No "Might" About It: They're Giants

Lancaster Online, July 17, 2011
by Mary Ellen Wright

John Linnell needs to take the phone downstairs in his Brooklyn home in order to continue an interview. His 12-year-old son, whom Linnell describes as being "addicted to 'The Simpsons,' " has the television turned up a bit loud.

Linnell and John Flansburgh, who comprise the quirky, eggheaded alternative music duo They Might Be Giants, are moving back to the adult world in their music, as well.

After releasing two clever children's albums in a row, the prolific duo is about to release its first "grown-up" CD since 2007's "The Else."

The grown-ups will be out in force July 28, when TMBG plays Lancaster's Chameleon Club, where the band has performed a few times before. Backing the two Johns will be longtime band members Marty Beller, Dan Miller and Danny Weinkauf.

Nonaficionados might know Brooklyn-based TMBG best from such 1980s charters as "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul," or from whimsical novelties like their cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

Named after a 1971 George C. Scott film, the duo has won two Grammys -- one for a children's album and the other for "The Boss of Me," the theme song from the Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."

TMBG has sold millions of albums to a multigenerational audience. One minute, they're turning themselves into video puppets to teach kids about polygons, geography or the periodic table, via CDs such as "Here Comes Science"; the next minute, they're stimulating the brains of those kids' parents with inventive tunes about unusual subjects.

TMBG's songs are erudite and complex, their instrumentation often byzantine -- you might hear a clarinet or accordion riff amid the guitar, bass and drums -- and their lyrics chockablock with witty wordplay and allusions to popular culture and historical events.

Though TMBG's 15th studio album, "Join Us" (ye shall know it by the garish pink monster-truck hearse on the cover), is ready for release Tuesday, July 19, the band might perform less than half of its 18 tracks at the Chameleon show. They're still preparing the songs for performance.

"We will try," Linnell said. "We have learned maybe six or seven new songs that are on 'Join Us,' and if we're feeling brave, we'll play all of them. We're still looking at our hands when we practice. But we're getting better."

Don't worry about TMBG having enough material to fill out a concert.

"We're going to try and give a broad distribution" of many years' worth of TMBG music, Linnell said. "We've actually done shows where we play songs from every album, which is no easy task."

Because of its prolific output, Linnell said, the band is "ill-prepared" to play every single song they've ever written. So TMBG will work from a set list at the Chameleon.

Known as early practitioners of the art of cutting-edge music distribution, TMBG took the unusual step of releasing four songs from "Join Us" on iTunes three months ago.

"I think before we finished we already had songs that we liked, and we thought it would be a good way to get interest" in the rest of the album, Linnell said. "It would be a conversation piece for talking about the future project."

The band is running a contest in which fans create and upload original videos for one of those early-release songs, "Can't Keep Johnny Down." The hooky tune is an unreliable narrator's spirited rant against the world's perceived slights.

The two Johns, who met as teenagers, have been performing together for nearly 30 years.

"I suppose we like the job," Linnell said. "We both feel like it continues to be fruitful.

"I would say that we broadened the way that we work together," he said. "We keep trying new things, and the technology kind of enables us to play around with ways of collaborating...But we still work in some of the old-fashioned ways.

"In the very beginning...one of us wrote lyrics and the other one wrote music," he said. Now, the two men often write songs separately.

"I would say my main complaint about working on my own is that it's much harder work. Because John Flansburgh lifts so much of the burden off my shoulders; he's such a hard worker."

The show TMBG will be playing at the dozens of tour dates they've got scheduled from now through the end of November "is all sort of taking shape," Linnell said.

"There's always this question about how you tackle material that was created in the laboratory conditions of a studio," he said. "A lot of [the songs] don't sound like a live group, which, indeed, they aren't. ... So how we take that to a live show is always an interesting and exciting open question."

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