Probably best known for either their quirky hits such as "Birdhouse In Your Soul" or for their equally offbeat celluloid-related pop tracks like "Boss Of Me" (which, to the uninitiated, soundtracks "Malcolm In The Middle"), Brooklyn's THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS have actually quietly been infiltrating our world for a staggering 20 years.
The band's core of singer/instrumentalist JOHN LINNELL and guitarist/instrumentalist JOHN FLANSBURGH recently made a flying visit to the UK for a sold-out show at London's prestige Kentish Town Forum to coincide with the release of a far-reaching Elektra/ Rhino career retrospective CD entitled "A User's Guide To They Might Be Giants...Melody, Fidelity, Quantity." Reason enough to call Mr.Linnell to discover the so-called 'veteran' popsters are still very much a going concern? You betcha...
A tight schedule means W&H only have a relatively short time with John Linnell, but within a few minutes we've struck up a warm friendship and discover John is a genuine, intelligent and dryly humourous chap who can hold court on a whole range of subjects. During the course of a fascinating 20 minutes, these subjects will include Mike Myers, making music for children, Tim Burton and why their music is being embraced by the world of TV.
John, many thanks for taking our call. Let's start with the obvious one: you're back for a whistlestop promo tour and a show @ the Kentish Town Forum. Do you enjoy coming back to the UK to play shows and remind people you're still out there?
"Yeah, we've been coming long enough!" laughs John.
"It's not an overstatement to say the UK's a second home for us. We've made a lot of friendships that have lasted and because we've had chart hits here, we're always received warmly, so it's a great experience. English audiences have always been very loyal to us. We've got a lot to be grateful for."
Aw shucks...it was nothing, John. But of course you've been involved with the UK indie scene yourselves as you were once signed to One Little Indian back at the dawn of the 1990s. Are you aware of the underground's current leading lights such as Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and The Libertines these days?
"Yeah, well to a degree, anyway," says John.
"That's one of the things we enjoy coming here, because we can get on top of learning about new bands coming through. We're aware of Franz Ferdinand because they've made a significant mark in the States, but other things don't make it across the pond so readily, so we tend to be a bit slow picking up on the shockwaves. This is a good opportunity to get re-educated! (laughs)"
You actually have TWO albums coming out in the UK right now, because - aside from the "Best Of..", there's a re-issue of your "kids" album "No!" We'll come back to that later, but whenever a band have a "Best Of" issued, it suggests their best days are over. That's not the case with TMBG though, is it?
"No, we're still very much a going concern," John points out quickly.
"It's important for us to stress we're still very much a part of the present and--we hope--the future. You're right that the public generally perceive a "Greatest Hits" or whatever as a eulogy, that someone's career is done and dusted, but we have loads of projects and works in the pipeline and more than enough to keep us around for the forseeable."
Good stuff. But let's get back to "No!", the re-issue of your 2002 album, that's been expanded with additional tracks and so on. I believe this album was originally aimed predominantly at children? What motivated that idea?
"It was kind've an experiment," John explains.
"Originally someone from our record company came up with the idea, I think, but we didn't think of it as any kind of major career move. It was something we thought might get done in conjunction with our other projects and gradually more ideas came in for it and we got excited by the idea of making a kind of psychedelic pop record for kids. It really piqued our interest and imagination."
Did you have commercial expectations for it at all?
"No, but it did well enough in the US to change our perception in terms of viability," says John, still a little surprised.
"I mean, we didn't think previously we'd really be interested in making a record for kids as such, but it's a very personal record and it really appeals to kids and parents alike. It's an old cliche, but I can't fault the idea that it's a record for all the family."
Of course you received a Grammy for your song "Boss Of Me" that I imagine most people know far better as the theme tune for US comedy "Malcolm In The Middle." I assume this must have opened doors for you, but do you mind being known as "the band who do "Malcolm In The Middle" or whatever?
"No, not at all," says John disarmingly.
"It's interesting though," he continues. "I mean, our friends from way back have previously joined us in belittling the idea of winning awards like Grammies previously and now it's come back to haunt us! (laughs) But I can't deny that the significant thing about getting the Grammy for "Boss Of Me" is that it has opened up the commercial world for us in terms of TV-related work. It's been a way to get around the tasteless people who usually compile soundtracks and get them to take us seriously because now we have a track record."
I can imagine. Besides, you've also had some success as a result of your song "Doctor Evil" featuring in Mike Mysers' "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me". It's a clever, John Barry-style pastiche/ torch song, but how did that all come about?
"I actually don't remember!" John laughs.
"I think it came after the "Malcolm..." thing," he mutters, trying to recall.
"We knew the music supervisor for "Austin Powers", certainly and I remember him suggesting we submit a pop song for the OST. We had this song called "Dr.Worm" and he was talking about us changing the words from it to relate to (the film's anti-hero) Dr.Evil, and we thought that was a terrible idea. Instead, we came up with the idea for the John Barry-style thing and while it's obviously a pastiche it sounds good and we then discovered Mike Myers himself really liked it, so that was wonderful. It's very much a mutual thing...we like most of his work as well. He's a great character."
I can understand TMBG'S music being successful with visuals as you've always been strong in that area anyway, not least thanks to a string of unlikely, quirky promos. Are there plans to collaborate on more cinematic projects?
"We will certainly remain in that world," says John definitely.
"I agree we have a strong foot in the door visually. Even early on, we felt that was the case. I mean, mostly the ideas we've had for promos in the past came from us rather than directors forcing us to lip-synch. DVDs have been great for us too, the growth of the DVD market has opened up lots of new opportunites for us and I can see us going with that in future."
Do you have a favourite TMBG promo film? Mine's arguably the one for "They'll Need A Crane" where you have the old guys (none of whom can be under 70 or so) playing in the band with you...
"Mmm...our promos tend to be of a time for me," John replies.
"A lot of the early ones remind me of MTV's early days and I'm not sure that's a good thing. Besides, I have to admit I get pretty tired of watching us prancing around and lip-synching, though my son's a big fan of anything we do featuring animation of any kind. I guess that's a prosaic way of saying, no I don't really have a favourite promo clip!"
Fair enough. But obviously you hail from Brooklyn and NYC's never out of the news musically for long. Do you listen out for new music from the city and if so, what's set the pulse racing recently?
"Oh, that's always an embarrassing one!" John chuckles.
"I mean I'm really not tuned in to catching the next Strokes or whatever. I hear about bands who are friends of friends and so on, but a lot of these bands are artists who will never get known nationally. I can recommend one Brooklyn band to you though....The Roulette Sisters, they play pre-World War 2-style jazz, blues and swing. I have no idea if they're destined for anything other than local celebrity, though Art Krumm the cartoonist is a huge fan, so y'know....who knows?"
I'll be checking them out on Google anyway. But what's next on TMBG'S schedule, following the Kentish Town Forum, that is?
"Yeah, well there's always a delay between our stuff coming out Stateside and here," John reveals.
"For example, "No!" is only now coming out over here for the first time. But after that, we're involved in another children's project in the US...a DVD out on the Walt Disney label teaching kids the alphabet, at least on the surface. There again, underneath it's really another excuse for more oddball TMBG songs, disguised by a thin veneer of education (laughs!)"
"It's actually a collaboration with Henry Selick, who you may remember directed Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas"," he continues.
"He's had a chequered career, but we love his work and this one is a cult animated film called "Coraline.""
Sounds typically inventive, but John - before we have to go - tell us: do you ever get tired of being seen as 'wacky', 'quirky' guys? Do you wish you were taken in a more serious fashion?
"Well, it would become tiresome if that was at the forefront of our minds," John considers.
"But then it's people who don't know us or know what we're about who slag us off that way. But y'know...what we do, it's personal to us AND it's fun. Hell, we've spent virtually all our adult lives over it, so to us it's something we take VERY seriously. Sometimes we take it all way too seriously ourselves. You'd be surprised, believe me."
Somehow, I think I might just be too.