For 20 years now, They Might Be Giants have been slowly infiltrating the media. They've written music for Malcolm in the Middle, Nightline's Brave New World, The Daily Show, and Return to Never Land. They've recorded a children's album titled No! And Rhino has recently released a deluxe retrospective, Dial-a-Song, with all the hits, as well as what Giant John Flansburgh calls "a pretty good representation of the best of our more random impulses."
Such mainstream credibility aside, TMBG slipped easily into the more experimental waters of creating a soundtrack to accompany issue #6 of McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's acclaimed literary magazine. Dave Eggers and They Might Be Giants will be presenting a live multimedia version of their McSweeney's collaboration at the Fitzgerald Theater on Thursday, October 24, which Flansburgh describes thus: "It's more like a variety show than your average beatnik spoken-word event. There's a lot going on visually and musically. And then in the second half of the evening, we do a set of music. So They Might Be Giants fans shouldn't think that it's just going to be an interrupted evening. People are going to be able to rock out."
City Pages: So there's this book, The Tipping Point, about how things go from being tiny cult phenomena to suddenly being very popular. Are there things you could point to that have helped tip you to the level of success you have?
John Flansburgh: Oh, no, I think our biggest problem as a band is that we never "tip." We're waiting for the downhill portion of the festivities. We're ready to coast! We're ready to rest on our laurels whenever the gods will agree to it.
CP: It's true you've never achieved massive superstardom, but, in many ways, you're everywhere. You've been in a Disney movie.
Flansburgh: Yeah! But working for Disney is hard work, as anyone who works for Disney will tell you. When people talk about creativity by committee, it's like they're describing a conference call with Disney.
CP: So how did you come to do that?
Flansburgh: Well, because they asked us. I mean, we get offers from very disparate places for very odd reasons. The very first TV thing we were asked to write was Friends. And we turned it down. That was a job that just came to us on a golden platter, and we were like, "No. This show is stupid." Which shows you just how much I have my finger on the pulse of the culture.
CP: Are there differences between touring with McSweeney's and a regular tour?
Flansburgh: The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players are part of this bill, and they have a nine-year-old daughter playing the drums. You know...I've done a lot of touring, but I've never toured with a child before. And I don't even know if it's an appropriate place for a child to be! I don't know if it's an appropriate place for adults to be.
CP: Do you guys have any backstage requirements, like, Dan Miller must be referred to as Mr. Dan Miller and only touched with white gloves?
Flansburgh: For a while we had a road manager who put tube socks in the rider, which actually seemed like a really good idea, just because we were living out of a van, and it was very hard to even stay clean. But we've done a lot of tours where we don't have riders at all. Because...we know how to shop. We know that there are grocery stores in almost every town in the United States, and we take advantage of that special knowledge.
CP: What about your kids album--is that successfully infecting a new generation with the TMBG virus?
Flansburgh: Yeah, it's been far more successful than we imagined, in part because I think that world is always open to creative stuff. It's such a desert out there. There are not that many children's records that are made that are really sincere. Most children's records are just an extension of a marketing plan for a licensed character. I think being able to be part of somebody's childhood is an incredibly special part of being a creative person.
CP: I saw tons of kids at your show this summer--
Flansburgh: And there was lots of swearing! We actually got some complaints about it....That's actually the toughest part, that we are sort of demanding that people recognize that we do two different things. Most people are either a children's act or they're an adult act, and I personally have to insist that we are both. And I'm not going to stop swearing onstage. I don't care what those kids say!