The Bonnaroo Interview: They Might Be Giants

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Videos by American Songwriter

They Might Be Giants rocked the Other Tent Sunday afternoon, wedged in between Blues Traveler and Medeski, Martin and Wood. We caught up with the decidedly normal-sized veteran music act before the show.

So when did you guys get here?

John Flansburgh: This morning. We haven’t seen anything yet.

Great. And this is your first Bonnaroo isn’t it?

John Flansburgh: Yes, yes it is. And we’ll be leaving right after the show.

Is that right? And where are you going to go?

John Flansburgh: Back home. Our bus is turning around and going home.

John Linnell: It’s a long ride.

Yeah, you’re from the city, right? New York City?

John Flansburgh: Yeah.

So what’s it like being up in the country?

John Linnell: Well, it’s very warm today. Um, but it’s been hot in New York. We’ve had some real blistering days.

What’s the plan for your set today?

John Flansburgh: Well, it’s… Doing festivals are sort of an interesting challenge. You’re playing, and there’s always people… you know, there’s a front row and a middle and a back row, and their interests are kind of different. But hopefully the show has enough momentum where even people in the back row who are kind of not pre-sold on us will find it compelling.

John Linnell: Yeah, or, who have never heard of us before.

John Flansburgh: I mean, a lot of times, festivals are different. This one’s run a little bit more … with multiple stages, which is a really different kind of gig than like, just the big main stage type festivals where there’s really large percentage of people in the crowd who might not only … some people might not know who you are, but there might be people who actually…hate you. So it’s an interesting challenge as a performer. We’ve been playing for a long long time, and I think most of the time we’re pretty well in our comfort zone. Our hardcore fans are pretty encouraging no matter what we do. We can do some pretty strange sets, and they’ll still be excited about what we’re doing. So, it’s hard for us to even know what kind of sets are best in a festival setting. I wish we had more hits.

Haha. Well my guess is it’s going to go over great. It’s going to be awesome.

John Flansburgh: I think it’s going to be good, you know. Yeah, we’re in this funny place in our career where we’re getting to be, like… You know, I think we got added to the bill just because we got the old weirdo vote.

John Linnell: I think we’re a band… well we were never big enough for people to get sick of, but we’ve apparently, like, a lot of people have heard of us at this point, like John said, even though we’ve never actually had a hit song….in this country. So there’s a lot of, if not sympathy, there’s a lot of good feelings.

John Flansburgh: A lot of bonhomie.

So, you guys have written a butt load of songs, and I assume you have never written…

John 1: Yes, we keep them in a box marked “Butt Load.”

I presume you’ve never written a song with Bonnaroo in it.

John Linnell: With Bonnaroo in it?

John Flansburgh: We don’t really know what Bonnaroo means.

John Linnell: Yeah. We still don’t know what that is.

I heard, it’s a New Orleans word for “good” or something

John Linnell: But we’re not in New Orleans, so what’s going on?

John Flansburgh: We’re not even near New Orleans.

So the Flaming Lips, they were here the other night. They covered Dark Side Of The Moon.

John Linnell: Excellent.

Is there any album you guys could ever foresee covering?

John Flansburgh: We’re covering They Might Be Giants songs.

John Linnell: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, we did another festival called Sasquatch out on the west coast, and the Long Winters did a Grateful Dead cover.

John Flansburgh: Yeah, is that a theme or something? I didn’t know…

John Flansburgh: Well I guess you’d get the stoner vote. Um, I don’t know. We don’t, uh, I mean we have some very famous covers but they’re just sort of singular songs. “Istanbul” is actually a cover of a song from the ’50s, although people tend to think it’s us because it’s so in the spirit of what we do. I don’t know. We could have done something like that; we just didn’t know that was the call. I don’t know, maybe if they invite us back next year we’ll do something, we’ll do Presence.

So you guys have played some kids shows recently.

John Flansburgh: Yeah, we did a family show just yesterday.

So this is going to be a whole different vibe?

John Flansburgh: Not that different, haha.

John Linnell: Well, we actually do play kids shows, their songs, during our adult shows, but, um, it’s really a different thing, you know. But there is a surprising amount of overlap between the kids and the adults.

John Flansburgh: We actually also do the puppet show from the kids show in the adult’s show, and it might even go over better in the adult show than the kids show. Kind of a Pee Wee’s Playhouse… it’s a polymorphous part of the show.

And are you guys working on a new album right now?

Both: Yeah, yeah.

John Linnell: We are. Very slowly.

What’s that like?

John Flansburgh: We’re going to call it “Bonnaroo”

John Linnell: Haha. It’ll be covers.

John Flansburgh: Yeah, it’s hard to say. We’re still actively writing songs, and recording a bunch of things, but you know the past three years have been really busy for us. We’ve put out The Else in 2007 but then we did Here Come the 123s and Here Comes Science in quick succession, so it’s really been three… I feel like we’ve done three albums in a row, without, with some real touring, but a lot of just writing. We’ve been just churning out the albums, I feel like. We started recording this album in earnest about six months ago and stopped momentarily, partly because there were a lot of one-offs. Doing shows that were too big to say “no” to. But, um, I think it also didn’t seem like we had quite enough focus to really get it going. But the past month, things have kind of come back a little more. We’re trying to muster our focus a little bit.

Do you have a tentative date for when that might come out?

John Flansburgh : The release date was supposed to be like two months ago, so like…

John Linnell: Next year.

John Flansburgh: Yeah, we’ve got to get back to work.

Is there any radical departure?

John Linnell: Um…

John Flansburgh: What are you supposed to say? Radical departures… same ol’ kick ass rock and roll.

John Linnell: Don’t scare off the old fans…

John Flansburgh: We really approach a lot of things on a song-by-song basis, more than an album basis. The albums don’t end up having shape until after they’re finished, and then we see how they all fit together. To be candid, because we’re actively doing family projects and adult rock projects, I think when we’re in the development phase, if something seems a little bit gentle or bouncy, we think well this probably would be good for a kid’s record. But the truth of the matter is, I think a lot of our adult fans actually like our gently bouncy material as much as any of our material for adults. We’ve come around to the notion that we shouldn’t deprive… We shouldn’t just make super harsh rock out stuff for adults and gentle bouncy records for kids.

John Linnell: If history is any guide, our audience doesn’t judge us based on the style of the song. That’s not really… we don’t seem to be a real “style” band. They like the content. We’re really about the content.

John Lansburgh: Yeah, but when I think about the way that the last album with the Dust Brothers came out, it did seem like, listening to it, it seemed very, like a hard-driving record, rhythmically. I think we could have included like a little bit more happy-go-lightly songs. It’s not very calculated, it’s just what we’re doing.

John Linnell: Yeah, it’s what it is. But I think even as we were finishing with that, we were saying that it seems to be the least cuddly music that we’ve ever made, for better or worse.

John Flansburgh: Which made us sort of aware that our music might be cuddly. Which made us self-conscious in a way that we had never felt before.

All right. So you’re not going to see any bands afterward, you’re thinking?

John Flansburgh: We’d love to see all the bands play! But we’ve got a bus and 12 guys who are all on the clock.

Do you get like, the internet in your bus?

John Flansburgh: Oh, we get internet.

Because you can watch it on YouTube.

John Linnell: That’s a funny idea. Like, on the bus at Bonnaroo watching a YouTube video… haha.

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