They Might be Giants makes a science of live shows

They Might Be Giants’ singer-guitarist John Flansburgh is happy to know that the parking lot across from Thurston Hall still exists.

“I used to work nights there,” Flansburgh said in an interview with The Hatchet. “I learned to play guitar right in that booth.”

Flansburgh spent about a year at GW, living in the closet of a six-person room in Thurston Hall. He said left after nearly flunking his classes.

“I was a very confused young man,” Flansburgh said.

Some could argue that leaving was the best thing that ever happened to him.

When Flansburgh gave up college in 1984, he returned to his home in Massachusetts to form the band with longtime friend John Linnell. The duo began a long career defined by quirky pop tunes that defy description.

Recently, the band was asked to create the theme song for the Fox comedy “Malcolm in the Middle.”

“We’d never been asked to do a theme song before, but we have written songs for TV before.” Flansburgh said. “We did a few songs for `Tiny Toons,’ and we also did the “Dr. Evil” song for Austin Powers.”

The band also has two new albums set for release. The first is the usual – if any of the group’s albums can be called usual – adult album, with tracks featuring M. Dodi of Soul Coughing and ones Flansburgh describes as “sonically different.”

The second album, No!, heads into previously uncharted territory – children’s music. Flansburgh said it will be a different sort of children’s album.

“It was an interesting challenge, to not sound patronizing or timid,” he said. “There haven’t been too many children’s albums that have viewed childhood as a non-remedial activity. It’s not just lessons in how to act adult.”

The band altered certain elements of its lyrical style to produce No!, developing it during the recording process, Flansburgh said.

“It was something we didn’t know how to do until we started,” he said. “The songs aren’t about adult stuff. Our usual songs have a lot about disappointment, and a lot of hyperviolent imagery that we didn’t think was appropriate.”

No! will feature an interactive visual element to go along with the music, and samples of the album, along with visual counterparts, are already available on the band’s website, www.tmbg.com.

The internet has been key to the band’s record distribution. In 1999, They Might Be Giants released Working Undercover for the Man (US Goodnoise), which was available only online at www.emusic.com.

Flansburgh said he has no answer for the Napster controversy and refrains from offering a clear opinion on online music sharing.

“I think that’s it’s a tougher issue than just a sound byte,” he said. “It could eliminate songwriting as a profession, and turn it into a hobby. Our fans have been very good in understanding that it’s not just the jewel case that costs money. I think that people like Metallica have misjudged the spirit of Napster, it’s not malicious.”

And has Flansburgh used Napster?

“Oh yeah,” Flansburgh he said.

After playing more than 1,000 concerts around the world, Flansburgh said he and Linnell have turned making a good live performance into to science.

“We’ve spent our adult lives on stage,” he said. “A lot of elements of concerts are ritual, encores are the falsest, but then again, being on stage is fake. It’s an artificial experience, and as a performer, to deny that it exists is na?ve.”

A band can ruin a show by simply refusing to offer an encore, he said.

“What’s wrong with pausing three songs before the end, stepping offstage, taking a few sips of Coca-Cola, and walking back on again?” Flansburgh said. “It’s like when you go visit your parents and you and your girlfriend sleep in separate rooms. It’s just for show.”

Although They Might Be Giants has never been known as a “jam band,” band members always offer their own form of improvisation during concerts, Flansburgh said.

“For Stevie Ray Vaughn, it doesn’t really matter what song he’s playing, it’s watching him solo, that’s his thing,” he said. “For us, it’s song structure. Without improvisation, what is the real hook in live performance? In our set, we have a spot reserved for improvised songs. That’s our strength live, spontaneous song creation.”

From playing in the GW parking lot to playing stadiums, Flansburgh said he has learned one rule above all:

“The audience is always right.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.