They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh Reflects on Flood 30 Years Later: “It Was an Exciting Time”
By Chris Harris
CREDIT: Shervin Lainez
When John Flansburgh was 29, he and John Linnell—collectively known as They Might Be Giants—released their third full-length album, Flood, what’s considered to be the band’s seminal studio offering. Today, Flood turns 30—the very age Linnell was when the iconic record first dropped.
There was no way the two could’ve known what they were creating at the time for their new label, Elektra, would still resonate with fans three decades later. Flansburgh tells SPIN he did get the sense during the Flood sessions that the duo were making something special, and that things would never be the same for They Might Be Giants once their major label debut was out in the world.
“Suddenly, we were working with these big-time hit-making British producers”—Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer—“who were much more successful than we were and had big hits with Madness, Morrissey, and Dexys Midnight Runners,” Flansburgh explains. “They were coming in with a very clear mandate to make a hit record … and really showed us how everything worked.”
For the first time in their young careers, the Brooklyn duo was tracking in a bona fide recording studio, with an actual budget and a wealth of new tools to use.
“We also had never been afforded that amount of time to do anything before,” says Flansburgh. “Our first album [1986’s self-titled debut] was made on a zero dollar budget, and Lincoln had a $2,000 budget. So, suddenly having a real studio at our disposal and time to prepare proper demos, that was a big transition for us. It makes sense that the results would have more sonic integrity.”
“It was an exciting time,” he adds. “Things were cooking.”
Ultimately, the entire experience proved to be a crash course in studio production for the young band, according to Flansburgh.
“Until then, we were working on either 4-track or 8-track setups, so there was always a lot of hard decisions to be made about instrumentation because it wasn’t open-ended,” he explains. “We were very used to working within those limitations. When we got to the process of making Flood, a bunch of things had changed that really just altered what was possible. There was this emerging technology of sampling that we completely embraced, and I think casual readers might not have an idea of what’s possible with sampling.”
“You can sample yourself and create a lot of sonic effects that are essentially impossible to create any other way,” he continues. “I would refer fans to ‘Istanbul.’ That entire track is samples, but it’s all self-samples: me blowing across a Fanta bottle. … All the drum sounds are objects being hit with a mallet and either being pitched up or down. A whole world of possibilities was suddenly open to us.”
Those capabilities resulted in a landmark 19-track album that went on to earn a platinum certification from the RIAA. Critics were also impressed, with SPIN’s Ira Robbins writing in the album review: “Flood is a deft pogo dance on a tightrope between delightful whimsy and insufferable self-amusement that will leave you humming, smiling, and mulling the future of modern civilization quicker than ‘Green Acres.’”
Over the coming months, Flansburgh says he and Linnell will be back at again, hitting the studio for one-week recording spurts. For the moment, he says there’s no set timeline for the release of They Might Be Giants’ 23rd record.
“We’ve had a couple of sessions already in the studio,” Flansburgh reveals, explaining that the upcoming sessions “will probably end up being the next album.”
“Nothing about what we are doing now is particularly planned out in advance,” he adds. “What has materialized is the result of some spontaneous thinking.”
Besides getting back in the studio, which Flansburgh admits has “taken up a bunch of our time,” the band will be playing Flood in its entirety during 28 upcoming shows. All but two have sold out, which has been humbling for him.
“Everything about our careers is kind of exceptional,” he tells SPIN. “It is hard to write pop music … original music. It’s always kind of an uphill climb, so the fact that we’ve carved out a little space in the world for ourselves and managed to survive—and often thrive—is kind of gratifying. For musicians, anytime a band or an artist can kind of escape what is perceived as the gravitational pull of the system, it’s cause for optimism for everybody. I think that’s the thing that people recognize in the success of a project like ours.”
Of course, They Might Be Giants have been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for years now. But Flansburgh’s not expecting an invite anytime soon.
“To my way of thinking, we are kind of a ‘take it or leave it’ band,” he says. “A lot of acts shine very brightly and are hard to ignore. We are pretty easy to ignore.”
He also hasn’t been too impressed with the Rock Hall as of late. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame … it feels like it’s lost the notion of what rock and roll is,” Flansburgh says, suggesting that perhaps it should be a wax museum instead. “I am a rock and roll fan. It is very clear to me, as a person who plays guitar and has followed rock music his entire life, that The Pixies came along and changed the entire pH balance of where rock was going—it affected every working band and it affected us.”
“They opened for us before they were even signed, and seeing them changed the way we approached what we were doing,” he continues. “The Pixies belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If it happened for us, I’m sure we’d just be like, ‘Huh?’ I would be happy to do the full Sex Pistols thing and just say ‘no.’”