Interview: John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants On Turning 50, Writing Jingles, The Badassness of Elvis Costello, And The Theory That Most Bands Have Only One Good Album
John Flansburgh stands as the younger, more bespectacled half of They Might Be Giants, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston band he has been playing in for more than half his life (Their latest album is Here Comes Science, their fourth children's album and 14th or so studio album overall.) Flansburgh turns 50 years old today; one week ago, when he was still 49, he shared some of the wisdom and waste he's picked up along the long, long way. Here are some of his thoughts.
That's Flansburgh on the right
I think because I'm musical partners with someone who's 50 [TMBG cohort John Linnell], I've thought a little bit about where we land generationally. Both John and I are younger brothers, and I think, having been born in 1960 or 1959, which is really the tail end of the Baby Boom, and being a younger sibling, it's a very singular place to be in American culture, because you saw the entire melodrama of the '60s and '70s as kind of a passive observer. You know, you were just the kid in the back of the car listening to the yelling. The babysitter who saw Easy Rider and then hitchhiked to San Francisco was in your life. And everything about the Vietnam War and rock music exploding and the Yipees, all this stuff of hippie culture was very tangible and very real. Even Mad magazine or Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny or all these kind of anti-authority type cartoon characters. Even Peanuts, to some extent, had this kind of anti- quality to it. All this mainstream culture with all this heavy, heavy anti- stuff was happening in your childhood, and I think it informed the way we approached the world. We didn't go through a lot of changes in the '60s. We were just kids. But we saw it all. And I think that that really changed the way we approached culture and culture-consuming and culture-making, and it just made us different. I feel like we were sort of media literate in a way that people before us weren't.
I think as I was turning 40, I realized that the window of reinvention was quickly closing. And the idea that I was going to be able to carry on having the career that I was having was going to be available to me. And there's actually some things about that that are very liberating, because a lot of times, if you're a musician, you don't really get to choose whether you want to stick around or not. It can be a very difficult life. The third acts of Behind the Music are usually kind of tough. But the whole thing kind of made me sort of recalibrate what it is to be an adult as a creative person. I feel like we kind of crossed a professional finish line in a way. And we got much more relaxed and confident about what we were doing.
In some ways I think 50 can feel old, but in a good way, you know. I was talking with my wife the other day about the notion of wisdom, and over and over again, since I've turned 40, I find myself in the middle of scenarios that I know would've completely bewildered me as a younger man. But because of my life experience, and just the diversity of my life experience, I actually can navigate through them quite successfully. And I'm talking about a whole world of stuff. You know, professional stuff, interpersonal stuff. Everything imaginable. But I feel like I've actually learned so much about the world that I'm just in a much better place.