The GIGANTIC Interview with John Flansburgh and AJ Schnack
By Thom Fowler
Posted 08/20/02 03:52:52
After the screening of GIGANTIC, the new documentary about They Might Be Giants by music video director AJ Schnack, I asked some random attendees what they thought. I talked to a group of young people, some of whom weren’t the slightest bit articulate or were reluctant to offer an opinion. Josh Osborne, the elected spokesperson for the group said, “I think the movie is excellent. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know about the band. If you are not a fan and you are watching the movie, you will become a fan.”
A more knowing fan, Patrick Oliver, said, “The movie was put together with a They Might Be Giants kind of humor – the random absurdity.” Fortunately for me, John Flansburgh was in Los Angeles for a Q and A after the screening and I was able to meet with him and Schnack before Flansburgh returned to New York. He was in Mexico for a friends wedding and he decided at the last minute to stop in for the L.A. screening. Not wasting any time, I called up Shirley Moyers, the producer, and she put me in touch with John and her husband, AJ.
We met at a café in Los Feliz where I ran into my friend Vera Duffy, who performs with The Velvet Hammer Burlesque and who’s mother produced the Rugrats for years. She used to come to my parties in San Francisco when she was a student at UC Santa Cruz and it was a little weird, all these years later, to be introducing her to John Flansburgh. It was like three different periods of my life were coalescing at that moment. The late 80’s, the mid 90’s and the early 2000’s.
John and AJ both looked under rested. Flansburgh looks more like he’s in his early thirties than early fourties. AJ is exactly my age (32) so we had a cultural kinship and we could both look at John through pretty much the same frame of reference. They were both not only open, but eager to talk about the film, music and life in general.
The release of the documentary is a timely companion to the release of The Giants newest, a children’s album called NO!, which they are currently touring.
THOM:: You got a good response at South by Southwest, have you been showing your film in other festivals?
AJ: The excitement of a film festival seems larger than the actual act of film making
JOHN FLANSBURGH: You’d think that film festivals would be a loss leader, like a community building event
AJ: I’ve been to a few festivals where its just like the social event of the season. Like Cannes.
JOHN: Sundance and Cannes, those are people who are like type double A careerists and are totally, I went to the Newport film festival in Rhode Island years ago to speak on a panel to speak about film music. It just seemed like a cultural hors d’oeuvre for the community. We had this really nice reception sponsored by Audi.
THOM:: It’s the old model patronage. “This is our token bohemian.”
JOHN: Exactly. So this is officially the controversial interview where we let it all hang out? We can go down the Michael Ovitz rabbit hole. Is it the gay mafia or is just that everybody hates you?
JOHN: Where is this interview going to be published?
THOM:: You have a couple options. It may become part of an article for MoviePoopShoot.com, it may end up in part in NoHo LA or it may go up on HollywoodBitchslap.com
JOHN: Yeah, that’s the one. We want to get on Hollywoodbitchslap.com. We’ll link back to the article from our website.
JOHN: If you want to seriously get into influencing the culture without anybody knowing, you should get into font design. Your work is everywhere and nobody even knows.
THOM:: I only saw your band once in San Francisco, you played a free outdoor concert in Union Square
JOHN: Yeah, I remember that. We had the whole audience say BANG at once and immediately, all the people in the hotels flocked to the windows. You couldn’t get away with that in this post 9/11 climate.
AJ: I think for a lot of the people the Giants are a band that they experienced at a very specific time in their life and I think its true for music in general for a lot of people. What I’ve found that’s really exciting, people would say “I used to really love them, I used to listen to them a lot.” It’s nice to be reminded why you really like something in the first place. That seems to be the reaction. A lot of people our age had the same experience. The idea of College radio and the explosion of college radio, introducing all these bands like Husker Du and REM. The discovery that there was other music out there and there was this great era.
THOM: I grew up in California, the first music I really got into was the early New Wave that was getting onto the radio. Whatever that was, spoke to the deepest parts of the 10_year-old in me. I just followed that train. I never felt like I discovered something. It was just happening and I happened to be right there.
AJ: The idea that there was a separate music that wasn’t going to break through and be on the top 40 station was music that I really connected with right away and it was incredibly exciting to me.
JOHN: As the rock era comes to a close, the popular music that’s been around for the past 50 years, it seems like its shifting and its harder to find the meaningful threads of what’s happening or what’s coming up. The music industry has expanded and then splintered. The nature of youth culture has expanded and splintered. When I was a kid, the youth culture was quite intense. Finding a Frank Zappa or a Cat Stevens record in a record store was kind of difficult. Now its just your choice.
The internet and extreme sports that really speak to kids are quickly eclipsing the role of music. They are finding their personal identity through all these other things that are beyond their rock music fandom identity. For a long time, from 1970-1995, rock music was the cultural lighthouse by which you guided your adolescence. Like, oh yeah, I like YES. The girl who liked Yes was a very specific kind of girl. But I don’t think the girl who liked Yes in 1980, I don’t think she’s listening to the cultural equivalent of Yes anymore as rabidly as she is going to some website or doing some other kind of thing like parasailing.
There’s a world of things available to kids that are beyond rock, like gaming. I am constantly amazed how many people there are whose entire lives are wrapped up in gaming. To me its pretty clear, those are just people that would have been Rush fans. But they’ve got gaming instead.
I wonder, the way you guys are describing the whole college rock concept, when you are in a band, especially in a little band, you might want to take solace in the David and Goliath thing of “We’re a band too, we want to be heard,” Obviously, that motivates you and empowers you and makes you feel like what you are doing is legitimate. There needs be a counterculture within rock. [The rock world] is big enough that there are little bands and big bands. At a certain point, we’re sharing a stage with U2 and its like, what happened to our scene?
I think rock is shrinking exponentially. It matters less and less. I’m not trying to put it down, but its clearly less and less important in the culture. I feel like its over. Which is fine.
AJ: That sounds sad.
JOHN: Imagine how photographers feel about digital photography. It’s all a tool of communication.
THOM:: AJ, Is this your first film?
AJ: This is my first feature, I did a narrative short a few years ago. I wanted to do something that was kind of hard so I wrote something that had a lot of nudity in it. It was an updated Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice.
THOM:: What was hard about the short?
AJ: I thought it would be a real challenge, I was going to be casting actors that I didn’t know so I thought it would be interesting to see if I could pull off this farcical thing and not cross over a line. Doing comedy, I wanted to see how it would work. It was named one of the top ten short films in 2000 by the Anthology Film Archives. It gave me a lot of confidence to do something else. AFA is like a low rent American Cinematheque. It feels much closer to something people are putting together with spit and glue.
THOM:: How did you two get together initially?
JOHN: I shot a couple videos for Frank Black as just a favor, and AJ got into repping and he asked me to come on board and be one of his directors. It was enticing to work on outside projects. We ended up working on a lot of things together, he had unique access. Our relationship was the perfect one to do a project like this. Its similar to the Crumb movie, although it's more about the history of the band, its not a personal portrait.
THOM:: John, you said, “I’m glad it's not about our personal lives.”
JOHN: Truth be told, our personal lives are pretty standard domestic affairs. There’s not a lot of intrigue there. It’s hard to do a documentary. You see documentaries by people that have tremendous distance from their subject, and some where they are way too close. AJ and I have worked together and have a really good rapport. We’re good friends but we also live on opposite sides of the country so we don’t see each other that often.
It’s not a movie that we would have made at all. Its not our style at all as a band. We would never tell our story. I didn’t know if we would know how to tell our story. We are more like 'big fat lie' storytellers than 'getting down the real truth' kind of storytellers. I have nothing against telling the truth, but its just been a stranger for so long. We’re song writers, we like making stuff. Most of our creativity is invested in abstract ideas.
They Might Be Giants is the very last New Wave band. We got into rock through New Wave. If New Wave hadn’t come along we honestly would not have been. It’s very strange, if I read another interview with a band like Rancid... There is the skate punk boutique guy who’s into punk rock because it's this officially sanctioned form of rebellion, a lifestyle choice. The really interesting thing about the whole New Wave movement was how much it was about, in its first couple of incarnations, it's clearly about individuality. It's really about letting your personal freak flag fly as high as you can make it. And that’s a really inspiring time. It’s like being in a gang of loners.
THOM:: It was all about not having categories. It was all about freedom and free thinking. That was what San Francisco was all about in general.
JOHN: I have a friend who’s a professor at an ivy league university, he’s quite the academic. I was talking to him the other day about all those bands like Bauhaus. At some point, he said to me, “You know, when I was 16, I wore makeup every single day for like two years," and I really couldn’t believe it. “I wore the full white makeup, heavy eye shadow, the whole …ubergoth thing.” He was really into the Communards and Jimmy Somerville. He was a teenager then, but I was performing at the Pyramid Club in New York. [The Pyramid] broke a lot of those big records. Book of Love’s “Boy” was produced by the DJ at the Pyramid Club so it played a lot when we were performing. After we’d performed, when the crowed was at its peak, the DJ would play that song and everybody would hear it.- Ivan Ivan was the guy. Another big song at that time was The Dominatrix.
THOM:: AJ, you’ve got 18 years worth of material and you have to tell a story, where do you start?
AJ: The process of the actual shooting wasn’t that difficult. The most difficult thing was figuring out who to interview to cover all the areas that we wanted to cover. The real challenges came after we were done shooting. The edit was a mammoth six month process. It was completely unexpected to me. I did my short film in a week and I thought, that was 25 minutes, this will take four weeks or less. I had no idea how difficult it would be to form the narrative and see, are we covering every area, are we overcovering things, I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who would watch it at different stages and tell me, “This is interesting, This is not as interesting.” That was the biggest challenge to have this balance, this flow that was interesting. I was editing every day from 9am to 1am. It was very much like entering the tunnel and not really having a lot of perspective on what was going on.
THOM:: Did you ever get so close you couldn’t see the story anymore?
AJ: There were a couple times when I called Shirley [Moyers] the producer and said, take a look at this. I would say, “Hey, I have no idea if this is working or if it's good.” There was a couple times when we put it away and came back and were surprised that sections we thought we were done with were the sections most in need of revisiting.
It’s a chronological story that is interrupted by side stories, so there are two structures that interweave throughout. Because it’s a chronological story, the story begins where they met in Massachusetts. We spent a lot of time talking about their childhood and what that was like and it wasn’t until we got close to the end, it was sort of like the movie when you’ve seen too much of the trailer, you’re like, “I know all this already because I’ve seen it all in the trailer.” In our situation, everyone knew that they became a band, so getting to the point where they were a band became less important. We had to get there quickly. It is a relationship story so how they met and their courtship is not really as interesting.
JOHN: That’s a classic screenwriting thing, how late in the story can you start telling the story? That was one of the things I liked about this movie is that it didn’t stick to traditional documentary form. There was something about the band's, and our, sweeping use of different forms. It’s not a straight documentary. So many documentaries, the pacing of it and the rhythms of it, are established within ten minutes and then its just the same thing cutting back. There’s the pundit again, there’s the mom again, and then you have this gloss.
You can’t go back with documentaries. The quality of documentaries are changing, and people’s visual literacy is changing. I think there are things about this documentary that seem very progressive and also just exciting. It’s fast paced.
THOM:: I thought it was a good reflection of the They Might Be Giants experience.
AJ: When I was making a magazine about the band, some people were going to contribute a song, a comedy routine, a column, My feeling about listening to the records is that … I have my own TMBG mix. Its how my brain can fit all the songs together in a way. It’s not an easy listen because you are jumping genres. That was an intention as well to have this thing in the movie that was really leaping here and there. But only at the end when you look back can you go “Oh this makes sense.” That’s a good way to sum it up.
THOM:: What do you like about this film, what is your estimation of this as a document?
JOHN: It’s interesting. My favorite thing about it is that it delves into an aspect of our artistic intention that we would be reticent to discuss in a public forum. Because we incorporate humor in what we do, people tend to project upon us the attitude of a stand up comedian or a hard comic. They think we are smart-alecky guys and the less people pay attention to what we actually do the more they project that idea on us. We are basically pretty pretentious, art-school rock guys. Not cast from not too different a cloth as the Pere Ubu or any band of that kind of ilk. We have similar sensibilities.
But what we do is perceived as being broader than that. Or because we have had success, people try to figure out how to sort it into the rest of the culture. So they go “They are very different and they are very strange, but they are funny, right? Oh, Okay, they are funny.” Like, its all about laughs. The thing that’s very clear in the movie is that its not just about getting laughs. We are kind of serious song writers and our intentions for the project are as serious as anyone intentions. Shakespeare wrote comedies. Nobody goes, “That crazy funny Shakespeare guy, why is he always clowning.”
The big problem with rock is that it takes itself way too seriously. We are just trying to create an example of a better kind of music that is also up for repeated listening, that is also up for disection, that’s also up for all the things good music is up for. We are definitely on the music side of things. The intensity of what the project means to us comes across in the movie and I’m also happy our friendship comes across in the movie because that’s something you might not get a sense of. We have been working together in this band for 20 years and we’ve been friends for even longer then that. And that’s an unusual story in the world of performance.
The one thing that isn’t in the movie, because we didn’t film too many live shows, is the stage yip yap that is one of the things that keep people coming back to the shows. We do a lot to push the event right into the present moment, which is one of the reasons why we’ve never become an oldies act. It’s really important to us that our show exists for right now. It’s as much to keep ourselves involved as it is to also make the show successful. We know we have to keep it moving along and that didn’t really make it into the film.
Because AJ is from the music video world and he interviewed a lot of people from the music industry, we had a lot of trepidation that it would be very “biz” oriented. More about behind the music, the price of fame, you know, act two of behind the music.
And here is where the tape came to an end and John and AJ decided that was a good time to quit. “That was really a pleasure. I really mean that,” said Flansburgh. I was muchly flattered.