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"You know what's really nice about being around for 20-plus years? It's that people stop comparing you to other bands," says John Flansburgh, one half of They Might Be Giants, regarding the duo's 25-year career.
"My heart goes out to bands, like any band that is starting out — it's so ridiculous the bands they get compared to," he says. "I just don't know if the imaginations of music reviewers [are] so limited that they can only compare the two things that arrived in the mail that day to one another: 'How does They Might Be Giants' new children's album [Here Come the 123s] compare to, oh, say the new Velvet Revolver album?'" he says.
Flansburgh and bandmate John Linnell faced the same issue when they started out over two decades ago. "In the early '90s we would tour Australia, where the Violent Femmes are like really, really popular," he says. "They enjoy the level of success there probably the way R.E.M. is in the United States." Flansburgh says TMBG's similar vocal stylings and quirky lyrics led fans and critics down under to immediately compare them to the Milwaukee rockers.
"In interviews people would be like, 'You guys must, like, love the Violent Femmes. They must be like your No. 1 band,'" he says, impersonating a snobby, Pitchfork-esque Australian music writer. But back then, the Johns, like most Americans, had barely heard the Violent Femmes.
"I found myself in the awkward position of telling the absolute honest truth, and then recognizing the person I'm talking to thinks I'm completely bullshitting him," Flansburgh says. "He doesn't know that the Violent Femmes are not that well known in the United States and are almost culturally invisible in hip-hop New York City in 1988."
Much like the Violent Femmes — sorry for the comparison, John — TMBG became successful thanks to a devoted cult following. To date, the band has 44 studio, live and children's albums and EPs to their name, as well as a slew of credits for soundtracks and theme songs (including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).
The duo's résumé is hefty, but Flansburgh says that, in reality, TMBG has steadily remained in the middle of the pack. "We've had a tremendous amount of modest success, but we've never had that kind of and-now-we-live-on-easy-street kind of success," he says.
In 2003, the band's story was made into the documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns). Flansburgh was worried fans would see the reality of TMBG. "I guess my worry when they were making the movie was, it would reveal how sort of strangely pitiful our situation often is," he says. "People want to feel like people get through careers without their spirits trampled. People want people to remain intact."
The Johns have definitely had their share of tramplings, but Flansburgh says he and Linnell have fought off the lows by expecting them from the get-go.
"Very early on we were just like, 'We're going to be honest that we're doing something that's essentially countercultural,'" he says. "I mean, what we're doing is not so obtuse that's nobody's going to like it, but, you know, this is music for a smaller audience."
Flansburgh says TMBG has never compromised the music they wanted to make or the way they wanted to present it, which has helped them achieve certain successes that have escaped other, perhaps more famous, artists.
"We've barely opened for any other band, we've just always headlined our shows," he says. "The bands we've opened for I think I can count on one hand. We spent a month touring the deep West with Hootie and the Blowfish at the height of their career. Other than that, you know, we've always just done our own shows."
"I've had conversations with our booking agent, who thinks we're idiots for doing it," he continues. Most bands support headliners to reach a broader audience, but Flansburgh says TMBG never liked the idea of pandering to the mainstream.
"We don't want to put our music through the cultural wind tunnel," he says. "We don't need to know what the least enthusiastic person in the crowd thinks of us."
It's hard to imagine there could ever be an unenthusiastic person at a TMBG concert. The shows described by venue owners and longtime fans in Gigantic may have taken place in the late '90s, but even twentysomethings at more recent shows could easily describe the same scene: an overall atmosphere of real fun, something everyone can relate to.
"I think the biggest surprise we found was doing this thing that we kind of recognized as being a little bit offbeat and awkward — how positive the response was almost right away," Flansburgh says. "I mean, we do festivals for 25,000 people with, like, a guy wearing a Slipknot T-shirt and, you know, he gets it."
This universal appeal isn't something every band enjoys, especially one that's never aspired to it. It may well be the reason TMBG has continued happily chugging down the middle of the road. "The thing that is tedious about American culture is that everybody acts like everybody is just auditioning for American Idol," Flansburgh says. He recalls a recent interview he heard with BBC sensation and original The Office creator Ricky Gervais. "[He was talking about how] there is this very strange ambiguity, that anybody involved in the lively arts is just using that talent as a way to promote themselves — just their name and image — and become a star," he says.
Flansburgh and Linnell have no interest in this. "Fame is just jive," he says. "At its best, it's just a tool to have things heard, but ultimately, it's ultimately stupid."
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