“Can you call me back in 10 minutes? I just arrived, and I have to sort of de-pack my crap.” The statement is classic John Flansburgh, vocalist/guitarist for the jubilantly strange, lovably dorky alternative rock band They Might Be Giants. Since founding the group with vocalist/accordionist/keyboardist John Linnell in 1982, Flansburgh has practically built his career on the kind of pithy wording and amiably sardonic delivery he’s now displaying.
After liberating his crap, Flansburgh gets GT up to speed on a “misguided hand puppet project” that TMBG is currently working on. (Fans will soon see the results in the form of a slew of videos for the Web.) The 50-year-old musician explains that the puppets in question are “kind of angry, and that really speaks to adult audiences. They kind of feel put down by They Might Be Giants. They don’t want to be a part of the show; they feel like we’re holding them back.”
The puppet project is an extension of TMBG’s split personality: Just as some fans refer to Flansburgh as “Big John” and Linnell as “Little John,” there’s been a “big” TMBG and a “little” TMBG since the early 2000s, when the group began doubling as a kids’ act. As evidenced by the group’s 2009 Grammy Award in the category of Best Musical Album for Children (for Here Come the 123s), TMBG’s bouncy rhythms, sing-along choruses and penchant for the truly absurd are well suited for children’s entertainment. All the same, you really have to wonder what’s to become of the tykes whose worldviews are being shaped by the twisted minds behind lyrics like “Would you mind if we balance this glass of milk where your visiting friend accidentally was killed?” and “Where your eyes don’t go, a filthy scarecrow waves its broomstick arms and does a parody of each unconscious thing you do.”
According to Flansburgh, there’s a distinct separation between TMBG’s two identities. “We feel very self-defined in the world of kids’ stuff because we so clearly don’t belong there,” he offers. “But in the world of rock, there’s a lot more reason to look over your shoulder. Things are critiqued rather closely, and you’re contributing to a world of music that people have very strong feelings about. Everyone’s trying to figure out where you fit into the culture.” Making mention of discussions with the band’s manager as to which TMBG songs will be played on the radio, the singer whimsically notes, “We have big-city problems in Rockville.”
Between the children’s market, the alternative rock market and the mass media (TMBG songs have been used in video games, in movies like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and in TV shows like The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle), this band’s music definitely gets around. Flansburgh seems amused by the ubiquity of his and Linnell’s work. “I think in some ways, we kind of don’t think that any of it is really even true,” he states. “I feel like there’s the real world, and then there’s this kind of dreamscape that includes us. I’m always amazed when people know who we are, because we’ve never broken through on that big, big level.”
Nor do they wish to. Flansburgh says he finds the thought of big-time success intimidating. “It already feels a little bit like running for Congress just doing shows,” he admits. “You’ll be in the middle of having an argument with a friend in a restaurant, and all of a sudden, someone’s at your table wanting to take your picture. But the funny thing about that whole strange relationship with the public is that on a personal level, the parts that seem the phoniest are actually when you’re really doing your duty as a conscientious public servant.”
Hey, that’s the way it goes when you lead a double life.