An Enterprise With No Limits A Q&A with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants By TANNER YEA D: What were the early shows like in 80s or 90s Manhattan? How did that affect what you were doing at the time?
John Linnell + John Flansburgh | photo by Shervin Lainez
ven after 35 years, 20 albums and a successful children’s music career, John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants are refusing to slow down. In anticipation of the band’s performance at Vinyl Music Hall on Jan. 28, we had the opportunity to sit down with John Flansburgh and talk about the East Village music scene of the 80s, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and their upcoming album, “I Like 10 | DOWNTOWNCROWD.COM
Fun.” For more information and to purchase tickets, visit vinylmusichall.com. D: Do you remember when you first met as teenagers? When you met, were you like “I’m definitely going to be in an indie rock band with this guy for almost 30 years.” J: When we met, I don’t think the term punk rock had even been coined. So we certainly weren’t thinking about indie rock. John is a year older than me, and I think we really go to know each other in high school. We both worked on the school paper together. A lot of the ideas that They Might Be Giants embraced came out of conversations at that time.
J: To sort of paraphrase Pete Seger talking about The Weavers, “It was quite a time.” In 1984 - 1986, there was a huge explosion in the East Village of all sorts of culture. There was the East Village arts scene - which is like Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. That was a real youthquake moment for the New York art scene, because up until then the SoHo gallery scene had been very dominant. New York was in this very hard transition from the Ed Koch era of New York being completely broke, and amidst that East Village scene was a very vital and popular nightclub scene with lots of live acts and lots of activity, none of which was getting noticed in newspapers. It was just this very underground scene, but it was also extremely popular. We had been kicking around New York for a couple of years doing stuff, and then when the East Village exploded, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. D: That brings up Dial-A-Song, which is something They Might Be Giants is a little famous for. There were some pretty radical circumstances that caused it: Linnell broke his wrist and your house got robbed. Tell me about that. J: John was working as a bike messenger and had an accident and broke his wrist, so his wrist was in a cast. I moved into this apartment for one day, and unfortunately some of the other occupants in the building were drug dealers, and they weren’t too happy about me being in the place. So when I went off to work they set me up to be robbed, so I basically lost all my worldly possessions.
It was a rough patch there for a month or two. But when I got to my new apartment, I bought a phone machine and I was in an apartment by myself so I could dedicate the phone line to this Dial-A-Song idea, which was something we had been kicking around but kind of seemed like a bad idea. But suddenly when we had no ability to do gigs, it was a way to keep the idea of the band alive. We put up posters in the East Village. It just kind of took off and it had a life of its own because there were a lot of curious people who would call a phone line, but they would never go to a nightclub. D: After that, you eventually recorded Flood. However, Flood doesn’t sound very different - not in a bad way, it’s just more They Might Be Giants. Why do you think Flood got as big as it did? J: We had had a lot of success on an indie label beforehand just having our songs played on college radio stations, and we also had the good fortune of having some videos played on MTV. MTV was much less an extension of the charts back then; they didn’t feel obliged to play things in the charts just because they were in the charts. One of the things they wanted to do was play our kind of left-field videos in pretty heavy rotation. It was kind of a tailwagging-the-dog scenario, as MTV was in many ways very much ahead of the radio, at least as far as our careers were concerned. D: You have done a lot of music for media. Tell me about doing the theme song for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. J: That is one of the better-kept secrets in rock music. Very early on before Jon Stewart was the host, they hired Bob Mould of Husker Du to write a
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