John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the frontmen of the alternative rock-pop band They Might Be Giants, have an adoring fan base of all ages – especially since they started a side career of making kids albums.
The former Massachusetts residents have cornered a market that goes for a bit of quirkiness along with straight-ahead music, had a hit with "Birdhouse in Your Soul," wrote "Dog on Fire," the driving theme for "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.
Guitarist Flansburgh is from Lexington, while keyboard and woodwind player Linnell moved to Lincoln when he was a kid. They both attended the Lincoln public schools, and they’ve been making music together for a long time.
They Might Be Giants, with the album "Nanobots" hot off the presses, is set to play two nights at the Paradise (April 3 and 4). John Linnell spoke about the band by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
"I think we first met when I was in the eighth grade and John was in the seventh," said Linnell. "But we got to know each other in high school."
That’s also when they started recording together, on Flansburgh’s equipment.
"It was back in the ’70s," recalled Linnell. "The way you made recordings was you’d record on one track, then play that track back on another track while you overdubbed. That was kind of the main activity for us for a while, just building up these oddball recordings."
There was no live performing for them in those days, except for Linnell’s brief time in a cover band called The Baggs. It was later, when both Johns had moved to Brooklyn, that people got to see them onstage.
"In some ways we backed in to doing live performance," said Linnell. "We thought a way for us to perform our music, which was so based on recording, was to bring the tape recorder onstage with us. So it was the two of us and the tape recorder. We’d sing and play, and the tape recorder would provide all the background stuff that we’d put together.
"The first few shows we did were really encouraging because we had audiences who were very friendly," he added. "I think it was partly that they thought we weren’t that impressive technically, but that we were clearly struggling against the odds, in a way (laughs). So I think there was a huge amount of sympathy."
After two decades of recording music, then bringing it on the stage, things haven’t changed much. Well, except for the elimination of the tape recorder and the addition of a real band.
"We’ve always started with a demo [recording], and now we work up to doing a full band recording," said Linnell of the studio experience. "So the live version is the last thing that happens. We do have a live band now, and it’s better to have the band kind of stretch out in the way a live band does. We’re very confident with these guys that they can do something cool sounding, and it doesn’t have to be an exact imitation of the studio recording."
Though the two Johns started TMBG in 1982, times were tight till the success of their 1990 album "Flood," which featured "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Particle Man." Things got even better when they signed a publishing deal.
"Suddenly we were not in debt," said Linnell. "I had a huge tax bill, and I paid that off, and all of a sudden I was going to my bank machine and there wasn’t a minus sign on my account. Things got a little more comfortable with money, and we’ve enjoyed a pretty straight middle class lifestyle since then."
There have been a few albums – some for their regular fans, some for kids – that have been put together after lengthy writing periods.
"We have work habits when we’re recording," said Linnell. "I try to come up with several song ideas in one session, and I do it very quickly. Then I move on. And then next day it’s the same thing. Then I go back and look at what there is, and build on that. In the case of the last few albums we probably have something like 25 or 30 songs that are in good shape by the time we’re figuring out what to put on the album, and at that point we can work out which songs actually go together. A song might not make the cut, not because it isn’t good, but because it sounds too similar to something else, or it doesn’t work in the flow."
At the Paradise concerts, there will be some new material, along with some of their most popular originals and, as Linnell puts it, "There are also a couple of perennial covers. ‘Istanbul (not Constantinople)’ is one we always do, and we did play ‘Frankenstein’ for a long time."
He knows that regular fans will be there, and that, as usual, the more rabid of them will be in the first couple of rows. But what would he say to someone who’s never seen a TMBG show before?
"There’s a lot more going on than just playing songs. There’s puppets, there’s our witty between-song banter. It’s really fun. There are bands that we feel kindred to that just stare at their shoes and play their songs, and they’re wonderful bands, but they don’t feel like they’re necessarily needing to entertain. I guess we’ve always taken the path of trying to put on a show."