Brooklyn based indie rock group They Might Be Giants have never been in the spotlight for extended periods of time. However, the group led by John Linnell and John Flansburgh have routinely made the most of the moments they’ve emerged from the indie rock shadows into the mainstream.
The band, who released their 20th studio album I Like Fun earlier this year, have a workmanlike approach to their craft. From touring to the amount of material released They Might Be Giants have never sat idle waiting for their moment to shine.
“We’ve had a little bit of good luck very consistently,” Flansburgh says prior to a show on the band’s current North American trek. “Lots of different things have happened that have helped to kind of roll us down the road. There’s a percentage of it that is perseverance, there’s a percentage of it that’s just being responsible for our show in a way that a lot of performers don’t. There’s a lot of really interesting songwriters who just aren’t going to challenge themselves. They’ve challenged themselves so much in their writing and they’ve found a way to write but they’re not particularly interested in figuring out how to take that to the stage.
“It’s a tricky bit of business being a good live act. I think there’s part of it that’s essentially theatrical that people are uncomfortable with and then beyond that what we’re doing has never been so much a part of the zeitgeist that it’s never been so in fashion that it’s been out of fashion.”
The group, currently in the midst of a long-awaited proper Canadian tour which hits Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre Nov. 2, spent most of 2018 touring behind I Like Fun. It’s an album Flansburgh says followed the traditional recording process.
“We actually dedicate a fair amount of time to it,” he says. “It’s kind of an incremental process. So it has all of the challenges of just any open-ended kind of piece of writing has. I guess we’re evolving but I don’t think we’re trying to reinvent what we’re doing. I think inevitably we’re always a bit nervous that we don’t want to seem like a diminished version of what we were doing.”
The album has several highlights including “Insult To The Fact Checker,” a song Flansburgh says shouldn’t be inferred as a political statement regarding the United States and its controversial leader.
“It’s funny that in this super-charged political climate people when it was written lying wasn’t such a hot topic,” he says. “It’s really more about personal betrayal, it’s not a political song in any overt way. It’s just a good old ‘I don’t like you anymore’ kind of song.”
Another song which was almost a happy accident was “All Time Luck.”
“The entire lyric was taken from another song that had actually been completed for the previous record,” Flansburgh says. “The general consensus was the lyric was really interesting but the song was not particularly good. Actually, the lyric was literally peeled off a different song and a new song was written. And actually, that was kind of an interesting process. I don’t remember ever getting so far down the line with another approach and then sort of reworking it from the ground up.”
Meanwhile, They Might Be Giants recently issued a new single entitled “The Communists Have The Music,” a track whose premise Flansburgh says is “a take on how little information can be involved in what are more important decisions than people realize.” The song’s video was created by David Plunkert, an illustrator perhaps best known for his 2017 New Yorker cover which showed Donald Trump “in a sailboat with a Klansman sail.”
Flansburgh says the band is enjoying this tour and are happily surprised by the support they’ve seen during the Canadian dates. He also says having trumpeter Curt Ramm along for this jaunt has been amazing.
“It’s somewhere between the frosting on the cake and having a Saturn V booster rocket attached to the end of the band,” he says of Ramm. “He’s a very, he’s a real virtuoso. Everybody in the band are pretty good musicians. But Curt as a soloist has really got an amazing thing going on.
“There’s a number of open solos and improvisational moments as well as like hot breaks in a bunch of songs where Curt can blow the roof off the place. That combined with Dan Miller our lead guitar player it’s just a lot of good old-fashioned hot-dogging going on.”
As for Canada, Flansburgh says he doesn’t remember much of the band’s Toronto debut at Larry’s Hideaway in January 1986. He does vividly recall a “bizarre” Calgary show for all the wrong reasons.
“It was outdoors and the temperature dropped like 30 degrees in the half hour before we went on,” he says. “And all of a sudden everything was out of tune and untuneable. That was actually the time we were touring with a brass section. So it was truly a case of where our musical muffler was dragging for the entire show.”
Still, he’s glad the band is back north of the border after sporadically playing select cities over the years.
“I’m very happy to be able to have a chance to perform in Canada again,” he says. “I’m glad the center has held and this whole run has been more successful than anybody thought it would be. So we kind of willed the guys into doing it and I’m glad that it’s working.