It’s funny how much I don’t remember from when I was 9 years old.
I do remember when Malcolm in the Middle, a hilarious television show starring a very young Frankie Muniz, debuted in January 2000.
I loved everything about that show, but the thing that really stuck with me was the theme song.
The moment it barrels into that infectious hook, repeating over and over “you’re not the boss of me now!” had me screaming along and jumping up and down disobediently on the furniture.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that catchy, anti-authoritative and inspiring tune was the precursor to my eventual love of punk-rock that would blossom a few years later.
That theme song, titled “Boss of Me,” was contributed to the show by Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants, the moniker for the duo that consists of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. They would go on to win a Grammy for “Boss of Me,” showcasing the talent of the Johns considering that a song commissioned for a television series intro was awarded such a high mark.
Fast forward 18 years later and I’m speaking to Flansburgh on the phone in anticipation for the They Might Be Giants show March 16 at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater. Flansburgh’s in a hotel room on the West Coast a day before TMBG’s sold-out show in Portland, Oregon. Most of the shows on TMBG’s tour have sold out in advance.
Flansburgh tells me that he’s setting his timer on his phone for one minute per response as a reminder not to talk too much. He’s enthusiastic about what he does, and it shows in the way that he could talk for hours about music and his colleagues given the chance. The timer doesn’t stop him.
For a band that’s been around since 1982, has put out 20 records and is still made up of both of the founding members, it’s truly inspirational the group shows no signs of running out of steam.
TMBG is on tour in support of its latest album, I Like Fun, released Jan. 19. This year also saw the revival of their legendary Dial-A-Song service, a musical hotline that listeners can call to hear a new song from TMBG weekly. Music released through Dial-A-Song also is uploaded to the web for streaming, and eventually all receive the music video treatment on YouTube.
Flansburgh and I talked about the band’s new album, the longevity of They Might Be Giants and what to expect at the March 16 performance at the Pabst.
Wisconsin Gazette: How has tour been so far? I saw that many of the dates have sold out.
Any performer that says they don’t care whether or not a show is sold out is lying. It is a blast. This tour has been extremely well received and it’s just made life on the road, which is often extremely physically taxing and emotionally draining, joyful. The band is having great nights and it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
My first experience with your music was when I was younger and I watched Malcolm in the Middle. I’m sure you hear that all of the time but I loved that song. It’s nice to see that doing that theme song didn’t affect your career in the way that other artists get stuck being known for just that one song.
The thing that we like to do if our songs are going to show up in a TV show or a movie is do original material. A lot of bands avoid the collaboration part of it and just allow their songs to be licensed and people take their hit songs and make them over in some way.
I’m enough of an old-school rock person that I find that a little distressing. I know the record industry is demolished and everyone is broke, but I don’t particularly like seeing songs that are standalone things being recontextualized.
I love doing television, it’s fun writing a theme for a TV show and it’s an interesting challenge.
We’ve done a lot of original stuff for advertising. I’m happy to figure out how to do a jingle for Dunkin’ Donuts or Diet Dr Pepper, whoever is hiring us to do it. They’re smart people and they’re usually clever ads. It’s an odd challenge but it doesn’t define us. It’s not our whole lives.
The truth is, if all we got to do was advertising music or television music, it would probably feel like much more of a struggle and I don’t know how satisfying it would be. Being a musician in a rock band, there are a lot of personal restrictions. There is no governance to what we do. We’re actually in a very lucky spot that we’re not trying to shove our personal voice into somebody’s project, we can accommodate them and amplify what they’re going for.
Your new record deals with themes of dread, death and disappointment. How did you go about naming the record I Like Fun?
The title is taken from a song, and the song itself is a good example of how things aren’t quite what they seem. The song is really about being sort of trapped in a world of prescription drugs. It’s a very light-hearted song, but it’s kind of about enjoying getting high, which is not something that people tend to take lightly because of all the reasons that it is dangerous.
It’s for adults. The album is for adults.
There are some irresponsible ersatz kinds of ideas in the songs. It’s complicated, just like adult life. It’s a strange title in the sense that everyone likes fun. It’s not a controversial idea. We’re hoping to sort open up people’s preconceived ideas as to what it actually might mean in a bleak way. I’d be loath to say its sarcastic or that it’s an ironic title, because it’s not really.
At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of gloom in the record, and the album could have easily been titled something quite the opposite and maybe been more accurate. TMBG is the General Tso’s Chicken of rock music. You take two different ideas and contrast them.
So, it talks about how one person’s perception of having fun might actually be very self-destructive?
Absolutely. That’s the world of people who casually use drugs. It’s fun to use drugs and that’s part of the problem. The big problem with the drug conversation is that it’s sort of puritan, “don’t do it, it’s wrong.”
This album was over a year in the making. How come the album took so long to make, or is that the pace that TMBG usually works at?
Sometimes we’re working with actual deadlines, so we have made full-length albums under shorter periods of time. I wouldn’t necessarily say they suffered but there’s something glorious about being able to put something aside indefinitely or draw from a lot of different recordings.
One of the things we did was recorded many more songs than were on the album — twice as many easily. It’s not that those songs are stinkers, the songs that were left off the album that were really interesting and as high quality as anything we do, but they have this real similarity to something else on the album, in a way you’re overbuilding an album.
Do you use those unused tracks for your Dial-A-Song service?
That’s what Dial-A-Song consists of mostly. There are things that we recorded after the record that are already in the works for Dial-A-Song.
There is also a whole set of songs that we wrote to accompany a comic book called The Escape Team. David Cole is an illustrator that we collaborate with all the time. The visuals are riffing on this hot rod cartoonist from the 60s who did these really colorful drawings of mutants.
Cole really wanted to work in that style for the comic book so it’s sort of about a team of mutant characters. We basically wrote a portrait song for each character. It’s like the X-Men.
You recorded at a new studio that used to be home to the studio where you recorded your platinum-selling album Flood. What was that like recording another album 27 years later in an uncanny location like that?
It felt like we had won the lottery. We had so much more time to actually work and put all of this stuff together which was great. The studio that we worked at was this place called Skyline and it was Nile Rodgers’ studio.
When we arrived there for the first time for pre-production they were finishing the B 52’s album that had “Love Shack” on it. It was a complex, there were multiple rooms and multiple studios in this place. It was a hive of activity. We were in this hit-making place, and Nile Rodgers was hanging out. He’s the kind of guy that you can meet three times and you call him by his first name because you think you know him. He’s got clear ideas about how music works.
There are a lot of people in music production who are like Civil War actors — they’re preoccupied with old-fashioned ideas.
Miles is the exact opposite.
It’s just very exciting talking to him and being in this world. We had a really positive experience there, and learned about making records the real way. Time went on, we worked in various other places and we would come back to Skyline sometimes and it would have different owners. It just kind of went downhill and got dismantled.
A couple of years ago it kind of went on the market just fully for sale.
Skyline is now renamed Reservoir. Once again, it’s this sort of hive of activity. It just feels like it’s the spot and its really interesting for us to have this really informative experience in this physical space that is largely unchanged. It felt really right.
How do you choose who you collaborate with on Dial-A-Song videos in terms of actors or animators?
We’ve done a lot of video projects with people who have one-person or two-person shops. A lot of times its friends of friends and we’ve done DVD’s for kids, and that actually put us in contact with a ton of talented people. It’s a very 21st-century thing. If you’re into animation, you don’t have to get a job at Walt Disney anymore, you can actually work on your own terms. We’re really just enjoying the benefits of this unique time we’re in and getting to collaborate on these great illustrators and animators is a nice side effect.
What led to the revival of Dial-A-Song?
It’s been redesigned to work with social media. Everything online is really about social media now, people discover music through their Facebook feed or Twitter or Spotify. There’s a tremendous amount of musical discovery between friends. By having a new song getting posted with a video every week, it just puts us back in the sort of fast lane of discovery. We want people to be able to hear what we’re doing. We want people to know how active we are and what’s going on. It’s important that we’re not just reaching our original audience.
You kind of pioneered the online/mp3 business model. Did this make it easier for you to adapt to the shift toward streaming that the music industry has taken?
I think so. The truth is, the very first very public thing we did was create a dial song service, which was a phone machine in my kitchen. Long before the idea of the gift economy, which is something that people understand and acknowledged as a positive thing, we had a very clear and positive idea of how the gift economy worked.
By giving out our music, we put our music on the cultural map during the time when the music industry was preoccupied with calculating images and maintaining all of the gate-keeping they possibly could on acts.
Even on local acts, you would go to a nightclub and the nightclub would have a style of bands that they wanted to book. Nightclubs that were distinctly hard-rock oriented or more Top 40 oriented.
If you didn’t fit into those categories, there wasn’t necessarily a circuit for you. One of the luckiest breaks for us was the college rock moment where there was sort of a very loose network of college radio stations that supported this alternative rock music. It was really starting in the mid-80s and as we began adventuring outside of New York, there was a circuit of radio station and small nightclubs that supported that.
In some ways we made our own good luck by just being self-defined and having ways of people hearing our music that were independent of record company things. It really did kind of define us in a singular way.
At the same time, there were a lot of things happening in the culture that were DIY that the whole notion of the major label system was being challenged by bands like us in the U.S and bands coming from England like the Smiths, who were on an independent label. They were as commercially successful as you could possibly be, but they were an indie band and that made a difference with the material they did.
Major labels still had a lot of preconceived notions about what audiences could handle.
You have released 20 studio albums since 1986 and both original members are still in the band, what’s your secret?
It’s a real cocktail of different things that make it work. It’s so clear to me that it’s our temperament, it’s our relationship, it’s our friendship before we were a band.
We were really good friends before everything. We had all these shared experiences together that makes navigating the challenges of what’s in front of us so much easier.
We actually have a lot of the same kind of ideas about what’s worth doing and how to keep it fun and then on top of it we’ve been lucky.
Our audience has always been really positive. We’ve managed to keep going and their interest has stayed extraordinarily strong. We’re lucky.
Your live show will “change every night.” How so?
We have a trumpet player now, this guy that we’ve done shows within New York and some one-offs, but we’ve worked him into the entire show. I guess for the audience’s point of view, it’s “an evening with,” two full-length sets which allows us not to do just audience favorites.
We can head into deeper cuts and do a lot of things that people have never heard and we can also play a bunch of things from the new album, not just the priority single. It’s a bigger night of music for us, we have a thing in the show we call “Quiet Storm,” which is kind of a silly name but the way we put it together is pretty exciting.
Our drummer is actually playing an electronic drum kit and every song that he plays has its own unique palette of sounds, and I’m just playing the acoustic guitar and other John is playing the accordion and sometimes the clarinet so it just gives us a chance to attack these arrangements of songs in a very different way.
It definitely puts a gigantic curveball in the middle of the show.
We open the second set with a half dozen or so songs set up this way. It’s the kind of thing that if we were doing a shorter show it would seem like a strange departure, but because it’s a whole evening and whole expansive musical event, we just get to relax more into a vivid version of what’s possible with the music we’re doing.
What can fans expect from TMBG at the Pabst Theater on March 16?
They can expect to see a band, you know, giving it 100 percent.
We leave it all on the stage. It’s a real physical show for us. It’s very much a celebration.
Even if you don’t know anything about us, just seeing us will give you a good notion of what’s good about it.
I’m super psyched, this whole — it’s just been so good. Why couldn’t the last 10 years have been like this?