Memories come flooding back as They Might Be Giants marks 40 years
The bandmates are performing their 1990 album “Flood” in its entirety as part of a new tour that arrives in Chicago this week.
For alt-rockers They Might Be Giants, “conventional” is a boring descriptor.
Since forming in 1982, the group has traversed the path less-traveled lyrically and sonically with unconventional, quirky and catchy songs. For singer John Flansburgh, who co-founded the group with multi-instrumentalist John Linnell, it’s surreal to be in the same band after four decades.
“It doesn’t seem very long. It’s kind of flown by, frankly,” says Flansburgh. “We really started the band for fun and weren’t too interested in streamlining it for larger success… We didn’t start the band trying to figure out how we were going to fit in, so we’ve kind of taken our own path and it’s been modestly successful, and we’ve had a lot of small lucky breaks along the way. It’s just been a lot of fun.”
They Might Be Giants
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: The Vic Theatre, 3145 N.Sheffield Ave.
Tickets: Sold Out
Flansburgh credits the emerging drum machine technology in the early days for helping lead them to an off-kilter approach. The drum machine provided them flexibility and control of their sound in their early sets.
“It gave us a way to do a more extreme kind of songwriting and a more extreme kind of arranging of songs,” he says. “We didn’t have to convince anybody else that what we were doing was worthwhile. … I think we had a very particular idea of balancing our own sensibilities and our own idea of melody and song and with a bit of our own sensibility in terms of humor.”
It also helped that they began during an influx of new wave and punk music. Much of the music “resuscitated the sixties’ songwriting aesthetic, which is just much more melody driven and hokey.”
“I think of those sixties songs as being immediate and startling,” says Flansburgh. “We’re using that as our cultural trampoline. In some ways I think of They Might Be Giants as the very last new wave band. We started in ’82, but we didn’t get anywhere until ’88.”
Two years later, the band would release their 1990 album “Flood,” their first on a major label, Elektra Records. It featured hit singles “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and marked the band’s biggest commercial success to that point. The band is performing the album in full on tour and is eager to return to Chicago.
Flansburgh says doing a full album show, it’s “hard not to just be swept away and taken back to the original moment.” The songs have extra mojo in concert.
“If anybody comes to our show and sees the way we’re approaching a song like ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ they get where we’re coming from as just a touring band,” he says. “It’s a whole different energy than the original recording. It’s just much more of a barnstorming affair.”
That descriptor could also be used for their prolific creative pace, having released 23 studio albums. They’ve also created music for various TV shows and commercials, including the theme song for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.” Flansburgh explains the band just says “yes” to a lot of opportunities.
The current tour features the same horn section — former Conan O’Brien trumpet player Mark Pender, sax player Stan Harrison, and trombone player Dan Levine — that was featured on “The Daily Show” theme song.
“Having a full horn section, we can do a lot of different arrangements in the show that bring a different energy to what we’re doing,” Flansburgh says. “A song like ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ has a whole other life to it with the full band. It’s just a big celebration.”
TMBG has long sought to present music to fans in new ways, including being among the first to have a download-only album and Dial-A-Song service to share their tunes. (After starting as a 1-800 number, Dial-A-Song has pivoted to digital and mobile versions.)
“It was ambitious, but it was also an interesting challenge and it’s just a good excuse to keep on working,” says Flansburgh.
Last year the band continued that interactive trend with its latest album “BOOK.” The album’s deluxe version comes with a 144-page art book that features song lyrics designed by graphic designer Paul Sahre and photos from Brooklyn photographer Brian Karlsson.
“It’s just a way to take in the record in a fresh way,” Flansburgh offers. “Just having the experience of immersing yourself… with the imagery and maybe a lyric sheet or just the ephemera around an album is something that is almost like an endangered species in the music culture.”