Over the past 30 years John Flansburgh and John Linnell, cofounders and core members of They Might Be Giants, have earned a reputation as the ur-geek band, thanks to their intentionally gawky, horn-rimmed aesthetic and a catalog that includes nerdy odes to Belgian painters, songs that explain the nuclear fusion process inside stars, and children's albums aimed at the exceptionally precocious. But seeing the Johns as simply a couple of cartoony geeks overlooks their daring experimental side, including their ahead-of-the-curve use of samplers and drum machines, their innovative pre-Internet Dial-a-Song service (fans could call a number to hear exclusive TMBG content over the phone), and the subtly devastating psychological portraits in early material such as "I've Got a Match" and "They'll Need a Crane"—an approach they've returned to on their upcoming 16th album, Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce).
Interviewing Flansburgh for this week's Artist on Artist is Abraham Levitan, a former Yale Whiffenpoof who used to front Baby Teeth—a local indie-rock group that earned its own reputation for quirky cleverness before signing off last summer with a guest-filled tribute to the Band's The Last Waltz. Currently Levitan hosts the live game show Shame That Tune with comedian and Reader contributor Brian Costello, where guests relate a mortifying experience and Levitan composes, on the spot, a song about each story in a style determined by the spin of a wheel. (The next show is Fri 4/12 at the Hideout.) He's also founder of music-education company Piano Power, which has more than 200 students. —Miles Raymer
John Flansburgh: I've got a question for you right out of the gate, which is: When you were a Whiffenpoof at Yale, was there ever a moment when you found yourself sober? You have to answer that question yes or no, Abraham.
Abraham Levitan: No. Not 100 percent.
OK. And was there ever a moment when you were actually wearing clean clothes?
Those tails were so wretched by the end of that year.
I know two different people who were in the Whiffenpoofs. They run completely parallel to each other, so I feel like they're almost fact-checking each other when I talk to them.
Well, it's a very cliched experience, ultimately.
I guess being drunk in college is a cliche, but usually it doesn't involve international travel.
Or trying to serenade Barbara Bush about Lebanon.
Did you sing for Barbara Bush?
In a very intimate setting.
Was she surprising or funny in any way as an audience to perform for? Was she drunk? Was she wearing dirty clothes?
I think she had kind of a "meds" look to her.
Oh really? So you think she was on the prescription drugs? She was doing a Lindsay Lohan?
I mean, I don't want to get into character assassination here. She was wearing a pearl necklace and her face was impassive, I think would be the word. She's very hard to read. But I just kept picturing—five years earlier I was in high school at a Public Enemy show. And Flavor Flav brought out a full-size cardboard cutout of Barbara Bush and started punching her in the face onstage. And here she was in the flesh.
I once flew to Australia on a plane with Flavor Flav.
It was actually within Australia, I think. They were on tour in Australia at the exact same time that we were touring Australia. And there was sort of a very notable exchange, overheard by people in our crew, between Flavor Flav and the woman sitting next to him. She asked Flavor Flav if he was in show business, because he was dressed very colorfully and acting extremely radically, and Flavor Flav said, "Yes, I am in show business. I'm a dancer for New Kids on the Block." Which I think is a great way to keep things fresh for yourself when you're Flavor Flav.
What was the approximate year of this?
They were really kind of blowing up—I think it was Fear of a Black Planet.
So it's fair to say that you guys were both blowing up.
I guess that's right. John [Linnell] saw Public Enemy a couple of times, early on in their career, when they still had the, what is it, the security guys, the SW . . .
I saw them as well, while we were in Australia, and they were amazing performers. I miss those guys. Those Public Enemies.
Yeah, right? They kind of invented the whole pop show.
Well, I mean, Flavor Flav—like the whole concept of a hype man is such a good, circusy kind of thing. It's such a nutty way to run a show. And also, not to get too artistic on your ass, but I love the tracks. I love the aesthetic of the Bomb Squad. The sonics of those things are just insane. Working in New York City, it's hard not to meet multiple people who did sessions with Public Enemy. I've worked with many engineers who've worked with those guys, because they did a lot of studio work. And the quote that came out from the engineers, from—what was the guy's name? Eric "Vietnam" something [Eric "Vietnam" Sadler]? The guy who put the tracks together for the Bomb Squad is famous for saying, "We don't make music; we make hip-hop." And it was like they had almost like an antiharmonic agenda. The stuff is just all like a giant scream.
You guys didn't have a live drummer for years, until Apollo 18?
When we started, it was before drum machines really existed, and we would construct rhythm tracks with a Moog synthesizer. We had a drum kit in our rehearsal studio, and we would construct the tracks one drum sound at a time.
Ah, that's beautiful.
It'd be a kick drum, snare, hat, and a synth bass. I mean, this is all pre-Milli Vanilli, but we realized relatively early on that we didn't want the track to overwhelm what we were doing onstage. We wanted it to be very clearly accompaniment. So in a lot of ways it was a pretty straightforward quartet, even though half the band was electronic.
Right, and your drummer was so well-behaved. Never got wasted before a show.
Yeah, he was bulky but on the level.
Can we just kind of geek out about New York in the 80s for a little bit? You were part of an 80s underground New York scene that included . . . what other bands?
It was a wide array of bands and an even wider array of artists, because the East Village scene was very wide open. There was a gallery scene, like a storefront gallery scene. Some of us would blow up to become a much bigger deal in the art world. Like Mary Boone and the guy [Tony Shafrazi] who spray-painted Guernica—he's such an establishment figure now. But there were things about these Village scenes that I realize now were totally exceptional. Most of the time when there's a vital cultural moment, there's still an aspect of auditioning for something larger. People aren't doing showcase shows, but there is a notion that they're on their way to something bigger.
Especially if it's New York.
But what was funny about the East Village scene is that it had this almost postapocalyptic quality, and I think that was really in keeping with the spirit of New York at the time—it was very much on a downward spiral, and people were trying to figure out where the bottom was. Of course, the bottom was crack and AIDS.
You were existing in that moment, which was incredibly dark and claustrophobic and somewhat dangerous, and you were creating music diametrically opposed to that. Whimsical? Probably in some ways the least angsty music you could have made.
I don't know. I think there's different layers in what we're doing. I think we're dealing with a lot of adult disappointment in our songs. But I don't know how much of what we were doing was a reflection of that scene. There was just a lot of free-range personal expression happening, and a lot of it was very humbly presented. The performance-art scene was a very strange thing to plug into. When you ask what performers we came up with—we did multiple shows with Steve Buscemi when Steve Buscemi was in a performance duo. His act was really inspired and really funny in a very fresh way.
So the idea that you guys would've been ostracized for not being punk enough or underground enough—I mean, in some ways you weren't even playing with bands at all.
Well, there was this curious thing about our early career, which was that half the time we were playing in performance-art venues, and we would be the rock guys; we'd be the rock band at the gallery space. And we'd go play at CBGB or Danceteria, and we would be the exotic performance-art group coming into the rock venue. So everywhere we went we were kind of a stranger. It's sort of like, if you're an intermediate pot smoker, your straightedge friends will think you're a stoner and your stoner friends will think you're a lightweight.
That's a great way of saying it. I spent a lot of my 20s playing in bands where all the press about us was, "Are they being ironic? Are they serious?" And to me that was never really a conscious decision at all, so it was hard to be asked to comment on that.
I think in some ways John and I are on the cusp—we've really arrived on the cusp of a generational shift, where irony and satire and deadpan and all those kind of impulses would be very obvious to anyone younger than us and very bewildering to anyone older than us. It's kind of a cultural shift that, while it was happening, was not really thoughtfully discussed. And maybe it just has to do with—its tendency is to happen in low culture, so for the longest time people didn't really talk very critically about the kinds of things that happened on television. Television was always beneath serious cultural dissection. But John and I completely grew up with television. And in many ways I think what is perceived as this manic postmodern quality to our arrangements and our songs—for musicologists it's like, "How could something be so schizy and inauthentic?" But for somebody who grew up on a healthy diet of five hours of TV a day, it's just an interesting show.
Right, and it's not an ironic commentary on everything.
One thing that I think we learned very quickly once we actually started making records is that rock criticism really revolves around the anti-. Anybody doing anything is doing it in response—critics create this false dialogue between musicians. And it's hard to explain how disconnected from a scene you can be. People think of They Might Be Giants as an alternative-rock band—the label before it was alternative was "college rock"—but we didn't. Being in New York, we were so sequestered from college rock. I guess there were college radio stations, but the music on the streets in New York was hip-hop. You didn't hear the Violent Femmes or R.E.M. or anything like that—
Being blasted from boom boxes.
Yeah. And we were older, and we weren't living in dorms. We just weren't plugged into that stuff at all. But when we actually went on the road, like in the later 80s, like '87, '88—
Once you had records.
Yeah, once we put out records and started working on an international scale, we realized we were part of this whole other thing. We were totally plugged into the 10,000 Maniacs, Replacements, Husker Du world. There was kind of a circuit—it was probably only a year old—but that was the world in which we found ourselves.
The Our Band Could Be Your Life kind of culture?
You can look at it retrospectively and say that the late 80s and early 90s were the golden age of indie rock, where the infrastructure was starting to solidify and there weren't 10,000 bands trying to do the same thing.
I feel like I am so out of touch with the contemporary scene. If you told me the 10,000 bands had all just coalesced into one enormous band and were now touring in a convoy of 20 tour buses, I wouldn't think twice. I would just be like, oh—
That did happen, in 2007. For about two weeks.
And it was the Polyphonic Spree.
Not to go off on a biographical tangent, but I experienced that as a high school kid reading Spin in Louisville, Kentucky, just hearing about all this stuff. And I thought, wow, being in a band sounds great and it sounds so easy. Indie rock seems like the way to go. And then by the time the 2000s rolled around, of course, everything had changed.
Well, I can tell you that while you were in high school in Louisville, Kentucky, we played a show in Louisville and someone stole the license plates off our van. At that point we were going to airports and picking up T-shirts every three or four days—the T-shirts were being drop-shipped to us, because we didn't have room to carry enough T-shirts to get us through a tour. I can tell you—
So you were actually selling T-shirts.
Oh yeah, we were selling lots. That was our profit center. And this made us aware of something that in a post-9/11 world everyone's aware of: if you drove into an airport with a vehicle that didn't have a license plate on it, they called the cops like right away. Every single time we would go to pick up something, we would get pulled over by the cops. And we had a nice letter from the Louisville police department explaining that we had lost our license plates and wouldn't be able to replace them until we got back to New York.
That letter was posted in your back window?
No, we had to present it to the cops. But it was like a nice little permission slip from the Louisville police department.
A great memory of Louisville. I remember when I was 14, I was actually going to get a letter published in Spin. This would've been 1992 or something like that. And the intern or whoever it was called me to verify the spelling of my name and all that, and I was pissing myself. I felt like I had to make the most of this moment to talk to somebody from Spin. So right before he hangs up, in my prepubescent voice, I said, "Have you checked out our scene?"
That's adorable. That's like a missing scene from Almost Famous.
His voice was dripping with sarcasm and he said, "No, but I heard it's ragin'."
Wow. And then they went to their job at Kim's Video.
That's hilarious. I remember the days of Spin. Spin no longer exists, right?