When John Linnell and John Flansburgh were kids in Lincoln, Massachusetts, they used to love those cheap and cheerful TV ads for top-40 compilation records. Remember the K-tel pitch? Twenty original artists, 20 original hits, with tiny grabs of each lined up to ring in your brain like rapid-fire sugar hits.
"The assumption was that you were familiar with these songs," says Linnell, who formed the songwriting duo They Might Be Giants with his friend when they moved to New York in 1982. "But if you were a kid, maybe you'd never heard any of them, so that was the entire song as far as we were concerned.
"We always thought, 'Well, that's a kind of music: a very short song with lots of mystery,' because you're obviously not getting the whole story. It's like a question mark more than anything."
There's a string of them in the middle of Nanobots, the 16th album released by TMBG since 1986. "Hive Mind" (0:06) repeats its mystifying title twice in multi-part harmony over a catchy ascending then descending mandolin riff. It's not much, but it sure sticks in your ear.
"Nouns" (0:17) briefly describes an unusual language crisis to jaunty bass clarinet and xylophone accompaniment. The sexually charged R&B diva in "There" (0:09) gets just enough time to point to a place "on the borderline, right between two countries" before we're whisked off to "Insect Hospital."
Ultra-brevity isn't the only tool in TMBG's kit. Most of their tunes adhere to the two- to three-minute principle that served such influences as the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and stage musical maestro Richard Rodgers.
But the instant sugar hit principle remains as constant as the surreal lyrical twists that titles such as "Circular Karate Chop" and "Destroy the Past" (0:15) can only begin to describe.
"A lot of it is intuitive," says Linnell, who plays multiple instruments and trades vocals with Flansburgh, as well as co-arranging their songs.
"If you think too hard about what you're doing, it sounds very matter-of-fact. It's nice to have a certain kind of mystery. Not knowing exactly what you're saying is tricky, but the effect of that is interesting to us and hopefully to whoever's listening."
Thirty years ago, that was largely a telephone audience. TMBG's Dial-a-Song service began as a practical solution to a series of misfortunes that prevented them from playing live.
Callers to the band's Brooklyn phone number were treated to a new song updated regularly - many hundreds of times - until the cassette machine broke in 2002. The launch of their free iPhone app in February underscored the prescience of the initiative.
"Dial-a-Song seemed like this great way for us have a more direct connection to people," Linnell says. "At that time there wasn't an internet. It was much more of an unusual experience to sit in your home and call up a song. Now that's the industry norm." The pair's approach to words and music remains anything but normal. Critical accusations of flippancy and vacuity have dogged them since "Birdhouse in Your Soul" gave the pair their first trans-Atlantic hit in 1990. Their sheer longevity makes light of that criticism, even before you sit down to clock the craft in "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" or the conceptual brilliance of "The Protagonist": a tragic film extra's inner monologue cut with banal script directions.
Still, official recognition from the ostensibly serious end of the music business has been elusive. The pair's two Grammy Awards to date have been in the TV and children's music categories: "Boss of Me," their theme to sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, is one of several to have wormed into the mainstream, while Here Come the 123s, Here Come the ABCs and Here Comes Science have outsmarted the Wiggles by at least a hundredfold.
"A lot of people assume what we're doing with our kids' records is primarily educational and that is emphatically not the case," Linnell says. "We're entertainers for kids as well as adults, [although] of course, when we perform for kids we have to refrain from swearing or saying any of the dark and creepy things that we sometimes think."
On that score, Nanobots raises the stakes with the chilling modern warfare commentary of "Black Ops," the nightmarish crime scenario in "Replicant," and the quasi-operatic "Decision Makers," which echoes from the deepest abyss of isolation to nail the universal angst of repressed humanity (0:15).
The elaborate production values of their studio work will exclude many of the above when TMBG perform next month, in their five-man concert configuration, on their first Australian tour this century. But alternative radio favourites "Ana Ng," "S-E-X-X-Y" and "Doctor Worm" are among the countless They Might Be Giants hits destined to give K-tel a run for its advertising dollar.
"There is a great website [tmbw.net] where somebody has tabulated everything," Linnell says. "They have a list of … about a thousand songs. But that doesn't include all of the ones we've written and rejected. That number would be staggering."