They Might Be Giants might be one of the most difficult bands ever to pin down, classify or define.
Are they a quirky indie rock band? Songs such as "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" made them that before indie rock was even a thing.
Talented crafters of smart, funny music for children? I'm surely not the only dad who wanted to play TMBG's "No!" or "Here Come the ABCs" as much if not more than the kiddies.
And then there are the TV show theme songs, soundtrack contributions, a dozen short songs written for a Dunkin Donuts ad campaign, an album written to accompany an issue of a hip literary journal.
You see the problem, then, in figuring out exactly what it is that They Might Be Giants--which plays the House of Blues in Anaheim on Saturday--does.
"I think it partly grew out of our unwillingness to decide what it was that we were doing," says John Linnell, who started the band with John Flansburgh in 1982. "We didn't readily come up with a definition of the band early on.
"We thought we could do stuff that we like and things that we were inspired by. And that would include not just the pop music that we grew up with, or the underground rock we liked when we were teenagers, but also commercial music like television music and movie music that we feel like is just as deeply engaging and exciting and cool as the other stuff.
"I think we were just greedy and wanted to do it all," Linnell says from Brooklyn the day before the band left for California and the tour.
While that restless creativity has kept They Might Be Giants constantly experimenting, trying new ways of writing, performing and releasing songs, their current album and tour came about through a return to one of their earliest efforts at breaking the mold: Dial-A-Song, which in the mid-'80s saw TMBG releasing new material via their answering machine tape and a phone number anyone could call, and which returned this year with the promise of 52 new songs in 52 weeks delivered online.
"It grew out of this sort of discussion about what we were going to be doing differently this year," Linnell says. "We kind of felt like we should roll the material out in a different way."
So instead of the usual pattern of album then tour, they launched Dial-A-Song Direct. (You'll find it at DialASong.com, or if you're old school at 844-387-6962.)
"I think the thing that's appealing to us about the Dial-A-Song brand, first of all, it's about as old as They Might Be Giants," Linnell says. "We started it just a few months after we started being They Might Be Giants, and I think it's somewhat at the core of how we relate to the audience.
"There's something about Dial-A-Song that's fundamental to the project, which is that we want people to feel connected to what we're doing, and kind of feel like we are their personal discovery. And that was the great thing about Dial-A-Song: People would call knowing nothing about us and it felt like a personal discovery."
There are differences in this version of the project, Linnell says. In the '80s, they'd often use their answering machine to put out rough sketches of songs, the rawest of demo versions, and later work toward a finished version that would end up on a future album.
"I'd say we're being more uptight about the quality of the music," Linnell says. "In this instance we did the demo-ing and testing early on and the Dial-A-Song versions are pretty much the cleaned up versions."
That made compiling 15 of the new songs into "Glean," the band's 17th studio album, a simpler task, he says. (Two more albums from the new songs are expected later this year.) Much of that material will surface live for the first time on the current tour, which in addition to the House of Blues in Anaheim on Saturday plays the night before on Friday at the Regent in Los Angeles.
"This is a pretty typical They Might Be Giants show," Linnell says. "We're playing our new release and then a lot of the stuff that people who've been with us for a long time want to hear."
As for what they'll hear, beyond new tracks such as "Underwater Woman" and "Madam, I Challenge You To A Duel," they'll probably hear much-loved tunes such as "Doctor Worm" and "Ana Ng." Which, Linnell eventually acknowledged, do somewhat fall into the broad outlines of what it is he and Flansburgh do.
"If we meet somebody who's never heard of the band, they say, 'What is it you're doing?'" he says. "Maybe just sort of the short answer is: We are a band. We write songs. We play them. This idea of the song is central to it.
"One simple thing to say you like is the idea of the American song book. What is a popular song and where can you take it that it hasn't already gone?"
Wherever that is, it's probably where you'll find They Might Be Giants.