Black ops? Karate chops? Microscopic robots and insect hospitals? It can only mean one thing – They Might Be Giants are back in London with a new album of scintillating zany pop tunes on their 16th album Nanobots tucked safely under their arm. But go hear some of its 25 unreasonable songs over 45 impossible minutes for yourself when they’re performed with a joyous smile at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on November 19th.
There, you can experience the surreal world of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Since 1982 they have been plying their singular brand of art-pop on the world, from their humble start in Manhattan’s East Village holding down regular jobs as regular dudes playing tiny venues, to hitting paydirt with the platinum-selling album Flood – boasting hit singles such as ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’, ‘Twisting’, and ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ – a mere eight years later. Armed with just an accordion, some outlandish lyrics, a guitar and a drum machine, the duo have succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination with their high tempos and even loftier lyrical madness.
But John and John haven’t restricted themselves to just refining and perfecting their uncanny brand of whimsical rock with uncanny lyrics for the entertainment of adults. They have also created a series of albums and DVDs for children. And made plenty of incidental music for television – the most renowned being the irreverent opening tune for sitcom Malcolm and the Middle in You’re Not the Boss of Me. Thirty years, 15 albums and approximately 1,000 songs later, the group entered Patrick Dillett’s New York studio (coincidentally, the recording spot of another ‘giant’ project – David Byrne & St Vincent’s album Love This Giant) to record Nanobots with a full band.
It also boasts a powerful psychedelic edge that recalls some of the headiness of the Yoshima-era Flaming Lips.
So, what then is a nanobot? It’s a hypothetical, very small, self-propelled machine, especially one that has some degree of autonomy and can reproduce, according to the Oxford Dictionary. Given the microscopic nature of songs like Tick, Hive Mind and Didn’t Kill Me it’s easy to see how the idea of the tiny creation with the capacity to accomplish big things might serve as a guiding principle for the entire record, so much of which is built upon a delicious kind of purposeful brevity. But it also boasts a powerful psychedelic edge that recalls some of the headiness of the Yoshima-era Flaming Lips.
Speaking to John Flansburgh from his hotel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I asked him if the album – which sounds meticulously crafted – took a long time to make. “Everything we do takes too long to make,” he laughed. “There was a fair amount of editing on the record. We probably recorded another dozen songs so we do make an effort to put our best foot forward with the song selection and we can be pretty cruel about our own work. We’re not always right, as there have been songs that have ended up as B-sides or been pushed off albums that have become some of our most popular songs with our fans so… But we don’t want to repeat ourselves too much. If we have too many manic up-tempo songs we’ll just prune off the weakest ones, which can be a strange enterprise at times. These days there are more outlets for that kind of stuff.”
The internet is the safety net for all second-rate ideas. Things can finally flourish in obscurity!
Such as the internet, I suggested? “Yeah, the internet is the safety net for all second-rate ideas,” John said. “Things can finally flourish in obscurity!”
After all of these years, what is it about the band today that should make people come and check out They Might Be Giants? “I wouldn’t want to be presumptuous, but we are confident in our presentation,” John explained. “So many things have evolved. In some ways we are exactly the same and in some ways we are grizzled veterans. We are in a singular place as a band because we started many years ago and we’ve never taken a serious break. There’s been no rehab, there have been no reunions! We’ve just been working on our craft. When we started the band we weren’t kids – we were working in New York and had real jobs and perfectly earthbound expectations of what was going to happen in our lives. So we approached this project in kind of a different way than your typical rock biography, where a bunch of teenagers get together and all of a sudden the world turns upside down. We worked as a local band out of New York for like, four years, before we even made an album. So we’ve taken a very different kind of path and I’m not sure how much that’s even a story people want to tell.”
During their early years, They Might Be Giants did have one rather lucky break – when John Linnell snapped his wrist. It led to an invention that put the band on the map and captivated the curious. Unable to perform on stage, the band created a Dial-A-Song service where anyone could call their Brooklyn answering machine and it would feature a new song (almost) every day. That is, if the machine was functioning.
“We had just started playing out in New York City and had crossed that crucial bridge between your friends no longer coming to your shows, but strangers are coming,” John recalled. “If you’re a local band that’s kind of a golden moment where you are transitioning between something highly theoretical and something that’s actually quite real. At that point John [Linnell] was working as a bike courier and had an accident and that was how we started our Dial-A Song service.
From that moment on people have been looking for us to do the most original work we can create
“We both suspected that it would be a good exercise in loosening up as songwriters and in the way we recorded – because by then I think we were already getting a bit precious. And the challenge with Dial-A-Song was to keep things rolling every day. But for our audience it was a very glorious and extra-mysterious concept, and very unlike the way most people were being introduced to bands. It put us in a completely different category so we weren’t just those people rocking out at the nightclub, we were kind of an enigma. And I think that set us up for the rest of our career. From that moment on people have been looking for us to do the most original work we can create and that’s a very different role for a band than just being hitmakers or whatever.”
That ability or freedom to follow whatever whim you fancied at the time – is that what liberated you to indulge in the bizarre and follow your natural musical instincts?
“It definitely taught us some things! In some ways it taught us about how important it is to communicate,” John admitted.
“Because I think a lot of the bedroom rock overdubbing impulses we had that we thought were completely delightful were actually quite tedious for people to listen to over a phone line. So we learned the value of being more direct and the value of a graphic arrangement and how to craft powerful lyrical points of view. Because when we did Dial-A-Song and when people called up, if the tune didn’t make sense to them they would hang up almost right away. There was a cruelty to it for us as we could hear the machine engage and then hear the machine disengage. Almost overnight we changed how we wrote songs – especially as we only started the band as home recording enthusiasts. We learned a lot of pretty valuable stuff from Dial-A-Song. As a duo it was a very powerful way to work. But when we got in theatres or venues it was the opposite – it was a much rowdier setting. Playing out as a live band offered a tremendous number of advantages as we could play at a completely different volume, and going and engaging with an audience seemed fun. And anyway, there was a lot of drinking and dancing going on.”
After so many years and so many songs, do you find it easier to write songs now or is it getting more difficult?
“You learn stuff all the time as you go along. I think when I first started writing songs it was as if it wasn’t even real! We now obviously have strategies and interests when it comes to writing songs that make it more interesting,” John said.
On one of Nanobots’ darker tunes, Black Ops, the group display a penchant for the psychedelic, as well as the political, as Flansburgh sings:
‘Black ops/ Black ops/ A holiday for secret cops/ Black ops/ Black ops/ Dropping presents from the helicopter/ It’s been a long year/ We’ve been so far from home, too many people here/ Here come the drones…’
The strong rhymes seem almost twee at first, until they are repeated for effect and then varied before it dawns on you the song is referencing drone attacks and the role of the long-distance operator flying the killer robot.
It’s amazing how versatile the song is as a tool.
“In the mid-90s we would have lots of conversations about how rhyming wasn’t necessary. We viewed it as kind of an antiquated technique. But now, in our decrepitude, we realise that you can work with rhymes in a way that is really powerful and if you invest the time it will reward you on a completely different level. That said, we also go through phases. For a long time I was trying to write the most simple song possible. I have also tried to write a song out of a two-chord progression. And I collaborated on an album with Mike Doughty [of Soul Coughing] where I put together a number of tracks for him to write lyrics for and my goal was just to make one massive riff to propel each of the songs. So we have tried to create challenges for ourselves. It’s a way to approach the song as a topic – it’s such a short method of expression and such a small format – and it’s amazing how versatile the song is as a tool. I feel like a lot of people have given up on the song – the structure of verses, choruses and bridges, intros and codas, but I still think it’s a very powerful way to work. I love songs!”