Precious few bands survive nearly as long as They Might Be Giants. What's even more amazing is that John Flansburgh and John Linnell — whose recently released Nanobots is the 16th album of a more than 30-year creative partnership — still sound as fresh and creative as ever.
"We're so far down our crazy road, but still these songs and these ideas just completely take over our consciousness," says Flansburgh. "So it's something we're really dedicated to.
"People say, 'How long can you be in a band? How long can you make albums?' And it's like, I don't know. I don't even know if it's a good idea for people to make five albums, let alone 16."
They Might Be Giants' long history includes quirky alt-rock hits like "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and 2002's Grammy-winning "Boss of Me," followed by a string of successful children's albums. Even so, Flansburgh says, it's taken him and Linnell most of their career to feel confident in what they're doing.
"For a long time, I think it was very hard for us to figure out if there was even a place for us in the mainstream culture," he says. "Now it seems like the whole world has kind of got the same orientation that we do. It's very interesting to feel so in the zeitgeist."
Seemingly against all odds, Flansburgh says he and Linnell managed to explore some new terrain on Nanobots. He cites "Sometimes a Lonely Way" as an example. A sensitive ballad, it's an unexpected departure from TMBG's typically tongue-in-cheek repertoire.
"For me, it was interesting to write something that was kind of that down. It wasn't intentional. I was trying to figure out how to do something that was just simple. And I think the combination of a really unadorned arrangement and a very direct kind of sentiment added up to something that seemed much more intense than I was intending."
Another song that stands out for Flansburgh is "The Darlings of Lumberland," a collaboration with saxophonist Stan Harrison, who's recorded with David Bowie, Radiohead and Serge Gainsbourg.
"He applied his bass clarinet and saxophone army to it," says Flansburgh. "There might be 10 horns at a time happening on the song, but it feels very sparky. It doesn't seem like bogged down, and it doesn't seem over-orchestrated. It's very alive."
Those are just two of Nanobots' 25 tracks, some of which are fewer than 30 seconds long. Flansburgh refers to them as "microsongs," and putting them all in the right sequence was one of the project's most challenging aspects.
"We didn't want it to seem like just 'Fingertips' part two," says Flansburgh, referring to the collection of 21 short songs arranged together on TMBG's 1992 album Apollo 18. "And we didn't want it to seem like a medley. So some of them are sequenced to stand apart and some of them are chained together.
"It kind of ebbs and flows," he adds, "but I think the cumulative effect is pretty singular, and I think the whole album stands up as an experience. And that's a very unusual thing these days. I don't know how many people are even thinking about albums these days. But we are."