They Might Be Giants’ new album Nanobots boasts 25 songs in 45 minutes, an impressive feat for the duo’s sixteenth album. American Songwriter sat down with singer/guitarist John Flansburgh before the band’s show in Nashville to talk about Nanobots, the band’s songwriting process, and the strangest thing he’s ever had thrown at him while performing.
Let’s talk about Nanobots, which I heard for the first time on my way over here.
Oh yeah? What was your impression?
It’s good. So was Join Us. I like the last several records you guys have done.
Right. I feel like, and I don’t want to sound prideful, but I feel like we have been evolving in a good direction. The adult work we’ve done since our first kids project has been informed by a different sensibility somehow. Doing the kids albums was such an interesting break from thinking about where our music was going to land. When we started recording 25 years ago, it was so completely undefined; we had no sense of an audience, we had no sense of music culture. In the formative years of the band we were starting in a total cultural vacuum, which is not such a bad place to be. You end up pursuing more original ideas, and everything has got a very personal quality to it. But even from the first album to the second album, we had done hundreds of shows and toured Europe and all across the United States. All of a sudden, what worked in front of audiences became part of our consciousness.
It’s hard to even say how it made us change; we still made really short songs that people probably thought of as being stingy. But as we get into the new era of our third decade, I feel like we have gotten a third wind. It’s a good time for us as a band; I think we actually feel confident in what we’re doing. Join Us was actually a much harder process than Nanobots. I still can’t tell if Nanobots is our Rumours after the Fleetwood Mac album, or if it’s Tusk after the Rumours album. But it feels like a very clear progression from one to another.
How has your songwriting process changed over the years? Do you even have a set process?
That’s a good question, and there isn’t an easy answer for it. Newspaper reporters will often say “How do you get your ideas?” and I will often say “That’s a real stumper for both me and John (Linnell).” We’re always glad when we have an idea, but it’s not like every single day you have another good idea. I think both John and I do a lot of casting about as to how to approach creating recordings and songs. From a distance it might even look device-y, like we’re just trying to find new angles to fabricate. We’ll give ourselves some kind of crazy restriction or try to work in some set of ideas. We work apart a lot, but when we do collaborate, it’s very open ended. There are many times when I’ve handed off some lyrics to John, or John’s given me an instrumental or a chord progression. We even trade sound files, like a sample disc. The track “Spider” off Apollo 18 is pretty much handing off FC1 Sample files to one another and making programs from that. It’s a faceless collaboration.
Has it always been like that?
Well, we’ve written songs in a room Tin Pan Alley style on lots of occasions. But most of our work together is in the recording/arranging/finishing stages of things. Most of the stuff is written largely separately, but really it’s pretty open. John has got a great sense of harmonics, so if there’s a big chord chart, John will lead the session. A lot of sniggle-y production things will fall to me. So there are a lot of small roles that are strangely established.
I noticed that the tagline for Nanobots was “25 unreasonable songs in 45 impossible minutes.” I read somewhere that even though that almost sounds like you’re adapting to the fast-paced modern age of commercial music, it’s actually more of an album pacing concept.
In the middle of recording the full-length songs for this album, John sent me an email that said “Why don’t we do a bunch of miniatures as well, just to see how it goes.” We thought that might kind of break things up. And that was great for me; I really dug into that idea. But there is some history with the band with these short songs. We’ve only done a couple of other excursions into miniatures. I guess our first album has got some very short songs on it, but on Apollo 18 there was a song series called “Fingertips,” which is this collage piece. And then we’ve got a song called “With The Dark” that has like four sections in it, but it’s a three minute long medley of a song. And I guess our fear is that people are just going to think it’s a throwback to that. And we didn’t exactly know how to arrange it without making it seem like that’s what it was. We could easily be accused of repeating ourselves, but we don’t want to be accused of repeating ourselves. So we think about and how we present things.
The nice thing about Nanobots is that it’s set up in a sequence that really dismantles your pre-conceived notions of how the album’s going to go. When you see a rock show, a typical rock show, about four songs into it you kind of know nothing is going to change. And to me that’s a really disappointing thing about a lot of live performances. There might be content in there that’s really worthwhile, but it’s presented in this same-y kind of way. And the same is true for albums. “Here’s a three minute long song, and here’s another three minute long song,” and to not examine that and think “What else could be done?”… Doing very short songs is – well they’re strange because they almost function as commercials for really unreasonable ideas, they’re jingle length, some of them. It does make it kind of kaleidoscopic, without being too precious. It’s not a concept album, there’s no theme that runs through it, but it does have a shape to it that’s sort of psychedelic.
I looked at the setlist and it seems like there’s some songs that get played more often than others. Are there some songs that, when you record them, you know you’re probably not going to play them out as much, if at all?
When we do the kids songs we pretty much know “This is going to be it,” because we barely play kids shows. Kids shows are strange because they have to happen on weekends and – the kids world is, well it’s sort of too business-y to get into. But because we don’t do a lot of kids shows but we do a lot of kids recordings, we’ve become aware that we can kind of take advantage of the productions. We’re not going to be called upon to reproduce things, and that’s actually kind of an invitation to do more far-field arrangements. I don’t think we have any pre-conceived notions about it. I read an interview with Mick Jagger a few years ago where he said he can tell if an album from their catalog was good if they did more than two songs live from it. I thought that was very cruel, considering how many good albums they have, but the truth is, this is our 16th album, and when you’re 16 albums in there’s a lot to choose from. And there are expectations from the audience that you want to fill as well.
I think we do a pretty good job of keeping it going and having a different repertoire from tour to tour. There’s a front row and a back row. There are people that have been dragged to the show by a friend, and maybe “Birdhouse In Your Soul” would be the most persuasive thing that we could play for the friend. I’m curious, what’s your take on when you see a veteran band play the opposite of the variety show with greatest hits thing that we do, which is: the veteran band torturing their audience by playing nothing but their new album. I feel like I don’t really want to be that guy either.
Well, I’ve seen Neil Young a few times, and he seems to do that a lot. The last time I saw him he didn’t play many hits, and of course he was with Crazy Horse, and I think people get confused as to what Crazy Horse is…
I thought they were his drug buddies.
Right. So he comes out and plays this set for this crowd of mostly 40-50-year old people, and they left pissed off and complaining. And at first I was upset, I thought “Are you kidding, this man just put on this great show?” It was really punk rock with a lot of feedback and distortion, and a lot of new material. But after a while it just settled in that those middle-aged people were “too old” to get Neil, who was older than probably half of the audience. I think that’s pretty great.
It’s important to think of a way to not get sick of yourself. I think any performer is more aware of their limitations then they want to talk about. And it is strange to have certain things in your repertoire that you have to play a million times just to not be called stingy. We’ve done shows where we haven’t played “Istanbul” or “Birdhouse,” and people don’t leave too pissed off. But then again it’s hard to know, maybe it infuriated somebody. One thing that’s nice about right now is that there is a They Might Be Giants Wiki, which is a fan site where all of our comings and goings are documented completely. All of our setlists are transcribed, so earlier today I looked at the setlist we played last time we were in Nashville, to sort of compare. There’s 30 songs in that show, there’s 30 in our show tonight, but 17 of them are different. That seems like a pretty healthy ratio. But the thing that’s weird is that 13 of them will be the same. I’m just glad that that asset exists.
I was at that show.
Oh yeah? What was your least favorite part?
Probably when these two drunk guys shoved into the front and started knocking into people during “Birdhouse In Your Soul.”
Oh yeah, yeah, I remember that. Y’know we just did this show last night in Louisville that was notably and profoundly weird. We were about three quarters of the way into the show, and it was a very rowdy crowd. It was a Tuesday night and it seemed like people had been drinking since Thursday. Right out of the gate they were just… motivated. This one rowdy section that had been sort of percolating for the whole show all of a sudden exploded with this woman, she must have had a 48 ounce bottle of beer in her hand, and she was spinning in 360s with a fully loaded beer that just started spraying everybody. And then it started spraying the stage and completely soaked Linnell and soaked the keyboard. It was a complete bummer, and people were so pissed off. The security just sort of plucked this lady and her crazy biker boyfriend out of the bar like they were just bugs, picked them up by the scruff of their necks and hauled them off. But it was this complete psycho moment. I’ve played in bars for 25 years, I’m used to the guy who’s not on his meds flipping out; a week does not go by where something doesn’t happen. But this, part of it was just the way it was hitting the light; it was like a water effect. I’m just glad she didn’t throw the bottle. The flying glass thing, it’s an on-site job hazard.
What’s the weirdest thing anyone has ever thrown at you while you were playing music?
Well we’ve had the range of underwear and bras, but it’s been relatively okay. Did you ever hear about the Foo Fighters Mentos thing? It’s so fucked up. That video that had a parody of the Mentos ad in it, well people would come to their shows and chuck Mentos at the stage. Nobody wants to have stuff thrown at them. It’s the worst feeling. I once had somebody who was very, very high – I met this person years later and they explained that they were high on psychedelic drugs – and they had some of this stuff that Nickelodeon had called Gak. They weren’t high on Gak; it’s this sort of toy gloopy stuff that kids would pull apart, kind of like a high tech version of Play-Doh. He had this thing that was basically the size of a baseball of Gak, and he was just swinging his arm around and let go. It flew straight across the audience and hit me in the face. Like he was a major league pitcher going for me. It was so unexpected, like getting hit by a rock in the face. I was singing a song and all of a sudden I’ve got this near knock-out blow from this Gak. It was extremely unpleasant. And man, it just pissed me off so much. It’s always a mistake to think of the audience as one thing, it’s a ton of individuals having their own experience. The person in the back not clapping might actually be the most interested and intrigued person. But it did sort of really cheese me off. It’s also sort of embarrassing, like I just got knocked in the face by a hardball of Gak.