"Science is Real," proclaim They Might Be Giants on the first track to their new album of science songs for kids, Here Comes Science. John Flansburgh - one-half, with John Linnell, of the core duo and songwriting team behind They Might Be Giants - didn't hedge when he wrote the opener, laying out the basic and essential concept of the scientific method, while differentiating between myth and science. The first verse: "I like those stories about angels, unicorns and elves / I like those stories as much as anybody else / But when I'm seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract / The facts are with science: Science is real." The album rolls on from there, with songs about the chemical elements, the color wheel, the planets, photosynthesis and cells, before a closing track, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett (In Outer Space)," that finds the Johns back in the world of fiction.
They Might Be Giants celebrated a 26th anniversary earlier this year, and the band is in some ways many years removed from the busking, accordion-and-guitar duo born out a post-New Wave Brooklyn scene; they've since taken on live drums and bass, pitching the drum machines and synthesizers of the early years when it was just John and John. But some things remain: a smart, somewhat nerdy sensibility; an ability to make a catchy pop song out of the most mundane or rich elements (numbers or world history); and a steady work ethic that has recently yielded music in both children's and adult modes.
Flansburgh called me near dinnertime Monday night, and we spoke for 45 minutes before his wife Robin Goldwasser, who contributed vocals to "Electric Car" on Here Comes Science, called him away. Here are some hearty excerpts from the conversation.
NUVO: The first verse of "Science is Real" ("angels, unicorn and elves," etc.) could be a provocation to some.
Flansburgh: We've spent most of our adult lives in the world of invention and storytelling and myth. The power of fantasy is not lost on us, and we're not just advocating a prosaic existence. But when it comes to trying to make sense of the natural world, we are pro-science.
NUVO: It's a separation, as in the Greek world, between logos and mythos, offering two different ways to investigate the world.
Flansburgh: And they're equally rich, and they have a tremendous amount to offer people. We're spiritual people, but that doesn't really get in the way of our understanding of how gravity and evolution and all the other basic cornerstones of modern scientific thought have affected our sense of reality.
NUVO: Was there any interference from the label concerning "Science is Real" and "My Brother the Ape"?
Flansburgh: The album is about science. There is nothing controversial about these ideas among people who are involved in science. We're talking about ideas that are pretty much resolved. The newest idea that we're talking about in this conversation is almost a hundred years old, and some of them are hundreds of years old.
NUVO: Sure, I completely agree...
Flansburgh: But it's not my personal opinion. It's an overwhelming consensus. It's not like we're saying it's true. In the world of testable ideas, in the world of research, this is something that is not disputed... It really speaks to the thuddingly dull culture war of the previous eight years that people would think that suggesting... I don't know; it's an impossible situation. I don't think I've talked to single person who has a serious quarrel with gravity or evolution or DNA or the big bang; nobody's said the facts aren't in. But everybody's sort of projecting into the ideas, how you're no longer allowed to talk about it. It makes me feel like I'm living through some red scare-like era, where you know you're not supposed to talk about something. The chilling effect of people being afraid to speak about something so simple is really disturbing.
NUVO: I think this is a good year for driving songs about non-traditional cars. There was Neil Young's album and then "Electric Car," which has a driving feel but is about a car that's much more friendly to the environment.
Flansburgh: As citizens, we're completely aware that there's no such thing as clean coal, and that the energy challenges in front of everybody are pretty huge. I wouldn't even venture to say that electric cars are half the answer to the problems in front of us in terms of how to power cars in the future. There are a lot of people who think hydrogen is much cleaner. I have mixed feelings about it because it seems like whatever little thing you can do as a person in this world to help the environment should be supported. I could probably make a clearer argument for low-flow toilets, but somehow, writing a song about low-flow toilets would be really, incredibly weird.
NUVO: It'd be tough to handle the animation for that. I don't think it would be quite as cute as "Electric Car."
Flansburgh: I bet some kids would really like it. But it would have a hard time getting played, I guess.
NUVO: Would you ever consider doing an album of songs about world history or American history?
Flansburgh: I think our history record would probably read like A People's History of the United States, and I think that would be when the torches and pitchforks would come out.
NUVO: So, following up on the This American Life interview you did recently... have you taken the sobriety requirement out of your rider?
Flansburgh: Oh, right, in a few sentences... We had had an experience where we had a crew of loaders in an arena who had just finished up a couple hours before our show began. So instead of sleeping, they just all went out drinking. And here we are in the morning, we've got a semi-tractor-trailer worth of equipment, and a half-dozen guys who were all drunk as skunks on Budweiser. So we said, "We can't work this way. We can't have people doing heavy lifting and setting up lighting tresses over our heads who are completely high." So we just put in a line about how we needed x amount of loaders who are strong and sober. What was weird is that when we actually shuffled all the job requirements together into one part of the rider as we were synthesizing this new contract agreement, it seemed like, by omitting the sobriety part from everybody else's job description, it almost read as saying, "If you're the sound man, you're not sober." It's something that, only in the re-examining the whole document, emerged as a goof-up. I guess we should probably just say everybody should be sober.
NUVO: In doing that interview, you came off as sort of the rock historian who could speak to the myth of the brown M&Ms.
Flansburgh: We live a portion of every year on a tour bus, so there's certain things you hear about. It's just like people who paint houses for a living know a lot about house painting: Guys in rock bands know a lot about the way bands tour. It's actually one of the odd things about being in a band. I can be in They Might Be Giants and I can be sitting in a hotel lobby with the guy from Anthrax. Culturally, some critic from Rolling Stone would assume that we're waving flags for the opposite team. But in fact, we have a tremendous amount of stuff in common. Besides having lives in music, our weird physical experience of going through life - sleeping on a tour bus, travelling every day for an endless amount of time, all these kinds of strange media events - the stuff of it is not regular stuff, and it's funny how much you can find you actually have in common with somebody whose creative output has no relationship to what you're doing. And to be perfectly honest, I have sat in the lobby with the guy from Anthrax.
NUVO: Speaking of buses, and thinking of "Electric Car" - obviously, there aren't many electric buses, but have you ever thought of going bio-diesel. How can one tour in a less environmentally problematic way?
Flansburgh: We put the song together a couple of years ago... and it seemed like, at that point, that the electric car was a dream that had been permanently deferred. That movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" had come out a year earlier, and I guess that's what I'm responding to in saying, "Why not? Why couldn't there be this thing?" And then, with GM falling apart and the auto companies all falling apart, it suddenly seems like the idea of the electric car has been brought back... But bio-diesel tour buses are really expensive, and really the domain of international rock and rap superstars; it's the sort of integrity you can only buy. It would be great if we were wealthy enough to do that, but the price tag is really prohibitive.
NUVO: Maybe Willie Nelson will pitch in.
Flansburgh: We're calling out to Willie to help us out. Things are changing rapidly in technology, and engineers and designers are focusing on this problem in ways that they haven't before, so I'm optimistic that more clever environmental solutions are around the corner. But I'm an optimistic guy.
NUVO: Thinking back to when I first started listening to you guys in the late '90s, you were ahead of the curve, in that, after leaving a major label, you started selling your work online, worked in TV, licensed your work, anticipating what other bands would have to do after the collapse of some of the majors.
Flansburgh: As John Linnell said, we're in the same leaky boat as everybody else. We kind of acclimated to a lot of the things that a lot of other people in the music business are just getting used to now. But I think our ambitions have always been a little more personal. A lot of the TV and advertising stuff we've done has been a way for us to figure out how to not go broke. I don't think we have great ambitions about being the next Danny Elfman; I don't think we can really collaborate on that level. Just from a crafts point of view... it's fun to do something that's outside your own world. A lot of those jobs are essentially faceless. If you're doing incidental music for a TV show, no one on Earth is going to know it's you, except for the person who runs your Wikipedia site. It's kind of a way to experiment with other forms of music that might even seem bogus for you to seem involved with otherwise. A couple years back, we were doing music for these Diet Dr. Pepper commercials. One was total '70s roller disco; one was a '70s CHIPs theme. Having to write a piece of music with a giant horn chart and strings is so different than the regular stuff we do. I don't think there are a lot of boundaries on what we do as a band, but to actually be given an assignment that takes you so far way from your output is kind of exciting.
NUVO: And coming back to another element where you were ahead of the curve: From Dial-A-Song to putting MP3s online, you've maintained a constant output, to the point where a lot of the songs on your new album were released beforehand in one form or another.
Flansburgh: With stuff like that, we run the risk of being our own worst spoiler. We want to be the primary advocate for what we're doing. Creating an environment of generosity with the audience, it seems like what you get back from that is so profound. We've been doing this for 25 years, and many of the people who were our first audiences are years past tracking popular music of any kind. People come in and out of music all the time. So having our open sign brightly lit up with all this free stuff is really a way to get people to come in.
NUVO: So you've won a Grammy and an Emmy...
Flansburgh: No, two Grammys. So a friend of mine stresses that we can say we're multiple Grammy winners... We spent our entire lives with all our parents and friends sort of going like, "What are you guys really doing? What band is it? How is that going to work?" It's a very unreasonable thing to do with your life. So winning a Grammy is really great; it's something that everybody's mom's friends can understand.