A Conversation with John Flansburgh
December 23, 2022 by Traci Turner
The legendary duo known as They Might Be Giants has been playing sold-out show after sold-out show and their calendar remains full well into 2023. Are you one of the lucky peeps who has tickets to their sold out April 12th San Diego date? Or are you needing them to tack on some more cities to their agenda?
TMBG has been touring for the 30th anniversary of “Flood,” their historic album, home to “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Particle Man,” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
The tour had a brief hiccup when John Flansburgh was injured in a car accident in June, but after recovering from broken ribs, he is thankfully back. And it is a blessing he is back because they added 16 shows due to overwhelming demand from fans. They have even added a New Year’s Eve event in New Haven, CT. Picture yourself ringing in 2023 with “champagne, streamers, hats and more hats,” and the guys themselves, They Might Be Giants!
Despite their incredibly busy schedule, John Flansburgh took time to chat with us about the band’s early days, the importance of “Flood,” and creating that TMBG sound. Oh, and more tour dates on the horizon…
Traci: John, I have to start off with my deep concern for you… I saw on Instagram you have a jalapeno thief in your home. (Spoiler: It’s his cat.)

John: (laughing): It’s true. It’s like a pathology with him. He’s like what truffles are to some pigs jalapenos are to him. He will find the jalapeno buried in a vegetable basket and extract it, and then they’ll disappear; he’ll haul it off underneath somewhere, like underneath a couch or something. And then I’ll find it way later. It’s just a really weird thing.
Traci: Well, my real concern about you, is your car accident in June. How are you now? You feel good?
John: Yeah. One of the things I’ve found out over the course of my adult life is if you have a serious injury, they don’t tell you right away, and if you’re in a near fatal accident, they definitely don’t tell you. It was very unclear to me how badly I was injured at the time, in part because initially I had an incredible amount of adrenaline going through my body, and I was in this trauma center, surrounded by millions of interns. I was just trying to explain to the doctor, “I’ve got to be driving to Washington, D.C. in four hours.” And he was like, “According to this chart, you’ve broken most of your ribs. I don’t think you’re going to be standing up for two months.” It was a really long recovery, and these things happen. Things like this happen to lots of people, but it’s just such a struggle to pull yourself together, and you are really relying on your loved ones and doctors to bridge all the crazy gaps because it was so bad.
Traci: And when you – a member of a touring band – are down, there are so many people that are affected.

John: Oh, I mean, it was really out of a play. We had just done our first show coming back from COVID. When COVID happened, we were booked to do, like 37 of 45 sold-out shows, and by the time COVID came back up, all the shows were sold out. We had this epic US tour ahead of us, and it was just frustrating. Then on the very first night, to be coming home to my apartment and have my Uber get hit by a drunk driver, it was just unbelievable. It was such a total drag.
Traci: But you’re alive and you’re okay?
John: I am okay. It would have been great if it hadn’t happened, but I’m fine.
Traci: Other than the crash, last year was kind of good… (laughing) I mean, your new album came out…
John: (laughing) Other than that, how was the show? No, everything. I mean, we just got nominated for a Grammy, which is very gratifying.
Traci: Yes, you have a Grammy nomination, and you are already a Grammy winner! (TMBG won Best Musical Album for Children with “Here Come the 123s”)

John: I know. The thing about Grammys is until you’re nominated for one, you don’t believe in Grammys at all. You think Grammys are nonsense, but when you get nominated for one, all of a sudden the Grammys seem really real. And it’s also this tremendous parental validator, all those kind of long size as you’re trying to describe how things are actually going very well for your musical project, quickly subside when you enter the world of the Grammy.

Traci: I try not to put myself in a story and be like, “Hey, let’s talk about me,” but I do want to tell you that “Here Come the 123s” and “Here Come the ABCs” were on in my house daily for a very long time because my son loved them. Next year he is going to college on scholarships and I totally credit you guys having a role in that.
John: Well, there you go. I will take that as a win!

Traci: Back to 1990, because you’re celebrating “Flood,” with “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man,” those are iconic songs for you guys. Obviously, celebrating “Flood” is a big deal, but why is “Flood” significant to you?

John: Well, it didn’t start out seeming that different than any other album. There was a long sort of gestation period for the band. We were a local band in New York City for six years or so and we evolved out of the New York scene. It was not like we were shot out of the New York scene; we just kind of crawled our way out of the New York scene. When things were happening with “Flood,” it wasn’t really clear to us what a game changer it would be. The album had a very long tail, I guess would be an apt way to describe it. I think there was a lot happening in the early ‘90s in music in general, and there are a lot of different threads that were going on and I don’t think at the moment it seems so different. But what’s happened over time is that it’s really become kind of the calling card for the band. It’s how a lot of people first encounter us and it’s become a very important album for a lot of people. That’s something that we became aware of over time.

John continued: We’ve done shows where we haven’t played “Birdhouse” and we haven’t played “Istanbul,” but not that many. We’d be a different kind of band if we were so emotionally unavailable to people as to not play our most popular songs. But we certainly don’t play album tracks. There’s 19 songs on the album. So to go that deep into the record is definitely a bit of a spacewalk, but it’s something that really delights a lot of people and that’s an interesting job we are up for. The other thing that’s sort of exciting about this opportunity to kind of reconnect with people who might not be coming out to our show otherwise is we have another hour, 15 minutes in the set to present them with all this stuff that they might have missed out on. In a way, it’s like, obviously for our current active audience; it’s a really interesting deep dive into something that they probably dig a lot anyway. And then for all these people who are kind of coming out of the woodwork for this musical event, we can sort of shine in other ways.

Traci: Almost all of them are sold out and you are booked through May! How crazy is that?
John: Yeah, and they’ll be adding more shows. It’ll carry on from there, honestly. It’s selling double what our regular draw is, so it’s exciting.
Traci: You and the other John have been together, harmoniously, and longer than most marriages! Didn’t you meet as teenagers?
John: We knew each other as children, actually. I was in different bands with friends of mine when I was a teenager, John and I did recording projects when we were in high school just for fun. Then John went off to be in a professional band in his freshman year of college, and I kind of roamed around the country a little bit, flopping out of different schools on my wandering college tour. We both ended up in New York City in the early ‘80s and really started They Might Be Giants as a side project, or a baby band, to John’s real band, which was The Mundane. And they were serious; they were going to get a record contract and they had really poppy songs and everything about them just seemed streamlined for success. I think the only thing we knew was that what we were doing was kind of unimportant, but it was fun for us and that was enough. It was actually really fun to do.

John continued: Finally, after puttering around writing for a bunch of months or a better part of a year, we actually put together a show with a tape and we knew this guy called Mick Milk. He had a drum machine and he was actually a one-man band. It seemed like this one man band idea seemed really inspired, so we took our inspiration from his set up. This is all in a very pre-electronic dance music, so it was almost like being in an art group or like a performance art project, but we liked this musicality and it was flexible. We could do a lot of different things in one show. I think before we played, we were afraid it was just going to seem too esoteric or too disconnected. When we actually got on stage, I think we were both really taken aback by how relatable what we were doing seemed to hit people. Like, people really got us, which so often bands talk about how their struggle was “them against the world.”

He went on: I think the weird thing for us is that almost from the very moment we started, it seemed like people really appreciated what we were doing on a really visceral level. When I say people, I mean strangers. And that made it so much easier because we didn’t really have any resources, so just having people come out of the woodwork and say, “I really like your band.” It’s really interesting how you’re going at it.
He added: I remember very early on, a fellow named Chris Butler from The Waitresses – he also wrote the song “Christmas Wrapping.” Later on I got to know him, but I certainly didn’t know him at all when I first encountered him, and he just was like, “Listen, I’ve got a drum machine if you need to borrow a drum machine.” This is back when drum machines got, like, $2,500 and John and I were living on falafel and ramen, and he just was so generous and so supportive, and he didn’t want to produce us, he didn’t want to be our friend. He just thought we were doing an interesting project, and he was so generous. To be perfectly honest, when I think about how kind he was to us, it makes me wish… I feel like I should pay that forward somehow, because I can’t remember seeing a band and going, “Hey, if you want to borrow my stuff, come on by any time. I got some stuff you might want to use.”
Traci: Hey, you might surprise somebody on this tour. You never know.
John: It’s possible.

Traci: I saw you recently released the “John Henry” demos for a few days.
John: It’s an interesting project. The very first time we took on a live band, we actually were so nervous about working with a producer that we went into a demo studio and recorded the entire album with our band before the producer arrived. What’s funny is that a lot of it sounds pretty similar, considering we were working with the big makeover hit producer guy. So it kind of held up. But it’s got its own energy and the “John Henry” demos, I have to say, I’m really glad it exists in the world, because it’s a nice profile of a band at a very transitional moment.
Traci: I love demos, just like I love hearing what inspired a song and the background of songs. It makes me appreciate a song more.

John: This is an adjacent idea to what people think of when people think of demos. I sort of think of home recording, and this band really started as a home recording project. What’s interesting about recording at home is that you can have a really fragile idea and it doesn’t really get stepped on. There’s no group of people with their arms folded, standing around you going, “You really think that you want to do that?” The most unreasonable ideas you have can get fully realized and captured on tape. Sometimes you need to actually directly import that from a home studio into a session. We have done a lot of transferring of demo sounds into finished records just because we felt like you couldn’t really get there any other way, like the vibe that was happening when the initial song was being recorded and maybe it really was the demo. There’s something very transcendent about that quality. And it’s nice. Now that we have lived in a world of digital recording, a lot of people really focus on how much ironing out and straightening out and sort of tweaking goes on with sounds. But I think one of the very nice sound effects, side effects that is not celebrated, is just how much demo ideas can get fully realized.
Traci: With all the electronics available now, how do you know when to stop?

John: That’s unlimited. I think when your vocal sounds more like Cher than you, I think that’s probably a good place to stop. At one point, very early on in the era of Auto-Tune, John Linnell turned to me and said very sincerely, “I think we’re actually going to be kind of grateful that Auto-Tune happens.” And it’s true. I mean, it doesn’t have to be. Obviously it’s overused and obviously if you know how to comp a vocal, you probably don’t need to do it at all. But if you’re working quickly and want to just keep on moving, it’s sort of like wearing Spanx at the awards show. It’s just a nice thing to be able to lean on when you have to.
Traci: I’m so glad we got to talk today and I’ll be seeing you in Nashville in March, plus maybe out west…
John: I look forward to getting out to the West Coast. It’s always a blast, so we’ll see you guys soon!
Excellent, John! We look forward to it as well!
If They Might Be Giants is hitting your town, not to put too fine a point on it, but nab tickets ASAP because they are selling out like the hottest toy at Christmas. If they are not coming to your town, hold tight because that could change…