John Flansburgh (left in photo) and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants are having a bit of an identity crisis. Three days after playing a “bone-crushingly loud” show at the Beacon Theatre, the alt-rock veterans release “Here Come the 123s,” their latest children’s record. Flansburgh talked to the Resident about the challenges that come with this split-personality success. — Heather Corcoran
You guys are really busy right now – tell me about the new album, “Here Come the 123s”?
JF: We did this kids’ album “No!” as a one-off, very much in the way a band might do a Christmas album or a Halloween album, any type of theme. We realized we were running the risk of confusing people that we were changing careers. To deny ourselves the ability to work in more than one way is kind of an anti-artistic assumption. It might make for a more complicated press release, but it makes us better musicians.
Do you separate the two styles?
JF: The challenge of writing a good song is sort of fundamental. Writing an effective song for kids, it has to be very, very clear but in some ways it’s more wide open because it’s kind of just an open assignment – the topic can be almost anything and still feel right. There is this thing about writing a rock song in 2008 where it’s hard not to recognize that you’re sort of working under the shadow of 40 years of rock music and 125 years of the popular song – a lot of songs have already been written. The world doesn’t need another derivative song.
Has the makeup of your shows changed since you’ve started doing the children’s albums?
JF: No. Because basically we play in bars and we politely request that people not bring their children to bars. That’s the only hitch to our sort of dual career as pretentious art-rockers and children’s musicians. We’ve actually found a large new audience with the kids’ stuff and they’re actually more unaware of our persistent original career path than you might imagine. They actually are actively confused that we’re not doing kids shows all the time. There’s no mistaking, when the blizzard of swear words over 100 decibels of guitar squall happens in the live show, it’s really not for tots.
Let’s talk about your 2007 rock album “The Else.”
JF: It’s our 12th album and I think for whatever reason – maybe in part because of a press point of view, [since] the kids’ stuff had gotten so much attention – we thought that we needed to stick our rock flag in the ground. It’s kind of a dark album in certain ways. The world has become such a strange place and some of that has kind of seeped into the album. Because we were making it at the same time as this children’s project – where we’re very careful to quarantine evil off of the kids’ stuff – it kind of redefined our adult stuff as where we can discuss matters of dictatorship or evil, toxic relationships.
Is it still possible for a band to get their start in New York?
JF: The thing about New York is there’s always something happening in New York that nobody knows about yet. For a couple of years as we were coming up we were part of a scene that was kind of hiding in plain sight. I live in Williamsburg so the overflow of exuberant youth is everywhere; everybody’s got a band.