John Linnell, one half of the quirky alt-rock mainstay They Might Be Giants, isn't what you could call a typical rock star. Linnell's bright, humble and refers to classical composers by their initials, as if he knew them personally. You wouldn't know from just talking with the soft-spoken musician that he has sold millions of albums, won two Grammys and was the subject--along with bandmate John Flansburgh--of a 2003 documentary. Four years and two kids albums after their last adult recording, the New York-based Giants release their 15th studio album, Join Us, July 19 (an EP with four advanced tracks is available now).
I recently spoke with Linnell--who called from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home--about the new album, what it's like to be in a band for over 25 years and having coffee with a certain historical figure.
Join Us comes out in about a month. How are you feeling?
Pretty good. This is the fun part. We did the hard work. We finished it and I think we feel, like, I always get paranoid at the end of writing and recording that something is wrong, that we've done something wrong. This is literally every project we work on, that it's not up to scratch. I have this weird, neurotic pattern that [I think] we've failed, and when it's completely done I can step back. I think you're so close to the project that you can't get a perspective on it...Now that it's done, we've had our harshest critics weigh in--our closest friends, including our wives--and they are unstinting in their truth.
Why did you decide to release four songs off the album in advance?
Well, we wanted to send something out to get interest in the project started, and we actually finished recording that bunch of tracks we were pretty happy about early on. I think we've done this or seen this done in the past where you can advance part of the recording on iTunes and the people can pay up front [for the album] or they pay to complete it later on...They're not spending money that they're going to have to spend again when the album comes out. So there's an incentive to pay for the advanced tracks before the album comes out.
How has the reaction been so far to the songs from fans?
Let me check the iTunes site right now. (Linnell really does) I try not to get too obsessive about reading the press, taking it too seriously, because then you have to take on the criticism as much as the compliments. (After a minute or so of typing) We have an average rating of 4.5 stars out of five. That seems good. All the [comments] on top are positive. One person says, "My ears are smiling," so that's nice. I think the people who like us like us a lot. We have a very loyal following. And the people who don't like us don't listen. I think that's great for our egos.
You and John Flansburgh have been a band for over 25 years and have known each other even longer. What's your secret to longevity?
I don't know. I don't know that there's a plan you can follow. John and I were lucky. It's not like we don't have egos and we have had arguments about stuff, but I feel like, you know, we both tend to be pretty open-minded about the other person's stuff--even when the other brings something and you're thinking, "Hmmm, what's that? But he's done good things in the past, so I'll give him a chance." But it's like a marriage. I've been working with John for so long that I'd be very bothered if he didn't like what I was doing. It means something to me. There's mutual respect and there's respect for the other's opinion
When your first demo tapes and album came out in the '80s, did you think you'd be performing the same songs into your 50s?
No. But we never figured out what we'd be doing in the future. Not, "This is a smart thing to do." We didn't have a business plan for the future. We never had that kind of approach to the work. We try to come up with good ideas--and we do come up with bad ideas and don't do them, if all goes well. We're really interested in sort of what the idea of the moment is, [like] "What are we going to do now?"
Do you guys like playing older songs, like "Birdhouse in your Soul" and "Ana Ng"?
I think it's fun to play old songs. We have a lot of pretty big backlogs, so we don't get stuck playing the same songs over and over again in our live show.
Did you approach this album differently than The Else, your last adult album in 2007?
Well, in one respect. Before The Else, we hired the Dust Brothers to produce and that was really great. That was a great experience. I think for this one we had enough of an idea of what we wanted to do--we were going to produce it ourselves. We spent a lot longer on this album than we've spent on stuff recently. I don't know why that is. It was a much slower rollout. I think part of that was we wanted to ensure high standards of quality. We had enough material for an album a year ago, but we wanted to make the album as good as we could without spending the rest of our lives on it.
"Can't Keep Johnny Down" is the first single. Can you talk about that song?
Sure. I was very pleased with comments about it early on where people understood that--first, of all our songs aren't biographical and everybody knows that--the song isn't about me. In a way, the song is a joke in the way that both of our names our John. That wasn't a mistake. The guy in the song is a complete and utter assh--- and the song is in the perspective of [him]. Some of the characters [in our songs] aren't very nice people, but we try to be nice people.
You seem like a pretty nice guy.
Oh, good. Thank you.
What's the biggest difference you've found between writing a kids' album and an adult album?
Well, that's a question that we've been asked and we ask ourselves occasionally. I think we felt early on that the truth of the matter is the best material we did for kids is how we weren't thinking deeply about how this is going to be for kids. For No!, we didn't specifically think about what age group it was for or what we were going to allow ourselves to do. It's kind of a free form kind of writing. I think kids responded to that. It really struck a chord and I think that was because we took the same spirit that we take to all of our adult recordings.
What's a song off the new album you're excited for everyone to hear?
There's one that's on the advanced album called "Cloisonné." It's one crazy recording. It's got this wonderful voice stunt by Mr. Flansburgh.
The raindrop voice?
*Laughs* Yeah, the raindrop. For my part, there's a bass clarinet. I don't know whether I'm going to play a bass clarinet live. There's this really over-the-top saxophone playing on that. A lot of the decisions [to make] on how we're going to play these songs live.
You definitely have to play "Cloisonné" live.
We will. We haven't completely figured it out how to play it live.
Maybe with a raindrop puppet? I don't know.
You've written a lot of songs with shorter, more staccato notes to cater to the Dial-a-Song machine so the tape wouldn't rewind. Now that it's no longer in commission, do you still find yourself writing that way?
I think we like short songs completely exclusive from that they had to be played on a phone machine. It was just a lucky coincidence that we chose this technology that enforced the way we write.
You have a lot of songs about historical figures--President James K. Polk, James Ensor. Who is one historical figure you'd want to have coffee with?
I know who it would be. It would be the composer J.S. Bach. He wrote a wonderful cantata just about coffee. He wrote these deeply God-fearing, religious cantatas--I probably wouldn't have that much to talk about on that subject. But he clearly loved to drink coffee. But I would definitely choose Bach.
What's the cantata called?
You know, I don't know. But if you look up "coffee cantata" you'll find it. [That's what] it's popularly known as.
Well, that's all the questions I have for you.
Are we coming to Baltimore soon?
No! You're not!
I know we'll be around locally in D.C.
And Philly in September or October.
Yeah. And Philly in September. We always try to come [play] around Baltimore, like in Towson or something.
Yeah! The Recher. Well, we absolutely love you here so I hope you do.
Well then we'll definitely be coming down to Baltimore this year.