Music

They Might Be Giants is not a cult: How they built a birdhouse in your soul... and a 40-year sustainable creative enterprise

Later this year, They Might Be Giants are coming to the UK to celebrate their 1990 hit album Flood. John Flansburgh looks back at the album and the band's 40 year history.

They Might Be Giants (L-R John Linnell and John Flansburgh) are coming to the UK to celebrate their album Flood. Photo: Sam Graff

They Might Be Giants (L-R John Linnell and John Flansburgh) are coming to the UK to celebrate their album Flood. Photo: Sam Graff

They Might Be Giants did not intend to go on an international tour celebrating their sparkling, witty and weird 1990 album Flood. But at the end of 2019 – almost 30 years after Flood’s lead single, Birdhouse in Your Soul, propelled them into UK living rooms through the time-honoured medium of a spot on Top of the Pops – they figured the anniversary would be a good hook for a handful of US gigs.

“It was just like… well, you know, everybody loves that album. It’ll be really easy, it’ll just be like falling off a log,” explains John Flansburgh, one half of the restlessly creative band who recently released their 23rd studio album, the Grammy-nominated Book. “We weren’t expecting it to be something that we would take on the road across the world.”

Given their aimed-for dates were in 2020, the c-word and its rolling series of lockdowns and illnesses somewhat delayed the enterprise. Still, in June 2022, They Might Be Giants finally took the stage at the Bowery in their native New York to play their first show back after Covid, the delayed start to Flood’s 30th birthday party. It was a great show, by all accounts. It was not a great night.

“I was coming back in an Uber to my apartment in Manhattan,” says Flansburgh, “and a drunk driver T-boned our car. The car got flipped over.”

Seven ribs down one side smashed, John Flansburgh was genuinely lucky to make it out alive. Instead of continuing the tour, he spent the next few days in hospital. “I was kind of a mess,” he says, “but I didn’t realise how much of a mess. For the first 12 hours of the ordeal, I was like, I gotta do a show in Washington DC tomorrow. The doctor’s like, you’re not going to be walking for two months. It was really bad. But, you know, I survived and I’m a lot better now. I’m just grateful it wasn’t more serious.”

After Flansburgh posted an update to social media from his hospital bed, the story was picked up across the New York papers, which leant the whole thing a surrealist edge. “Guitar man a DUI victim,” ran the New York Post headline. “It’s a little bit like seeing your obituary,” says Flansburgh. “I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘guitar man’. It was weird.”

Coming so close on the tail of the world-shaking effects of coronavirus, the accident was unsurprisingly a trigger for reflection.  “This has been such a tough interval,” says Flansburgh. “I feel like the whole Covid thing is just has really made everybody realise that life is really fragile.”

And has he changed anything as a result? “I call my mom a lot more.”

Thankfully, by August, Flansburgh was well enough to hit the road again. Six months on, he and his partner in music, John Linnell, have scores of Flood shows under their belts and just announced a series of UK dates for later this year.

“We weren’t really aware that this kind of ritual self-celebration thing was going to become such a strong current in rock music,” laughs Flansburgh. “But you know, we’re happy to celebrate ourselves. I’m just grateful that Flood is such a solid album to get behind. It’s got a lot of unusual things about it. It’s not just a bunch of bangers and a bunch of filler.”

Now a staple of student discos, weddings and karaoke (at least in my house), it’s hard to remember just how spectacularly alien Birdhouse in Your Soul sounded when it arrived on these shores just as the 80s turned into the 90s. It was the tail end of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s glory days; rave culture and the Manchester scene were starting to take over UK music. The week Birdhouse hit TOTP, other acts included a B-list Jason Donovan song and Happy Mondays twistin’ my melon man.

Flansburgh and Linnell were two geeky Americans spouting lyrics about Jason and the Argonauts, listening “filibuster vigilantly”, telling stories as infinite as a Longines Symphonette and having a blue canary to watch over you. In the days before you could easily Google what the hell they were on about. They were charming and energetic, unapologetically intellectual, a playful, pogoing missive from the exotic US college-rock world that would soon birth grunge. “A lot of guitars, a lot of out of tune singing, a lot of very uncomfortable ideas. It was quite a time in the US. And that was our scene.”

They Might be Giants with a lot of microphones
Releasing Birdhouse in Your Soul was like being shot out of a cannon for They Might be Giants. Photo: Shervin Lainez

It soon became clear that the culture clash was real. “I remember sitting down for an interview,” says Flansburgh, “and the first question the interviewer asked was, ‘So, you must be into the Stone Roses…’ And I remember thinking, I don’t even know who the Stone Roses are.”

Nonetheless, Birdhouse was irresistible – bucking all available trends to reach number six in the UK charts and propelling its parent album into the top 20. “Our career in the United States is very typical of a lot of bands. We have had a very slow and very steady climb,” says Flansburgh. “Whereas our experience in the UK was like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna launch you out of this cannon, and you’re gonna be in the stratosphere for a little while, and then you best understand that you’re going to come down. And no one is ever going to want to hear from you ever again.’ So it was just very cruel.

“I’m grateful that it happened when I was 29, and not when I was 19. If I had been 19, I would probably be calling you from rehab right now.”

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Granted, pop culture with its newness obsession, its fixation on youth, may have moved on from the Johns. (It’s a danger they always recognised, having earlier written the toe-tapping Youth Culture Killed My Dog about the perils of not being down with the kids – a song that Elvis Costello later named as his favourite They Might Be Giants tune). But for a significant minority, Flood’s worldview, populated with particle men, minimum wage laments, sparrow best friends, accordions and captivating choruses was the start of something.

Oddly, the very things that made They Might Be Giants out of step with the hitmakers make them look prescient now, as they mark 40 years since their first show. From their very earliest days, TMBG has understood the power of “what internet people now call the ‘free economy’: that you can be generous with people, and you can expect a lot of positive things back by giving things away.” In the early 80s, their Dial-A-Song service – literally an old-school answerphone on which you could listen to their new tunes for the price of a local phonecall, “or free if you call from work” – baffled record labels. The execs couldn’t understand “the idea of just having an ongoing creative enterprise”.

“I mean, nobody thought we were hippies, but there was definitely something very hippyish about just giving music away,” says Flansburgh. “The labels were not in the business of giving anything away. So it was very confounding then, but it also taught us a lot about the potential that an audience can have, beyond just a regular teenybopper thing.”

They Might Be Giants live in Edinburgh, 2018. Photo: Laura Kelly

That deeper relationship between band and audience goes some way to explaining how They Might Be Giants has continued to plough their own idiosyncratic furrow – outliving Top of the Pops, watching as CDs rose and fell, and seeing (almost) the entire history of music become (almost) free in the Spotify era.

“We want to embrace those people and tell those people that understanding and common language that we share is real,” Flansburgh says of their loyal audience. “But at the same time, we don’t want to sound like we’re running a cult.”

And so they’ve kept innovating. They’ve won two Grammys, created one of the first artist-owned online music stores, written numerous soundtracks (including the hit single Boss of Me for Malcolm in the Middle), released 18 albums for adults and five for kids, and remained occasional visitors to UK venues, where – contrary to Flansburgh’s assertion that we never wanted to see them again – their gigs are packed, sweaty, joyous affairs.

For the upcoming shows, the Johns (accompanied by their full touring band), will play all of Flood, before treating the audience to a whole second set exploring the rest of the band’s deep catalogue. “It’s not like some crazy Bruce Springsteen-length show,” but running to around two hours it is a lot of TMBG bang for your buck. And don’t worry, newbies – “We’re not a cult. It’s safe. Come on out. There’s no secret password.”

How have the US cult members – *cough* I mean, audiences – responded so far to hearing Flood in full? “There’s some strange songs that get big responses,” says Flansburgh. “Dead [sample lyric: “Now it’s over I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want or, I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do”] turns into this big, swaying, New-York-drunken-men’s-choir singalong in the show. Road Movie to Berlin gets a strange, sentimental response.”

And of course, there’s one song that always brings the bounce. “When we do Birdhouse,” Flansburgh smiles, “everybody’s jumping up and down.” Still pogoing, just like Flans and Linnell, all those years ago on Top of the Pops.

Tickets for They Might Be Giants’ UK tour are on sale here now. Book is out now. Find out more at theymightbegiants.com

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