Alt-rock legends They Might Be Giants quietly released Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, their second record of 2011, today. The set, a collection of outtakes and oddities, was mostly finished after the release of Join Us, their 15th studio album, back in July. The two albums represent the duo’s first body of “adult” material since 2007’s The Else, which was followed by a series of well-received children’s albums. Rolling Stone caught up with songwriter John Flansburgh to chat about the new collection, as well as the band’s plans for their 30th anniversary next year.
So you have this new compilation, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions. You see that phrase all over the place – what made you decide to run with that as a title?
Well there’s this Malcolm Gladwell story that’s really, really funny about that phrase, and how in his early days – I’m not sure, but I think it was the Washington Post – he and a friend had a contest to see how much they could use that expression in headlines. I think the idea is that it’s the best example of a headline that just grabs people’s attention, and it just seemed funny.
So this is mostly stuff that was left over from Join Us?
Yeah. Some of it’s actually brand new, stuff we did right after we finished Join Us, actually. It’s probably mostly tracks that we just finished. It’s not the horrible stillborn tracks that we started the record with, which will probably remain forever unfinished. But just sort of in the sprint to finish that record, we started a bunch of songs that we didn’t quite have enough time to wrap up. And then we did this song with The Onion for their Undercover series, a cover of [Chumbawumba’s] “Tubthumping” which is very popular. There’s a version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” that we assembled just to make a video out of it. That’s an interesting recording because even though it’s totally electronic, it was actually recorded live. It sounds completely tracked. I mean it doesn’t sound like a band – it sounds like electronic music – but it’s actually the five of us in a room playing. It makes you realize how hard it is to really play in mechanical time. When you take all the humanity out of something, the musical truth is a very small target. The one is very, very tiny.
There was a very brief window of time between your announcement of this compilation and its release date. Was this meant to be a surprise?
It was kind of a surprise. You know, it was my idea, but sometimes you surprise yourself. Because we had all these songs that were just kicking around, I just felt like I didn’t want years to go by and just have these songs appear here or there. You know, I really like these songs, and I think that they are interesting and deserve to be heard, and it just seemed like we live in such a different time. The album is a strange, archaic thing that some people don’t even relate to. But I feel like, that if the album is going to exist, it’d be nice if we could sort of expand its definition. And this is really is part of Join Us, but it’s also its own thing. I just didn’t want a ton more pieces of quality material just kind of floating around in the ether because we’ve made a lot of music that doesn’t ever get defined, and often doesn’t really get heard properly.
Is it kind of a relief to not have to come up with an album conceit, to just put these songs together because they were made around the same time?
Well, by and large, they actually hang together better than a lot of things because they actually were all done kind of at the same time. But I think, it’s a nice platform for the most awkward and strange stuff that we do. Which is really of real interest to some people in our audience, and might be slightly toxic to our reputation.
Well, a song like “Mountain Flowers,” which is really stoned-sounding. It’s a very original, singular kind of recording and it’s weird. And it might only appeal to weirdos. I’m not sure I completely have perspective on it, but it’s not like good-rockin’, happy music. And something like “Marty Beller Mask” which is like, an extremely catchy song, but it’s also extremely silly. It’s a funny song. The melody certainly holds up to repeated listening cause it’s a really infectious song. We only finished it two weeks ago and I’ve been trying to get it out of my head ever since. I think a song like “Marty Beller Mask” on a regular album would really come across as more novelty than we would probably want our regular album output to be.
Where do you guys go from here? What do you have planned for the future?
Well, we are going across the United States. We’re traveling. We’re on tour until March of next year. In March, we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary as a band.
How do you plan on marking that?
We’re flipping the odometer. We’re actually doing two really big shows in Los Angeles at Royce Hall.
Is it going to be a mini-festival of some kind?
I don’t know. We’ll try to talk Martin Scorcese into filming it. We haven’t really given it too much thought. We’re really concentrating on just doing good shows. When we’re on the road like this it’s a very intense, musical time for us because we change the show around quite a bit. Every day we’re adding songs and changing songs and doing new stuff. It can be quite intense. It’s nice when it sort of settles down and we have sort of a way of doing it, but right now there are some long sound checks that really are rehearsals.
When you make another record, where do you guys think you’re going to go next?
That’s a good question. This record was probably the most complicated record for us, musically, in a long time. We had done a bunch of kids’ projects, and we had ended up doing two kids’ projects in a row, and I think even though doing the kids’ stuff had never felt like too much of a distraction, I think finding our voice again, doing the adult material, ended up being a bigger struggle. It’s just like, how are we gonna evolve to another place?
My personal obsession has been about getting simpler and simpler, doing things with less and less instrumentation. Trying to do a song with just two instruments and a voice. Figure out a way to make interesting recordings that are still dynamic but arranged incredibly simply. So I think in some way that may be the next thing we do, make it super, super minimal.
So when you say minimal, do you mean just you and John and a couple acoustic guitars, or more of a punk thing?
Well, probably all of the ways you can figure out how to do it.
I don’t know about a cappella. Our voices aren’t so great. They’re not so beautiful. But actually that would be good, a little simple harmony. Also, blending drum programming with natural drums, doing some more stuff electronically. We tend to always get pulled back to the rowdy rock sound just because it’s fun to play with our band. But yeah, They Might Be Giants’ Nebraska, that’s what I’m thinking.