John Flansburgh on “No-mentum,” Revisiting “Flood” and the Stories Behind Dial-A-Song Direct
Though They Might Be Giants have been making music for over 30 years, to both critical and commercial success, they rarely get enough credit for being true musical polymaths. As their discography has deepened, so has the range of styles they’ve explored. The twinkling new wave of their early records has gradually given way to experiments in jazz, country, dance music and even tango and children’s songs. Nowhere is their impressive diversity in greater evidence than in their Dial-A-Song Direct project: every week, members of They Might Be Giants’ Drip get a new song from the band, and how that song will sound remains delightfully unpredictable. An offshoot of the Dial-A-Song program they ran during the ’80s and ’90s, Dial-A-Song Direct is a tour the group’s many sounds. We caught up with John Flansburgh about the history of Dial-A-Song and chatted about a few of the songs in this version of the project.
You first did Dial-A-Song from 1983–2006, and people would just call your apartment and hear a new song on your answering machine, then you brought it back at the beginning of this year. Having done this for so long now, what do you still get out of working this way?
I think on the immediate creative level, it’s very much the same challenge. From the outside it might seem like it invites improvisation, but the truth is that you just kind of end up investing more in the quality of the work. In a way, we’re kind of doubling down on just trying to do good work. I mean, I don’t think anybody sets out to write an “OK” song, and there are certainly times when we get finished with something and we realize it’s not quite as magnificent as we were hoping. But one thing that’s different about releasing a song every week on Dial-A-Song, as opposed to just making an album, is each song gets its own moment in the sun. The awareness that the track is going to have to stand on its own makes us sit up a little bit straighter — we end up that much more invested in the individual song.
Is that because, on an album, there would be more tracks to counterbalance it?
People have many preconceived notions about what They Might Be Giants is as a project, and we have pre-conceived notions about what it is as a project, but the nice thing about it is that [in this context], every song has its own autonomy. Because the songs have this unlimited potential, it invites more wide-open thinking about what we’re doing. Having made albums, the task of writing a song for an album can often be just trying to make something that doesn’t sound like something else, and that can be this weird, self-conscious thing. We are so many hundreds of songs into songwriting, it’s hard to even know what sparks our creativity at this point. There are things about it that are incredibly familiar, there are things about it that seem knowable and reliable, and then there’s a lot of time just staring at the blank page going “Oh, fuck. I’m never gonna write another song.” That’s just the way it is. Once you get started, you kind of know what to do. But until that ball is rolling, it does seem like there’s… no-mentum.
Talking with artists over the years, I’ve started to realize that there are two different kinds of artists: those who view songwriting as a job, and who work on it every day for a set number of hours per day, and then those who prefer to wait for inspiration to strike. Which are you?
When we’re touring, we often really give up on trying to do any real writing. When you are on the road, there are a lot of hours where it seems like you’re not being particularly productive, yet you have all the time in the world. The problem is, you don’t have a crazy amount of energy. It’s a little like the idea of a “busman’s holiday,” where if you travel for a living, traveling doesn’t feel like a vacation. When you’re on tour and you’re just sitting in a hotel room, it seems like, why shouldn’tyou be writing a song? That seems like a perfect use of your time. But somehow, it’s just not an inspiring environment. The only song we could write is some really crummy blues song about how we don’t want to be on the road.
I think both John and I have odd strategies. Because we work with sounds and samples and manipulating audio a fair amount, there’s an experimental electronic music component to a lot of the ways we approach songwriting. Even if it doesn’t show up in the track, and even if it’s ultimately in the background, a lot of times that’s the trampoline that we’re jumping on to get things going. So you might sit down and work on some beats, or create some sounds, make a little sound library, stack up some vocals to make a chord, and build a sample library out of that. That’s pretty common stuff for us. Once it’s there, it feels like you’re doing something brand new. It’s always good when you have a title, or opening line, that just seems like a fresh breeze. But as often as not, [the inspiration is] coming from a sound direction. That’s the thing that makes you feel like, “I’ve got something here.”
I think Tin Pan Alley writers were probably pretty jazzed at the idea of these chords, the way popular songs fold together is — there’s a lot of overlap in the structure of those songs. I think Nick Lowe said there was a ‘trick’ to it. Once you have a grasp of these formal sequences of chords, all of a sudden you feel like you know that language. I’ll bet they were pretty excited about just riffing on that. The popular song has been around for so long now. I’m fascinated by it, but I also spent a lot of time listening to recordings that were made 60 years ago.
So, I wanted to talk about some of the songs you’ve released on your Drip over the course of the last year, and I wanted to start with one that isn’t actually a song you wrote — it’s your cover of Jonathan Richman’s “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.” Why did you choose to include that?
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and I was very much in love with the first Modern Lovers record. The fact that it was locally grown, and actually had been recorded a bunch of years before [it was released], it was kind of the same way that a lot of people rediscovered the Velvet Underground — this would be in, like, 1978, which was the first full year of the new wave music. There were very few things from before that moment that seemed relevant to that moment, and the bands that got the official punk rock dispensation were people like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers, to a certain extent. It was very immediate. And then when he made his turn into the kind of “happy Jonathan Richman,” I was totally in the front row for that. I just loved Jonathan Richman so much– he’s a really interesting, special guy. I just feel like the way he puts stuff together is fascinating, and I just love his spirit. The song is exceptional for him, just because it’s suddenly seems very “adult.” And it’s very modern in a way, but it’s still a perfect JR song.
Did you set for yourselves any kind of ground rules on how you were going to cover it?
I was trying to put an arrangement together that we could play it as a trio. John had just bought a bass clarinet, so it was set up to simply be drums, bass clarinet and guitar. It was, in a way, backwards-engineered to be something we could play in a radio station. When you’re in a band, there’s always the challenge of, “What’s a great song you could play in a radio station?” The kind of song that automatically puts you in such good stead with the listeners. For years and years we’d play the song “Older,” because it was the perfect duo song. It was incredibly simple, but musically it was very interesting. And it was surprising to hear, even the first time you heard it. It was such a great day when that song got introduced into our repertoire, and it took forever for it to fall out of it, because if you go into a radio station and play this song and have almost, like, a punchline in it, you’re surprising the DJ, and you’re surprising the listeners. It just fits the bill completely.
I remember a couple of years ago, Nellie McKay was doing a lot of pubic radio, and she has this killer song where the opening line is, “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor.” Which is just such a perfect, crazy thing to lead with on public radio. Aimee Mann’s last record had a song on it called “Labrador,” and it’s a subtler song, but it’s also just such a jewel, and she would play it acoustically and it would just kill. There’s a utility to having a song like that. There wasn’t a piece of our repertoire that was self-evident to fit that role, and we had played “Older” at every radio show we’d been on for 15 years, so I just thought, “Well, John’s got this unusual instrument, we usually bring [drummer] Marty [Beller] along to these radio things, so let’s try to get a good cover in there.” And “Lesbian Bar,” not unlike the Nellie McKay song, it’s a little bit of a shocker, but it’s not going to get you pulled off the air.
One of the other things you posted over the course of this last year was Flood Live in Australia. You’ve done a few of these retrospective shows at this point, where you play one album from start to finish. What have you discovered, going back to these records?
It’s a funny thing, because when we do a Flood show, a lot of times it will pull in a much bigger crowd than a regular show — it’ll be a much bigger event. And obviously that’s a touchstone album for a lot of people in our audience. But I often wonder, like, are they really interested in hearing the most obscure songs off of Flood? But they are, I guess, because it’s a big album for them.
For us, I think, the thing that’s satisfying about doing full-album shows is that there are songs that have qualities that have nothing to do with pop radio. When you’re playing track 17 off of a 19-track album, you’re pretty far away from the radio-ready song. And that’s an interesting thing to do, and it’s nice to have an excuse to do it. Because even in our unique place in the culture, and our unique place in music, and even with the phenomenal audience that we enjoy as a band, there isn’t an enormous call to really get into all of the corners of our work. Doing the full-album shows is just a great excuse to dust off those crazy songs that we wouldn’t do otherwise. If we were doing a regular show and pulled out some of those tracks, I think a lot of people would be like “what?”
We’ve rediscovered a number of songs by doing this. We recently did The Else, and it just reminded us how much people love “Careful What You Pack” and “With the Dark.” There’s a bunch of songs off that album I think will end up in the show again. When we did Apollo 18, there was a whole host of songs that we hadn’t really done, like “Turn Around” and “Dinner Bell.” Now we do “Mammal” as an encore. Those are songs that are quieter. The strange thing about a lot of bands, even in this band, is that if we write a really up-tempo song, its chances of surviving in the setlist are infinitely better than other songs.
One of the tracks you recorded specifically for Dial-A-Song is “I’m a Coward.” Tell me a little about the origin of that song.
That’s a song that was completely generated by the title. It seemed like a really weird declaration to make, because it’s a very paradoxical idea to declare in a public forum that you’re a coward. To say you’re a coward, there’s a nice amount of contrary motion there that seemed intriguing.
Ultimately, it turns into a love song. It kind of invites a crazy level of tenderness. It’s got such strange elements –all that crazy, churning electric guitar is all recorded backwards. It was a very psychedelic recording process, cooking up that sound and figuring out how to capture it. A lot of things sound cool backwards automatically, but combining Dan Miller’s very formidable electric guitar skills and a track that churns as slowly as that — it was a really nice combination. It was almost getting back to the experimental days of working, where you don’t really necessarily have a notion of what you’re working on, you’re just kind of working with sounds. That pinging sound — it sounds like some sort of guitar version of tinnitus — that’s just chords that are happening on a second guitar, and I’ve just sampled myself and played it back.
That song is very much like a lot of songs in terms of the process. There’s a lyrical spark that gets things going, there’s some material that was created in the lab, and then layered on top of that is our formidable band doing their best work in the studio. We get the most out of the recording process at every turn. It’s not just about capturing a good demo, it’s not just about doing some experimental sonic work or just having the band rocking out in the studio — it’s all of those things smashed together.
Another one that leapt out to me was “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin.” You’ve got almost this weird, lurching, Eastern European-style tempo to it.
Actually, that one’s a little bit more straightforward, because the drums are all drum machines. The drums and the keyboards are from a Fairlight, which is a keyboard that was featured on our very first album. The studio we were working in back then had one of the earliest Fairlights in New York City. Because the studio had a Fairlight, Peter Gabriel had come in and worked on some tracks there. At the time, it was a brand new thing — it was like having the latest sports car — people just wanted to check it out. For the people reading who are not familiar with the Fairlight, probably the most famous Fairlight song is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The top of the song is all Fairlight — that crazy thing that sounds like some synthesizer made out of logs, that’s a Fairlight. The Art of Noise albums are all Fairlight, the Malcolm McLaren singles like “Duck Rock,” that’s all Fairlight. Trevor Horn during that period seemed like he was just sitting in a corner with headphones on, creating track after track out of every sound available. So it was a strange trip backwards for me, because a lot of the sounds were things I hadn’t experienced in 20 years.
I really wanted to get Kimya Dawson to sing that song, but it didn’t come together. The Moldy Peaches opened for They Might Be Giants for a bunch of shows — in fact, I think some of the first big shows they ever played were opening for us, just judging by the terror in their eyes. I’ve always been really captivated by her voice, and everything about her style.
“Another Weirdo” stood out to me because it’s an instrumental. You guys certainly have a lot of instrumental songs in your catalog — why do you always make room for a track or two like that on your records?
Well, we’re such a verbal band. Talking to soundmen when we play live, they’ll always be like, “You’ve got to make it so people can hear the words.” And I’m always thinking “Why?” Everybody’s singing along already. Sometimes it’s nice when the words aren’t quite so loud, so people can’t realize that we don’t remember them!
Instrumentals are an interesting problem for us, because a lot of times I feel like the things that make the songs seem bolder are often found in the way we approach lyrics and the way we set up the vocal parts. This gets to a big issue for us, which is how much we want to keep it sounding original. When you’re working with really great musicians, there are a lot of different stylistic things that are available to you.
One of the reasons that people love bar bands is because the people are playing the thing that they know how to play — there’s an authenticity when you listen to a band just bashing something out. But once you get to another level, [you’re not just making] your weird version of a country song — it can actually sound an awful lot like a country song. So the question we always have is: how do we avoid making something a pastiche, and how do we keep the arrangement crisp?
A track like “Another Weirdo” is a bit of a tightrope walk for us, because the musicality of the track is very much idiomatically this kind of easy surfer jazz. It’s a pretty specific vibe, and it’s not a very rockin’ vibe. I’m not even sure how successful a track it is, because we could have made it stranger, and it would have fit our general setup. But the truth is that it has a very bold melody and it felt right to support it with that set of sounds. I think some people would just hear it and think it’s some kind of soft jazz thing, and I have misgivings about that. But I don’t want to be a slave to first perceptions.
It gave us an opportunity to work with Stan Harrison, who’s one of the best saxophone players you’ll ever experience. Listening to Stan Harrison warm up is better than half of the concerts I’ve been to in my life. He’s a remarkable powerhouse of a musician. He’s just got an amazing thing going on. When we’re rehearsing the 5-piece band, sometimes we’ll be taking our instruments out for the first time in a couple of weeks, and everybody will be talking about how cold they are. And we’ll remark on the notion that Stan actually practices by himself three or four hours a day. There are people who are very dedicated to their practice. Evidently, it has very profound results.
The last song I want to talk about is “Rock Club.” I love this song because it’s kind of dark humor, with the two of you expressing your total apathy and exhaustion with being on the road. How did that song develop?
The way the original Dial-A-Song service worked, when it was just a phone line out of my apartment in Brooklyn in the ’80s and ’90s — is that every time we would demo a song, we’d put the demo on a cassette, with the vocal way up so you could hear the words, and it would be in rotation until an album came out. And if that song was featured on the album, we would take that song out of rotation. So certain songs that never got put on an album, probably up until Apollo 18, would just kind of hang around. “Rock Club” was a song that I think was written during one of our very first tours, and was on the original Dial-A-Song for a very long time, just because it was never put on a proper release. On all the bootlegs of the early Dial-A-Song material, that one would always show up. Periodically I would hear the song and think, “Hey, that’s kind of a good song — I don’t know why we didn’t record that song.” [pauses] Well, I kind of know why we didn’t do it — because it’s glacially slow. The first thing we learned on tour is that the glacially slow songs were almost invitations for people to go to the bar. So it is really very much on that topic — the weird, thudding dullness of being in a touring band.