So many topics are covered; from the subject of the title track (“hypothetical, very small, self-propelled machines; especially ones that have some degree of autonomy and can reproduce) to insect hospitals, karate chops and one’s head exploding in flames. At 25 tracks it may at first glance seem like a bit of an epic, but take into account that many of these songs clock in at under a minute (half a dozen of which barely push 20 seconds) then you’ve got yourself all of the songs but all crammed into an hour.
It’s typical TMBG fayre so if you own just one of the myriad of available albums then you’ll have a good idea what to expect. Heartfelt ballads, rock and roll standards and quirkier pieces are all given a once-over by witty lyricism and instrumental diversions. The ‘miniature songs’ that grace the album are oddly enough, some of the highlights – instantly turning into earworms whether you like it or not. You try listening to ‘Hive Mind’ once and once only? It can’t be done. Of the more serious songs (not to suggest that a 12 second song about a tick can’t be classed as serious), it is difficult to argue against the opening half-dozen song salvo as being some of their best work to date. Opener ‘You’re On Fire’ is a 100% TMBG classic. I rambled on about its wonder in a previous post, so just check out it for yourself here.
The great thing about ‘Nanobots’ is the fact that you can dip in and out of it at will. They Might Be Giants always seem to cure that most modern of ailments; a bad run of ‘random’ songs on your iPod and they do so by just having a lot of fun! Rating: 8/10
We managed to collar John Flansburgh en route to San Francisco on their current US tour – here is a mini Q and A with ‘Flans’ himself;
BG: Is there a massive difference between US and European crowds? (crowds in the US simply seem to move around more in my very limited experience).
JF: Different countries have different traditions–Germans listen really closely and then explode with applause. US crowds in bars can get rowdy–even violent but US-art-funded concert halls can be totally passive. My deal is this–I’ve always felt like there is always more difference within any crowd at a show than between the crowds at any show. The folks in the front row are having a very different experience than the back, and if you want to do a good job as a performer you have to think about everyone, and figure out how to reach everyone. Overall we might have better luck getting people jumping up and down in the United States, and that could be down to us, or national temperament, or just booze. We also play a lot more frequently in the US than the UK so maybe our appearance in the states might seem less like a unicorn sighting.
I’ve noticed lots of free dates on the US tour – any particular reason or are you just that nice?
Well, we can be nice, but we’re also getting paid to do those free shows. Typically the free shows are organized through city concert series as free concerts. It’s a win-win for us because it expands our audience beyond regular concert-goers. We are not on the radio, so playing free shows is an easy way to get our music in front of the uninitiated.
Have there been any personal fan favourites from the new album, ‘Nanobots’?
‘Call You Mom’ seemed to move people right out of the gate. ‘The Darlings of Lumberland’ has gotten a bit of notice just because it is such an unusual production (for us or anybody I think) And ‘Tesla’ gets a big response because the subject matter is a hot topic.
What has been your favourite song to play live from ‘Nanobots’?
We have a new, alternate arrangement of ‘Black Ops’ in the show–essentially a rave up with John Linnell playing a very raw sounding bass clarinet. The sound is reminiscent of a wonderfully singular band from the Boston punk rock scene of our teen years called the Molls. They had an electric reed played incorporated into a very dirty, aggressive sound. It is definitely a road less travelled.
Playing ‘Call You Mom’ is pretty much pure pleasure for me. I get a couple of different roles in the arrangement but still get to bash away on the guitar full on.
Who is your current audience? As you’ve been going 30 years I’m guessing there’s a mix of young and old – possibly even parents and their kids?
Because it is too boring to explain please let me summarize: kids are not allowed at our shows.
Apollo 18’s ‘Fingertips’ compared to the shorter songs on ‘Nanobots’ – Was ‘Fingertips’ intended to be a whole song?
I suspect the overall effect to listeners might not be so different, but the set-up of the short songs between the two albums were different. With the tracks strung together on Fingertips on Apollo 18, I think John L. was very interested in the effect of interrupting fragments of recordings with other recordings in a collage manner. The shorter songs on ‘Nanobots’, even when they are sequenced in a row, really work as miniatures.
Are you bored of playing ‘Birdhouse in your Soul’?
Well, no. Often, the moment we start playing it the room explodes in dancing and screaming. There are many less gratifying moments in a performer’s day than getting that kind of response. But we certainly don’t need to rehearse it!
Are your touring group the same as contributors to the records?
Yes. They Might Be Giants is very much a band. We have been recording and touring with Dan Miller, Danny Weinkauf and Marty Beller for the last seven albums–Marty came on the most recently about 11 years ago and, yes, we still call him the new guy.
You’re coming to the UK Soon – Do you have a favourite memory of playing in the UK?
I have almost nothing but good memories of great shows on tour in the UK. I just like hanging out in the UK. I love the culture, the music scene, the architecture and the history. I love the political discourse. US politics is all shadow puppets and dog whistles. The UK political conversation blunt yet intellectually honest–the United States can barely acknowledge social classes even exist.
Do you see yourself as having a cult following?
I suspect people’s definitions of cult vary enough that I should probably just say no. Cult sounds like secret handshakes and inside jokes. That’s not where we’re at at all. We have worked ourselves to a middle place in an industry that typically has no middle. We have a small audience by U2 standards, but we can play for a thousand or two thousand people in a lot of cities in the world. That is typically not a stable audience size–acts are either on their way to bigger things or enjoying a brief moment of notoriety. And the other reason I am reluctant to say “cult” is the folks who get us are passionate about other kinds of music, and enjoy other things–and they seem quite different from one another.
Your gigs seem very personable, and there’s been lots of banter in videos I’ve seen of the latest tour – is interaction with audience in between songs important or do you like to get on with it?
It’s a celebration, and we want to keep things entertaining in a direct, street level kind of way. Talking can loosen things up and mean a lot to people, and it helps us relax too. Even at our most prepared there is still a very real thrill for us to playing a show, and the second we start to talk that comes across. It’s pretty obvious when we’re enjoying ourselves.
Was there a song you thought would be a hit but wasn’t and vice versa?
I’ve never thought we’d ever have a hit anywhere really.
Are you ever inspired to write a jolly song for something completely inappropriate?
We were recently hired for a family television special to write a song about climate change, but the song needed to include the possibility that there was a glimmer of hope that it was not as cataclysmic as, well, an informed adult might find in the topic. That was a tricky challenge, but I think we worked out something good. No one is going to burst into tears.
You’re both talented multi-instrumentalists. Is there a particular instrument either of you still want to master?
I’m always thinking about taking singing lessons and piano lessons and trumpets lessons, but song-writing always seems to take up my spare time.
Speaking of the UK tour, here are the all-important dates and places where you can catch They Might Be Giants perform their autumn/winter collection… If there are any tickets left, I suggest you get some.