Hannah on meeting the musician who saved her from teenage purgatory
Mine was quite a lonely childhood, at times. Specifically in the mornings and afternoons when I’d board the school bus, with a heavy heart, dreading the journey ahead. I was pretty good at being invisible – I was a shy, bookish daydreamer – but not quite good enough, and I’d often get picked on by the other kids. Looking back, it was all quite mild, but the names they called me really stung at the time. Weird. Different. Strange. Boring. And that’s how I grew to regard myself; the loner, the outsider, the one who didn’t quite belong.
But one morning in 1989, I was hunched down in my seat, trying to pretend I didn’t exist as usual, when a song came on the bus’s radio. It was bright, sparkling, strange, like an alien had tried to make a pop song without actually having heard one before. Where other songs warbled blandly about love, this one enthused about blue canaries, nightlights, and Jason and the Argonauts; above all, it sounded like the mess in my head set to music.
As I listened, I was struck with a thought: I’m not alone. I’m not the only weirdo on this planet. There are other people out there like me – and if these guys are making music that’s being played on the radio, there must be many others – all thinking their strange thoughts and being their own oddball selves. And they’re fine with that, so I should be too. I wasn’t on my own in the world anymore, and my heart ached with the joy of it.
The song was – as you’d probably already figured – “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants. I was lost to them; going to gigs, devouring their music, buying what I could in the UK and begging my mum to pick up more albums when she went to the States. And as I grew older and starting making new friends – an excellent crowd of fellow oddballs and weirdos – I was quietly amused at how many of them also turned out to love TMBG too.
I’m 40 now, and while a number of my other musical passions have burned and gone, I’ve stuck with TMBG. Through 18 albums, through countless tours, through many changes in my life – marriage, kids, bereavement, divorce – I can still find comfort and humour in TMBG’s music. And these days, I even get to enjoy their music with my kids.
TMBG have recently released another of their splendid children’s albums (“Why?”), and they’re touring the UK later this month in support of it. So, it was with HUGE amounts of fangirl enthusiasm that I seized the chance to interview TMBG’s John Flansburgh for The Afterword. I don’t usually get nervous or giggly when talking to someone well-known, but I was rather embarrassingly starstruck when chatting to John. Luckily he was warm, sweet and friendly, and ready to natter about everything from proper winter garments to the current state of American politics.
So, let’s get the important stuff covered upfront. Is there anything you’re officially obliged to tell me about the new album?
Brilliant. So, in Britain, we’re rather perplexed by Donald Trump’s popularity.
Yes, I would say it’s embarrassing but it’s probably more serious than that. I think the fact he’s been on television, and a public figure for a long time makes people feel like there’s nothing very very wrong about him as a political figure. But of course he’s stirring up a lot of racial hate and a lot of xenophobia. It’s really the worst. I hate Donald Trump.
Fair enough. I’m just puzzled by the whole thing. I’ve only ever met lovely, smart Americans.
I suspect Italians who’ve lived through Berlusconi [have lived with a] populist demagogue. But it seems so strange to me that he’s getting so much attention. The thing that’s probably strangest of all is that the Americans that are complaining seem like such Chicken Littles. I mean, eight years ago, we had much bigger problems and compared to a lot of other countries, we survived the big economic crises of 2007, 2008 much better. I’m thinking about Greece or Spain; they’re places that have been a lot harder hit by the downturn and in a lot of ways I’d say we’ve already fully recovered.
John then changed the subject: Did you make any new year’s resolutions?
Yes, I’m going to listen to more new music as I’ve been a bit slack on that recently. How about you?
I want to attempt to learn Spanish. I actually got Rosetta Stone, and I can tell you after a half hour of Rosetta Stone, my brain hurts in a way that your legs hurt when you first start trying to run. I realise that I haven’t seriously tried to learn anything in years, which is probably bad. It shouldn’t be that hard.
We had a number of questions about the kids’ shows you do. What are they actually like to play compared to your adult shows?
They are completely different; the audience’s average age is 3. As someone said a long time ago, “You can’t serve two masters”, and I think that’s something we realised as we entered into the kids’ world, that the shows would have to be entirely separate. We really want to remind people that the bars that we play in are not for bringing kids to, no matter what they think. We’re not insured to have kids be put in harm’s way, with drunks. It’s not really an inappropriate thing to do; there’s too many people who’ve just got off their meds. It does make it sound like a lunatic asylum, but over the course of a normal week’s worth of touring, we inevitably have a stage dive, or somebody who starts doing windmill punches in the crowd, and there’s tiny bits of broken glass everywhere. Our show is really loud, it’s really for adults. We swear! It’s just not for kids.
Fair enough. I have to tell you though, there’s grave disappointment in my household that you’re not doing any kids’ shows on this UK tour. I’ve got tickets to your show, but I’m not taking my children along, and they’re cross with me.
We don’t really do that many kids shows because of the problems with [safety]. There’s so few things that we’re in control of, it makes putting on kids shows extremely difficult. It takes more coordinating to do a kids show than it does to do a month of adult shows. I didn’t get into being in a rock band because I wanted to work hard so the chore part of it is really unrewarding. It’s really fun to write songs for kids and do projects for kids, but the actual performing part of it is much trickier.
What about the difference in writing for the two audiences? Musically, you seem to deliver exactly the same universe but the lyrics are quite different?
Well, yes, that’s the part that comes naturally to us. Writing for kids might have an educational veneer but it’s essentially a parallel challenge to writing a regular song. There might be additional things to think about, to make it a bit more appropriate for kids but it’s very much the same. We approach it the same way, with the same production values. It’s not watered down, it’s not pandering. It’s a good outlet for us and people seem to be very grateful that it exists.
Have you ever started writing a kids’ song and then gone “That’s too dark, it’s got to go on a grown-up’ album”?
Truth be told, most of the kids’ albums we’ve done have been on deadline, so I’ll know that in two weeks’ time I’ll be doing a recording session where I’m supposed to show up with a song. We really have to get to it. But ultimately, it’s more like you start writing a song and then you think, oh this song wouldn’t work for kids, or there’s an idea in this song that would spark kids’ imaginations than adults’. But it’s a bit of a continuum. It’s a very good question but it’s hard to answer to be honest. In retrospect, a song like “Clap Your Hands” could have been done as an adult song very easily, or “Alphabet of Nations”.
There’s a strange thing about They Might Be Giants in that there’s songs that are ostensibly children’s songs for an adult audience. For example, we did “Why Does the Sun Shine?” in the middle of our career, and it was not for kids at all, it was a cover of a traditional, corny sounding kids song with its odd point of view. And that was fully embraced by our audience, and people thought it was hilarious and interesting and a very singular kind of song. But it was not for kids, even though it was a kids’ song.
Conversely, we’ve done a lot of very full bloodied rock songs [on our kids’ albums], songs that are maybe more over the top hard rock, with elements that we wouldn’t put into a regular TMBG song, like “John Lee Supertaster”. That’s basically the most metal thing we’ve ever done. It is officially for kids, but if you like that sort of shredding music, there’s a lot of shredding going on. It’s an open ended assignment.
Are there any subjects that you absolutely will not touch in your songs?
We’ve been writing songs for 30 years now and the biggest stumbling block that we come up against is that we reach for the same nouns we’ve used in the past, and there’s a certain point where it seemed like we would have to figure out an alternate. For example, if you started writing a song called “Birdcage in Your Heart”, it would feel a little bit strange, as it was associated with another song with a similar point of view. You don’t want to repeat yourself but at the same time, you don’t have unlimited scope and there are only so many things in the world. We’ve written more than one song about dogs and birds and trees. Actually a couple of years ago, we had a very short song called “Nouns” basically bemoaning the fact that we were running out of nouns.
When I asked people what they wanted to ask you*, there was a lot of lyrical questions. “Why is the world in love again?” “Is your best friend really a sparrow?” “Do you think that everyone should wear prosthetic foreheads on their real heads?”
*(huge apologies that I didn’t get to ask more of your questions, I had a technofail right before the interview started and lost my notes)
They’re just echoing back the looming questions they hear in our songs…
Yes, I know! But does that make you happy to hear the love, or do you get tired of people asking you if you’ll make them a birdhouse in their soul?
I feel like I need to make sure I put it in the positive light hearted way that it’s being presented. It’s really hard to know what anyone’s intent is. I think they’re just being happy go lucky. I don’t think anyone’s trying to mock us with our words! We live in a world of love and I’m grateful for that.
I also wanted you to know how many people just wanted to express their love for your music, and to say thank you. My daughters also made me promise to tell you that you’re their absolute favourite band.
When are you arriving in the UK?
In about a week, although there’s a torrential storm coming in a couple of days and they’re predicting tremendous snow fall.
It’s freezing over here at the moment. Bring your warm clothes, seriously.
I bought a new winter coat. Are you familiar with Barbour coats? I just bought a Barbour coat with a lining, on the recommendation of a friend of mine. It’s very warm and it’s a very nice coat, it’s much fancier than the last coat I had. In the store, I was trying to zip it up but the zipper was on the other side of the coat. And I asked, “Is this coat made for women?”. In the US, if a zipper or the buttons are on the other side, it’s because it’s a ladies garment. And the salesman said that the reason Barbour coats have their zippers sewn in the opposite way, is because their clientele was originally the aristocracy, and people who were getting dressed, it was easier for the dressers to zip the lords into their jackets if the zippers were reversed. I thought that was so weird! It was like I was in Downton Abbey.
Anyway, enough about my coat.
Thank you so much.
Thank you! Give everyone a hearty high five from me.
Afterworders, consider yourselves high-fived.
They Might Be Giants are playing in Leeds, Newcastle, Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester, Cambridge and London between 27/1 and 4/2. Find out more here
Their new album “Why?” is out now.
Songs mentioned in this article feature in the first comment…
…and while you’re at it, keep the nightlight on inside the birdhouse in your soul x