In Their Element

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Q&A with Lebowski Fest headliners They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh


They Might Be Giants don’t mean to be cerebral, it just comes out that way.
Perhaps it’s a bad case of projection, but I can’t recall ever coming across a multi-media festival like Lebowski Fest having such a fitting, just right headliner like They Might Be Giants. The Brooklyn band — 20 years strong — is the perfect mix of smart, quirky and weird for a movie that represents the culmination of such intangibles, and a festival that brings them to the masses. Will Russell, co-founder of the fest, told me he gushed all over John Flansburgh — half of the titillating duo — at the L.A. Lebowski Fest, to an embarrassing degree. LEO got some phone time with Flansburgh (pals with Jeff Dowd, the real-life Dude) a couple weeks ago.

LEO: First, let’s talk about world history. You have an impressive knowledge of world history that’s shared in a number of your songs.

John Flansburgh: I suddenly feel like I’m being put in the George Bush “who’s the prime minister of India?” seat (laughs).

LEO: Oh, no. I was going to ask about the fascination with, for instance, former President Polk.

JF: I think that comes out of an idea of really more like a fascination with what you can do in a song. It’s not so much that Polk is a really exciting president, ’cause he actually sort of defines one of the duller kinds of presidents, although he had some points of interest. I think the main thing is, considering of what songs can be about, the number of subjects incorporated in songs is actually very small. All the sort of casting about with history and nature and science and psychedelic impulses are really all just to try to stretch out what is possible in a song.

LEO: Most everything I’ve seen about your band tags as “intelligent rock,” and it’s hard to disagree. How does that characterization sit with you?

JF: I don’t know. If somebody told me a band was really smart, it wouldn’t make me very interested in them. There are a lot of things about the band that are kind of startling to some people, the way we incorporate humor in what we do, and the unusual subject matter of our songs. It’s really an honest reflection of who we are and our personal sensibilities. We’re not trying to figure out how to fit in, and the second you give up on trying to fit in, you run the risk of people thinking you’re really trying to work as an outsider.

LEO: Calling you eccentric and things like that.

JF: Yeah, yeah. Our goal isn’t to be a funny band. We incorporate more complicated ideas in some of our songs because that seems like an interesting point of view, not because we’re trying of be conspicuously clever.

LEO: Have you seen the Big Lebowski? Did you like it?

JF: You know, “The Big Lebowski,” along with “State and Main,” are probably the most played movies in our tour bus. When I heard about the Lebowski Festival, I really wasn’t surprised. There’s something extremely comforting about the movie, its array of characters, and I think, as unlikely as the characters are and as crazy as the story is, people can relate to the film somehow. The character the Dude, everything falls on top of him, which is an idea I think people can relate to. Things happen to him; he doesn’t make things happen, things just happen at him. It’s a very human story.... I went to the (Lebowski Fest) in L.A., and it was shockingly fun.

BY STEPHEN GEORGE
sgeorge@leoweekly.com
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