Gen-Bending Band Makes Music for Tots and Nots

Star Ledger, January 15, 2009
by Julie Cirelli-Heurich

Some bands reinvent themselves over the course of a career. They Might be Giants do it over the course of hours.

The New York alt-pop duo moonlights making children's music, touring with two completely different types of shows tailored toward two different fan bases. And just for kicks, sometimes they schedule both the same day.

On Saturday, they'll present a family matinee and an evening rock set at the Kasser Theater on the campus of Montclair State University. Although tickets for both sets are sold out, they have another double date coming up.

On Jan. 31 at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, the band will stage an afternoon songfest for kids and a retrospective night show for grownups. They've put together a set list featuring tracks from every album, dating back to their 1986 self-titled debut, which spawned the hit "Don't Let's Start."

After these shows, they're off to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, nominated in the children's category for their latest release, "Here Come the 123s."

They already have a Grammy -- for the "Malcolm in the Middle" theme -- but the guys are still on edge, facing such formidable opponents as Beethoven's Wig and Trout Fishing in America.

We spoke on the phone with John Flansburgh, who first met his musical collaborator, John Linnell, editing their high school newspaper.

Q: It's cool that you're playing these back-to-back shows. Have you done this before?

A: We don't do too many kids' shows in general. We published a book a few years ago and we did a lot of in-store appearances at Borders and Barnes & Noble. They're kid-friendly environments. Most rock venues are not right for kids. The biggest problem is merging the world of late-night carousing and family entertainment. It's awkward.

Q: How did you prepare to make the transition into this different style of performing?

A: It's strange. For the first 20 years of our career, we could swear on stage without penalty. When we do shows for kids, the kids don't really mind if we swear, but the parents seem to get very upset.

Q: That's an interesting balance to strike.

A: When it comes to the kids' stuff, we're trying to engage their imaginations and show them what's cool about music. On top of it, we don't want to feel like we're talking down to the audience. But it's hard not to talk down to a 4-year-old.

Q: Throughout your career, the music you've made has this joyful component to it that is universal. Kids respond to all the songs, not just the ones specifically written for them.

A: That seems to be true and a lot of kids today don't really see live music. Their idea of what it is to be a musician goes through this "American Idol" filter where there's a singer and a background track.

Q: Is the songwriting process different when you're doing an album like "Here Come the 123s?"

A: It's a little bit simpler because there are themes. The kids thing is odd because everybody wants to make everything school. Music shouldn't have to be school. We make albums that have information content in them but they're topics that are interesting to us.

Q: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination.

A: It's very exciting.

Q: Even though you've done it before.

A: There are some things you get used to and some things that are hard to get used to. The first time we were nominated, on Grammy day we did this press junket and literally you do 90 interviews in three hours. We were standing directly behind Tommy Lee, who was not nominated for anything. But it was the beginning of "I'm Tommy Lee, reality TV superstar."

Q: He is a good interview.

A: This was in a very troubled moment for Tommy. He had just gotten out of jail. His PR person would repeat over and over, "Tommy Lee doesn't want to talk about Pamela (Anderson), he doesn't want to talk about Motley Crue and you can't talk about jail." There's nothing left to talk about.

Q: You could ask about the spinning drum kit.

A: That would have been good, but he didn't want to talk about the Crue, man.

Q: Was he a tough act to follow?

A: Not really. We just talked about jail and Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue.

Q: Do you ever feel like your band has a certain identity crisis because so much of the music business is compartmentalizing bands into genres, one audience, one demographic?

A: It does seem like we are difficult to categorize, but I think people get us in a very immediate way. It's a rare combination of things, being able to flummox those who try to put your music in a box, and yet there's a pretty wide audience for it.

Q: Through all the different enterprising things that you've done over the years, whether it's putting songs on an answering machine or sharing music online, it's enabled you to keep the fan base growing, bringing new people in.

A: Our audience is like the Dorian Gray audience of rock. They're so much younger than we are.

Q: Now with the children's music, the audience is even more revitalized.

A: We've only been doing the kids' stuff for a few years so we haven't seen the booster rocket of kids who have grown up with our music turning into adult fans. But it would be an exciting turn of events if those hundreds of thousands of kids suddenly became the new They Might be Giants army.

Q: There is a pre-existing army.

A: Yeah and I salute them for not letting the fact that we're doing kids' stuff detract from thinking about our songs in a sophisticated way. It is unusual in this culture.

Q: The music is unusual, catchy songs with all of these multisyllabic lyrics.

A: Yes, but we're not the only band out there doing multisyllabic rock.

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