Now into their third decade, They Might Be Giants have morphed from a quirky pop duo with a drum machine into the rocking ensemble evident on the recently released Mink Car [Restless]. According to co-founder/guitarist John Flansburgh, the addition of second guitarist Dan Miller was a major key to the Giants' development as a band.
"Dan is an unbelievable, god-like guitar player," says Flansburgh. "There are few people who have skills like him, and he has given me a real education about what you can do with a guitar. Our approaches are fundamentally different, but that's what makes our collaboration successful. Dan is a very lyrical player, and I sound like an Al Di Meola record slowed down to 16 rpm."
"I'm a reasonably schooled player," chimes in Miller, who was a fan of the band well before he got the gig, "but John has that unique, self-taught style that I've always admired in musicians. You always know it's him when he plays."
For Mink Car, Flansburgh and company called on New York underground producers the Elegant Too to add electronic layers to a few cuts, and also enlisted a stable of other producers that included Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Elvis Costello), and Joe Nicolo (Urge Overkill).
"Having that many producers makes it sound like we wheeled out some Stealth bombers for crossover success," says Flansburgh. "In fact, we were just trying to get the album done. We couldn't approach the project in the traditional manner where we take a month off, hire one producer, and record the entire album at once because, throughout the past year, we could only work during breaks from doing music for the TV show Malcolm in the Middle."
To track Mink Car, Flansburgh plugged his late-50's Gretsch 6120, Gibson ES-335, and goldtop Les Paul into either an old Gibson Les Paul combo or a Matchless DC30 head running through a Marshall 4x12. Effects consisted of various Electro-Harmonix, Line 6, and Z. Vex stompboxes, and acoustic tracks were cut with a Martin D-28H.
Miller's gear philosophy was simple: Keep it funky. "I used a lot of crummy guitars on the record-such as old Harmonys and Valpros," he says. "Anything can sound good, but I enjoy the challenge of making something bad sound good."
For amps, Miller used a Matchless combo and a Vox AC30, and plugged into a Line 6 Flextone to record "Bangs." "We wanted a processed '80s sound for that track, and the Flextone was perfect," he explains. "As much as that amp wants to be the amp of the millennium, it does a great job of sounding like 1983!"
Since the band's inception, They Might Be Giants have sported quirky instrumentation on their miniature pop masterpieces. Flansburgh, however, has always found the guitar to be his favorite sonic device.
"It's an incredibly versatile production tool," he says. "There's a ton of guitar tracks on Mink Car, but you'd never know it. For example, there are 12 guitar tracks on 'Another First Kiss', but they're almost subliminal. The point isn't how many tracks you can use, it's about expanding the sonic horizon-and I'd rather rely on guitars for that job than sampled patches."