Interview: John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants)

They Might Be Giants were my first musical discovery. Meaning, up through and including most of high school, I was a fairly straight-laced, MTV-watching, Columbia-House-12-for-a-penny-ing music listener. And, then 20 years ago this September, they released Lincoln on the Bar/None label and that was the start of an entirely new musical direction for me, one where I actually sought out music rather than taking whatever was most easily consumed.

I take that brief personal detour for two reasons:
1) In one sense, the fact that I've got this website charged with finding great music for kids and families is due, in some small way, to that 20-year-old album.
2) It provides an interesting perspective to me as I consider the words of John Flansburgh, who founded the band as a duo with John Linnell 25 years ago and who now navigates with Linnell both a very independent course as a band but also one that has them working with many large media corporations.

Flansburgh, who, along with Linnell and the rest of TMBG, has released two excellent album in the past 12 months -- the adult-oriented The Else last summer and the kids-focused Here Come the 123s last week -- took some time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about the new CD/DVD set. Read on for Flansburgh's thoughts on the influence of "Sesame Street" on their work for kids, how they went about picking animators and directors for the video, the future of the Podcast for Kids, and much more.

Zooglobble: What sort of music did you listen to in your childhood?
John Flansburgh: My mom avidly listens to a bunch of quite specific music that is very non-rock and very non-kid: Noel Coward, Joan Baez, Louie Armstrong, Lotte Lenya (which was very mysterious to me as a kid). West Side Story and Cabaret were routinely played at top volume to inspire housecleaning. I had some Beatles and Monkees albums I bought with birthday money that I essentially memorized, and some very odd kiddie albums I inherited from a distant relative that were truly strange. One was called Happy Birthday to You! and even at a very young age I was suspicious it was a bit of a rushed effort. Side two got pretty grim.

You've mentioned Sesame Street as an inspiration for your kids' CDs -- is that the music, the visuals, or both?
Both. Personally, as abstract or maybe as obvious as this sounds, when we first embarked on kids' stuff I felt it was important that it be focused directly to kids. I know that notion contradicts what a lot of people say is our kids' stuff's fundamental appeal, but for me it was the essential difference from our adult efforts. I never wanted anyone to walk away from the kids' stuff thinking we were rock guys some how goofing on kids or kids' stuff. No inside jokes for adults allowed, and no pandering. Sesame Street was very good at avoiding any kind of pandering vibe that poisons so much kids' stuff. Also, Sesame Street, and specifically the Muppets on Sesame Street, established this perfect tone. They balanced educational material with very original ideas and actual entertainment. It's breezy.

Did you primarily write the songs for the album in a concentrated burst, or was it a case of polishing up song snippets you'd written sporadically over the past few years?
The writing took place over about a year, with videos going into production almost as soon as the first songs were written. The videos take a long time to produce. There was a saying back in the MTV rock video days "Good, Fast, and Cheap. Pick Two" which is to say you can only ask for so much out of a production unless you have gobs of dough. We have to deliver the entire DVD on a smaller budget than the average episode of an animated series, but obviously there is a much more focused effort within each video, so affording the animators as much time as possible, along with a lot of freedom, is the strategy.

HereComeThe123s.jpgSome of the songs on Here Come the ABCs ("Rolling O," "Letter Shapes") seemed inextricably tied to their videos while there isn't a single song on Here Come the 123s that doesn't "make sense" purely based on the audio -- did you approach writing the songs and creating the videos differently this time around?
That is a very astute observation. I really loved the more instrumental stuff on the ABCs and the gentle tone of those videos, and I would be happy if there was stuff like that on the 123s, but we were actually working to meet two very different challenges with each DVD.

With the Here Come the ABCs DVD we were essentially required to deliver an
hour-long program because of the kooky way "full length" DVDs were shelved in stores, and I guess even priced at the time. As silly as it seemed, even if we had done a 45 minute DVD it would have been hidden somewhere in the back of the store, and that would have just killed the project. Because our songs are rarely over three minutes, the challenge of achieving a sixty-minute program become a bit of an obstacle within the creation of the DVD. Those leisurely instrumentals were actually another way to keep an hour-long DVD program rolling along.

Since then, that weird DVD length requirement has completely disappeared, so this time around we were thinking we'd be free to just go about our merry way with a shorter disc. Then, about half way into making the 123s, Playhouse Disney decided it couldn't really afford to broadcast interstitial songs - that's the show biz term for songs between their TV shows - for much more than a minute and a half. That interstitial exposure is a big part of what makes folks aware of these discs, so it's important that the stuff work on the Disney Channel. It kind of fell to us to restructure the videos for broadcast to either fit the new length, or live with the longer songs getting edited down in some blunt way. So, to really just make it easy on ourselves, and to make sure the songs being broadcast would have the right structure, we just started writing all the new songs shorter. Of course writing short songs was pretty natural for us, but since a lot of the kids' songs are lists or stories, it occasionally got tight keeping it under ninety seconds. "One Dozen Monkeys," for example, would definitely have been more leisurely if it wasn't for the broadcast structure.

I should point out there was a hidden upside to the short song requirement. Because the animators had less to animate by about half for the same budget as the ABCs, the actual quality of the animations went way up, and people seem to dig the higher visual quality.

You have now been officially behind the curtain of They Might Be Giants' professional challenges! May I apologize on behalf of the band! [Ed: I've already told John there was no need to apologize.]

How did you go about selecting the animators for the videos?
It's mostly six degrees of separation from the folks at ColourMovie. With just a few exceptions out of something like twenty five companies we have hired, they are all friends of friends with the folks at ColourMovie (who created the videos for "Alphabet of Nations" and "Even Numbers"). I met David Cowles working on a pilot for Disney. The Homestar fellows we met on our own. I did find one team of people, the company Feel Good Anyway, just by doing a Google search of motion graphics companies, and Matthew Canale was either a film student or soon out of school and he actually contacted us through our myspace page. I don't think that is going to happen again! But then again, his reel was amazing.

The John and John puppets have a bigger role this time around (on the DVD, in the Podcast for Kids). How much of the puppets' appearances were improvised? And who came up with the idea for the Podcast for Kids, anyway?
The podcast was just an idea that came up after the success of the adult podcast. Obviously it's a way to find a new audience but it's also something for kids that was looser than the DVDs. The podcast is exactly the kind of thing I feel we're good at--it's totally self defined but semi-structured and has a device we can kind of hide behind and jam off of. My wife Robin Goldwasser made all the puppets and styles them with a lot of handmade props which makes it a lot of fun. Filming the puppets is just a very easy way for us to be ourselves but also be characters.

The podcast is scripted, and sometimes more fully than you might imagine, but there is a big layer of improvisation on top of the scripts to energize it. Because the weekly episodes are often organized around calendar events, and we're shooting weeks ahead of the post date, it has to be planned out. I'm happy to report the podcast basically gets stranger and stranger over the next few months.

Kids' voices play a big role on Here Come the 123s, either in the background or on choruses, and Hannah Levine's vocals are featured prominently on a few songs. Are there any particular bonuses or challenges to having kids in the studio?
John recorded the Henry tracks at their house, so I'd imagine it was about as casual as any other day there. Hannah Levine is kind of a different story. When she was recommended by her uncle Dan Levine, who plays trombone in TMBG, I didn't assume she'd be a ringer. It was just an experiment to get another kind of voice on the project. She is, and I mean this in the most positive way, a professional kid actor and singer. She's got an agent, and she seems to work pretty regularly for a kid in school. She can do line readings any way you ask, and takes direction with an adult's level of comprehension. It was really amazing. I also believe she is lucky because both her parents are very hard-working performers based in New York--not LA--and I don't think she is being raised with any big fantasies about what "it" is that she is doing. I get the feeling that performing to her is just an interesting part of her life, with school and everything else. It's fun. I've seen my share of stage kids, and honestly I'm not a big fan of that scene. I am happy to report she has got a seriously good handle on it.

TMBG_John_John.jpgYou have been quoted as saying you're thinking of continuing a series of "educational" albums on other subjects. Do you think you'd ever release another album like No! -- that is, an album targeted at kids but without an ostensible theme?
I would be happy to do that. I don't think it's that important to us that the albums be educational at all. I'd even be into doing something that has a story arc. It was only after No! came out that we got any understanding of how young the audience for most kids' music really is, and looking back on it I think that realization was part of what pulled us toward the ABC and 123 themes. Writing for such a young audience without the themes might have ended up feeling like an obstacle. We're interested in writing for older kids too, but that has its own challenges. For better or worse a lot of preteens are really into their own culture now. Tween music and gaming are powerful, powerful things.

What's next for the band (either for kids or for adults)?
We just started talking about the next rock album and I think we're going to find a way to change it up. It's gotta be great. That's all I really know. No rest for the weary!

What's your favorite number?
When I was a kid it was seven. I haven't really thought about it since!

(Photo credit: Joshua Kessler)