Photo by Shervin Lainez
Interview with John Flansburgh | By Doug Nunnally
Over 25 years since their breakout record, the melodic masters They Might Be Giants are still plugging away with an output that would shame most of their contemporaries who struggle with staying relevant. For TMBG, they’ve been able to breathe new life into their music with their adventure into educational records as well as finding new and challenging ways to continue their bouncy, melodic spirit in a new, inspired format. This past Thanksgiving, the band combined both of those recent pushes with Why?, their 18th record released on their own label Idlewild and their first under a new “family-friendly” moniker.
It’s a natural progression for a band with Here Comes The ABCs in their catalogue, but still, family-friendly doesn’t quite sit well with TMBG. “I know it’s a common expression, but I kind of recoil from the term family-friendly,” John Flansburgh sheepishly admitted. “To me, the term runs parallel with ‘good for all ages.’ It’s a phrase that clearly describes an idea, but it also always hints at the notion that it just might be the opposite.”
Despite his initial impression on the term, it’s a completely natural fit. For a band once heavily featured in the classic cartoon Tiny Toons, TMBG may have always been family-friendly to some. “Because our songs are often melody-driven, there is a natural ‘sing along’ aspect built in to the songs that make people think they’re right for kids.” Regardless, it’s pretty apparent that their target audience has definitely expanded for this record with the idea of bridging the two audiences seamlessly with an approach rooted in some nostalgic memories as well as a desire to just offer up quality work.
“I think pop music that spoke to us as kids probably has the strongest pull on how we approach these projects. So we let the songs have strong beats and melodic hooks and graphic concepts; those were the things that drew us into music in the first place. I feel like a drag saying it, but almost all of the official kids music I grew up with and even the contemporary kids stuff when we first started working on ‘No!’ all seemed pretty crummy. Of course, a lot has changed since then and having done some kids music festivals, it seems like there are a lot of newer kids acts that are original and seriously less icky than Raffi and Barney.”
Raffi and Barney jokes aside, the band had plenty of other works to draw inspiration for with this project as well as their educational works. Successful picture books from across the spectrum seemed to help the band along with Flansburgh extolling their greatness. “There is an effervescent quality in that kind of work that is very appealing and worthy of examination.” Above all of these books though stands the work of Dr. Seuss, an author Flansburgh was quick to discuss. “He never panders and his world usually doesn’t divide kids and adults.” It’s something TMBG strives for in their music, even if he realizes that at its core, it’s still slightly divisive.
“I feel like our job is to spark the listener’s imagination. When we are writing for kids, it has to work for them. There might be lyrics or a simplicity that would drive some adults away. I don’t feel like we think we are going to successfully persuade adult audiences with the kids stuff, or at least far from as reliably as with the adult songs.”
Find out for yourself how the band stacked up on Why?, but also really ponder the skill and drive it takes to truly create something to stand out in an already rich catalogue spanning fourteen albums and four educational records. And what of the educational records? Well, Flansburgh let us know that there is plans for at least one more educational record in the somewhat distant future.
“The final educational album about history is actually in the works, but we are going to delay the release. It’s called ‘There Go Your Civil Rights!’ and it’s loosely based on A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. We plan on a posthumous release in 2050. Then we assume the new paramilitary US government will dig us up and put our bones in jail!”