Fans of They Might Be Giants know to expect the unexpected. Over the course of a singular 31-year career, the Brooklyn-based duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh have carved out a solid pop music niche as whip-smart geek-rockers and deft musical satirists, with a trademark sense of humor that’s equal parts existential dread and surreal silliness — often within the same song. In more recent years, they’ve been supplied music for films, TV and even children’s albums.
“We’re just as aware [as anyone else] of what an unlikely place we reside in, in the rock constellation,” Flansburgh says.
Their most recent effort, “Nanobots,” seems to reflect all these trends, with subjects ranging from exploding heads (“You’re On Fire”) to the Oedipus complex (“Call You Mom”) to eccentric 20th century inventor Nicola Tesla (“Telsa”). Its most distinguishing feature, however, is a set of what Flansburgh describes as “miniature” songs, many less than 15 seconds long, interspersed among the longer tracks.
“They’re almost like jingles for insane ideas,” he says.
Madness, perhaps, but not without a method.
“As we were constructing the album,” Flansburgh says, “we were looking for a way to make it less predictable as a listening experience.”
Mission accomplished. Then again, according to Flansburgh, unpredictability is something of an M.O. for They Might Be Giants, and pop music clichés, in both style and substance, have always been fairly taboo for the duo.
“But starting from an ‘anything but clichéd love songs’ point of view is actually pretty liberating,” he says. “It’s going to make things bolder as you approach writing songs… Speaking as a listener myself, I know the experience of being affected by a song, and I know how tremendous that is, and a lot of times it does come from a song landing an idea that seems all its own.”
They Might Be eccentric
Where do They Might Be Giants’ unusual subjects come from? Occasionally, as in the case of the song “Tesla,” they can have a long and winding gestation. Flansburgh says “Tesla” was originally meant to be a scientific history lesson for kids, but as he researched the inventor further, it was the pathos of Tesla’s notorious ambition, occasionally bordering on delusion, that struck him more deeply.
“The core of the song is a meditation on the burden of having too much information or being too inspired,” he says.