by David Koran
They Might Be Giants is a hard band to categorize. But for the past twenty years, they have been building up an enormous fan base, and recently branched out into film and television work. "Dr. Evil" opened up Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and their main title song to "Malcolm in the Middle ("The Boss of Me") was just nominated for a Grammy award. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with John Flansburgh, the lead guitarist and vocalist for the band, about their recent works, scoring "Malcolm in the Middle", and the Napster debate.
How did you first get involved with "Malcolm in the Middle", and what was it about the show that drew your interests into wanting to work on it?
We actually just got the script to the pilot, which, frankly, seemed more than a little crazy - it was the episode the opens with the mom shaving the dad's back in the nude in front of the kids. I don't think we were so positive the show would even get made, but it was an opportunity to get involved with some creative people and I think we figured it would lead to other good things.
Do you have any plans to write music for other television shows or films now that you've had success in that area of the industry?
We've done a lot of unusual projects in the past 6 months, most of which would be pretty unrecognizable as far as being in the "style" of TMBG. We did a series of jingles for Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper, and the theme and incidental music for this PBS series called "Life 360". The job I'm working on right now is the theme for "America's Most Wanted" which is exciting since it's styled as an update on the "crime jazz" sound of 50's TV themes with a pretty wild electronic rhythm track.
What approach do you take to writing the score for television shows? What is the "routine"?
We've done packages for a few TV shows and radio shows now, and they all have very specific, unique needs. We've gotten pretty good at making very short pieces of music sound like very big productions, which is necessary-especially with shows like "The Daily Show" which closely parodies the big orchestral sound of network news shows, as well as having their rockin' theme. "Malcolm" just kind of consumed music of every variety in quantities that we could barely keep up with, which made it hard to ever really find a rhythm to the output. I don't think we've ever had to write so fast in our lives. It was a marathon.
Two songs you wrote are featured in the film Return to Never Land. What was it like writing for a Disney animated feature?
It's extremely rigorous. The project kept on changing which meant constant revision, but it is exciting to hear your song played by a symphony orchestra.
You have been a band that's been willing to take chances with getting your music to the masses, starting in the early 80's with Dial-A-Song (and its new website) and maintaining that ability by being the staple group for E-Music. Can you discuss your view on bringing your music to the fans in, what can be considered by most folks, the more unorthodox ways?
I guess John (Linell) and I find some abstract pleasure in both giving music away, and in finding different ways of getting music out. It sets a kind of "experimental" mindset that helps us be less precious with our stuff, which is not necessarily our immediate impulse. It also has helped set a tone with our audience, which I feel is one of real camaraderie and unusual respect. Dial-A-Song has been an insanely simply and effective way to get our music heard, and having the ability to both give away and sell MP3s has played a huge role in keeping the band in the publics eye.
There is a dimension to the MP3 situation that I feel is actually very complicated and supercharged that actually doesn't directly apply to us, but, as a person with great respect for the profession of songwriters, I feel I should speak to. (One thing I have notice about the whole MP3 debate is that speakers tend to feel they can only use themselves as examples, and there is a tremendous amount of oversimplifying of the real issues in play here.) I speak to many people about this, and am always surprised how many pundits only have the vaguest grasp of what a music publisher does, what BMI does, or how performance royalties, or licenses work - some of the cornerstones of how working songwriters are compensated - and yet they have highly evolved and elaborate ideas about how the music industry is a sham, and needs to be entirely re-rigged to "free the music" all the while ignoring the most basic concerns of the people who really create it.
Many of the loudest voices in the Napster/MP3 debate are either extremely wealthy artists who have no realistic financial concerns for themselves (or any one else), artists who are decidedly non-professional and are happy to have an outlet for their songs, or non-musicians who are simply using this issue to grandstand for essentially ill-considered political views that do nothing to address the practical concerns of artists. The search to find equity for song writers in the impending digital future is not particularly well served by any of these groups. I also feel strongly that songwriters deserve a system of compensation free of the cross-interests of recording labels, who are once again, and unfortunately, the strange bedfellows for songwriters in this discussion.
It's also unfortunate that the perceptions people have of the music business are so often formed by wildly misleading gossip and the purely imagined tall tales of "Behind the Music". I find if you substitute the phrase "pampered rock star" with "struggling blues journeyman" there is a surprising reverse spin to many of these discussion. In the music business, like in many other things in life, a little bit of information can be a very dangerous thing.
Some of your songs have been immortalized in cartoon music videos ("Istanbul [Not Constantinople]" and "Particle Man" and a video made to be a cartoon, "She Was A Hotel Detective"). Did you intend them to be lampooned in such a way?
Some of our songs are very lighthearted and it seems perfectly appropriate that people would make cartoons of them. It's fun to see them used that way.
What is your favorite cartoon?
There is a cartoon from the 30's, probably by Fleischer, featuring a Harold Arlen song called "I Like To Singa" that makes me almost burst into tears I love it's vibe so much. The Simpsons obviously has transcendent qualities. I really love "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" now that I have cable. Other than that, I don't really see much animated stuff.
You seem to have a lot more fun than other musicians seem to have-writing the music, lyrics, and arrangements. How do you keep it fresh and interesting? (For instance, you interact a lot with band members and the audience during live performances...)
The writing process is as varied for us as I think it could be. Some songs take years, and are real struggles to balance. But the oddest part of that is the finished result often isn't that different from a really inspired song that only took an afternoon to write. One thing that is hard to get away from, once you've written a lot of songs, is the desire to include more sophisticated ideas, in the structure or arrangement. It's hard to say if this is a good or bad impulse, since songs aren't necessarily improved by their trickiness.
As far as the show goes-we started as a duo with a tape recorder, and that really broke down the "fourth wall" between us and the audience. We didn't have a band to interact with, or hide behind. So we became very chatty, and that was something a lot of our audiences grew very fond of. When we brought in other musicians it definitely upped the musicality of the show, and we got to explore more improvisational ideas- a lot of which have pretty funny results. But we also lost a lot of the nervous chatter, which I know some fans miss.
Where do you get your energy from before putting on such high octane concerts?
We drink shocking amounts of coffee. It is probably really bad for our long term health. I wish we could stop, but we seem highly addicted at this point. It really governs our moods.
You recently finished two very energetic concert tours - how do you manage to work all the concerts, talk shows, publicity appearances, and more while concurrently writing music for a hit television show?
The tours meant we had to quit "Malcolm". As much as working on the show was a dream gig, and afforded us the time, and financing, to work on "Mink Car" and "No!" in a studio environment rather than from the road, the actual work load was really overwhelming. It got to a point in the couple of years we worked on "Malcolm" where doing tours seemed like a vacation to me, which, when you consider how unhealthy road life is- that's a pretty good indicator of how intense the "Malcolm" gig could be. I'm know there other people-more virtuosic, improvisational musicians-who can handle that kind of gig better than us, but for us it was a real challenge.
Does the pressure ever get to you?
I actually have a lot more fun on the road now than I used to. In the 80's, when it was just me and John and a couple of crew guys in a van it often seemed very dreary. We drove all day most days, and there weren't enough people to talk to, and the venues kinda sucked. I was really nervous on stage. I really enjoy the quality of our band and crew now, and feel like we can put on a great show almost every night.
Have you guys ever felt left out by not going, say, the way of 80's Metal/Hair-Bands or doing the Rap/Techno/Dance Scene? Did you or John ever think of doing straight "rock 'n' roll"?
We've never 'decided' to change, but there does seem to be a side-effect of decades of touring which is that you get rewarded for rocking, so it is a subtle pull towards the rock. When we did the children's record it reminded us a lot of the work we did in our very earliest recordings
What is the story behind John Linell's trademark blue keyboard table/stand?
It was built by our friend Brian Dewan, who made the cover for the Lincoln album, and is a very talented musician and songwriter in his own right.
Our of your complete collection of work, which are your favorite songs/albums, and which ones are your most favorite to perform?
Keeping the show fresh with new songs and reintroducing old one is really the key. I think of the show as its own entity, with its own balance and rhythm, and use our full catalog pretty freely to make it work. I talk to people in the crowds after shows and try to think about ways to surprise them. Adding "Fingertips," a track from Apollo 18 that changes tempo and style about every 10 seconds or so, was an idea that came out of those discussions. It seemed like an impossible song to perform live, which is why it's so exciting to be able to actually pull it off.
This is a funny thing to say, and I don't want people to think we're lazy, but I have realized over the years that audiences really don't want to see musicians struggle on stage, so we make a point of keeping the show evolving rather than totally re-rigging it with new material.
One of your side projects is working on a children's album. What sparked the idea for going in that direction?
We were approached by a record company. It felt like we were far enough along in our career that people wouldn't be confused that we were actually changing into a kid act, so it finally seemed like a real possibility. It was a remarkably pleasant project, and really reminded me about how much fun it is working with unusual sounds, which we incorporated into our music a lot on our first albums, but have slowly gotten away from over the years.
How were you approached by Chrysler for their car commercial featuring your rendition of Georgie Fame's "Yeah Yeah"?
Basically they offered us a very generous deal in exchange for giving us a tremendous amount of exposure. It wasn't too hard to go along with it. It was exciting to hear it on the air, especially in the midst of watching "The Daily Show". Makes me feel like a big shot. Where's my cigar...
Your recent album, "Mink Car", had the unfortunate coincidence of being released on September 11th. Being a band from NYC, how have those events affected the band and your love of your hometown?
I think our experience was really similar to a lot of other New Yorkers. The moment of the event in and of itself was so unsettling that it's still hard to even think about it. It would be nice to think it would make people more aware of a lot of things, but who knows if any good could ever really come out of something so awful.
What's your greatest source of happiness doing what you're doing?
That's an interesting questing, because it makes me realize how general most of the pleasure I get out of most of the process. I love performing. I really seeing the albums in their shrink wrapped, finished form. I like reading positive reviews.
Does it get confusing addressing the band with two John's and three Dan's? Do you ever start a phrase with "Hey you..."?
We pretty much call everybody by their last name. It's like the army - or high school.
What do you see as the future of the band and your solo projects?
We are working on the next album, and have this compilation and kid's album immediately ahead of us. There are book projects and musical ideas I would like to realize if we ever get a moment off, but there always seems to be another deadline.
What's more fun, playing music or writing and experimenting with music?
In the past I would have probably said I just want to be in the studio straight through, but having spent two years straight working on "Malcolm" and other projects in the studio, I have to admit I really need the variety.
Do you have any exciting new projects you can tell us about?
My big project right now is getting a tuxedo for the Grammies, which we are up for-to everyone's surprise and delight. TMBG have a box set that anthologizes our first 20 years as a band coming out on Rhino this fall. That's kind of a mindblower to think about.
What would your "dream project" be?
I would like to write music for a puppet show.
"Malcolm in the Middle" airs Sunday evenings on FOX; a soundtrack album is available in stores featuring two TMBG songs. Return to Never Land is available on Walt Disney Records, and currently in theaters. "Mink Car" is available in stores now, and you can visit TMBG at their official website: http://www.tmbg.com/
Special thanks to Dan Goldwasser, Jo Murray, and Girlie Action. Photo by C. Taylor Crothers