They Might Be Giants still not short on inspiration
When “Nanobots” arrived on March 5, it marked the 16th album the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has released as They Might Be Giants over their 30-year partnership.
Few bands survive anywhere near that long, and of those that do, many have long since run out of the inspiration (or courage) to create music that's fresh and different. But Flansburgh says he and Linnell feel as creative as ever.
“We're so far down our crazy road, but still these songs and these ideas just completely take over our consciousness, so it's something we're really dedicated to,” Flansburgh says. “People say ‘How long can you be in a band? How long can you make albums?' And it's like, I don't know. I don't even know if it's a good idea for people to make five albums, let alone 16.”
The album makes it clear that Flansburgh and Linnell are showing no signs of slowing down.
“Oh, we're always trying to figure out how to stretch out,” Flansburgh says. “There's nothing more interesting to us than finding a new kind of song to work on.
“I think ‘Sometimes A Lonely Way' for me was, it was interesting to write something that was kind of that down,” Flansburgh says, mentioning a pretty-piano-based ballad from the new album. “It wasn't intentional. I was trying to figure out how to do something that was just simple, and I think the combination of a really unadorned arrangement and a very direct kind of sentiment kind of added up to something that seemed much more intense than I think I was even intending.”
Another song that stands out to Flansburgh is “The Darlings Of Lumberland,” which was a collaboration with veteran saxophone player Stan Harris (perhaps most famous for playing sax on the David Bowie hit, “Let's Dance”).
“I think there's something that's actually very breezy about the way the horn chart works on that song, even though there's a lot of instruments,” Flansburgh says. “There might be 10 horns at a time happening on the song, but it feels very sparky. It doesn't seem like bogged down and it doesn't seem over-orchestrated. It's very alive.”
What's also different about “Nanobots” is the overall feel of the album, Flansburgh says. The CD has 25 songs, a half dozen of which are less than 30 seconds long and the album flows from start to finish as a single piece. Sequencing the songs, Flansburgh says, was perhaps the most-challenging aspect of the project.
“We started making the sort of micro-songs, we started constructing those songs, and they're all really fun in and of themselves, and we didn't know how we should string it together. We didn't want it to seem like just ‘Fingertips Part Two,” he says. The original “Fingertips” is a collection of 21 short songs arranged together on the 1992 album “Apollo 18.” “And we didn't want it to seem like a medley. So, some of them are sequenced to stand apart and some of them are chained together. And it kind of ebbs and flows. But I think the cumulative effect is pretty singular and I think the whole album stands up as an experience.”
“Nanobots” will add to an impressive and deep discography that dates back to the duo's 1986 self-titled debut album. Early on, They Might Be Giants was sometimes labeled a novelty act for its witty (and frequently brainy) lyrics and its catchy and sometimes quirky pop songs. Still, the group got signed to major label Elektra Records (from 1989-1996) and even had a Top 5 modern-rock hit with “Birdhouse in Your Soul” from the 1989 album, “Flood.” But the greatest success has come with an entry into children's music. The first-such release, “No,” arrived in 2002 and has been followed by “Here Come the ABCs” (2005), “Here Come the 123s” (2008) and “Here Comes Science” (2009).
Flansburgh, Linnell and the touring members of They Might Be Giants (guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller) have an extensive tour set for “Nanobots,” with shows, so far, booked into June. Flansburgh says he's looking forward to seeing how songs, new and old, take on a different life live.
“I'm sure that much like when we did the ‘Join Us' tour, a lot of things are going to evolve really radically as the (“Nanobots”) tour goes along,” he says. “It's interesting to have been working with the same guys for so long. We can really restructure what we're doing so quickly.”
Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.