They Might Be Giants
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
They Might Be Giants
Formed in 1982, They Might Be Giants are themselves giants of a sort in the pantheon of alternative-indie-college rock (or whatever you wanna call it). Emerging out of NYC’s East Village performance scene with a singular take on art-pop, the dynamic duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell would break big at the dawn of the 1990’s with their platinum LP Flood, one of the most beloved “alternative rock” albums of all time. In the following years the band would go on to dip their creative toes in a variety of different pools—not only releasing a slew of excellent albums, but also making music for television and films, snagging a couple of Grammy awards, and serving as the subject for an acclaimed documentary about their career (Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns). Over the course of three decades they’ve also managed to engender a coterie of intensely devoted (some might even say obsessive) fans who are prone to following the band around Grateful Dead-style whenever They Might Be Giants hits the road. It’s certainly a great track record for any band…particularly for one more well-known for accordion heroics than guitars and whose most classic songs involve birdhouses and ancient cities.
So, when you are already 15 albums deep into a career that spans over thirty years, what do you do next? If you are They Might Be Giants, you simply do what you’ve always done—you gather your friends in NYC (in this case producer Pat Dillett and regular TMBG cohorts Stan Harrison, Jon Graboff, Jedediah Parish, and Chris Thompson) and follow your creative impulses wherever they happen to lead you. In the case of Nanobots, the resulting album is a collection of skewed narratives that present a kind of through-line to the band’s earliest work—herky jerky pop songs sprinkled among a variety of truncated mini songs, all of them begging to be sung along to.
“There is a thread that runs along everything we’ve ever done,” says John Linnell. “We’re always trying to do new things—new styles, experimenting with things that are pretty/ugly or kind of atrocious sounding or purely weird—but we also love pop songs. Despite how we may try to change things up, I think we’re still trying to meet the same kinds of criteria ultimately. We are still, in the end, trying to make songs that we want to hear.”
“When you enter a studio to make your 16th record, you might assume the stakes couldn’t be any lower,” jokes John Flansburgh, “But we really approached this project with a level of intensity and focus that rivals anything else we’ve ever done. I think the sonics and musicality of what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years are actually quite evolved from where we started, but at the same time we really pared things back. We tried to come at this record with a lot of restraint, to see how minimal we could be with the song arrangements. That was really our challenge this time around. Some of the songs are crazy sparse. It’s kind of amazing to me that it took us sixteen albums to get around to trying some of these ideas. It’s also reassuring to know that you can make music for this long and still uncover these new ideas. There are definitely points in Nanobots that feel like a new direction for us. ”
So, what then is a Nanobot? According to reliable Internet sources, a nanobot is “a hypothetical, very small, self-propelled machine, esp. one that has some degree of autonomy and can reproduce.” Given the microscopic nature of songs like “Tick,” “Hive Mind,” and “Didn’t Kill Me,” it’s easy to see how the idea of the tiny creation with the capacity to accomplish big things might serve as a guiding principle for the entire record, so much of which is built upon a kind of purposeful brevity. That being said, the album still boasts a variety of three-minute pop gems—“Call You Mom,” “Nanobots,” “Lost My Mind”—that rank among TMBG’s most instantly catchy tunes.
“I like the idea of short songs,” says Linnell, “It’s just gonna dilute the power of the idea if we make it longer. There’s no need to force another verse and chorus if the song doesn’t need one.
“There isn’t necessarily a logical explanation to why Nanobots seemed like such an important title for the entire record, but I like the idea of these tiny things that are designed to do a very specific thing—they can replicate themselves in whatever way they might need to in order to do the required job. And I like the idea of self-replicating. Humans do that by having children. It’s not necessarily a logical process, it’s just something that happens. You unleash this force—a child or a microscopic robot—and then it goes out into the world and does it’s thing…in a way you can’t always control.”
“We came of age in the time of albums”, says Flansburgh, “So we were raised on the notion that songs—when collected together—serve to amplify and support each other when part of a well-considered collection. That’s the power of the album. With Nanobots we weren’t making a concept album, but it does have a certain power as a kind of song cycle. These short little tiny songs have a purpose and they make sense when surrounded by the longer songs. There’s a certain mania to this record, a certain energy you get when you include all these hard working miniatures.”
There are few bands currently in operation that can boast a thirty year career, let alone boast a career that includes 16 studio albums—including four beloved albums for children—and a history of embracing emerging technologies (the band’s brilliantly curated iPhone app recalls their early “Dial-A-Song” days), but the genius of They Might Be Giants—and perhaps the secret to their success—is that they continue to operate within their own world. Three decades in, there is still no other band that sounds like them and—even more importantly—very few artists that approach songwriting with the kind of wide-eyed, natural curiosity as They Might Be Giants. Whether they are singing about tiny robots, broken hearts, combustible heads, or ticks, they do it in a vernacular that is uniquely their own.
“I‘m realizing more and more every day that you can make anything happen for yourself if you really want to,” says Moon Hooch horn player Mike Wilbur. “You can change your existence by just going out and doing it, by taking simple actions every day.”
If any band is a poster child for turning the power of positive thoughts and intention into reality, it’s the explosive horn-and-percussion trio Moon Hooch. In just a few short years, the group—Wilbur, fellow horn player Wenzl McGowen, and drummer James Muschler—has gone from playing on New York City subway platforms to touring with the likes of Beats Antique, They Might Be Giants, and Lotus, as well as selling out their own headline shows in major venues around the country. On ‘Red Sky,’ their third and most adventurous album to date, the band uses everything they’ve learned from their whirlwind journey to push their sound to new heights, bringing together the raw, transcendent energy of their live performances and the sleek sophistication of their studio work into a singular, intoxicating brew that blends elements of virtuosic jazz, groovy funk, and pulse-pounding electronic dance music.
“I think ‘Red Sky’ is more focused than any of our past albums,” reflects McGowen. “We practice meditation and yoga, and I think that we’re more evolved as people than we’ve ever been right now. That evolution expresses itself as focus, and through focus comes our energy.”
It was two years ago that the band released ‘This Is Cave Music,’ an exhilarating thrill ride that earned rave reviews from critics and fans alike. NPR hailed it as “unhinged” and “irresistible,” praising each musician’s “remarkable abilities” and naming their Tiny Desk Concert one of the best in the prestigious series’ history. The album followed their 2013 debut, which had Relix swooning for their “deep bass lines, catchy melodies and pounding rhythms,” while the Wall Street Journal celebrated their “electronic house music mixed with brawny saxophone riffs.” Though the band—whose members initially met as students at the New School—turned heads in the music industry as relative unknowns with a charismatic, unconventional sound (they play with unique tonguing techniques and utilize found objects like traffic cones attached to the bells of their horns to manipulate tone, for instance), they were already a familiar and beloved sight to straphangers in New York, who would react with such joy and fervor to their impromptu subway platform sets that the NYPD had to ban them from locations that couldn’t handle the crowds. NY Mag once referred to their sound as “Jay Gatsby on ecstasy,” while the NY Post fell for their “catchy melodic hooks and funky rhythms,” saying they had “the power to make you secretly wish that the short [subway] wait becomes an indefinite delay.”
While the band’s busking days are behind them now, the lessons they learned from all those platform parties helped guide their approach to recording ‘Red Sky.’
“What we discovered playing in the subway,” McGowen explains, “is that the more focus and the more energy you put into the music, and the more you listen to everything around you and integrate everything around you into your expression, the more the music becomes this captivating force for people.”
Recorded at The Bunker studio in Brooklyn, ‘Red Sky’ is nothing if not captivating. The album opens with the tribal urgency of the title track and proceeds, over the next 45 minutes, to utterly demolish any and every possible barrier that could stand between your ass and the dance floor. On ‘Shot,’ Wilbur sings a stream of consciousness vocal line over an airtight groove, while “Psychotubes” channels the apocalyptic fire and brimstone of death metal, and the staccato intro of “That’s What They Say” gives way to a gritty, late-night come-on of a saxophone line that’s far more suggestive than any whispered words ever could be.
Though the band is heavily inspired by electronic music, they made a conscious effort to use as little in the way of “studio tricks” as possible on ‘Red Sky,’ aiming instead to capture the sound of their live show, which has evolved significantly from their days underground.
“When we were playing in the subways, we were playing entirely acoustic,” explains Wilbur. “It was just two saxes and a drum set. Then Wenzl acquired a baritone sax and we all started getting into music production and incorporating electronic music into our live shows.”
At their performances, the band now plays through what they call a Reverse DJ setup, in which the live sound from their horns runs through Ableton software on their laptops to process recorded effects onto the output. In addition, to flesh out their sound on the road, the band began utilizing Moog synthesizers, an EWI (an electronic wind instrument that responds to breath in addition to touch), and other more traditional instruments like clarinets. Wilbur added vocals to his repertoire on some tracks (something the subway never allowed him to do), and Muschler, meanwhile, traveled halfway around the world to expand his percussion skills.
“I went to India, and the first morning I woke up, it was like 5am, and I followed this music along the banks of the Ganges,” he remembers. “I eventually ended up finding this amazing tabla player, and after his performance, I asked him for lessons. He agreed, and I went for daily lessons with him and another guy for the next two weeks. After that, I took a train to Calcutta, where I met with the guru that I’d studied with in New York, and I did morning lessons with him and practiced throughout the day. It was an incredible musical immersion experience.”
The band members all speak reverently of meditation and consciousness and the role it plays in their music (McGowen believes his introduction to it, spurred on in part by Wilbur and Muschler, saved his life), but equally close to their hearts are the environmental causes they champion. Moon Hooch tries to live up to their green ideals while traveling as much as possible, playing benefit shows, supporting local farmers and co-ops, participating in river cleanups, filming informative videos for their fans, and more. The band even runs a food blog, Cooking In The Cave, in which they highlight the healthy, sustainable, organic recipes they utilize with their mobile kitchen setup on tour.
For the members of Moon Hooch, commitments to consciousness and environmentalism and veganism and philosophy and peace aren’t separate from their commitment to music, but actually integral parts of it. It’s all tied into that same core approach that led to their discovery on the subway platform: try, even if it’s just a little bit every day, even if it’s just with the power of your mind, to make the world less like it is and more like you wish it could be.
“I’d say all of our songs express the essence of that kind of energy,” concludes McGowen, “because before you can even think any thoughts, there exists the energy that drives those thoughts, and that energy is intention. I feel like we’re putting the intention of positive change constantly into our music. While we’re playing, I often see the future emerging: skyscrapers getting covered in plants, frowns turning into smiles, fistfights into hugs. I can see the energy of love and collaboration and trust replace the energy of fear, hatred and violence.”
It’s an ambitious vision, to be sure, but considering the band’s track record at turning their thoughts and dreams into action and reality, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.