I have a serious love-hate relationship with They Might Be Giants. In college, I was enthralled by TMBG's eponymous 1986 debut LP, and 1990's Flood spawned my first published CD review. But then things began to sour. In 1991, during a disastrous interview with a very stoned Frank Black, the Pixies' then-leader accused me of deliberately trying to make him feel stupid, likening me to his "friend" John Flansburgh of TMBG. A couple years down the line, when I chatted with Flansburgh myself, I found him downright surly.
So when I got a copy of TMBG's new five-song EP, Holidayland (Restless)—featuring a rendition of the Sonics' "Santa Claus," plus the TMBG rarities "Feast of Lights" and "O Tannenbaum"—I was nonplussed. But because I dearly love Christmas music, I decided to stick my head back in the lion's mouth. I asked to interview the other band member, John Linnell, but instead found myself once more on the phone with Flansburgh . . . who proved surprisingly cordial.
Seattle Weekly: You cover "Santa Claus," by Seattle legends the Sonics, on Holidayland. Why?
John Flansburgh: It's an amazingly grabby song, pretty unforgettable. We're always getting requests to do Christmas songs, so over the years, we've done a bunch. There's very few rock Christmas songs that are all that good. Besides the Sonics' song, I can't think of too many rock songs that work with Christmas. [The Kinks'] "Father Christmas," that's good. It's really sassy. But in some ways it seems kind of dated. The cool thing about the Sonics' song is [it doesn't], except for a little bit of the dopey [language]. The line about the chick— "a cute little honey"—seems a bit immoderate.
You recorded "O Tannenbaum" in German. Are you a native speaker?
Oh no. Somebody we knew spoke German and did the phonetic translation. I'm sure if a German-speaker heard it, it's probably a really brutalized version of German. But there's an otherness to the actual spirit of that song that you're reminded of when you hear it in German. It makes you listen to it in a different way. It's not the same as hearing Barbara Mandrell singing "O Tannenbaum." It's a very cool piece of music, and we were trying to underscore the mystery of it.
Talk about "Feast of Lights." Why aren't there more good Hanukkah songs?
"Feast of Lights" is pretty dire. But it reflects an emotion that only comes up at holiday time. There's another song in our history that runs parallel to that track called "We Just Go Nuts at Christmastime" that John Linnell has decided to suppress, but which I feel is an extremely strong piece of material. It's all about the dread of trying to hang with your family for an extended period of time, which is about as universal an issue as you'll find. That's the tough part of the holidays: not arguing with your relations.
Wondering "How many drinks can I have before dinner without somebody saying something?"
I didn't drink very much in my 20s. But as somebody who has become a more confident social drinker since then, the ability to have a drink in front of my parents has helped. God bless the social lubricant of alcohol. As much as people say about it, it puts a lovely, fuzzy glow around all the hard edges that were previously untenable. I'm all for it. I find myself just singing along with my Mom as she's stuffing the turkey. It seems much jollier with a little bit of that 80-proof eggnog.
Would you rather be a department store Santa or a Salvation Army Santa?
The Salvation Army Santa has to be outside, right? So I'd vote for the comfort of the indoors.
Department store Santa has to deal with the kids on his lap all day.
Yeah, that would be a strange emotional purgatory. What a weird job; I can't imagine doing that. I've been to department store Santas as a kid, and even that felt really weird. It was like acting. You had to pretend that this man is Santa and that the visit meant something to you. It reminded me of some of the falsest stuff of my childhood, because it was only for my mom.
And think about all the different things you would hear as a department store Santa, like kids who want to end starvation in Africa or for their classmates to leave them alone.
Or to have their dad come back. I'm sure there's a lot of that. It's pretty much open season on heartache. It's treacherous, to say the least. You know, that Salvation Army Santa is sounding better and better.