They Might Be Giants: Still 'Emotionally Arrested' At 50 For John Flansburgh and John Linnell, being in a band at 50 is no different than when they started.
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They Might Be Giants: Still 'Emotionally Arrested' At 50

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They Might Be Giants: Still 'Emotionally Arrested' At 50

They Might Be Giants: Still 'Emotionally Arrested' At 50

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. They Might Be Giants have been making quirky, smart - some say geeky - pop songs since the 1980s. They found early success with songs like "Birdhouse in Your Soul," and a cover of the old novelty tune "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." And more recently, the group has been writing children's songs. Well now, the two men who are They Might Be Giants, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, are both in their 50s, and they have returned to writing songs for grown-ups. Their new album is called "Join Us." This is the first track. It's called "Can't Keep Johnny Down."


THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS: (Singing) Men piled up in the towering mound. None of them once has found the way to keep Johnny down. Spending days by myself remembering slights. I'm not a monument to justice. Plus, which I don't forget a face. And they can't, can't keep Johnny down. Down, down, down. They haven't yet built the man that'll keep old Johnny down. Down, down, down.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us in the studio are They Might Be Giants. John Linnell and John Flansburgh, welcome to the program once again.

JOHN LINNELL: Thanks for having us.

JOHN FLANSBURGH: It is an impossible pleasure to be here...

SIEGEL: That's John Flansburgh.

FLANSBURGH: your beautiful, air-conditioned studios.


SIEGEL: Tell me about "Can't Keep Johnny Down."

LINNELL: Well, it's a work of fiction. A lot of people assume - and not without reason - that there's a character named John; it must refer to one of us.

SIEGEL: Someone might get that impression.

FLANSBURGH: Yeah. Yeah. You might. And work - in some ways, we're kind of leading people in that direction, I think.

SIEGEL: Too easy.



GIANTS: (Singing) And they don't - down, down, down - don't know what I've seen. Down, down, down. They can't know what's in here. Down, down, down. And they can't keep Johnny down. Down, down, down.

SIEGEL: The last time that I interviewed you both was in 2002, and you had launched the new phase of your career, which was making music for - I would say children; I think you said entire families.

FLANSBURGH: Yes. Well, no, no. I mean, we're happy to say it was for kids. The kids' stuff really took us by surprise. We did a kids' album as a one-off, and it just was met with so much positivity from critics and real-life families that it just immediately launched us into a second career, sort of a parallel career. And it came perilously close to taking over our career a couple years ago. Now, we've come back to this.

SIEGEL: One difference between making an album like this, as opposed to making one for children, is the themes and the words you use to describe it.

FLANSBURGH: Sure. Yeah. I mean, we - that's exactly right. I think we want to talk about things that are hard to talk about, you know, and music is a great way to open that door. And you know, we really grew up in the heyday of experimental popular music, you know, the late '60s and early '70s. Those songs are kind of the role models for what we think pop music can be. And if you want to bring an experimental sensibility to a three-minute-long song, you don't have to reference "Strawberry Fields Forever." You can make up your own very-hard-to-understand music.



GIANTS: (Singing) Dystopio Smashedtobits, the keeper of dust, the builder of rust. When you discover Sleep's older brother, the trio is finally complete. The trio has just one conceit, forged by their past, first in their class. Three might be duende, three might be duende, three might be duende, three might be duende, three might be duende at last.

SIEGEL: "Three Might Be Duende."

FLANSBURGH: Yeah. It's like the Three Musketeers with vocabulary words.

LINNELL: Yes, with vocabulary words.

FLANSBURGH: Duende is a delightful word that I think, in at least one definition of it, the first part of the definition is: It's hard to define.


SIEGEL: One of the definitions I found in Wikipedia was: a difficult-to-define word used in the Spanish arts, including performing arts. From the original meaning, a fairy- or goblin-like creature, the artistic and especially, musical term was derived.

FLANSBURGH: It really means the spirit of art but in the sense of the passion inside - artistic expression.

SIEGEL: It's like the Hispanic soul...


SIEGEL: ...of these pieces. That's just one word that your album sent me to the dictionary to look up. "Cloisonne."

FLANSBURGH: "Cloisonne."

SIEGEL: "Cloisonne."

FLANSBURGH: Yeah. This was like self-improvement at NPR today.


SIEGEL: The vocabulary list that comes with your album.

FLANSBURGH: Cloisonne was something that we did in high school art class, where you have this glass dust that you melt in a kiln, and it turns into a beautiful piece of jewelry that you give to your mother.


GIANTS: (Singing) You start getting no conversatin'(ph). Sleestak. What's a sleestak? That's your heart attack, towel rack, fallback.

FLANSBURGH: We're not trying to send people running to the dictionary.


FLANSBURGH: That is not - it's really not the point.

LINNELL: No, I think it's in the spirit of just opening things up. You know, there are other - there are interesting topics you can put into a song.


GIANTS: (Singing) You have a friend in law enforcement. Don't go calling law enforcement. Cloisonne.

SIEGEL: On one track, you both tell a story and also give direction...


SIEGEL: the visual...


SIEGEL: ...accompanying images we should be seeing at that time.

FLANSBURGH: That song is called "Protagonist," and there's actually portions of the lyric - the stage direction part - that come directly from a how-to-write-screenplays tutorial, which I changed suddenly, to avoid...


FLANSBURGH: ...copyright infringement issues.


GIANTS: (Singing) She stole my air guitar. Exterior. Man on lawn, alone at dawn. Packed the typewriter and drove off in her car. A battered automobile drives past state line sign. And now, I know that I'll rue the day I let her get away. I need a haircut. I've got myself to blame. A gloved hand spins a combination dial, quickly opening a large wall safe.

SIEGEL: So now that you've both turned 50 years old...


SIEGEL: ...what's so different about doing this from, you know, 25 years ago?

LINNELL: It's surprisingly not that different. Maybe we're emotionally arrested people, but we apply pretty much the same spirit now that we did 25 years ago, I think, you know? I don't think we've dramatically changed our philosophy about it.

FLANSBURGH: You know, a few years ago, somebody said that their philosophy is if it's not happening, it's not happening. In other words - like, don't...


FLANSBURGH: ...when your head hits the pillow, don't worry about what you have to do tomorrow, because it's not going to prepare you any better. Just be in the moment and be present, and things will go your way. And I feel like that was...

SIEGEL: That's the wisdom you've come by.


FLANSBURGH: I take tremendous solace in that, actually.

SIEGEL: So you've learned to accept the complete unpredictability and sometimes unreality of your lives.

FLANSBURGH: Yeah. I think it's been the norm for the whole time we've been doing this.


GIANTS: (Singing) I see that Banksy left a Post-it note for anonymous, for anonymous.

SIEGEL: John Linnell and John Flansburgh, They Might Be Giants, thank you very much for talking with us.

LINNELL: Thank you so much for having us.

FLANSBURGH: Thank you.


GIANTS: (Singing) Celebration. You're a little bit better...

SIEGEL: They Might Be Giants' new album is called "Join Us," and you can watch them perform here at NPR's offices, A Tiny Desk Concert, at


GIANTS: (Singing) ...and not by yourself.

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