NoiseTrade One-on-One

Interview with They Might Be Giants

Iconic Brooklyn duo They Might Be Giants are set up for an incredibly exciting 2018 with a brand new album (I Like Fun, out January 19) and the highly anticipated return of their Dial-A-Song service. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we talked with co-frontman John Flansburgh about their brand new single “I Left My Body,” the writing and recording of I Like Fun, and the history (and renewal) of Dial-A-Song. We even sprinkled in a little seasonally-appropriate chat about their ’80s holiday chestnut “Santa’s Beard” just for kicks!

NoiseTrade: With the release of your 20th studio album I Like Fun set for next January, what can you tell us about the writing and recording of lead single “I Left My Body”?

John Flansburgh: John Linnell wrote that one. Obviously, it’s about being disoriented, which seems like a pretty relatable notion right now. Something about the lyric reminds me of Russian novels where the character can’t tell what’s real. It’s kind of from a dream, but it is very familiar and kind of prosaic, but that’s just my interpretation.

The recording was pretty straightforward, although the guitar tracking for no good reason was kind of rough. I am well aware of the expression “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools,” but we didn’t have a ton of equipment in the studio at various times. When the call was made to record the guitars, I only had my pretty thrashed back-up telecaster that lived at the studio available. I figured out as we went along that guitar was essentially un-tunable so there was a lot of odd compensating in the way I played it just to not have it sound like a solid wall of sour notes. I’m not even sure if the finished result isn’t still a fair bit funky, but it does sound big.

NT: I read that your new songs on I Like Fun deal with themes of dread, death, and disappointment. What are some of the things that inspired these lyrical directions and are there any songs that might be emotionally difficult to sing night after night on tour or does the music help offset the lyrics?

Flansburgh: Dread, death, and disappointment are all evergreens for us! We’ve thought about it a lot, and although it’s hard to sum up, part of what makes it work is that melody and music making, in general, is so life-affirming that it seems to immunize everyone from the initial meaning of even the most dire lyric. It’s like the catharsis is baked into the song making. Songs that go to darker topics don’t feel so dire as they might seem on paper. I mean, a song like “This Microphone” makes some of the saddest statements a song could make, but there is a bit of humor in the kind of impossibility of the words. Combined with the prettiness of the track, it make something that seems more joyous than down.

NT: Your NoiseTrade sampler features a significant batch of songs from your 2015 Dial-A-Song campaign and you’ve also announced that Dial-A-Song is slated to return in 2018. Give us a little history lesson on your famed Dial-A-Song service and what can fans expect from it next year?

Flansburgh: The project has evolved quite a bit, but the spirit of it seems pretty intact. Before we started making albums in the mid-’80s, we posted our songs on a phone machine that lived in a little suitcase in my apartment. Phone machines were actually emerging technology at the time. Dial-A-Song was always an open invitation to write more songs and that kind of loosened us up as to how we worked. It was also a fantastic way for people to find out about the band without the governors of the radio or record companies.

We kept it going until sometime in the ’90s when all the machines broke and digital phone messages sounded so crummy it just seemed impossible. We were already making albums then and had a pretty well-established audience, so it seemed like Dial-A-Song’s time had passed.

Years went by and the web started happening and then social media, and we saw how much everything and everyone was getting silo-ed off. So by 2015 we just started thinking about how to reconnect with that idea of sharing our music with folks in a more contemporary, less traditional format. When we brought it back we took on the challenge of having a new song every week and we’d post them on YouTube and our site and as downloads. Now in the 2018 year, we’ll be streaming songs as well, which could open things up even more. It’s a weird challenge, and I don’t want to take the joy out of it by making it sound hard, but we are into quality, so ultimately doing these big projects does involve too much work!

NT: You guys recorded I Like Fun at Reservoir Studios, which is where you recorded your platinum-selling album Flood back in 1989 when it was Skyline Studios. What drove the decision to return to the recording space and what was the experience like recording there almost three decades later?

Flansburgh: Although we worked with other producers on Flood, making that album was where we were introduced to Patrick Dillett who was an assistant there and we kept on working with him pretty consistently since then. Pat had a smaller studio space down the street and although Skyline had bounced around a few owners over the years, like a lot of the bigger studios in recent years, it felt kind of half-shuttered most of the time. Then the studio space came up for sale and Pat and his business partner Steve jumped at it and essentially brought it all back to life. Having a great sounding big room was totally great for us since that’s often how we like to work. And what is also great is they’ve actually reconfigured the whole floor into what feels like a big hive of creative activity with some very cool people’s project studios sort of spoking out from the big room. So the whole environment seems very active and alive with musical energy.

NT: I Like Fun took about a year to record. As 30-year veterans of the recording process, what studio elements have changed for you guys and what parts have remained the same?

Flansburgh: Hmmm. Well, everything has changed. Some of it’s great and some of it’s not so great. In the world of working bands, it’s essentially a post-apocalyptic landscape. The positive sway weekly city papers had over new audiences-–which was something that really led the way for decades–is dead. Radio is dead. The record companies are dead. And of course those outlets that really served as lighthouses for listeners really defined things the way they were, so you could blame them for all the unartistic commercially-minded shit, but they also often saw the best stuff in the culture first and pushed it forward and above the noise of everything else. At their best, there was a curatorial thing going on there with critics and A&R people and radio programmers. All that’s essentially meaningless now. So now all bands can hopscotch over those gatekeepers and the audience can directly decide if they like stuff which seems amazing until you realize it’s also about a thousand times harder to get audiences’ attention.

But on the creative side, making great sounding demos at home is easy and you can import the best part directly onto your album. That is great and no small thing for the simple joy of making music without compromise.

NT: Finally, talking to you guys so close to the holidays, I’d be remiss to not close things out by asking you about “Santa’s Beard” from your 1988 album Lincoln. First off, thank you for writing such a beautifully off-kilter Christmas song that I think should be included in the yearly Christmas pop music canon. Second, what inspired you guys to write “Santa’s Beard”? Finally, can we hope for a full Christmas record one day or is the Holidayland EP the max TMBG Christmas experience?

Flansburgh: Although I am not particularly a fan of holiday songs, I realize we’ve done a fair number over the years. There is always an interest. That one was really more about jealousy, which is probably why it stands out. The Santa part is kind of just incidental.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t standing beneath the mistletoe screaming, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack