Twenty-five years down the road from "Don't Let's Start," the men who won a Grammy for the theme to "Malcolm in the Middle" are back from their latest foray into the world of children's entertainment with "Join Us," an album packed with darkly comic, willfully eccentric pop for grown-ups.
They Might Be Giants accordionist John Linnell checked in to share his thoughts on children's music, "Join Us" and what he and John Flansburgh discovered when they relearned songs from second album "Lincoln."
I love that you came back from your latest children's record with a song as far removed from family-friendly as the leadoff track on "Join Us," "Can't Keep Johnny Down." Did that have anything to do with why you put it first?
Well ... no. We were tempted many albums ago to reassert the fact that we are not primarily a kids act. But we've done lots of kids records in the last 10 years, and we've done lots of records that are more our usual for-adults kind of record. It sounds like porn when I say we do adult music, so we're giving people the completely wrong impression (laughs). But we haven't come up with a better way of describing it.
When you did the first children's album, in 2002, was there a concern, like, "I don't know if we can go back after this?"
No, we were pretty clear that we were gonna continue with what we've been doing. The first kids record we did was such a sidebar. We were taken by surprise by the success of that first record, which led to a deal with Disney. But originally, it just seemed like a fun idea. We'd been playing and recording and everything for nearly 20 years at that point. So we felt our identity was pretty well established.
What's the appeal of making children's records?
Well, you know, we ... uh ... we get paid (laughs). The great thing about the first one was that it was such a lighthearted, fun thing. We didn't saddle ourselves with this heavy responsibility of trying to make it good for kids or remedial in some way. It was just supposed to be entertainment, like the stuff we had been doing all along for people our own age.
And the other thing that we discovered is that we were in this sort of interesting position of writing music for people who didn't think critically the way that we were used to our audience doing. I think people, when they hear a rock album, tend to compare it to every other thing they've heard and think with sort of critic ears. And kids don't even know how to do that yet, so the stakes are very relaxed.
And it's also this great privilege to introduce a kid to an idea they don't realize that you didn't invent from scratch.
I remember when I got your first, self-titled album after hearing "Don't Let's Start" on college radio. I put that record on, and it was like you guys had come up with a new language. It was almost avant-garde on one hand and yet really catchy on the other.
It was very intuitive, I think. We never got to the point of deciding exactly what it was that we were doing. The scene in the East Village in the early '80s, which was a hodgepodge of different artistic endeavors, was a great sort of nutrient bath for us. We were playing in venues where people were ... I don't know, standing up and slowly rotating with their hair on fire or something. Very oddball stuff but great, very interesting stuff. And we were kind of like the house band at some of these places. We weren't trying to do performance art, but we were existing in this world where that was what the crowds were there to see.
When "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul" took off on Modern Rock radio, did you feel any pressure or temptation to kind of meet the mainstream halfway and build on that momentum?
I never felt like it was this high-pressure situation, but we did feel strongly that we wanted to do something that was exciting or over-the-top. We were working at trying to make catchy songs. It didn't seem like there was a conflict between that and being interesting. We were sort of working off the legacy of bands like the Beatles. I didn't have this feeling that they felt there was any conflict between doing something innovative and being the Beatles.
Does it feel like this new record is maybe a little bit closer in spirit to the old stuff than "The Else," your previous album not specifically for children, was?
Well, we've heard that. I'm not seeing how "The Else" was less like our early work than this one, but maybe I'm just too close to it. We learned a lot of songs from the second album recently so we could play a show of just that album, "Lincoln," on the road. And it was interesting learning those songs because they're from more than 20 years ago and it felt like different people made up that music, even though it's, I would say, identifiably They Might Be Giants.
It reminded me that we have changed, as you would hope, in that amount of time.