We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 4, which features John Flansburgh from rock band They Might Be Giants. To learn more about Working, click here.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
David Plotz: So, what’s your name and what do you do?
John Flansburgh: My name is John Flansburgh, and I play guitar in the band They Might Be Giants.
Plotz: You play guitar but you do more than just play guitar. You have many jobs. So, what are your many jobs?
Flansburgh: Well, you know, we were talking before the tape started rolling about the idea of branding and what a loathsome term branding is. But in many ways, part of my job, a big part of my job might be considered being a brand manager of They Might Be Giants.
Plotz: You have a lot of jobs. You write songs, you record songs, you do commercial work, you do albums, and you tour. And so, just to narrow this, let’s just talk about touring. Why would you go on tour?
Flansburgh: Well, it’s funny because, as the record business has been cratering you often hear people saying, “well, you can’t make money selling records anymore so you’ll just have to tour.” But historically, rock music, which kind of invented a different level of touring—I mean, you know, in the ’40s you had classical pianists touring the country and playing, you know, matinees for the ladies of the town. But rock touring as we know it really was invented in the ’70s as an extension of the major label business. And it was always about promotion. Nobody ever thought, like, doing a club tour of the United States is going to be a great way to make money. Doing a club tour of the United States is just a mistake. It’s an untenable bunch of demands on travel and it’s not scalable. People have always lost money on tour. There was the idea of tour support, where labels would literally spend tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars to just keep their band on the road in front of audiences in the hope that that would help them find an audience and help their record get on the radio.
So we live in such a curious time, that people are under the illusion that you can really make money on the road, where in fact you can break even, but you really have to rethink a lot of things about what you’re doing. There was a long time when we would take semis out on the road, and we’ve figured out a way to get it all in a trailer behind the tour bus.
Plotz: Why would you go do something which you are not going to make money and is going to take a lot of your time away from things where you might make money? Why do you go do it then?
Flansburgh: Oh, I mean, the same original reason that people started touring, which is that it is an incredible promotion. I mean, you just—you generate so much interest in what you’re doing. Part of it is fun. I mean, we are performers. It’s actually just fun to have a reason to play six nights a week. If we could play six nights a week in New York we’d probably be into that, too. But it is—it’s just a way to tell people that you’re kind of behind—or telegraph to the culture that you’re behind your project.
Plotz: Last time you decided to tour, how did you decide, here are the cities where we’re going to go, here are the people we’re going to bring, and here are the venues we’re going to go to? Do you make those decisions or does someone else decide that for you?
Flansburgh: All bands’ experiences are singular, and I think They Might Be Giants is a band that’s been very lucky in that we’ve never had that moment where the world has just, like, tapped us on the shoulder and said, “thanks guys, but you’ve got to stop now.” We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve managed to find an audience quite continuously and hold on to an audience. And we’ve had a very loyal audience that seems to be interested in our most unreasonable notions, and that’s very rare even in a cult-y band. A lot of bands have crazy ideas, people embrace those crazy ideas, and then they want you to sort of stick to that. But in terms of organizing tours, this last year we did—we spent all of 2014 on the road, basically. We went out, I guess, in March and came back in the end of November or early December, and did many, many shows, a hundred and something shows over the course of the year. And we went to some pretty far-flung places. We played in Tasmania, which is not exactly a big profit center for touring rock bands. To just get yourself to Tasmania is kind of a dopey idea. But what was nice about it is, I get to say I went to Tasmania. I got to see Tasmania, which was interesting. And it just made the whole experience of touring more vivid, going to more faraway places.
Plotz: Do you have rituals—or maybe not rituals, but habits that you engage in on a show day? What is the run of the day for you?
Flansburgh: It’s a really physical show for me, so it’s really exhausting. And I guess about a few years back, I kind of gave up on trying to be a tourist as well as being a performer, which was very liberating for me. I mean, I’m kind of jealous of my band mates who are more physically fit and have the ability to go see the great museum in the city that we’re in. But I’ve just sort of given into committing myself to my performance and to the show. I write the set list for the band, so a lot of mornings, I’m kind of trying to figure out how to make the show be more exciting for the audience and to be more exciting for us as performers, like, to kind of flip things around - introducing different repertoire, old songs that we haven’t done in a while, different kinds of stage things. There’s a theatrical element to our presentation that requires that we reexamine what we’re doing constantly, because we’re not such good performers that sort of improv’d stuff will come across as funny or fresh if it’s not actually fresh to us. As a performer, everything is faking it on some level. You know, it’s not like—it is a performance. It’s like, all of the lights are pointed to you and you’ve got a microphone. The world is saying they’re going to pay attention to you. It is important that you deliver something work paying attention to. And so I’m kind of thinking about that a lot of the day. There are not too many rituals—it’s not like we all, like, you know, have a prayer circle before we go on.
I do have some superstitions. Oftentimes, we’ll go back to the hotel between sound check, or go out to dinner right between sound check and the show, and coming back to the venue, if we come back around the front of the venue, if there’s not at least a person standing in front of the venue, I feel like it’s very unlucky. The person standing in front of the venue is the symbol of there being too many people inside to hold everyone who wants to be inside. And it’s not really based on anything, but it has often made me very nervous to go by the venue and not see people outside.
Plotz: Couldn’t it be just everyone is so excited to be in the theater, they’re like, “I can’t wait out here! I need to be up there, I need to get as close to the stage as possible.”
Flansburgh: That would be what a reasonable mind would probably move towards. Also, you know, people being outside probably just means you’re further than down south and people want to smoke.
Plotz: So, you do a sound check and you go to dinner, and you come back and get ready for the show. What is involved in that getting ready? Or after 25 years, you don’t really have to do anything?
Flansburgh: One thing that is great is that after 25 years of touring, we don’t really get nervous the way we used to get nervous. It wasn’t stage fright exactly, but I think we really felt like we didn’t quite know how to do the job that we had carved out for ourselves. Now I think we actually are—even when the shows are really strange, and there are all sorts of different curveballs that get thrown at you - I feel like we actually have a really big repertoire of how to deal with problems. One problem that we often have is the venue—it’s a sit-down venue. We don’t really do a sit-down show. And we can’t help that we’ve been booked—a lot of the larger theaters have seats—they might have an open dance floor area, but, you know, they have comfortable seats and it’s like, usually for like, more adult kind of sophisticated shows. And our show is just like a big, rowdy, celebratory dance-y kind of show. And over the years, I’ve kind of become accustomed to this thing of just coming out on stage with our drummer, Marty Bellar, raising a lot of noise on the drums. And I’ll just demand that everyone stand up and come to the front. I’m in circus barker mode or like, hype man mode, and I’m sure when people see that they just go, oh, it’s that kind of show, fine. And they probably think, like, oh, he’s that kind of guy. But it really took me many years to sort of get over myself enough to feel confident that that would even work. Like, if you try that and it doesn’t work, that’s going to be pretty shitty.
Plotz: Are there songs that you play at every show?
Flansburgh: We probably play “Birdhouse In Your Soul” at every show because that was, like, the only thing sort of like a chart hit. We’ve played “Don’t Let’s Start” at many shows. We’ve probably played “Istanbul not Constantinople” at every show, and we’ve done many different versions of it. And I have to say, I’m sort of proud of the fact that we’ve done –we’ve managed to reinterpret the song a number of ways that all are worthwhile. Because I think one of the hardest things about being a band that’s played a song many, many times—probably, you know, technically too many times—is the reinterpretations come across as really second rate. You know, we don’t want to do, like, the reggae version of our song just because. There’s a song also from the Flood album called “Particle Man” that’s a huge audience favorite, and it’s also really popular with kids’ audiences or parents. It just gets a big response whenever we do it. And the truth is, it’s probably the only song that we’ve done so many times that we just, like, we don’t even know how to approach it.
Plotz: Okay, let’s go to this, because I think every person who’s ever been to a rock show of their favorite band, you have the kind of, you know, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” problem, which is you look at Mick Jagger performing it and you’re like, he has played this song for 50 years. Every show he’s got to play it, he’s got to bring energy to it. So, with “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” your audience is waiting. They want that ecstatic chorus. They want to sing along with it. How do you bring that energy night after night after night, and not get bored with it?
Flansburgh: Well, I have very few things in common with Mick Jagger, but I think you could probably even cut and paste his response into mine, which is it’s the energy of the actual audience response. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the audience’s interest in having us perform it, but it is really exciting when you start playing a song that is universally recognized by your audience as, like, the thing. And when we start playing “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” people lose their minds, and that is very exciting. If that doesn’t work for you as a performer, I really think one should probably find a different line of work.
Plotz: When you’re on stage and you’re performing, obviously you have an audience which is making noise. Can you see them, generally? Or are the lights too bright?
Flansburgh: It really depends. When we do kids shows, we actually have to bring the house lights up because kids get scared of the dark. And we do a lot of in-stores where you’ll actually be playing at, like, a Barnes & Noble or something, and really doing a show but kind of in broad daylight. And the truth is, those shows it’s much harder because psychologically you’re just taking it all in. Every time you look around all of a sudden you just realize there all of these different people, and it would be strange to not feel self-conscious seeing that many faces.
Plotz: This is a really stupid question because I’m not a rock musician, but how do you protect your ears in a show like this?
Flansburgh: Well, I’m 54 now and I realize that I have a little bit of tinnitus in my left ear, and it’s bugging me that it’s happening but it seems like it’s probably inevitable. For people who don’t know what tinnitus is, it’s sort of a—some people will refer to it as—some musicians refer to it as the “invisible choir.” Basically it’s like a ringing in your ear that will not stop. And I’ve tried wearing earplugs to protect myself against incidental things that would trigger it off—because it kind of comes and goes. But we were lucky. In the first 15 years of the band touring, we were just a duo working with tape and we were—it was not as loud as a regular band. But workplace noise is a problem for everybody. I think bartenders and people who work in discotheques probably have even bigger challenges because they are dealing with loud noise—really loud noise and a lot of transient noise—for six or eight hours. We really just hear the noise for a couple of hours at most. We have these in-ear monitors that are sort of gateway devices to hearing aids, but they also block out a lot of the incidental sound and allow you to perform at a lower volume if that is your desire. But I have also noticed that a lot of musicians just use it as a way to almost kind of supersize their volume experience. One thing that is nice about the in-ears is that if you’re ever feeling a little fatigued, if you turn it up, you can really get your mojo back.
Plotz: If you can’t see the audience, what’s the amount of interaction you’re having with your band mates during the show? Or does everyone know their own part and you’re kind of like, in your own world? Or do you have to read each other all the time?
Flansburgh: Oh, we talk to one another sort of on asides pretty frequently. It’s hard for me and John because we’re right up front, but a lot of times if John is signing a song and we need to cut a song because there’s a curfew—like, in a union venue we’ll often run up against a thing where we’ve actually put too many songs into the show—I want the show to end a certain way that’s satisfying to the audience. And that means about three-quarters of the way through the show, we’ve got figure out what to cut that is going to get the same crescendo. So, I’ll just be upstage talking to our bass player going, like, you know, we’ve got to cut this.
We also have—like, we have some hand signals that we do to one another. There’s a signal that’s sort of like a papal sign. It’s like, two fingers together and it means skip the next song. It means make the next song the song after. We have one thing that’s actually knitting needles, and that just means “free improvisation,” named after The Knitting Factory in New York City. So, if somebody starts doing this knitting motion it just means, “make some crazy space noise.”
Plotz: Another question I’ve always wondered as a concertgoer: is entire encore planned in advance? Does it have nothing to do with how enthusiastic the audience is? Would you ever do an extra encore because the audience is so great? Or it’s just all planned and you make it seem as though it’s spontaneous?
Flansburgh: This is an interesting topic for me, because it makes me realize how far away my experience and my thinking on it is from a lot of civilians. I remember doing an interview in Pennsylvania somewhere with a woman—like, a college-aged young woman—and we were talking. We had a very interesting conversation for 20 minutes, and at the end of it the tour manager came in and just said, like, you know, “Is this set list good? Can I Xerox this for the show tonight?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s fine.” And the woman was like, “You use a set list?” And I was like, “Yeah, you know, I mean, you’ve got to use a set list.” And she looked completely crestfallen. She was like, “So you don’t just, like, play what you feel?” And I realized that she completed turned. It was like she had lost all hope in our project. And I did that thing, it’s sort of like, you know, when finds your pot. Like, the first thing you say is, “But everybody smokes pot!” Like, I actually said, “No, like, all bands have set lists. It’s not just us. Like, don’t be disappointed in us. Like, everybody uses a set list.” I mean, I think even the Grateful Dead has set lists—I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t use a set list. The encore question is an interesting one. I know I feel like it is—you know, it’s like tipping. There’s no better answer. As bad a system as it is, it’s evolved to be this way. And one thing we figured out at a certain point was that we weren’t staying offstage long enough between the getting offstage. We would run off stage and ten seconds would go by, and we’d run back on stage. So we would actually time it out, and we literally would go up back on stage exactly 60 seconds later, which seems—for hundreds of shows, that’s just what we’ve always done.
We always do two encores, which people seem to really appreciate. But it’s absolutely built into the show. There’s a sense of dynamics to the way we do the encores. We often come back and do an extremely quiet song, which is sort of—there’s a famous Keith Moon expression, which is, “You open and you close, and everything in the middle is filler.”
Plotz: So, when you finish a show, are you physically wiped?
Flansburgh: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, you can’t go to sleep but you can’t really do anything else, you know?
Plotz: What do you literally do? You walk off stage. Do you change your clothes? Do you take a shower? What do you do?
Flansburgh: Yeah, definitely change our clothes, and if there’s a shower available to take a shower we will. But a lot of times we’re in clubs that are so dirty and strange that you wouldn’t want to take a shower. You’d get some kind of airborne virus in that shower. We’ll get off stage and we’ll talk very heatedly about how the show went and sort of compare notes. And a lot of times there’s some pretty strange contrasts. Like somebody will have a good night and somebody will have a bad night, and it’ll be as if you were doing completely different shows, having different experiences. And usually that’s around technical stuff. But if there is a problem—it’s like, something was breaking throughout the show for somebody, and that’s just misery.
Plotz: Do you feel like you need to affirm each other, or do you want the brutal, honest truth?
Flansburgh: There’s a lot of brutal honesty, but I think the thing is, you know, we’re really focused on what we’re doing next. Like, it’s very much about making things better, and that makes it very un-neurotic.
Plotz: Going back to, so you get off stage, you change clothes, maybe shower. What’s the rest of the evening?
Flansburgh: There’s this interval of time—we actually—right after we get off stage, Marty and I will often go into the audience and give out stickers for the band. Which is again, just in the world of promotion, to be able to hand somebody five stickers means that there will be a They Might Be Giants sticker in all of these different places that we are. And it seems very sort of small-timey, I guess, but you know, it is an opportunity to just, like, kind of like give a bunch of high fives and just kind of meet the crowd.
And I think both Marty and I are, like, we’re kind of like people-pleasers and it sort of gives us a chance to sort of wind down. And, I don’t know, it just works for us.
Plotz: I don’t imagine this is a problem as much for you as it is for Maroon 5, but surely there is groupie-dom for They Might Be Giants, too. What’s your policy for dealing with that?
Flansburgh: We are really unavailable to the outside world. It’s very difficult to find us on that level. We have met some crazy people who’ve gone to crazy lengths to track us down, but we have very non-public lives when it comes to, like, checking into hotels. You’re not going to know where we are.
Plotz: Was there ever a stage in your rock life when you were, like, it would be awesome to meet all of those cute girls who are—you know, those cute college girls. I certainly went with cute college girls to your shows.
Flansburgh: We were adults when we started the band, started touring. I was 28 when we started touring, so already had adult stuff. It was not, like, some teen fantasy of being a rock musician.
Plotz: Do you feel that that’s something you missed as part of the rock lifestyle? Or you just don’t care because you’re not built for that?
Flansburgh: Missed getting VD? Yeah, I often think about how strange it is that I don’t have any venereal disease. No, I mean, there’s a lot of things that are, like, just weird about that stuff. I don’t think you’d really want to hang out with somebody who thought of you that, you know, in any light beyond just who you are as a person. I think it would be very, very strange.
Plotz: After the show, you guys—you don’t sleep—do you sleep on the bus? You don’t go to a hotel?
Flansburgh: We sleep on the bus. We do not go to a hotel, because logistics of what we’re doing is—the economies of being in a touring band, if you can play six nights a week as opposed to five, you have a much better chance of it all staying in the black. Like, losing that sixth show is really—really makes it tough to find profitability. And a lot of bands when they do tour, they actually tour seven nights a week, but because we sing so much, we need a little bit of vocal recovery. But we sleep on the bus, and it allows us—it affords us the ability to play in places that are much farther away from one another. And the economics of that is also very real in terms of mapping out routings.
Plotz: What are your requirements for your tour? Like, what do you need backstage? what are your brown M&Ms?
Flansburgh: Years ago, when Spy Magazine existed, they would publish people’s riders. And one of the most curious riders that we had ended up getting published in Spy Magazine. It was a clause that asked for clean socks and clean underwear. And it was put in by this fellow named John [Grenand], who now is—he works on Saturday—he’s like, a stage guy on Saturday Night Live, and we did hundreds of shows with him. He’s a really funny guy. He put it in the rider as a way to sort of start a conversation about—because the biggest problem you have with a tour rider is, people don’t call you back and it doesn’t get set up, and it doesn’t happen. And so, if you put something ludicrous in your rider, you can basically mark it off and get rid of it. I found it embarrassing that he did that, but it was done in our name and it happened. I don’t think we ever got any clean underwear. We probably could have used it!
But we don’t have any peculiar things. That stuff you ultimately pay for. I think that’s the part that people don’t realize, is that you—artists pay for their own rider. I was talking to somebody who actually was doing a studio session with a very famous female diva the other day, and she had a rider for her studio sessions. And the rider added a thousand dollars to the cost of the studio sessions, and I don’t think she’s ever—I mean, she’s in the stratosphere of fame, but I don’t think she has any notion of how much dough she’s just kind of pissing away. And she probably just thinks, oh, this is what everybody gets. You know, here’s the champagne. They must love me. There are a lot of false notions of what’s free in the music biz.
Plotz: So, you’re 50-what?
Plotz: 54. You’re 54. Do you think you guys can do this until you’re 70, 75?
Flansburgh: That’s a really good question. I like to think we could go for a good long time. I mean, we already have, though. I mean, that’s the strange thing - there are times when I realize, you know, we’ve been doing this for way longer that most bands. Yeah, I don’t know. Should we? Should we not? I mean, I think that’s, like, what all these legacy acts are kind of wondering. Is it better to just sort of fade out?
For a long time with the Rolling Stones, you know, this is the ultimate Rolling Stones question. I thought, I think it’s okay that Keith Richards looks like somebody’s grandfather and is just, like, rocking out completely. I think that’s cool. I think that’s nice. Obviously, we sort of fall into a really different place in the rock culture. People tend to, you know, think of us as, like, nice guys. It doesn’t suit us being, like, pirates. I mean, one thing about the Rolling Stones is, they’ve sort of transitioned into a pirate ship kind of thing. I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer. I mean, we don’t have any other—we don’t have any transferable skills.
Plotz: Well, you don’t have to tour, though. Because you can produce and you can make music without the physical act of touring.
Flansburgh: I think you’re supposed to—I think officially this is the point in the interview where we’re saying, well, we’re working on a Broadway show. But we’re not. No, we don’t really have a Plan B. I think the main thing is for us, if we’re going to keep performing is that we find ways to keep it interesting and a challenge for us. I would love to get back to Japan. I would love to just see more kinds of audiences and just—as long as you keep it interesting, I think it’s fine.
Plotz: Do you ever get tired of looking at the audience and looking at a people like me, white guys in their 40s and 50s?
Flansburgh: Well, fortunately, you know, our audience—we have sort of a little bit of a Dorian Grey situation, which is that our audience is often shockingly young. I mean, it’s older than college age now, but I’m often surprised at how young the crowd is. It’s still—it’s really concert-going people, concert-aged people. So, it’s a self-selected group. Like, you know, people like us, we don’t go to shows.
Plotz: I guess you have the kids’ shows, too, which is a different set? Is there anything I didn’t ask you about?
Plotz: We can’t—but we can’t do that! John, that was awesome, thank you. All right, let me turn this off.