Just because They Might Be Giants are playing some shows (including their Nashville date) drawing on their best-known album, Flood — which happens to be hitting the 20-year anniversary mark this year — doesn't mean they're the kind of band that goes in for making a big old commemorative deal of it, or waxing nostalgic in interviews. Articulately offbeat alt-rock veterans, they're as productive as ever doing as many different things as ever.
Their tour schedule includes three different types of show: two for adults, of which those Flood shows are a subset, and one for families. Around 2002, their now-quarter-century long discography splits into "adult" albums (referring to the age, not the pornographic tastes, of the audience) and albums aimed at kids. They've also been busy making music for TV and film, like the snappy, tuneful intros to The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle.
But if TMBG are anything, they're aware of the spots they've occupied (and occupy) in the cultural landscape. John Flansburgh — the affable, quick-witted guitarist who co-founded the band with a keyboard and accordion player who shares his first name, John Linnell — is definitely up for discussing that.
"I think we've never figured out how to present [the Flood show] as an idea without it just seeming like an oldies tour," he says. "That idea seemed very toxic to us. We're not very sentimental guys in the first place, but moreover we also haven't stopped making new stuff."
Still, Flansburgh realizes his and Linnell's sentimental attachments aren't the only ones in play. "Even for people who discovered the band last year, or just in the past couple years — of whom there are legions — [Flood]'s usually where they start," he says. "It's the kind of thing that people in rock bands tend to acknowledge when they're talking about [music] that they've discovered, but they don't want it to be that way for [their music]. I mean, of course this is far and away our most popular album. ... But all performers want to do is sort of knock that idea down like all things are equal."
TMBG have made many changes since the start of the 1990s. Trading their drum machine for a real, live and extremely tight band was a big one. The 8-bit-sounding, one-and-two-and groove of their much-beloved song "Birdhouse in Your Soul" hasn't been the same since.
"What was interesting about the drum machine part was that basically everything you did on a drum machine sounded kind of strange," Flansburgh says wryly. "I mean, you could try to do the most straight-ahead rock beat and it would still sound extremely stiff."
He adds, "There's part of me that I don't even know what we appeared to be like to people back then. When we worked as a duo, I really felt like we were just this very powerful rock band that just had a slightly different format ... like we could have been Squeeze or AC/DC or any band band."
Because Flansburgh and Linnell are so skilled at writing bright melodic hooks and clever, memorably literal lyrics about nearly anything, and are savvy enough musicians to be able to dress up a song as energetic power-pop or lounge or polka or synth-rock, TV and film work seemed a good, and practical, fit.
"Listen — and I don't mean this in a fanfare kind of way — we get to write songs and play songs. It's as awesome as you can imagine," says Flansburgh. "It is really a great life and totally worth it. That said, of course, over 25 years there have been times when our little ship has almost run aground. And trying to figure out what we want to do that works for us is a little bit different. People are very into placing their songs in TV commercials and movies and stuff like that. It's funny — I would rather the band put together new songs for things. I would rather write a TV jingle or a TV theme than have them take a song off one of our albums and use it."
And they appear to enjoy the jingle writing. Says Flansburgh, "I think it's actually kind of cool. Some of my favorite pieces of music are incidental pieces of music. But I like the original ones. I like the Twilight Zone theme."
The most visible TMBG change of all — especially when somebody brings a second-grader to one of their late-night shows in a rock club (which, apparently, has happened and makes the separate family show category a good idea) — is the new addition to their audience demographic: kids. Their latest, Here Comes Science, is the third in a string of fun, educational-ish albums-on-a-theme for the younger set, following Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s. Flansburgh and Linnell first tested the waters of style and audience with the kids' album No!, and from that project on, the goal has been to make music that's no less original, out-there or, well, musical than what they make for fans who happen to be old enough to buy beer.
"There's a song, 'John Lee Supertaster,' on the first kids' album, and then there's a song called 'Pictures of Pandas Painting,' both of which have this very extreme kind of hard, hard rock sound," says Flansburgh. "I'm not even sure how embraced that kind of arrangement style would be if we did it on a regular album. It's actually kind of harder than we typically are. It just seemed kind of hilarious to have our very loudest piece on the kids' records."
On the subject of humor, TMBG have always been thought of as a funny band — that hasn't changed — but they're no punchline-driven comedy act. They often sing quite matter-of-factly, about atypical song subjects — awkward situations, cockeyed musings and factual minutiae — to crisp, expertly droll and impossibly catchy music.
Says Flansburgh, "I think the value of being a little bit deadpan is not lost on us. Incorporating any kind of humor into music is sort of a dangerous territory, because it undermines the listener's ability to hear the song again and again."
Not that they'd say they have it down to a science: "There are certain things that strike people as very, very odd that are just us being our natural selves. ... By and large we don't sing in character voices, but a lot of times people talk about how we're singing in these character voices all the time. I think in a way we're kind of the worst judges."