John Flansburgh would like to directly address Canadian instrumental rock act Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet.
Yes, it’s 25 years coming, but the co-founder of They Might Be Giants thinks it’s better late than never.
“If I could just send out a message to the Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet: ‘We’re really not such a shitty band,’ ” Flansburgh says. “I hope they get the message.”
Pretty sure they already knew that, but the musician, who along with John Linnell make up the creative core of the veteran oddball indie pop act wants to leave no doubt.
The subject comes up in regards to what he recalls as the only other time he and TMBG were in this neck of the woods and that was as one of the headliners for the outdoor festival In-Fest, which took place on the High River Rodeo Grounds in the summer of ’93.
Along with the Brooklyn act and Shadowy Men, it also featured other alternative acts such as The Ramones, Bad Brains, Meat Puppets, Violent Femmes and Doughboys.
It was a memorable weekend.
For Flansburgh, too, just not for the right reasons.
“It was probably, easily in the Top 10 of worst shows we’ve ever done,” he says with a laugh. “There were so many things that were so crazy about it. The first that was strange is that we were afforded no ability to soundcheck and we were playing on all rented backline, so none of the gear was our gear … And we were playing in almost pitch darkness, there was no light onstage. I didn’t know where the volume knob was.
“It was like out of a dream, frankly. Or I should say a nightmare.”
He continues. “And we were touring with a horn section and the night fell right as were going onstage and the temperature fell precipitously — it went from (20 degrees) to (8 degrees) — and all the horns went really, really sharp and all of the string instruments went really, really flat and we couldn’t feel our hands.”
He laughs again. “It was really bad.
“And Shadowy Men on A Shadowy Planet played on the same bill and I love them, and I felt so embarrassed because honestly, if that was the only time you saw us perform, you would think that we were just simply the most atrocious band in the world. It was so off the grid.”
Well, it’s guaranteed that TMBG’s first appearance here in a quarter century will be memorable for entirely all of the right reasons and with none of the nightmares from the past.
They’ll perform at the Bella Concert Hall in Mount Royal University’s Taylor Centre for Performing Arts on Thursday, Oct. 17 as part of their most extensive Canadian tour in the band’s 35-year history.
As to why it’s taken them so long, with only the odd Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto gig to show for their semi-regular cross-border appearances, Flansburgh says it’s been all about practicality based on supply and demand.
“The truth is our career never really took off in Canada like it did in the United States,” he says.
“I’m not really sure exactly why, but it seems like there was something else going on because we had success internationally, but really just couldn’t get arrested in Canada. There’s no real clear explanation, but it just was kind of out of scale for the way we were working …
“You want to be the same level of famous everywhere you go, and that is a trick that is very hard to pull off.”
It’s actually surprising to hear, considering the career they’ve had, with memorable early albums such as Lincoln and Flood, a series of beloved children’s records, and quirky gems such as Ana Ng, Birdhouse In Your Soul, Istanbul and even Boss of Me, the theme from the much-missed sitcom Malcolm In the Middle.
At the start of this year, they also released their 20th studio album titled I Like Fun, which is another excellent entry into their consistently interesting catalogue of catchy, quirky, um, fun.
Their current tour features TMBG performing “An Evening With” show, which is no opener, just two sets featuring the band in a standard six-piece rock format, including trumpet player Curt Ramm who has toured and recorded with such artists as Radiohead, The Levon Helm Band, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen
“So we get to do a lot of things on both ends of the spectrum for us, in terms of repertoire,” Flansburgh says. “There are some things in the show that are actually very pretty and very musical and the fact that we have a virtuoso trumpet player with us really puts those songs across in a great way, and then when we’re doing these rave-up numbers just the power of the soloing is really, really high.
“And again, Curt’s ability to blow the roof off the place with his horn playing is pretty remarkable — it’s really something to witness. Every night we play I think everybody in the band is just stepping back and going, ‘Holy, Christ, this guy is so good it’s scary.”
Specifically, while the musician says the new album will get its fair share of play during the night, old-school Giant lovers should know it won’t be the sole focus.
“There’s a pretty good representation of our entire recorded output,” he says.
“The only thing that we don’t do is that we don’t do any kids’ songs, but the show’s not for kids anyway.
“We swear a lot, and that has proven to be disappointing to parents, and it’s super loud and there are a lot of drunk people in the audience so the combination of things is just bad. Taking kids to bars is not a healthy environment. The only downside of having done kids stuff is everybody assumes that everything you do is going to be G-rated from that point on and that is definitely not the case with us.”
And, Flansburgh says, even if you think you know the band’s recorded output inside and out, have all of their albums, there will even be some deeper deep dives and even some new stuff.
They even open the entire evening with The Communists Have the Music, which is only a month old and is only available on the interwebs or via their popular on-again, off-again Dial-A-Song Project, which had them leaving fresh songs on an answering machine that fans could phone into, now an online endeavour.
“It’s exciting to play a brand new song, it’s fun for us,” he says.
“The truth is we don’t really have much interest in being an oldies act, so we really try to face the challenge head on of what else it has to be to keep people entertained at that level. The only thing worse than being an oldies act is being less than an oldies act, you know what I mean?
“So for us cooking up an entertaining show that has a lot of different musical points of interest, that’s what we want to achieve.”
As a live act, people will get the opportunity to judge that on this tour.
As an act, in general, it’s something that there’s little debate over.
Despite the fact that Flansburgh notes that they haven’t hit the heights in Canada, nor are they even really a household name in most parts of the world, he and partner Linnell are happy where they are, and, content to keep putting out music on a regular basis for those who dig what they do and, more importantly, for themselves.
“I feel like in some ways we’re a little bit more middle class than a lot of other people in bands, in that we didn’t really invest a lot in the idea of success or abstract notions of fame and so we’re not really disappointed that things haven’t gone better or disappointed that sometimes things have been tough, we’ve just dealt with it and motored along,” he says.
“And I think the idea that we’re going to have to keep on working to do the thing that we do, I think a lot of times musicians really they have this notion in their head that if they just do something, if they get something right everything will change. And I feel like we’re exactly the opposite kind of people. I remember when we got our first couple of gigs, I felt very grateful that we could get any kind of gig, and I feel pretty grateful that we get to keep on going.
“I’m not expecting things to change, it would be fine if things got better,” he says and laughs, “I would be very sad if things got worse, but it’s been a creative project for us and allowed us to pour all of our imaginations into it, and it’s been fun.”
(Photo courtesy Shervin Lainez.)
They Might Be Giants perform Thursday, Oct. 17 at the Bella Concert Hall in Mount Royal University’s Taylor Centre for Performing Arts. For tickets go to https://tickets.mru.ca/eventperformances.asp?evt=293.