter.
JL: I think we're trying to be astronauts.
I THINK THAT IS THE PUBLIC PERCEPTION — YOU BRIDGE POP AND AVANT-GARDE, AND YOU'RE SOMEHOW OUTSIDE OF IT ALL.
JF: I hope that's true. I feel like there are different levels that you can take that posture as meaning.
HAVE YOUR CAREERS TURNED OUT THE WAY YOU HAD IMAGINED?
JL: We didn't imagine what it was going to be like. When John and I started doing this thing together, we very consciously thought, “We're not going to figure out what people want; we're no good at that. We're going to do the thing that we like instead, and if we're successful at it, then that'll be good. But if we're unsuccessful, at least we'll be something that we like rather than something we failed to anticipate that other people won't like.”
JUDGING BY THE ENTHUSIASM OF YOUR AUDIENCE, YOU'VE MANAGED TO DO WHAT YOU WANTED AND STILL CONNECT.
JF: From the minute we started performing, our act — in air quotes — completely worked. The strange thing about audiences is, it seems like audiences love bad music. What's been our luck is that we've always gone over in the most immediate sense. There have been periods when we were the critics' darlings; there have been periods where we've gotten total indifference from the general music culture. But when we perform, it always just seems like it's going down in a glorious way.
IS THAT WHAT MAKES YOU KEEP TOURING?
JF: It certainly helps. People clapping at the end of your songs is very exciting. It's hard to get used to that. It's a good thing, and it's very validating. It definitely makes you feel like you're doing something worthwhile.
DO YOU HAVE ADVICE THAT YOU COULD GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO'S TRYING TO SUCCEED IN MUSIC?
JL: Gear! It's all about gear [see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com href="http://www.emusician.com"].
JF:[Laughs.] Get more expensive gear! And don't be afraid of presets.
I WASN'T EXPECTING THAT.
JL: I was being a little facetious.
JF: I wasn't being facetious.
JL: The presets thing — that's totally right.
Geary Yelton has been a full-time EM associate editor since 2000 and has written for the magazine since 1985.