They Might Be Giants’ John Flasburgh on Flood, 30 (+3) years later
They Might Be Giants’ classic 1990 album, Flood, turned 30 years old in 2020. The band was going to tour in support of it, but then COVID happened, and the tour was delayed. And delayed. And delayed again. Somehow, the seminally nerdy rockers will play the Truman this Tuesday, May 16, as part of what we’re going to call the 33 1/3 anniversary of that record.
Back in March of 2020, we interviewed John Flansburgh, who co-founded They Might Be Giants with John Linnell, and it’s been sitting on a hard drive, waiting for this date to happen, so we’re very excited to run this Q&A that likely seems very very weird when viewed out of context. Please enjoy.
The Pitch: I was re-listening to Flood the other day, and I realized that touring this for the 30th anniversary, as opposed to the 20th anniversary, has gotta be great because the year 2020 fits the “a brand-new record for 1990” line from “Theme From Flood” a whole lot better.
John Flansburgh: Like in terms of meter for the song? Oh, well, we’re not changing it. We’re sticking with the original lyric. We’re not pretending it’s a brand-new record for 2020.
What made you decide that you wanted to do an anniversary tour for this album?
If we do stands in various places and play more than one night, we’ll sometimes play our first album, Lincoln, Flood, Apollo 18, or Mink Car, but they’ve never been pegged to any anniversary that I can recall. There have always been one-offs, but we’ve never toured behind a Flood show before. Anyway, yes, this is our first actual Flood tour. We’re not promoting another album or doing something else as well.
The first set of the show is the Flood album almost in its entirety and then we finish it up at the end of the second set. It’s an evening with, and sort of half of the proceedings are dedicated to playing the album Flood.
When you’ve done these shows before, you’ve done things like play the album back-to-front instead of front-to-back.
We haven’t done it that many times. Before this tour, we probably played Flood about 15 times total and we’ve done a bunch of different ways, it seems like. The back-to-front worked well because it was put together very early in the era of the CD, so it is kind of a front-loaded record. Flipping the sequence kind of gives it a natural crescendo as a show.
The show ends with “Birdhouse [In Your Soul]” and the “Theme from Flood,” and that feels sort of triumphant. But to make it not be like a music-under-glass experience, we’ve actually reconfigured the setlist into a pretty wide open pacing, and it has its own peaks and valleys.
I think taking away the element of surprise in any performance immediately kills something that you do have a hard time getting back, so all our strategies are top secret now.
I would assume that going to see a band perform an album in its entirety is akin to watching a film you’ve seen a bunch where you’re waiting for your favorite parts, whatever they may be.
Well, that might be true of any show of a band that you know their material, but I’ve never seen another band perform an album, so I don’t really know how other people do it. Having done it a few times—the first time we did it, we did do it in sequence, and it seemed a little pre-ordained. It’s just more interesting to do it in a new way where you get to do a set afterward where people have no idea what’s coming. By performing the album in a unique sequence that people are not familiar with—even that brings a very different vibe to the performance than doing it in sequence or even in reverse sequence.
Are you doing this as a way to keep it musically interesting for yourselves as opposed to being an exercise in nostalgia?
We’ve been in this band for almost 35 years. We think of the work we do as being our—I mean, it’s our output—and we keep the spirit of what we’re doing alive in everything, pretty much. We don’t have that much distance on what we’re on the stuff we’ve done, to be perfectly honest. It might be a long time ago that we did something, but it’s also just us. It’s the stuff that we do, and it’s very direct to our self-expression.
It’s sort of like—you don’t have a birthday party for your wife out of nostalgia for when she was younger. You’re celebrating her. I’m not really worried about whether it’s nostalgic or not. We’re not really sentimental people, to be perfectly honest.
That’s a great analogy.
Yeah, I mean, we live in a weird time for popular music because there is so much culture mining going on, and there’s a lot of people looking backward. We have spent an extraordinarily small amount of time looking backward as a project, so it is kind of uncharted territory for us. We’ve never taken a hiatus. We’ve put out an album at least every couple of years for the last 35 years.
I mean, we put out three albums in 2018. We are prolific and active and involved in making new stuff, so taking a momentary break from that and doing this thing—it obviously makes a lot of people in our audience extremely happy, and a lot of people who clearly, this is like the first show they’re going out to in a long time because they’re just not that engaged in current musical stuff. It’s interesting to see.
The truth is this was not planned. Because Flood was coming up literally on the 30th anniversary of its release, we did a couple of Flood shows in the New York area and the concert promoters couldn’t help but notice that the shows sold out in like 10 minutes—which is not something that always happens with us.
We’ll do shows and a lot of times they sell out and sometimes they don’t, but to have a show that just sold out like it was a band that was a phenomenon was really noticed by the promoter and, and they were like, “We want to add more shows. Can we just do this again? We think you could probably sell out two more shows in every venue you’re doing it in.” And we were like, “Well, that sounds like fun. Selling out shows is a blast. Yeah, let’s do that.”
And we did it, and it did, and then everybody kind of got a brain wave that this is an idea that probably is movable to other places. We were officially not touring at the time that this whole thing started. We’ve just kind of gotten pulled back into it just because of the initial local success of it.
So, like a lot of things in our lives, this wasn’t anything that we really thought through. It was really more like something that became self-evident.
You mentioned the fact that you’re a band that doesn’t look back, but I think They Might Be Giants are the only band that has ever released a song that corrects another song with “Why Does The Sun Really Shine?”
I mean, yeah, it’s probably true. I’m glad that Dolly Parton didn’t do an answer song to “I Will Always Love You,” but yeah. We did this song, “Why Does The Sun Shine?” It was a cover of an educational record, and it was really a sort of a camp affair.
We were really just doing that very familiar thing with kids who were raised in the ’60s and ’70s, which was sort of the beginning of the educationally enriched entertainment curriculum for children. It’s probably even more familiar to people now where everything is kind of, “Make kids better!”
There was this science record that both John and I knew as kids. We covered the song, “Why Does The Sun Shine?” The lyrics of the song are straight out of the Golden Book Encyclopedia, it turns out—unbeknownst to us—between the time the Golden Book was written in the ’50s and now, all the science behind what we understand the sun to be has changed.
When we started doing a whole album about science, the record company, I think, was assuming we would do another version of “Why Does The Sun Shine?” just ’cause it’s one of the most popular science-oriented songs we’ve ever done, but it felt kind of weird spreading bad science. It’s a weird thing to do. It’s like, “Here’s our fact-based album for kids, but it has some misinformation in it,” so I think we’re just trying to be as responsible as we could be.
They Might Be Giants play the Truman on Tuesday, May 16. Details on that show here.