By Mike Sembos
4:20 PM EDT, September 18, 2013
They Might Be Giants founding members John Flansburgh and John Linnell are no strangers to our nation's highways. Now in their 50s, they've been on the road for over 30 years, and though they travel by bus — a semi-cozy means of transportation — they still have to deal with many of the same day-to-day issues shared universally by all touring bands.
"I guess the main innovation in the latter half of our touring career is that you can now get Starbucks at rest areas," says Linnell, "which is obviously good news for the sleepy members of our organization, like me. But we have a little espresso maker on the bus now, courtesy of my wife. That is a very, very popular item. It's one of these boutique-y little things that you buy the capsules for, and everyone gathers around it like a little shrine."
Touring can take its toll on the human body, and this particular road excursion in support of their latest record Nanobots has been more intense than those of the recent past. But according to Linnell, it's all good.
"It seems petty to complain," he says. "We're insanely lucky to have this job. In some ways, really, the most exhausting thing is having to be somewhere and wait around. And that sounds like an incredibly small complaint to make, but a lot of our day is just showing up and then having to be on call... We toured like this back when we were youngsters, but it's been quite a while since we've done anything this extensive."
Saturday, they come to Hartford to play Envisionfest, a free one-off show at Bushnell Park.
Earlier this year the band returned to Australia for a month and were surprised by the warm reception they received, despite having not been to that continent for 10 years. Or possibly because they hadn't been there in 10 years, and absence sometimes makes the heart grow fonder. Also, the national radio station started spinning their tunes, which never hurts.
"The first time I ever went there, I tried the experiment where you see which way the water goes when it's going down the drain," says Linnell. "It was just a very informal experiment, but it seemed to me that you could get it going in either direction very easily, and it probably had more to do with the shape of the basin than the rotation of the earth. I know there is some notion that it goes one way depending on which side of the equator you're on, but I was unable to get a conclusive demonstration going."
In one of the band's immensely popular children's albums Here Comes Science, they corrected a scientific inaccuracy that had been plaguing them for years. They've long covered the 1959 Hy Zaret song "Why Does the Sun Shine?" in which it's claimed that "the sun is a mass of incandescent gas." They re-covered it on Here Comes Science, immediately followed by a correction song called "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?" where they explain what science has learned since, that "the sun is a miasma, of incandescent plasma / the sun's not simply made of gas, no, no, no / the sun is a quagmire / it's not made of fire / forget what you've been told in the past."
Perhaps an explanation of hemispherally-dependent toilet-flushing rotational direction could be made on Here Comes Science Part II?
"I think I'm going to have to leave it to the experts," says Linnell. "I think I'm not a good enough experimenter. On another scientific note, [in Australia] I was able to identify some southern constellations that you cannot see from the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Cross... the Centuar... That was satisfying. It really felt like I was somewhere different."
They Might Be Giants has always held a pretty tight rein on its collective creative output over the years, but another semi-recent development has been outsourcing ideas for videos to other talented people who specialize in that particular media. The most recent video for "You're on Fire" (directed by Hoku Uchiyama and Adam Bolt) features a Styrofoam tray of ground beef — most likely, "pink slime" — singing the lead vocals. (FYI, "pink slime" has just been quietly reinstated at school cafeterias in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas.)
"Back when we starred in our videos, we were very concerned about how the video presented the song. But I've got to say, there's something very gratifying now about giving it to somebody who will take it in a completely unexpected direction and just come up with this utterly counterintuitive idea, like the "You're on Fire" video, or the last 10 videos we've made. For a lot of the ones that we did with Disney, for example, it was a similar process. We had a number of people making these things who were given an enormous amount of freedom, to just come up with ideas, and I'd say in nine out of 10 cases we didn't have any suggestions beyond, 'That is so cool, what you just did. Keep doing that.'"
They Might Be Giants
Sat., Sept. 21, 6:30 p.m. Envisionfest, Bushnell Park, 1 Jewell St., Hartford. Free. (860) 728-2265, envisionfesthartford.com
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