A funny thing happened after the release of They Might Be Giants' 2002 album No: the band became stars in the world of children's music.
After 15 years of making quirky, catchy pop songs and building an audience through college radio and the nightclub circuit, They Might Be Giants found a whole new audience willing to learn while they listened.
"Well, it was not something that we planned out, particularly," founding member John Linnell said in a recent phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It seems very funny if I think about it now, because it became like our second career over the last 10 years. We really just made one kids' record that was kind of a side project, that seemed very marginal.
"It was very fun making it, but we did not have high ambitions for it. We were very surprised at the success of that CD."
As so often happens in the music industry, when something is successful, the powers-that-be want more. The band has since added three more children's records to its discography -- Here Come the ABCs (2005), Here Come the 123s (2008), and Here Comes Science (2009).
"We were approached by Disney to do these educational -- pseudo-educational, as I call it -- projects, because they're really entertainment for kids," said Linnell, 51. "I still feel that, at heart, we are what we were in the beginning, which is a group that makes music for people like ourselves, adults of all ages.
"We found that we could do music that was more specifically focused on kids, and retained the spirit of what we had been doing all along. It was a pleasant surprise."
The timing of the "second career" is perfect, as the fans that have adored They Might Be Giants since the 1980s can now share one of their favorite bands with their sons and daughters. At any given concert, when TMBG performs a song from one of its children's records, a ripple of recognition passes through the parents in the crowd.
"It's wonderful that adults like that stuff," Linnell said. "When we started making the kids' records, we didn't want to make stuff that was actively annoying to the parents. And we have had expressions of gratitude from parents about that, because they do have to listen to this stuff over and over and over. They appreciate the fact that it doesn't irritate the hell out of them.
"But, like I said, the essential backbone of what we're doing is the same. We have a kind of freedom in our songwriting in that it's not really for any particular purpose. We don't have an idea who it's for or why we're doing it, except that it's something we like doing and the rules for doing it are undefined.
"I think that maybe the reason why we've kept doing this for so long is because we never exactly decided what kind of band we were or who it was for or any of that. Even now that we're doing music that's specifically for kids, we still apply that definition to our band in general."
When They Might Be Giants tours now, they often book two shows in a city or town, an early show for families and an evening show that focuses on the band's regular repertoire. TMBG will be at the Quick Center at Fairfield University Saturday, Oct. 30, with a 2 p.m. family show and an 8 p.m. concert on the schedule.
"There will be less swearing at the kids' show," Linnell said, with a laugh.
When They Might Be Giants started, it was as a duo, with Linnell on keyboards and a handful of other instruments, and John Flansburgh on guitar. The two share lead singing responsibilities. Over the years, as TMBG has grown in stature, so has the band's lineup, which now usually includes three other members and, for special occasions, a horn section. Linnell likes the fullness of the bigger band, but appreciates he and Flansburgh can still do duo shows if the mood strikes them.
"We feel like we have a lot more colors on our pallette now," he said. "I don't think having more musicians is necessarily always better, and we can always go `small' during the course of our show.
"I think there was something very appealing about playing as a duo. When we started doing that, it was during a period when a lot of bands were trying to sound as big as possible and there was something very humble about our approach at that time. But we also like to bring the big artillery."
Grown-up fans feeling a little left out can relax, as They Might Be Giants is working on a "normal" album, that Linnell expects to be released. The group's last non-children's record was The Else in 2007.
"We're currently working on a record that's not specifically for kids and probably has material that wouldn't exactly be considered appropriate, or that's over kids' heads," Linnell said. "We're actively working on it, but we're keeping the bar as high as we always have.
"We've been working on it for quite a long time. We've had a lot of interruptions, as well, but I'm very happy with what we've got so far. I would say that at this point, we have an album's worth of material, but we're going to keep going until we feel like we've got it as good as we can.
"We were very happy with The Else. I felt like, of all the adult records we did in the last 10 years, that was the one we were most happy with, so we want to keep our standards high and not feel like we can turn out something crappy."