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Science Is Real: A Conversation With They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh

The longtime singer-songwriter on the March for Science, aliens, fake news, and rock against ignorance

It’s Earth Week. From Standing Rock to Flint, from fashion to festivals, we’re diving into the fight for our planet on all fronts.

There’s reason to believe I might have gotten one of my childhood idols arrested this week.

OK, perhaps not quite, though They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh did end our phone interview, which he was conducting from a moving car, by mumbling something about the police. But this anecdote only serves to illustrate the important distinction between a conclusion based on faith, or guesswork, and a conclusion based on fact.

Fact: For more than three decades, They Might Be Giants have spun record after record (19, in fact, and that’s only counting studio albums) of verbose, reference- and accordion-heavy agit-pop. Flansburgh and his bandmate, John Linnell, are beloved — and rightly so — by children and adults and everybody in between, mostly because their catalogue has something for everyone: Dial-A-Song for the proto-phreakers; Here Come the ABCs and Here Come the 123s for kindergarteners and our current president; “Dr. Worm” for anyone not looking for a real doctor, but an actual worm. They might be researchers or archivists, with some songs containing more facts than the average cable news broadcast.

MTV News: Earth Week
The fight for our planet. On a human scale. All week long.

And through it all, they’ve shared a mutual love and respect for science, starting when they each stumbled across the original recording of “Why Does the Sun Shine?” in grammar school, later to become a well-loved tour standard that spawned an updated recorded version.

Fact: They Might Be Giants are the first band I can recall hearing, age 4 or 5.

Proof that this is a band designed to teach people things: I have never ever, not even once, referred to Istanbul as Constantinople.

Fast-forward several decades: The two Johns, with help from their friends all over the world, recently raised more than $40,000 in support of the March for Science D.C. To accomplish this, they sold t-shirts proclaiming that "Science Is Real," also the title of a somehow-controversial song from their educational children’s album Here Comes Science. That record, released in 2009, has received a number of negative Amazon comments from pissed-off religious parents who were unaware the album alluded to the idea that angels are potentially imaginary… Then again, there is also a negative review left by a scientifically rigorous person who found it untenable that the band would use anything other than the metric system, as well as reviews from those who feel TMBG didn’t offend enough Christians on a record of songs about the scientific method, written for children.

Flans doesn’t seem to mind. Everything, including the ire of anti-science Amazon parents (many of whom could definitely benefit from Here Come the ABCs) and stans for particular systems of weight and measurement, is purely speculative until supported by scientific fact. I guess that’s the whole point.

Fact: They Might Be Giants are fucking awesome … scientifically speaking.

MTV News: They Might Be Giants have been a band for what you would call, if you measure it in metric, "a really, really, really fucking long time."

John Flansburgh: [laughs] Yeah, we've been a band longer than most of the people reading this have been alive. It's very strange, you know, to see the definition of the Manchester scene change eight times.

So the March For Science was last weekend...

Flansburgh: Yeah! Which was a tremendous event. I actually couldn't attend the New York March for Science, but we did a fundraising project with a t-shirt. I was really delighted at how magnificently direct, going through social media, we could fundraise. A lot of times I'll post things on Facebook, and the immediate response will be like, "Stick to the music!" You know, "Unsubscribe!" "I've always liked you guys, but I just found out that you don't like Donald Trump and I hate you!" It makes me so sad, because you spend your life trying to sway people to listen to your music, and then, in an instant where you feel like it's your responsibility as a citizen to do something direct into the world, you lose that connection. I feel like musicians have such a precarious place in the political discourse, because musicians are, sort of just by nature, people-pleasers. You don't want to just preach to the choir. The good news is we raised a boatload of money for the march, and that will certainly help their cause.

How long did you and John Linnell know each other before you realized that you shared a mutual interest in science?

Flansburgh: We knew each other in grammar school, but we were a year apart. It wasn't until high school that we really got to know each other. I'll tell you that there was a record in our town library — which is a very small town with a very small record collection, so you knew every album in the library — called Songs of Science, which has the song "Why Does the Sun Shine?" on it: a cover that we started doing when we first started touring, basically because it was such a simple song and we both knew it… When we first started playing it, it wasn't to be educational. It was just to remind everybody of this very curious thing that existed on the kids' music scene [in] our childhood. But it had an incredible resonance with people! People love fact-based songs, which is a very funny idea that we only sort of discovered a couple years into our recording careers. But it's been a strategy that we've stuck with.

So we've done science songs. We've done historical songs. A lot of people would like us to do [more] historical songs. Our history record would probably be like the people's history of the United States, set to music.

So is your next children's album going to be Here Come the Union Organizers or Here Comes the NSA?

Flansburgh: [laughs] We were thinking it should be called There Go Your Civil Rights.

Parents love these records, too.

Flansburgh: Yeah, parents have always responded well to it. Obviously, parents who are in the scientific community, they're over the moon about just having something that addresses a topic like math. But my first thought is the countless interviews we did where people were like, "Oh, that's some controversial stuff.” I always thought, Is this really controversial? This is pretty undisputed stuff. I mean, you might have issues with the laws of gravity, but lots of stuff seems pretty settled to me.

My favorite review said, "This album does not even try to hide its liberal, atheist dogma." And I'm kind of like, yeah, why would it try to hide that? Sure, great. Accurate review.

Flansburgh: There's a number of songs that talk about the scientific theory directly, the notion of what the scientific theory is, because that seems like such an important topic to kind of conquer. So there's a song called "Put It to the Test," which is a jolly song about setting up a type of experiment, and a song called “Science Is Real" that quite literally, the first verse or the second verse, is a direct definition of the scientific theory. “It isn't just a hunch or a guess / It's more like a question that's been put through a lot of tests.” And that is pretty direct. I think the problem with the song is that it acknowledges that angels are a construct of human imagination, and that really bugs people. Because to a lot of people, angels are a matter of faith.

Faith can't heal the ozone layer.

Flansburgh: We're at a strange breaking point right now, and maybe that's what the March for Science is delineating. It gets to a point that if you do believe in science, you really have to actually stand up and make a stand for it. You can't just say, the facts aren't in. Science is always looking for better explanations to everything, but that doesn't mean that when we get on a plane we don't know what's supposed to happen next. And if it doesn't go the way that it's planned, that's a big, big problem. The culture wars are very tricky and make me a little sad.

To your point, sometime in the history of you guys covering “Why Does the Sun Shine?” we learned more about the sun than we knew at the time the song was written, so you wrote another, updated version. So your music shows that science is a self-correcting study, and that it needs to be updated occasionally.

Flansburgh: Yeah. That is true. In fact, when we made our science record, we brought in a science consultant, Eric Siegel, who worked at [the New York Hall of Science]. And he was very helpful, and we ran countless songs by him. The one we didn't run by him was "Why Does the Sun Shine?" because we felt that it didn't need to be corrected. The lyrics had been directly taken from a World Book Encyclopedia from [the ’60s]. Then we were showing him the video we were making of it, and he was like, "Well, you know all the facts in that song are now out of date." We just felt so embarrassed that it was not in any way current science. So we updated! We basically acknowledged that with a second song called, "The Sun Is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma," but I wouldn't say that it really improves our situation among fact checkers.

So, They Might Be Giants is fake news, thanks for telling me now.

Flansburgh: All rock music is fake news.

What do you think bands can do to be effective in terms of raising awareness around science and other causes?

Flansburgh: I think that the most effective social protest that any artist can do [would be] things that come naturally and feel obvious. I think the Resist movement will continue among people who believe in science, who believe in rights for women, who believe in civil rights. I think that will continue because this administration is a huge threat to all those things. But I don't think bands should feel compelled to speak out unless they actually have something to say. I think that's a big mistake, where you’re turning into a coyote running off the edge of a cliff. Too often, people just feel like something is happening and they want to be part of this thing, and it's just, there's sort of a "me too!" and that's about it.

It sucks to think about, honestly, but when you really consider the resources that it takes to press vinyl records, or the amount of gas that it takes to tour, it's really quite scary.

Flansburgh: I mean, you know, people in general are just takers. I was just actually reading about how vinyl is not in any way biodegradable.

That's one thing about Dial-A-Song — at least it was a low-impact project.

Flansburgh: That's true. I guess the revival of vinyl records is not helping the environmental problem. Although, in some ways, people don't throw records away — I mean, I still have records from when I was 5. So it doesn't seem quite so wasteful. But maybe I'm just lying to myself.

On the subject of lying… Is extraterrestrial life real? Because for me, aliens are space, and space is the environment also.

Flansburgh: Um, I don't think the facts are in.

Oh, aliens are a faith-based project now?

Flansburgh: [laughs] I don't lose a lot of sleep worrying about aliens, but I think it seems possible that there's life forms beyond our solar system.

I had zero intentions of asking you that question. It just popped into my mind that I'd be sad if I got off this call without finding out how you feel about aliens.

Flansburgh: I have friends who believe in aliens so hardcore it freaks me out. I just don't want to cross to that topic, because it's hard not to get off-topic.

A lot of people seem to think aliens can heal climate change, that alien technology is what’s going to save us.

Flansburgh: It's very 2017 to think that technology is going to stop climate change, and not [us] changing our actual behavior. There's so many simple things that can be done to change our carbon footprint, and to reduce our carbon footprint. Take examples like NYC, where they [created subsidies for] simple things like low-flow toilets. Seems really silly in a way, but it uses half the water, and in cities like New York, over 20 years you can basically replace most of the toilets in the city. Now the draw on city water has just been reduced [by] a huge percentage, because it was an environmentally aware idea. Or measuring water in apartment buildings. That never happened — water was so plentiful and cheap in NYC. But now that they put vents on everything, they could see where all this wastewater was going, and reduce it, you know? Simple things can be done to ease our giant footprint on nature.

There's so much ingenuity — the simplest app on your smartphone requires 40 peoples’ purest imagination. The challenges with people on environment, we just have to open some of that creativity. But I don't think it's necessarily about heating clouds or enormous chemical changes in the atmosphere. The main thing that we're doing is thinking we can control anything, which is the biggest false assumption we can make. I think we can figure out how to tread a lot more lightly on the environment, and we'll be a lot better off.

What topics have you not tackled yet in science that you feel like you could or even hypothetically would want to write about?

Flansburgh: That's a good question. I feel like the future is unwritten. So many of the things that we write now haven't been about educating people on the environment, they've been about disseminating facts. But I feel like it could be productive to write something that explored directly the idea of fragility...

It just brings me back to reading all the reviews saying, “My kid is obsessed with this album and apparently I needed a refresher course too.” If anyone could really permeate at a few levels of culture, I think it could be you guys. Maybe you should occupy Congress with your accordion.

Flansburgh: It's an interesting challenge. I can't tell you how many people are deeply bummed out by our song "Science Is Real," and it seems like such a modest idea for a song. Just to say there is a fact-based belief system available to you if you want to believe in facts. But this is the weirdest time. I mean, after Nixon I thought nothing could be weirder. Then there was Reagan, and after Reagan I thought nothing could be weirder. Then there was Bush and Bush's son, and it all just seemed like nothing could be a badder joke than George W. Bush. And now we're here. It seems to just yo-yo around, but hopefully we'll get to another level.