Interview: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants On Turning 50, Writing Jingles, The Badassness of Elvis Costello, And The Theory That Most Bands Have Only One Good Album

That's Flansburgh on the right
That's Flansburgh on the right

John Flansburgh stands as the younger, more bespectacled half of They Might Be Giants, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston band he has been playing in for more than half his life (Their latest album is Here Comes Science, their fourth children's album and 14th or so studio album overall.) Flansburgh turns 50 years old today; one week ago, when he was still 49, he shared some of the wisdom and waste he's picked up along the long, long way. Here are some of his thoughts.

I think because I'm musical partners with someone who's 50 [TMBG cohort John Linnell], I've thought a little bit about where we land generationally. Both John and I are younger brothers, and I think, having been born in 1960 or 1959, which is really the tail end of the Baby Boom, and being a younger sibling, it's a very singular place to be in American culture, because you saw the entire melodrama of the '60s and '70s as kind of a passive observer. You know, you were just the kid in the back of the car listening to the yelling. The babysitter who saw Easy Rider and then hitchhiked to San Francisco was in your life. And everything about the Vietnam War and rock music exploding and the Yipees, all this stuff of hippie culture was very tangible and very real. Even Mad magazine or Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny or all these kind of anti-authority type cartoon characters. Even Peanuts, to some extent, had this kind of anti- quality to it. All this mainstream culture with all this heavy, heavy anti- stuff was happening in your childhood, and I think it informed the way we approached the world. We didn't go through a lot of changes in the '60s. We were just kids. But we saw it all. And I think that that really changed the way we approached culture and culture-consuming and culture-making, and it just made us different. I feel like we were sort of media literate in a way that people before us weren't.

I think as I was turning 40, I realized that the window of reinvention was quickly closing. And the idea that I was going to be able to carry on having the career that I was having was going to be available to me. And there's actually some things about that that are very liberating, because a lot of times, if you're a musician, you don't really get to choose whether you want to stick around or not. It can be a very difficult life. The third acts of Behind the Music are usually kind of tough. But the whole thing kind of made me sort of recalibrate what it is to be an adult as a creative person. I feel like we kind of crossed a professional finish line in a way. And we got much more relaxed and confident about what we were doing.

In some ways I think 50 can feel old, but in a good way, you know. I was talking with my wife the other day about the notion of wisdom, and over and over again, since I've turned 40, I find myself in the middle of scenarios that I know would've completely bewildered me as a younger man. But because of my life experience, and just the diversity of my life experience, I actually can navigate through them quite successfully. And I'm talking about a whole world of stuff. You know, professional stuff, interpersonal stuff. Everything imaginable. But I feel like I've actually learned so much about the world that I'm just in a much better place.

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About 10 years ago, we started really interacting collaboratively and creatively with the outside world. We had never really done much of what people would call 'work for hire.' We had never done incidental music or jingles or themes or, you know, writing music for other people's projects. And doing that at all successfully required a whole set of things that we didn't really have going for us. There's an interpersonal part of it, where you actually have to listen very closely to what the client has to say. And there's a speed of working. Just actually, you know, sitting down and coming up with an idea and turning it out in very short order. All those things are really necessary parts of doing that kind of work, and figuring out how to do that in the world was a really big challenge. In some cases, early on, we completely failed at it. I mean, I've had music supervisors yell at us because they didn't like what we were doing for one reason or another. But I think over the fullness of time, we actually figured out how to do it, and that was no small feat. There's nothing about being in a rock band making albums the way people used to make albums that helps you figure out how to work quickly. It's just a very different headspace.

I wanted to be a graphic designer. My father was an architect, so I was not a stranger to the world of design. And I was completely fascinated by graphic design. I mean, I've just always been into it. My parents were very into the idea of me becoming an architect, and I wasn't that interested in architecture. But there was a guy in my father's firm who was a graphic designer, and when I was 12 years old I was like an office boy. I was basically the intern for the graphic designer.

I would like to live until I died very suddenly [laughs]. I'm not a sentimental guy. I don't want to stick around.

I would say from the age of 25 to 34 was pretty much all fantastic. Basically those 10 years kick off with things really starting to click for us in New York City as a local band, which is about as much fun as I think any band ever gets, is to be celebrated in a city. It was just a really positive experience, and it seemed like anything was possible. And then, you know, somewhere in the middle of that I met my future wife, and it's just been great since then. I mean, on both a personal and professional level, it was a really good run.

My teen years were pretty tough. And my early college years were not a barrel of laughs. You know, I was such an academic failure that just getting out of high school was almost impossible for me, and staying in college, trying to figure out how to not get booted out of college, was a real chore.

 

I think there's kind of a cultural governor on pop music where, you know, you quickly realize that it's a game of musical chairs, and the longer you play the less chairs there are. You know, there's a New Faces column. There isn't an Old Faces column. So the fact that we've survived in spite of evolving quite a bit as a band is still quite exceptional. I would say Elvis Costello is a good example of somebody who has kept his mojo working in a pretty real way. I was working with Dave Robinson, the guy who started Stiff Records, about 10 years ago in England. He was briefly our A&R guy. And I was a huge Stiff fan, and saw Elvis Costello's first performance in London at the Nashville Room. I think he'd done some secret shows the night before, but basically it was the first time anybody had really laid eyes on him. And it was the Summer of Hate. It was like 1977. It was a big year for punk rock. I was a big Nick Lowe fan, a fan of a lot of the stuff that Dave was involved in--Lene Lovich and Rachel Sweet and all this stuff--so it was very exciting for me to have a chance to talk to him about Stiff Records in the early days. And he said this thing kind of off the cuff, which I always thought was hilarious.

I should preface it by saying I think Dave has got total respect for Elvis Costello on every level. Needless to say, he's like his big discovery. But he said that if a young Elvis Costello was given the ability to travel through time, he had no doubt that he would travel forward to find the old Elvis Costello and kill him. Because, you know, he really was that guy. He really was an angry young man. In some ways, Elvis Costello was the thinking man's Johnny Rotten. He obviously was more emotionally complex and working from a richer set of ideas musically but, you know, the intensity of his performance when he started was unbelievable, and the fact that he's found a way to kind of step down and away from that and still be musically successful is kind of fantastic, because that's a very hard thing to do.

I know people who have like a one-album theory. They're not just, 'Oh, nobody makes anything good after they're 50.' They would say, 'With popular music, people just have one good album in them, and that's it.' And sometimes, you know, with the grand exception of the Beatles, sometimes I think they might not be wrong.


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