“We’ve always been really lucky with our audience in that they seem up for all the things we do.”

That’s John Flansburgh, over the phone and in the midst of doing his laundry, talking about the long and fascinatingly multifaceted history of his band, They Might Be Giants. For the past 40-plus years, Flansburgh and co-conspirator John Linnell have carved out a singular musical path, creating seminal albums like Lincoln and Flood, releasing songs via answering machine (Dial-A-Song), crafting a string of albums for children, scoring the hit TV show Malcolm In The Middle, and gradually becoming a beloved and multi-generational institution. Only They Might Be Giants have a career where finding fame on Tiny Toon Adventures, or barreling through “Birdhouse In Your Soul” with Doc Severinsen and The Tonight Show Band, count as relatively everyday occurrences.

This May and June, TMBG will mix things up even more. The band’s so-called “Big Show” tour will boast a total of 15 shows performed in eight midwestern cities—including two sold-out shows at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater on June 21 and 22. Not only will most cities will be treated to two nights of completely different “evening with” shows, each show will feature two distinct sets. “With sets featuring the earliest days of Dial-A-Song through their platinum album Flood, and all the way to their Grammy-nominated album BOOK,” explains a press release, “each night of this multi-city run will be its own celebration of the band’s singular songbook. Expect a spontaneous, sprawling, enthralling musical event unlike any other, every single night.”

Ahead of the “Big Show,” Milwaukee Record spoke to Flansburgh about the long road back from COVID, the band’s new horn section, and the ’90s-tastic “120 Minutes Challenge.” And yes, TMBG’s infamous 1992 “collapsing-stage” show at Milwaukee’s Modjeska Theater did come up. (Flansburgh: “I hope they’ve reinforced the stages in Milwaukee.”)

Milwaukee Record: The last time They Might Be Giants played Milwaukee was March 5, 2020, which was about a week before everything shut down for COVID. I remember during the show you had a little bit of chatter about this new thing, this coronavirus thing, that was maybe happening.

John Flansburgh: Was it already happening when we were there? That’s interesting. I hope I wasn’t disrespectful of the worldwide pandemic!

You know, I remember when we flew back to New York, our guitar player was wearing a mask on the plane. And I couldn’t even process what he was driving at. Of course I realize now he was just trying to be safe. But it was the first time I’d ever seen somebody wearing a mask, and I thought it was just him goofing off in some weird way. I thought it was a really jerk-y move. It makes me realize now how much you can misinterpret something, and misunderstand the seriousness of something. Of course it was a really confounding time for everybody, and it was just really impossible to navigate.

But life has its challenges. I was in a car accident a couple of years ago. I got hit by a drunk driver. That was just an insane series of events that really took over my life for months, and in some ways a whole year. I hate it when things get rough for They Might Be Giants, because They Might Be Giants is really just the best thing in the world.

MR: I agree! Now that it’s 2024, does it feel like you guys are getting back to where you left off in 2020? Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you still making up some of those 2020, 30th-anniversary Flood shows in 2023?

JF: Oh yeah. As we were leaving Milwaukee we had something like 40 sold-out shows ahead of us. So it took a while to sort of…I mean, it’s impossible to sum up how boring it is to talk about the complexities of touring, but it’s very hard to make up a show without losing tens of thousands of dollars. Tours are based on the continuity of going from one place to another in a row. All the economies of scale are about doing multiple shows. So if anything ever falls out of a tour schedule, it’s really expensive.

I’m curious: When we did the show in Milwaukee, did we perform a song sonically backwards?

MR: You did. “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love.”

JF: Well, I just want to send out an official challenge to all bands that are covering albums in their entirety: It’s not just about walking through the whole album in sequence, you must perform at least one song sonically in reverse.

MR: Like a Dogme 95 rule or something.

JF: Exactly! This is the “120 Minutes Challenge” for touring alternative rock bands from the ’90s. Pearl Jam, I hope you can hear me. Kim Gordon, I hope you can hear me…although I guess she’s not performing any full albums at this point.

MR: Let’s talk about your upcoming shows. A.) This is a midwest-only tour, and B.) there are two nights and two sets each night. Is that correct?

JF: Yes. It’s two different shows. What’s happened since we last saw you is that we’ve taken on a horn section. We’ve expanded to an eight-piece band. There’s a whole set of repertoire that we’ve put together with the horns. It really is a very big show with a lot of different kinds of musical approaches. There’s repertoire we never could have done in the past, and it’s very effective now. Sometimes the horns provide amazing improvisational things, and sometimes the horns are just this ultra-vivid velvet curtain behind us. The range of things they provide is something that I’m most psyched about in our show. I’m happy to say that the musicality of our shows has expanded exponentially with these guys. It’s just very exciting.

So we’ll be spotlighting different albums from night to night. We basically have under our belts, like, four or five albums. On any given night we might do 10 songs from Apollo 18, 10 songs from Mink Car, or 10 songs from Join Us. We’re not going to announce them ahead of time, because the truth is we do, like, 30 songs in the show. [The album spotlights] aren’t the whole show by any means. They’re just a way to challenge ourselves and to stay on our toes musically. And for the people who are coming back to the second show, it’s a significant point of interest.

MR: Since you guys have been around for so long, do you find that your fans have different entry points into your catalogue? Like, are there still fans who are sore that you’re playing with a full band, or people who first came aboard around the time of Malcolm In The Middle?

JF: It’s hard to say. We’ve always been really lucky with our audience in that they seem up for all the things we do. One of the things that’s really discouraging about being in a band is when you get sort of frozen in amber. The world can be very cruel in terms of how much interest audiences have. We live in a time where it’s essentially a gag that bands force their audience to endure new, less-familiar material as a way to get to the old material. For us, I think a lot of the sleight of hand we do is that the sets are so rapid-fire and so mixed up and so focused on high energy songs that we don’t get caught in the undertow of time.

MR: Looking back at my review of your last Milwaukee show, I was struck by how many newer songs you played, and not just stuff from the the latest album. There were some new-ish songs that you described as “from the difficult middle-third years of They Might Be Giants,” which I thought was really funny.

JF: [laughs] I don’t remember saying that, but that’s good. That makes me smile.

Listen, there’s a front row and there’s a back row and there’s all the people in between, and I think their experiences are different. I put the setlists together, and I’m thinking about the psychology of crowds all the time when we’re doing these shows. I think a lot about the person who was brought by a friend, the person who just knows, like, one song from Tiny Toons and that’s it. How do you put on a show that works for them, you know? And so we think about things that telegraph an idea quickly and try to just keep things going.

I love being in They Might Be Giants, and we invest a lot of time trying to figure out how to do a good show. I think a lot of people assume that if they are just “true to themselves” then that will be the best version of a show that they can do. But I can assure you, I’ve seen a lot of shows, and that’s not true. [laughs] Think about other people for once!

MR: So I was digging through some DVDs of mine the other day, and I came across the documentary on They Might Be Giants, Gigantic (A Tale Of Two Johns). I was blown away when I looked at the year it came out: 2003. At the time, it covered your entire career, about 20 years. And now, of course, we’re 20 years after that. How does it feel to have a career retrospective, and then have 20 more years of a career after that?

JF: Well, you know, we’re all on this planet for a really short time. This whole experience of being in this band has felt like one big, manic experience for me.

That film was made at such an active moment for us. We were doing the music for this hit TV show. We were embarking on this odd, parallel career of doing kids music, which was this explosive point of interest for five years or so, and which was totally by accident. Not to sound too crass, but when we left our major label…as a professional organization, we were kind of broke, and we were just trying to think of what we could do to keep the wheels from falling off the bus. So we did this kids record, and it was really fun to make, but I don’t think we figured much more would come from it. And then of course we got a Grammy, we got this deal with Disney, we sold a ton of stuff, and we kind of reintroduced ourselves to a whole other generation of people who now come to our shows.

In some weird way, John and I are a lot more like Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork [of The Monkees] to people in our audience than I think we’re even aware of. People have grown up with us. That’s a very different kind of relationship to have with an audience than, you know, just some band that you like their song on the radio, We’ve become aware that people’s relationship to our band, in some ways, is very emotional.

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