Over the past 30 years John Flansburgh and John Linnell, cofounders and core members of They Might Be Giants, have earned a reputation as the ur-geek band, thanks to their intentionally gawky, horn-rimmed aesthetic and a catalog that includes nerdy odes to Belgian painters, songs that explain the nuclear fusion process inside stars, and children's albums aimed at the exceptionally precocious. But seeing the Johns as simply a couple of cartoony geeks overlooks their daring experimental side, including their ahead-of-the-curve use of samplers and drum machines, their innovative pre-Internet Dial-a-Song service (fans could call a number to hear exclusive TMBG content over the phone), and the subtly devastating psychological portraits in early material such as "I've Got a Match" and "They'll Need a Crane"—an approach they've returned to on their upcoming 16th album, Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce).
Interviewing Flansburgh for this week's Artist on Artist is Abraham Levitan, a former Yale Whiffenpoof who used to front Baby Teeth—a local indie-rock group that earned its own reputation for quirky cleverness before signing off last summer with a guest-filled tribute to the Band's The Last Waltz. Currently Levitan hosts the live game show Shame That Tune with comedian and Reader contributor Brian Costello, where guests relate a mortifying experience and Levitan composes, on the spot, a song about each story in a style determined by the spin of a wheel. (The next show is Fri 4/12 at the Hideout.) He's also founder of music-education company Piano Power, which has more than 200 students. —Miles Raymer
John Flansburgh: I've got a question for you right out of the gate, which is: When you were a Whiffenpoof at Yale, was there ever a moment when you found yourself sober? You have to answer that question yes or no, Abraham.
Abraham Levitan: No. Not 100 percent.
JF: OK. And was there ever a moment when you were actually wearing clean clothes?
AL: Those tails were so wretched by the end of that year.
JF: I know two different people who were in the Whiffenpoofs. They run completely parallel to each other, so I feel like they're almost fact-checking each other when I talk to them.
AL: Well, it's a very cliched experience, ultimately.
JF: I guess being drunk in college is a cliche, but usually it doesn't involve international travel.
AL: Or trying to serenade Barbara Bush about Lebanon.
JF: Did you sing for Barbara Bush?
AL: In a very intimate setting.
JF: Was she surprising or funny in any way as an audience to perform for? Was she drunk? Was she wearing dirty clothes?
AL: I think she had kind of a "meds" look to her.
JF: Oh really? So you think she was on the prescription drugs? She was doing a Lindsay Lohan?
AL: I mean, I don't want to get into character assassination here. She was wearing a pearl necklace and her face was impassive, I think would be the word. She's very hard to read. But I just kept picturing—five years earlier I was in high school at a Public Enemy show. And Flavor Flav brought out a full-size cardboard cutout of Barbara Bush and started punching her in the face onstage. And here she was in the flesh.
JF: I once flew to Australia on a plane with Flavor Flav.
JF: It was actually within Australia, I think. They were on tour in Australia at the exact same time that we were touring Australia. And there was sort of a very notable exchange, overheard by people in our crew, between Flavor Flav and the woman sitting next to him. She asked Flavor Flav if he was in show business, because he was dressed very colorfully and acting extremely radically, and Flavor Flav said, "Yes, I am in show business. I'm a dancer for New Kids on the Block." Which I think is a great way to keep things fresh for yourself when you're Flavor Flav.
AL: What was the approximate year of this?
JF: They were really kind of blowing up—I think it was Fear of a Black Planet.
AL: So it's fair to say that you guys were both blowing up.
JF: I guess that's right. John [Linnell] saw Public Enemy a couple of times, early on in their career, when they still had the, what is it, the security guys, the SW . . .
AL: The S1Ws.
JF: I saw them as well, while we were in Australia, and they were amazing performers. I miss those guys. Those Public Enemies.
AL: Yeah, right? They kind of invented the whole pop show.
JF: Well, I mean, Flavor Flav—like the whole concept of a hype man is such a good, circusy kind of thing. It's such a nutty way to run a show. And also, not to get too artistic on your ass, but I love the tracks. I love the aesthetic of the Bomb Squad. The sonics of those things are just insane. Working in New York City, it's hard not to meet multiple people who did sessions with Public Enemy. I've worked with many engineers who've worked with those guys, because they did a lot of studio work. And the quote that came out from the engineers, from—what was the guy's name? Eric "Vietnam" something [Eric "Vietnam" Sadler]? The guy who put the tracks together for the Bomb Squad is famous for saying, "We don't make music; we make hip-hop." And it was like they had almost like an antiharmonic agenda. The stuff is just all like a giant scream.
AL: You guys didn't have a live drummer for years, until Apollo 18?
JF: When we started, it was before drum machines really existed, and we would construct rhythm tracks with a Moog synthesizer. We had a drum kit in our rehearsal studio, and we would construct the tracks one drum sound at a time.
AL: Ah, that's beautiful.
JF: It'd be a kick drum, snare, hat, and a synth bass. I mean, this is all pre-Milli Vanilli, but we realized relatively early on that we didn't want the track to overwhelm what we were doing onstage. We wanted it to be very clearly accompaniment. So in a lot of ways it was a pretty straightforward quartet, even though half the band was electronic.
AL: Right, and your drummer was so well-behaved. Never got wasted before a show.
JF: Yeah, he was bulky but on the level.
AL: Can we just kind of geek out about New York in the 80s for a little bit? You were part of an 80s underground New York scene that included . . . what other bands?
JF: It was a wide array of bands and an even wider array of artists, because the East Village scene was very wide open. There was a gallery scene, like a storefront gallery scene. Some of us would blow up to become a much bigger deal in the art world. Like Mary Boone and the guy [Tony Shafrazi] who spray-painted Guernica—he's such an establishment figure now. But there were things about these Village scenes that I realize now were totally exceptional. Most of the time when there's a vital cultural moment, there's still an aspect of auditioning for something larger. People aren't doing showcase shows, but there is a notion that they're on their way to something bigger.
AL: Especially if it's New York.
JF: But what was funny about the East Village scene is that it had this almost postapocalyptic quality, and I think that was really in keeping with the spirit of New York at the time—it was very much on a downward spiral, and people were trying to figure out where the bottom was. Of course, the bottom was crack and AIDS.
AL: You were existing in that moment, which was incredibly dark and claustrophobic and somewhat dangerous, and you were creating music diametrically opposed to that. Whimsical? Probably in some ways the least angsty music you could have made.
JF: I don't know. I think there's different layers in what we're doing. I think we're dealing with a lot of adult disappointment in our songs. But I don't know how much of what we were doing was a reflection of that scene. There was just a lot of free-range personal expression happening, and a lot of it was very humbly presented. The performance-art scene was a very strange thing to plug into. When you ask what performers we came up with—we did multiple shows with Steve Buscemi when Steve Buscemi was in a performance duo. His act was really inspired and really funny in a very fresh way.
AL: So the idea that you guys would've been ostracized for not being punk enough or underground enough—I mean, in some ways you weren't even playing with bands at all.
JF: Well, there was this curious thing about our early career, which was that half the time we were playing in performance-art venues, and we would be the rock guys; we'd be the rock band at the gallery space. And we'd go play at CBGB or Danceteria, and we would be the exotic performance-art group coming into the rock venue. So everywhere we went we were kind of a stranger. It's sort of like, if you're an intermediate pot smoker, your straightedge friends will think you're a stoner and your stoner friends will think you're a lightweight.
AL: That's a great way of saying it. I spent a lot of my 20s playing in bands where all the press about us was, "Are they being ironic? Are they serious?" And to me that was never really a conscious decision at all, so it was hard to be asked to comment on that.
JF: I think in some ways John and I are on the cusp—we've really arrived on the cusp of a generational shift, where irony and satire and deadpan and all those kind of impulses would be very obvious to anyone younger than us and very bewildering to anyone older than us. It's kind of a cultural shift that, while it was happening, was not really thoughtfully discussed. And maybe it just has to do with—its tendency is to happen in low culture, so for the longest time people didn't really talk very critically about the kinds of things that happened on television. Television was always beneath serious cultural dissection. But John and I completely grew up with television. And in many ways I think what is perceived as this manic postmodern quality to our arrangements and our songs—for musicologists it's like, "How could something be so schizy and inauthentic?" But for somebody who grew up on a healthy diet of five hours of TV a day, it's just an interesting show.
AL: Right, and it's not an ironic commentary on everything.
JF: One thing that I think we learned very quickly once we actually started making records is that rock criticism really revolves around the anti-. Anybody doing anything is doing it in response—critics create this false dialogue between musicians. And it's hard to explain how disconnected from a scene you can be. People think of They Might Be Giants as an alternative-rock band—the label before it was alternative was "college rock"—but we didn't. Being in New York, we were so sequestered from college rock. I guess there were college radio stations, but the music on the streets in New York was hip-hop. You didn't hear the Violent Femmes or R.E.M. or anything like that—
AL: Being blasted from boom boxes.
JF: Yeah. And we were older, and we weren't living in dorms. We just weren't plugged into that stuff at all. But when we actually went on the road, like in the later 80s, like '87, '88—
AL: Once you had records.
JF: Yeah, once we put out records and started working on an international scale, we realized we were part of this whole other thing. We were totally plugged into the 10,000 Maniacs, Replacements, Husker Du world. There was kind of a circuit—it was probably only a year old—but that was the world in which we found ourselves.
AL: The Our Band Could Be Your Life kind of culture?
AL: You can look at it retrospectively and say that the late 80s and early 90s were the golden age of indie rock, where the infrastructure was starting to solidify and there weren't 10,000 bands trying to do the same thing.
JF: I feel like I am so out of touch with the contemporary scene. If you told me the 10,000 bands had all just coalesced into one enormous band and were now touring in a convoy of 20 tour buses, I wouldn't think twice. I would just be like, oh—
AL: That did happen, in 2007. For about two weeks.
JF: And it was the Polyphonic Spree.
AL: Not to go off on a biographical tangent, but I experienced that as a high school kid reading Spin in Louisville, Kentucky, just hearing about all this stuff. And I thought, wow, being in a band sounds great and it sounds so easy. Indie rock seems like the way to go. And then by the time the 2000s rolled around, of course, everything had changed.
JF: Well, I can tell you that while you were in high school in Louisville, Kentucky, we played a show in Louisville and someone stole the license plates off our van. At that point we were going to airports and picking up T-shirts every three or four days—the T-shirts were being drop-shipped to us, because we didn't have room to carry enough T-shirts to get us through a tour. I can tell you—
AL: So you were actually selling T-shirts.
JF: Oh yeah, we were selling lots. That was our profit center. And this made us aware of something that in a post-9/11 world everyone's aware of: if you drove into an airport with a vehicle that didn't have a license plate on it, they called the cops like right away. Every single time we would go to pick up something, we would get pulled over by the cops. And we had a nice letter from the Louisville police department explaining that we had lost our license plates and wouldn't be able to replace them until we got back to New York.
AL: That letter was posted in your back window?
JF: No, we had to present it to the cops. But it was like a nice little permission slip from the Louisville police department.
AL: A great memory of Louisville. I remember when I was 14, I was actually going to get a letter published in Spin. This would've been 1992 or something like that. And the intern or whoever it was called me to verify the spelling of my name and all that, and I was pissing myself. I felt like I had to make the most of this moment to talk to somebody from Spin. So right before he hangs up, in my prepubescent voice, I said, "Have you checked out our scene?"
JF: That's adorable. That's like a missing scene from Almost Famous.
AL: His voice was dripping with sarcasm and he said, "No, but I heard it's ragin'."
JF: Wow. And then they went to their job at Kim's Video.
AL: Right. Exactly.
JF: That's hilarious. I remember the days of Spin. Spin no longer exists, right?
AL: I tried resubscribing to Spin within the past year, because they were doing this big relaunch as a much designier-looking magazine that would come out every two months, and it lasted for about three issues and then it stopped. And then a couple months went by and I started getting Car and Driver magazine.
JF: That's pretty butch.
AL: And it came with a letter saying, "Dear former Spin subscriber: Spin no longer exists, so we want to give a magazine with the same edge and attitude that you've come to expect from Spin."
JF: I think I was Newsweek's last subscriber. It was strange, because they also went through a massive redesign in their final days. I have to say, it was a beautiful magazine, but it just—it was suffering from publishing anorexia. It kept on getting thinner and thinner until it finally just went away.
AL: Yeah. That's happening to Rolling Stone too.
JF: I guess there's just no advertising.
JF: It's weird. I love them.
AL: I love magazines too, and I am a total sucker for them.
JF: So what are you doing these days, Abraham? What's next for you?
AL: I do a monthly music-comedy show at a club in Chicago called the Hideout. Basically people tell embarrassing stories, and I have to write songs about their story in a style chosen by a spinning wheel.
JF: So it's like you're doing some sort of stunt composition.
AL: Stunt-composition work is exactly what I do. And by day I run a music-teaching group, so I train music teachers and set them up with students and manage them and that kind of thing.
JF: Wow. So you actually teach teachers? You must really have your shit locked down.
AL: Well, I can act like it. A crucial skill in life.
JF: I don't think I could teach anybody anything. The idea of being able to teach teachers is really impressive.
AL: Thanks! I have to tell you another story, since you brought up the Whiffenpoofs. Before you get into the Whiffenpoofs, which is the all-senior group—kind of like the all-star game, where you pretend you don't hate each other anymore—there's three years, freshman, sophomore, and junior, when you're all in rival groups.
JF: Oh funny. Do you get to make up your group? Are those groups already established?
AL: Most of the time they're already established. There are a few key cultural moments where the landscape is clear enough to make up groups, but not the one that I walked into. So one of the rival groups for us was this group that would close every show—completely bring the house down—with this fully choreographed version of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." So for a long time that song to me was a symbol of all the showmanship that our group lacked. I would watch this unfold before me and just be like, oh. To cross over to those kind of performance values. Oh my gosh.
JF: You didn't just resent it?
AL: Well, no, to resent a composition would've been a little abstract.
JF: Well, I guess. I don't know. I can resent things at the drop of a hat. I can resent an ashtray. On behalf of the band and the song, I sort of want to apologize.
AL: Meanwhile our closing song was a very old-fogey standard called "No Regrets."
JF: Wow, I don't know that—wait, what is that song? Is that like an Eartha Kitt song ["Here's to Life"] or something?
AL: I think it's a standard, but you shouldn't feel bad. I had never heard it either before—
JF: You know, Jonathan Coulton was a Whiffenpoof. And his song was "Midnight Train to Georgia."
AL: Right, that was my song too.
JF: Oh really? I have to say, in the context of an a cappella group that song seems so treacherous. It just seems like it's going to be this very sideways celebration of whiteness—to put an Irish tenor in front of that melody seems very misguided. It's interesting to me that it actually endured for so long that both you and Coulton did it.
AL: I think you have to start by giving up when you try to take on a song like that. Just to say the original is unapproachable, and we're going to have to turn this into some kind of light comedy, 'cause otherwise it would be really pathetic.
JF: I was a kid when that song was a hit, and that was the beginning of a very mainstream phenomenon for Gladys Knight. She had a big career in the mid-70s. And as a kid I really didn't get that song—the emotion behind that song was so complicated that I couldn't even understand what it was about.
AL: It's an interesting thing to write a song about.
JF: As an adult, I appreciate it so much. It's so much about disappointment and compromise and also persevering and getting through life when life is a test.
AL: I want to run with that for a second, because I think to me the song points to a sense of the music business that is completely on the opposite of what you've been able to do for yourself. In "Midnight Train to Georgia" there's this grandiosity to the ambition: you have to do this in LA, you have to make it huge or else you go home. I guess you can see where I'm going with this by now, but you have been able to do something that is much more on your own terms, at times small-scale and at times not at all. You've been on and off of majors throughout, and now you're at this point where it seems like—you can correct me if I'm wrong—but the kids' albums are coming out on majors, and the grown-up albums are coming out on indies.
JF: We're working with the same distributor that puts out Adele's records, so I don't exactly feel like we're being held back in terms of distribution. But I hear what you're saying. I think John and I have always had a very street-level view of the profession that we're in, and I don't think we were looking for it to solve bigger issues. I don't think it was at all clear that anything we were doing would find a larger audience or save us from our miserable lives. I think we felt like what we were doing was clearly gonna be an extension of our miserable lives. We're pretty hardworking guys, and we have pretty realistic expectations. To be perfectly honest, very early on when you're working with other musicians, you can see a lot of desperation in people's eyes. I remember this guy I knew, I think his main musical influence was the band the Fall.
AL: And his name was Stephen Malkmus.
JF: No, no! He was a guy on the New York hardcore scene, and we were friends for a good while. And I remember at some point, he had been in a couple different bands, and I remember having a conversation with him where he said, "You know what? I'm just gonna give it one year. I'm gonna make it in this one year." And I have to say, I felt so alien from that impulse. At the time, when we started They Might Be Giants, I couldn't sing and play at the same time, so I was not in a place where I was gonna make a declaration like, "I'm gonna give it one year." Maybe I should have given it one year to learn how to sing and play at the same time? I felt like I was already in the deep end of the pool and still learning how to tread water. For us, it's always been exciting just playing. Just doing shows was already more than we thought the project would get to. So I think we have a healthy sense of gratitude that there is an audience for what we do. I think we're perfectly aware of how unreasonable the music we're making is. The fact that it's found an audience at all is something to be grateful for. I still feel sorry for the guy in "Midnight Train to Georgia," and I really feel sorry for his girlfriend.
AL: I guess the idea of there being any kind of larger redemption from being in a band, or that this will finally be the thing that proves that I'm cool—that was never any sort of concern.
JF: Yeah, I don't think we could ever really relate to that. I have sort of a pet peeve about the idea of professional success as a form of revenge. That to me seems really twisted.
AL: Revenge on an ex-girlfriend.
JF: The thing that's tough about music—it's not a meritocracy. There's so many amazing, incredibly talented people who don't really get heard, especially among instrumentalists. Speaking as a self-taught, barely viable guitar player, it shocks me how many amazing musicians there are. I'm curious about your experience teaching teachers, because so often I find that musicians come to teaching with the biggest chip on their shoulder imaginable. They actually have no interest in teaching at all, and they're just doing it because it's all they can do.
AL: And screening for bitterness in the interview process is a major part of what I do, because I certainly know exactly what you're speaking of.
JF: You know what's funny, I had a really great guitar teacher when I first came to New York. His life was a complete mystery to me, but I really paid very close attention to his advice and kind of tracked a lot of things he said very closely. And one thing he said, in this very avuncular way, was "There's not a gig in New York that isn't worth doing." And I was so green, I really took that at face value. When I was kind of the de facto booking agent for They Might Be Giants for the first couple years, we applied that philosophy. I mean, we played in bars where there were Irish wakes going on in the back. We did a million shows that, in fact, were probably not worth doing. We just did them anyway. It was a very low threshold. If we could pay for getting ourselves there and back, we'd just do it. We played at parties for strangers and it was completely weird. To this day, I have people leave notes like, "You played at my birthday party in the East Village in 1984," like, "You guys were so awesome." And I don't know why we were playing at strangers' birthday parties. I mean, who plays at strangers' birthday parties? But we just did it. In retrospect, I realized my guitar teacher almost never played out. I only found that out much later.
AL: That's great. When I moved to Chicago, there are two stories that come to mind. This one was in 2000. First of all, when I moved here indie rock was already such a thing, and such a little industry—although that's a funny word to use because nobody was getting paid. But it was very clear that you were not supposed to play more than once a month in Chicago, or you would not get work anywhere because you were giving it away cheap.
JF: In New York, all the scenes were so microscopic and so self-involved, I don't think they noticed. We played virtually every weekend from 1985 to '87.
AL: You get better that way, and that's important.
JF: We definitely got better. We were really well rehearsed. Because we played with tape, we were very self-conscious about people thinking we were faking it, so we really made a point of having a very locked-down kind of show. We were a very tight little unit with what we were doing, but we were also appalling. We sang so out of tune, I can't believe I'm talking to a Whiffenpoof.
AL: Hey, the Whiffenpoofs have sang out of tune plenty of times.
JF: Really? I guess I'm just flashing on my Glee fantasy of the Whiffenpoofs.
AL: But yeah, to me, that's something to really idealize, because this whole "you can only play once a month" thing, it's so disingenuous. Because you always have to act, from the band's perspective, like, "I've been so busy playing Kalamazoo and Iowa City and Lansing. I'm sorry, you guys, I've been out of town. I've just rolled back in a month later." And the reality is, you're just completely sitting on your hands, dying to play again.
JF: And Chicago's a big town. Circling back to the East Village scene—it was such a fad in New York, and it was such an uptown-goes-downtown thing that was happening in the East Village. The New Yorker did not preview or review anything that happened below 14th Street as a policy. The New York Times did not preview or review anything that happened below 14th Street.
JF: And it's really interesting now, living in the Williamsburg-Brooklyn music moment, because all the media outlets are so hungry for things to take off, and they're so eager to give exposure to the next thing that's coming out of these scenes. In a funny way, being an established fixture in the East Village as this scene was rising made it much easier to play every week, because the demand was so much higher than the supply. There weren't that many bands that were from that scene. Whether it was us or Swans or whoever, if you were an East Village band, there were lots of places eager to book you, and actually even eager to pay you. I can't believe how much we got. Playing at the Pyramid Club in the mid-80s paid crazy money, and when I think back on what clubs paid, it definitely was generous. But the thing is, they flipped over the room four times a night. The doorman at the Pyramid Club turned away Mick Jagger because the place was full, like, "We're already over capacity. I can't just whisk you in with your entourage of 12 people, because people got here already."
AL: "We have a fire marshal to worry about."
JF: They certainly got closed down by the fire marshal on more than one occasion. But it was such a hopping scene, and because no one was keeping track—by and large nothing was listed or reviewed—you could play every week.
AL: You bring up a key point with the supply-and-demand issue. I mean, me moving to Chicago in 2000, this was the age where there were already 10,000 bands going. So the idea that you were one of the few avatars of this thing that people wanted at that time, I think that was a huge green light. And we could chalk it up to a cultural thing, but I think there were economic drivers behind that too.
JF: I wonder if some postgraduate thesis is being constructed right now about all the fake bands that existed on MySpace, because I feel like there was a point right around 2000, where between the advent of MySpace and the advent of GarageBand, the just-add-water music program—the confluence of those two things was such a strange and deadly detour on the way to there being 10,000 bands in Chicago. You really could kind of dummy it up incredibly fast. But often I just wonder, there must be something good in there. Like, what was the best GarageBand track ever made? What was the best song ever written on GarageBand? I've never used GarageBand, so I don't even know how to listen for it.
AL: Well, there's an electronic artist from Canada, Grimes, who ended up on a lot of best-of lists in the past year, and she allegedly made her whole record on GarageBand.
AL: That's a great record.
JF: So you've heard it and you like it.
JF: What's it sound like? Boldly original?
AL: It sounds really original, yeah. I think the key for her was that she took elements from GarageBand that were abstract, rather than the recognizable—you know, distorted guitar sounds that were customized by GarageBand. She was using it more for beeps, and a lot of the more tonal elements were based on her crazy voice and her synthesizers, so I think she was really just using it as a production tool rather than taking each of the specific instrumental sounds that were generated by that program.
JF: Right. I'm not saying it's not possible! I think you could probably make a pretty charming track on GarageBand. I look forward to figuring it out.