Interview: They Might Be Giants

God is in the TV, April 30, 2015
by Loz Etheridge

John Linnell and John Flansburgh released 'Glean', their highly entertaining 17th album as They Might Be Giants, on April 20th this year through UK label Lojinx (and their own Idlewild imprint in the US). Theirs has been a glittering career spanning more than 30 years, picking up illustrious fans like Frank Black along the way, taking interesting diversions into children's music (their 2008 album 'Here Come The 123s' won them their second grammy) and popular television show theme tunes ('Boss Of Me', from the opening credits of 'Malcolm In The Middle' gave them their first).

Quite apart from all that, of course, there is the small matter of their 1990 number 6 UK smash, 'Birdhouse In Your Soul' and some truly frenetic live shows that weren't very footwear friendly. At least not for me. John Flansburgh was feeling under the weather so luckily Mr. Linnell kindly stepped in to cover interview duties...

I lost my shoe at a They Might Be Giants show back in 1989. I remember getting the bus home with my friends, who were all in hysterics that I wore my one remaining shoe the whole way back. It honestly never occurred to me to take the other one off. Anyway, I've always thought that whole scenario sounds like it could have been the premise to a They Might Be Giants song in itself. Also, I have been totally unable, for more than twenty years now, to ask someone to pass me the milk without resorting to singing my request to them à la 'Fingertips' from 'Apollo 18'.

Ha ha. So...are you a 'one shoe up' or 'one shoe down' kind of guy?

We do seem to have this compulsion amongst our listeners to plant these catchy little moments into their heads, almost subliminally. Even when the words are weird, like that 'please pass the milk please' part, it's interesting for us to come up with a melody that's like a Trojan horse in your brain, if you like, even if it's not inherently palpable.

With 'Glean', yet again it's nigh on impossible to pick a favourite track. I've been changing my mind practically every day. Today I think it's probably 'Music Jail pts I & II', which starts like a classic Western and then turns into something like Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. You've clearly had a broad range of influences, but how have you managed to keep going for over thirty years without ever putting out two songs that sound the same?

Well it's nice of you to say that, thanks. There's always the risk of repeating ourselves, and obviously we don't want to do that. It makes writing hard, because you want a free flowing writing process, but it keeps us fresh, you know, and I'm sure we're not the only band who has this problem. We've definitely thrown songs away that sounded too much like others though.

A lot of people don't seem to realise that beneath the playful, comedy exterior, you often travel to some very dark places in your songs, sometimes with controversial subject matter. I'm thinking of tracks like 'Black Ops', 'End Of The Rope', 'Your Racist Friend' and 'Bastard Wants To Hit Me', and your lyrics have focused on death many times over the years...

We've always covered what we regard to be important and fruitful topics, sure.

Death is an interesting subject that people don't talk about enough. And the reason they don't talk about it enough is that nobody ultimately knows what it is. It is utterly incomprehensible to us. You never get to the end of the conversation--now is the only time. In some ways it's like low hanging fruit--it's easier for us to write about death and dark subjects than it is to write a good love song. It's hard to write love songs because they've been so overdone that it's difficult to avoid layering them with clichés, so we've probably consciously avoided that.

I'm trying to think of a They Might Be Giants song that might resemble a love song. 'Ana Ng', perhaps?

Sure, there are some throughout our career, often with a personal twist. You could say 'Ana Ng', I guess. I'd say it's more an endearing song about not being able to have someone who's too far away.

History dictates that some of the funniest people of all time were actually quite tortured souls underneath...

Ha ha, we're not very tortured at ALL. Unlike some comics, we just don't edit out a joke if it comes to us. We just try to write songs, and they're not necessarily meant to be humorous even though they often turn out that way. Being in the band gives us the chance to exorcise any of the bad stuff just by writing it down and making a song out of it.

You're still best known--in the UK at least--as either 'those guys who did 'Birdhouse In Your Soul' a quarter of a century ago', or for the 'Malcolm In The Middle' theme tune in the noughties. How do you remember those days? I mean, was the success of 'Birdhouse...' an albatross, or do you get misty eyed when you think about it?

I think it was...nice. Yeah, it was nice for us to have a top ten hit in the UK, because we never achieved that in the US--we never had a hit single back home. There's no singular tune we're known for, but we do have a very loyal fanbase in the United States. We're probably more known for our TV work there. It's definitely not an albatross though--we don't feel like that song is the only reason anybody likes us or anything!

We love coming to the UK. We felt that the UK--and Europe in general--really "got” us from a very early stage and gave us such a warm embrace--back in the 80's and 90's, people were really on our wavelength in Europe. And Japan too.

I read an online interview from a few years back where you said you'd worked through the eighties, but coasted through the nineties. Which past tense verb would you use for the noughties and beyond?

Ha, well it's not going to be a one word answer this time! I see the noughties as being where we became very comfortable with our identity. We branched right out in that decade to other things--we started doing kids records in the 21st century; we went into doing tv and commercials. Everything broadened. All the stuff we did in that time gave us a chance to do something else and by then we realised that it doesn't matter WHAT we do anymore--none of it's likely to confuse anybody!

How did you approach making those children's albums? Did it differ much from your more adult oriented work?

Yeah. With the first one, we had no clear idea what we were doing. We didn't even have a defined age group, but what we decided was that we didn't want it to be seen as something that was trying to "improve” the child. We wanted it to be entertainment, not educational. After that, we were immediately enlisted to do an educational one, with the themes being the alphabet and numbers. We never stopped doing our more adult work during that period though--the death and despair that is at the core of what They Might Be Giants do was still there, and it still is. The children's music thing didn't distract us or detract from it at all.

My son, who is five, loves your adult stuff...

Well...I guess it was our adult stuff that led to us to doing the kids' music. You know, a lot of adults played our music for their kids, I hear that a lot, and even though it wasn't official kids' music, it was considered ok. I think what we were trying to do was make children's records that adults could stand to listen to. You know how it is with kids, wanting the same song a thousand times on repeat. We were trying to make that experience less painful for the adults!

Do you find yourselves competing with each other where songwriting is concerned?

There is a bit of that--probably some healthy competition. Striving to form ideas for new songs without repetition. Sometimes John will bring this new song out and I'll think "My God! He's really cracked it! I'm going to have to really step up my game now", otherwise it's just embarrassing.

How have you changed as people since the heady days of hit singles and mainstream success?

Quite honestly, I don't really know. My guess is that we've become more practiced at songwriting. There's more of a fluidity in the way we write--we've lost some of that recklessness of the early days, but we're still trying to come up with stuff to astonish ourselves all the time. There are songs that we wrote 25, 30 years ago that I feel a bit embarrassed by because I don't really feel that way anymore. It's almost like a different band, so when we tour and we play those old songs these days, it's like we're a dedicated cover band of our former selves!

You re-introduced your dial-a-song service this year. One song a week. What happens if you get a case of writer's block one week?

That's a very good question. We did a huge amount of work last year writing songs so we kind of built up a backlog. We didn't have a full 52 songs ready, but we were close, so we got to the point that we thought, if we were struggling, we could feasibly turn in a C plus performance one week and get away with it, but we're going back into the studio in June, so we're guessing we'll have about a hundred or so by the end of the summer and we can continue to just put out what we feel are the strongest tunes.

Do you have a favourite new track? I was listening to 'Impossibly New' this morning and I loved that.

Yeah, that's a beautiful song. I was really flattered when John asked me to sing it because it's entirely his song. That one probably IS my favourite new song. Oh and we finally learnt how to play 'Unpronounceable', which is really hard to play live, but we've managed to come up with a good arrangement which works so we're looking forward to taking that one on the road.

Finally, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, what would you choose as your career highlight?

Just the fact that we were able to travel internationally. Going to places that were so different to where we grew up--places where we had no idea what to expect or what they wanted. And we are still doing it. Our career highlight is ongoing.

They Might Be Giants are presently on tour in the US, and hope to make it over here later this year ("probably in the fall”, Linnell told me). Their new album, "Glean”, is out now and a more than worthy addition to their already impressive back catalogue.

back