They Might Be Giants

Before the release of TMBG’s first children’s album, NO!, Adam Andersen and Todd A chatted with John Flansburgh about Nashville, children and Adam Ant.

I know you’ve played Nashville a lot of the years and back when we had Lucy’s Record Shop you used to do afternoon shows there…
Yeh, you know we had a really good scene going there about um.. about in the mid-nineties, late-nineties with Lucy’s and um, it sort of all came undone in this horrible event. We actually had all our band equipment stolen.

I remember that.
We were in Boston. We were playing a show at that club in Nashville with the numbers, I forget what it was called…

328. Which I really enjoyed playing at that venue. It was a really great stage and a really great crowd. And I felt like we had really finally gotten somewhere in Nashville, which is hard. I mean Nashville’s not exactly on the rock circuit. We don’t go there as often as we go other places. And I felt like we had finally sort of found our own crowd. And you know, the show was completely sold out and we were like totally psyched. Then we had our equipment stolen outside of Boston in this Newton Holiday Inn that has had like a half dozen bands have their equipment stolen there. And it’s so obviously an inside job. And it’s so depressing that the Newton police who are probably, you know completely… There’s so little crime in Newton by and large; it’s a very professional class town, very wealthy community. But it’s on the perimeter of Boston. It’s actually the very last subway line. I don’t know who it is that works in the parking garage but basically we pulled a van full of equipment in there at four in the morning, or 4.30 in the morning, into the basement garage and it was stolen before 7 which is when we were leaving.

Everyone was like, okay, this is clearly highly suspicious. And what’s strange is that we found out since that Matthew Sweet got ripped off there; Patti Smith got ripped off there. You know, tons of other bands have gotten their stuff stolen from that exact hotel garage. You sort of almost want to put up a warning sign.

People don’t realize that if you cancel a show that’s an experience that most people in audiences do not want to repeat. And it destroyed us basically in Nashville for a really long time. It was really frustrating. We came back about 6 months later to make up the show, cause we didn’t have any… we had to stop the tour for a moment.

Right. I remember that. That was the John Henry Tour.
Yeh, and then the place was like half full and it was really lame and the promoter lost money and all of a sudden it was like we were back at the bottom of the heap. So things are very frustrating.

I know on the site in all the letters from John that John Linell talks about he loves to go to wax museums when he’s in different towns. Do you have any favorite places in Nashville? Have you gotten to explore around here?
Well, you know, I like the Show Print place. I actually was a printmaking major in college. Even though it’s like… it’s a pretty dirty shop. It’s still just impressive for its legacy and they’re really nice people. I’ve always dug that place. I’ve actually been to the Country Music Hall of Fame a couple of times and, you know, I mean it’s for somebody who’s not from there, that kind of tourist stuff actually is kind of a thrill.

Well, I figured. We seem to have a lot of tourist crap.
Also, I went to .. what is that bar? Is it called Legends? I gotta say we closed the place down last time we were there. And it was amazing. The band that was playing there was a serious kick-ass band. They were pretty remarkable.

Like a honky tonk place?
Yeh. I don’t know what time it was. Seemed like it was four in the morning. We went there after our show. And it was really good.

Last time you were here you played Riverfront right?
Yeh, when we did Riverfront, we went to Legends afterwards. I think it was called Legends…

Yeh, there’s a place called Legends. For some reason I was confusing that with the place that used to have transgendered country stars, you know, sort of the country stars in drag or whatever…
I can’t speak to that, Todd. But I can tell you that it appeared everyone was of their original gender of origin at this place and quite proud of that. It was pretty straight-no-chaser kind of joint.

Well, that’s cool. We have a bunch of those down on Broadway. You know, you ought to check out Tootsie’s and places like that.
Yeh, well, I mean, you know, there’s nothing like seeing really good live music really up close. It’s really thrilling.

So you guys are coming back to Riverfront or something like that this year.
Yeh, I’m not sure what the venue is. I just know we’re coming to town.

I didn’t even understand it because it doesn’t coincide with either of the big “River fests” here. I don’t know, maybe they have a new one.
Maybe it’s the MoutainFest, I don’t know. … the SandFest. I don’t know, we’re just happy to be coming back.

No! is a family record…
No! is a children’s album.

Are you saying it’s a childrens’ record?
Well, you know, actually I was reading this article in Newsweek yesterday about children and behavior and there was a guy who just did a study of like the way kids interpret websites and the way kids behave. And he was actually saying that there’s so much… people project so much onto the idea of like how kids react and how to market to kids and there’s so much legend and sort of hogwash related to the whole idea of how it’s appealed to kids. And it reminds me of this simple fact that all kids are different. And they’re quite different from one another. I daresay that they’re as different from one another as adults are.

And so making a record for children is sort of a strange presumption. You know you’re saying like it’s a record for, you know, the population. Um, but you know. It is appropriate for children and it’s kind of focused on a lot of the things that we think kids’ll be interested in.

I think it’s a good record for families insofar as I think parents could listen to it as much as they listen to like, a Barney record, and only be driven half as crazy. So, you know, that seems like a good thing. And we’ve often heard from parents that their kids actually gravitate towards our records in their record collection.

So it seemed like an interesting job and I think the cool thing about the record is it really gets back to the approach that we kind of… before we ever started touring and ever started like playing for audiences back when the band was really a hypothetical idea, we did a lot of home recording and a lot of that stuff was like… It was not exactly hard-rockin material, you know. The impulses were a lot more towards unusual instrumentation and very unusual arrangements. I think that the No! record actually is a return to that aesthetic. It reminds me a lot of our very first record, in a way, because it’s just a little bit more gentle and it’s about experiencing the sounds more than representing a good live band. Or some other idea. It’s certainly not a pop album in the traditional sense.

Right. And it seems like over the nineties you guys kind of went from being the home-tracking band to being a big live rock band.
Yeh, but you know I’d say even on our first tour, on our first album… One of the big differences between our first album and Lincoln is that we had done like a hundred shows across the country and I think the first thing… and we never even talked about it, or even thought about it, but the difference between those records is pretty obviously and you know, Lincoln is a much louder, uglier, guitar-oriented record. I think one of the reasons is when you’re out there playing for drunks, you really want to rock them. It’s a natural impulse to wanna rock people. And um, so, you know, I think we kind of went in that direction. And we enjoy rocking people. We’ll be rocking the people in Nashville in a couple of days. But you know, it’s funny how being a live performer changes you. You don’t even necessarily have to try. It just affects you.

Do either of you have kids?
John has a little boy, Henry, who’s three years old now. He’s an angel.

So how did you ever curb Linell’s potty mouth to make a family record?
Um, well. I think we’ve said the word “bitch” on one album. I think that’s the only swear word we’ve ever used. I think… Um, I don’t know. We were approached by the kind people at Rounder to do the record and um, it seemed like an interesting project. You know what, we’d finally gotten to a point as a band where I think we felt we were established enough that people wouldn’t wonder if we were actually changing careers. Which is something that might not make sense to somebody because they’d just go “well, of course you’re not changing careers.” But in the past, when it’s been suggested, it always seemed like it would be a huge interuption and possibly a very strange kind of message to send out into the world. So, it’s like the same thing when you make a side-project album, people immediately wonder if the band’s breaking up. You know, they just kind of jump to what is really a natural conclusion. And now that we’re finally been making records for twenty years, or making records for fifteen years…

No! is going to be on your own record label, right?
It is going to be on our own imprint. It is going to be manufactured and distributed by Rounder. We’re actually going to make other records sooner than later on Idlewhile which is our own project label. We’re not really interested in getting too involved in the music business but having licensed a lot of things in the past, it’s useful to have your own imprint because it kind of clarifies things for everybody. Like how it works just from the business side of things.

You don’t get to have any more parties with Busta Rhymes and Metallica though.
Our tenure at Elektra didn’t really include…Busta Rhymes came to Elektra in 99? We left in 98. But yeh, we don’t get to hang out with those guys anymore. They never returned our calls anyway.

Is there any temptation to go back to being “El Grupo De Rock n Roll”?
Uh, you mean our duo?

I had heard that was sort of an alternate first name for the band.
Well, that’s how we were introduced the first show that John and I did together because we were actually playing for an all Spanish crowd. But no, we really, we enjoy this setup.

Next weekend is my high school’s ten year reunion. Should I go?

Do you take the Malcolm in the Middle Grammy out to dinner with you?
I haven’t even received it yet. So I’m kind of waiting for the UPS guy to show up with it.

XTC vs Adam Ant. Has history decided?
I think clearly not. You know the song is about an idea which is… You know, it could have been written about Buddy Holly vs Little Richard. It’s kind of about the songwriter as a narrator or the songwriter as the leading man. And I think you know that there’s no… one isn’t better than the other. And one isn’t necessarily more or less exciting than the other. I think the mistake that people make is they think I’m actually making fun of Adam Ant where actually I think Adam Ant had some incredibly good songs. And um, a really.. The rhythm section –the Ants — were, you know, an amazingly good group. You know the bass player and the drummer are like totally excellent top-flight musicians, as good as they get. And you know, he was kind of a funny cultural icon in England. He was really funny. He was really bitchy in this way that was very winning and very anti-establishment. And I thought… he was a very charming guy. And you know as far as pop stars go, he shined pretty brightly.

Obviously the guys in XTC are kind of journeyman musicians and seem, at this point, seem much more respectable. But I don’t think being respectable in rock music is worth very much. You know? If you want to be respectable, you should be a college professor. If you want to be respectable, you should write books. There are a lot of important things you can do with your life. Rock music is not one of them. Rock music is by definition unimportant. The most important rock music is only kind of important. It’s an open question and that’s why I wrote the song about it. It’s actually something that I think about quite a bit. Um, so, I think there’s a phenomenon, personality-driven part of rock music that is often what people are most interested in, because it’s actually the most interesting part. It’s strange how it works. It’s a strange business and I really find it intriguing.