People often ask the indie-pop duo They Might Be Giants where they come up with their song ideas.
In a collaboration that has lasted more than 30 years, John Linnell and John Flansburgh have crafted quirky, infectious pop music—oddball tunes that still manage to sound heartfelt and rarely drift into gimmickry.
The group has a knack for rhyming about seemingly incongruous bits of culture, but still finding resonance. One of their best known songs, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," tosses out lines about the Longines Symphonette and Jason and the Argonauts in an appreciation of neuroses. Their latest record, Nanobots (Idlewild), released this spring, includes a song about the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla, known for his innovations developing alternating current and the X-ray.
In a phone interview, Linnell confesses that he can't explain where the group's songs come from.
"We've been asked that question a lot. I would love to know the answer to that," says Linnell, a multi-instrumentalist perhaps best known for playing the accordion. "It seems like such a miracle when you have an idea you like, and we have a lot of bad ideas. You try out something and it's a dud. That's a very common experience for us."
Linnell says he's learned that the process is important to uncovering the gems.
"Very often, you have a good idea before you realize it," he says. "You're in the middle of working and something gets momentum. That happens before you know it and you don't anticipate the good idea. Once it's occurred, you're aware of it. But as a result, the idea seems to come from nowhere."
Linnell is more certain about what has sustained his partnership with Flansburgh for so long. (The group formed in 1982.)
"It's not exactly the same as it was when we started, but it still seems that we know how to work together," Linnell says. "It's such a complicated partnership. We write individually. But because we're partners, we each are thinking about the other person approving or disapproving."
The two then come together to finish and polish drafts.
"Rarely and horribly, there's this awkward moment where someone says, 'Yeah, I don't really like that,'" Linnell says. "It's like a marriage. We try not to abuse that power, because we know how vulnerable each of us are."
The two have pushed each other over the years, sometimes swapping the seeds of their ideas for the other to finish. For Nanobots, a challenge emerged: write really short songs. The album includes 25 songs, only three of which are longer than three minutes. A few last mere seconds. The idea came up when Linnell wrote the 42-second-long "Sleep."
"It was sort of an impulse," he says. "We like short songs, so this was taking it to an extreme. They're not strung together. So you can listen to them as individual songs."
In the past decade and a half, the group has branched beyond indie-pop to record children's music and theme songs for TV and film. "Boss of Me" was the theme for the hit show Malcolm in the Middle, winning the band a Grammy in 2002. Its children's album, Here Come the 123s, won a Grammy in 2009.
"Young kids are not really judgmental the way adults are," Linnell says. "They don't think with the rock-critic brain that adults do, thinking about what a song means. It was thrilling to think this might be the first psycho-funk that a person will hear and we get to share it with them. Here is this crazy-ass sound that you might like. It seemed like a great opportunity."
Linnell admits that, after 30 years together, touring has gotten tougher.
"It was hard in the beginning and now I'm in my 50s and it doesn't get easier," he says. "We have an espresso maker on the bus. That helps—it keeps everyone perky."
He says that staying healthy and setting limits for things like press interviews also helps. "You have to pace yourself."
But he's quick to add that he's not complaining about his career choice. "I love that we get to do this," he says. "It's an incredible privilege. There are some indignities and times when we feel things aren't in our control, but everyone has that in whatever job you have."
And despite the grind, he continues to find great moments in playing live.
"Something unexpected happens, this beautiful flower that grows, an unexpected moment of beauty," he says. "There's a ritualized show, but sometimes big variations that are memorable. It's sort of like we prepared the environment and interesting things happen."