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On the eve of their Australian tour, They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh chats with AM’s Greg Phillips

Having a conversation with John Flansburgh, one half of New York-based pop rockers They Must be Giants is much like listening to one of the band’s albums. The themes are diverse and intriguing, the tone quirky, the vibe is feel-good and at times you think, where the hell is he going with this? For the purpose of this interview, we should have been discussing the band’s new compilation album and their Australian tour. I’m not quite sure we got there so here, I’ll explain anyway. Their Australian tour begins this week, November 2nd in Perth and wraps up in Melbourne next Saturday night. In between there’s Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney (Full tour details at end of interview). The new album is called 50,000,000 They Might Be Giants Songs Can’t Be Wrong. It’s an Australian-only release and is the band’s only full career retrospective featuring all of their well known songs such as Birdhouse In Your Soul, Dr Worm, Ana Ng, and the Malcolm In The Middle theme, Boss Of Me to name four (Full track list below). The physical version is available as a 60 song, 2 CD digipack. Formalities taken care of, back to the interview which went pretty much like this …

Greg: They Might Be Giants have been around for three decades. You are one of the busiest bands I know.  You currently have a dial a song project which obligates you to have a new song written and recorded every week. There’s also a video for each track. You’re always touring and never stop releasing albums. You’ve won two Grammy Awards. You’re involved in music for television. Are you allergic to relaxation?
John: To be perfectly honest, my dad was a classic workaholic. I feel really casual compared to him. It’s just what you know and what you grew up with, that’s your only measure. My dad worked so much harder than I ever will. I feel like a hippie but compared to a lot of musicians, we seem pretty manic. So it is all relative.

You guys have written some wonderful pop songs but what is the most perfectly constructed song you have ever heard?
There are a lot of songs that I come back to that have a quality to them that I can’t quite figure out what makes them so magical to me. It might be in the vocal harmony. There’s a song They Don’t Know About Us covered by Tracy Ullman but written by an Irish singer Kirsty McColl. I love that song completely. It is very simple but an extremely satisfying song. There are so many Beatles songs you could point to. The thing about the popular song is there are a  lot of ways to create an effective, hypnotic song. I think I am still enthralled by the idea of song. It is very persuasive. I don’t know … I like music.

At this point John asks me to hold while he looks up his iTunes program on his phone to see which song he has played the most, only to find that the tallying feature doesn’t seem to exist on the new version of the software. If it does, he can’t find it.

Because you have written so many songs, how do you stop yourself from writing the same song over and over? What tricks have you learned to take an idea in a new direction?
It’s a very plastic medium, if that is an expression people can comprehend. It’s a very flexible thing writing a song. I think over the years we have got a little more into rhythm as a musical driver. These days, melody almost seems like it is on the endangered species list. It is certainly not the primary component of a lot of popular songs. A lot of songs are really very much rhythm based and have a simple hook and that’s what it’s about. For us, melody has always been our secret weapon in a way. Certainly it has hooked people in and it’s a way to do things. It’s a very universal way of writing.

While offering that last answer John had also been rummaging through iTunes on his computer, determined to tell me which song he listens to the most. Suddenly he bursts out with …

Now I can tell you which song I listen to the most! According to my iTunes player on my computer, it is the song Formed A Band by the band Art Brut. I’m not sure if they are Irish or Scottish or English. I believe the song Formed A Band was the first thing they ever did as a band. They did an album which was produced by Black Francis but this Formed A Band song is an amazing song because it just lays out all their ambitions of the band in a structual way and it is also incredibly rocking. I invite everyone to check out Art Brut’s Formed A Band. I have currently played it 570 times.

Wikipedia informs John, who confirms to me that Art Brut is a Berlin-based English and German indie rock band

18594-TMBG_20Press_20Photo_Shervin_20Lainez_LoResHave you had many songs which have gotten away? Either you thought of them in your sleep or by the time you got to a guitar or tape recorder, they were gone?
I remember once I was in the middle of writing a song and it’s going to be on our upcoming record. There’s a video out for it already called Omnicorn (See video below) and I thought of a really great bridge for the song walking to a car garage and I sang it to my phone and it seemed really clever and melodic in a Beatley kind of way. Then my phone died in the middle of it and it didn’t save the file and the idea flew out of my head. I do think back and kinda regret it. But I will tell you there was one weird thing which happened to me years ago, like in the early 90s. We did a song called Twisting on our album Flood that name-checked a band called the Young Fresh Fellows. They were like a seminal early indie college rock band, the first band on the Seattle scene… very fun band. We name-checked them and knew their music from touring around the country. We had no personal relationship with the band. And I saw this band called The Pussy Willows in New York City and they were performing all original material and material that was written for them. One of the songs they performed was called Hillbilly Drummer Girl in their show and it had a fantastic guitar riff. As a guitarist you feel like all the great riffs have all been written and then you hear a song you have never heard before and it’s like whoa, this guy just wrote a great, driving, simple, profound , direct guitar riff and was totally excellent. So they did this song called Hillbilly Drummer Girl and a couple of weeks later, we were on the road. I was in a hotel and doing this thing which I never do, which is trying to write a song in a hotel room. So I came up with this song and thought, wow this is really good… that guitar bit is really fantastic. Then a couple of months go by and I have my little notebook of ideas and my cassette recorder with little song sketches and I keep evolving on this song and seems like it’s going to be good. We go to this record store and there’s this bin of sale cassettes and there’s this album from the Young Fresh Fellows from a few years ago. I buy it and put it on and the first track has this guitar riff that I thought I had written. The thing is, I had no recollection of where I had heard it before, so it was completely bugging me out. I thought that the Young Fresh Fellows had gone back in time and had stolen my idea. I could not put together what had happened. I immediately put the brakes on this song I was doing because that was not going to work. This was before Google and all searchable things, so you were just left scratching your head not knowing how to research it. Then a couple of years later I found out that they had actually given the song to this New York band that i had seen at CBGBs and that they had played it that night. It had made such a strong impression on me but i didn’t know how to connect it. So it was  a little bit of very inadvertent plagiarism but it was such a mystery for such a long time. So that’s the story. I wish it had a better punch line.

Tell me about your stage gear. Has it changed much since you first started playing?
The thing that was strange for us was that we went from really small stages to large stages, so it was a challenge trying to figure out what sounds work. I started with a Tele and a Fender Deluxe and one fuzz box and at this point, I am not that far away from that. In between time, I did the Marshall thing for a while. I had a really big Marshall rig that probably, deafened half the band. What I have now is very similar to a Vox AC30, made by this guy, It’s called an XITS amp and he’s a boutique amp builder and its very versatile but profoundly gnarly sounding amp. It’s funny that they always call them boutique amps because it can definitely be as aggressive. I am back to playing a Tele. For years I played the ES335. One of the reasons I played the ES335 was when you play in a place with really bad electricity the single coil pickups can get messed up. The neon beer sign can be louder in your amp than your guitar. The humbuckers in the ES335 solved that problem but happily we play in a nice calibre of club now. There are less beer signs in our lives.

Have you found the perfect guitar pick?
It’s funny that you mention that! I am embarrassed to say that I buy Pick Boy guitar picks. They’re not like a dollar. They are literally ten times more expensive than normal picks. I don’t know why it matters to me but I have a very real preference for their classic vintage pick. It really just reminds me of an old fashioned Fender heavy pick. I don’t know what it is about picks now but it seems that most normal picks are made of a different material. If I just buy a regular heavy pick, it will be two thirds the size it was by the end of the night. They just don’t hold up. I need a celluloid pick I guess..

Maybe there were chemicals involved in the old picks that they are not allowed to use now?
Is that what it is? I’m really not sure why they ever changed but that is probably it. Isn’t that the story with the nitrocellulose, the way paint is applied to guitars. The old fashioned way was incredibly hazardous to the people putting it on but of course with guitar players, that’s what everybody prefers.

The toxic version is always best!
Right, whatever is the most unsafe work environment for the musician!

You guys are great observers of life in your songs. What’s something about Australia that seems a little bit quirky to you?
We toured Australia  a couple of years ago and we hadn’t been their prior for some years. Our previous memory of Australia was that it was a land where cell phones were immediately embraced. There were many more people talking on cell phones than the United Sates. This would have been in the late nineties  when cell phones were just taking off. It was the era of flip phones. Everyone in Australia had a cell phone and it was like, oh they are so hi tech. Is it because they are near Japan? Who knows but for whatever reason, we were left with this very strong impression that Australia was on the cutting edge of technology … classic early adopters. You know… they don’t care … they’ll just get a cell phone. Then when we came back a couple of years ago it was like nobody had heard of wi fi. We stayed at this hotel and it was like we charge $30 an hour to use our glacierly slow wi fi service. Our tour manager who is very much a power use on all things electronic, he was losing his mind, saying this is the slowest modem I have ever seen for ten years. It seemed so strange that somehow it had flipped. I couldn’t understand why wifi had not been embraced. People in our crew who have toured since we have been there have  said it has already rapidly changed for the better.

Monday 2nd November: PERTH, The Astor Theatre
Wednesday 4th November: ADELAIDE, The Gov
Thursday 5th November: BRISBANE, Tivoli
Friday 6th November: SYDNEY, Enmore Theatre
Saturday 7th November: MELBOURNE, Forum Theatre

TICKETS ON SALE  from here

Complete track listing 50,000,000 They Might Be Giants Songs Can’t Be Wrong.
Disc One: 
1. Don’t Let’s Start 
2. We’re The Replacements
3. (She Was A) Hotel Detective
4. Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head
5. She’s An Angel
6. Ana Ng
7. Purple Toupee
8. They’ll Need A Crane
9. It’s Not My Birthday
10. Nightgown Of The Sullen Moon
11. Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal
12. Your Racist Friend
13. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
14. Birdhouse In Your Soul
15. Twisting
16. The Statue Got Me High
17. I Palindrome I
18. The Guitar
19. Spy
20. Snail Shell
21. New York City
22. S-E-X-X-Y
23. Creepy
24. South Carolina
25. Dr. Evil
26. Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass of Incandescent Gas)
27. Older
28. On The Drag
29. Robot Parade
30. Rest Awhile
Disc Two: 
1. Doctor Worm
2. Boss Of Me
3. Bangs
4. Man, It’s So Loud In Here
5. Another First Kiss
6. No!
7. Where Do They Make Balloons?
8. Experimental Film
9. Damn Good Times
10. Au Contraire
11. The Spine Surfs Alone
12. Now Is Strange
13. Pittsburgh
14. Take Out the Trash
15. The Mesopotamians
16. The Bee Of The Bird Of The Moth
17. We Live In A Dump  18. Can’t Keep Johnny Down
19. When Will You Die?
20. Cloisonné
21. Authenticity Trip
22. Particle Man
23. Call You Mom
24. Stone Cold Coup D’état
25. You’re On Fire
26. Answer
27. Aaa
28. Erase
30. Starry Eyes

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