A funny thought occurs during a comprehensive, 90-minute interview with They Might Be Giants' John Linnell and John Flansburgh in the dressing room of Philadelphia's TLA Theatre: that they might miss their show that night (April 25). Our chat only ends when I'm prompted that it's 8:20pm--usually around when a concert begins, though they don't have an opening act tonight. The band who gets so deep into an interview that they're late for their own gig! It's like something out of an HBO sitcom. That doesn't end up happening; later from the stage Linnell asks the crowd "Why can't the show go on forever?" answering his own question, "That would be weird."
The obsessively crafty quirk-pop duo has been doing it somewhat forever anyway, now three decades into their career as the wacky little Brooklyn band that could, having solidified their post-major-label career doing iconic theme songs for The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle and broadening their scope with bestselling children's albums (No!, Here Come the 123s). Along the way they've penned alt-rock mini-hits ("Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Dr. Worm," and "Ana Ng") with a knotty hookiness previously unknown to college radio, and performed experiments of a truly bizarre and inspired nature ("I Palindrome I," whose bridge is a guess-what; "Fingertips," a suite of five-to-20-second "songs" that serves as the night's astonishing encore). They've even turned a couple left-field cover choices into definitive standards, the Four Lads' Balkan-violin-cued riot "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and the old educational record "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" among them.
One suspects that part of the reason they've lasted so long is because they'll do anything. This year they revitalized their old hotline Dial-a-Song, a toll-free number (844-387-6962) which you can call to hear a new song every week in 2015 ("It's exactly as misguided as it sounds," says Flansburgh). In honor of Glean, a recently released compilation of the duo's favorite songs from the project's first quarter, SPIN asked the two Johns for some background on every album TMBG has ever made, including the one that bankrupted their label after September 11 hung over the entertainment industry as a whole.
John Flansburgh: The cassette was very much like an indie DIY project and ended up getting reviewed in People magazine and that brought us to the attention of the guys at Bar/None Records. We were playing a lot on the local downtown scene, just about every weekend in those years, and we made way for a bunch of new songs. "Don't Let's Start" was on it, I think it was a short version--
Linnell: On the cassette.
Flansburgh: There was a short, demo version of it, but that turned into a real thing on the first album. So it was just always like a big work in progress. Everything was moving forward.
It sounds like People magazine was incredibly different at the time.
Linnell: At the time it seemed crazy. It was just a little, little paragraph, but the fact that we were unsigned and had not released any albums and they reviewed the cassette. It was like, "What the fuck?"
Flansburgh: The guy who wrote the article, he was a fan from downtown who had seen the band a lot. He was really confident that something was going to happen with us. He was passionate about it; we had the luck of a lot of people feeling like they wanted to be advocates for us. It's a weird thing to sort of be a professional underdog.
Linnell: We had a very weird relationship to MTV. They played "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head," which--
Flansburgh:--Which made no sense at all. We didn't have anything behind it. We didn't have a publicist. We didn't have a record company. We were the most stoppable force in rock music. But I think back then for a lot of people who were in these weird gatekeeper positions of power, pushing us forward was a way for them to actually have input in what went on in the world.
Flansburgh:--Our entire earlier career would be a delineated by the development of drum machines.
Linnell: Yeah, it had just come out. It was very cheap.
Flansburgh: Chris Butler [of the Waitresses] said, "You should wait to make your record because there's a new drum machine that's coming on the market."
Linnell: The early drum machines had a lot of circuits that just played, like, a sine wave. This new Yamaha was actually using samples so this was kind of a major advance.
Flansburgh: I feel like our second album was very much like a lot of bands' second album experience, what you read about people doing. It came much faster.
Linnell: By that time, we had quit our day jobs so I'm pretty sure we had more time.
Flansburgh: But we were also touring really relentlessly in this almost brutal way. I think we realized in that '88, '89 moment that it was a bit of a creative challenge to figure out how we wanted to remake our show and present ourselves. By the time we got to Elektra, we had already sort of shook off the kind of potential Carrot Top-ness of what we were doing and came up with this sort of unspoken rule about the stuff we would do in the show, that everything would be music-based. If we had one stage setup that had multiple metronomes, they were music-making devices, they weren't props. So we did kind of evolve out of the New York scene into the national scene as a musical act rather than performance art.
You mentioned that the songs were coming really fast. How long did the quickest song take to write?
Flansburgh: I remember "Snowball in Hell" was written so fast that I couldn't find the original piece of paper that the song was actually written on. I actually found it a couple years later and it has completely different words that are slightly better. [Laughs.]
Linnell: John and I have not really had a long discussion since this but I remember at the time feeling like, "Oh this is kind of opening a whole other thing." I was a little uncomfortable with becoming political in a way. It was one of those things where one of us would introduce a thing and it was like, "Well that expands the repertoire but, well, what do we mean to everybody?" What we've always had between us is very open, like everything's great. Whatever you think of is cool. Just do everything. That was the spirit of the band. That's still the case. If somebody thinks of an idea that they think is cool, they don't have to explain why or what it means or how it's going to redefine the band.
What about the opposite? Is there a veto process?
Linnell: I think that we've had occasions where we have more songs that we need for an album. It's not so much of a veto as, "Well, here are the songs that complement one another." The only time I remember that being sort of slightly weird was when we made John Henry and we were kind of feeling like we wanted it to be a shitload of songs, like that would be the cool thing to do and [producer] Paul Fox (Bjork, Semisonic) was the one suggesting that we maybe should edit it down.
Linnell: Yeah, it's interesting because in some ways it was a little less adolescent but it also had "Fingertips" and "Spider." So we were still obviously mining through the weird little stink bomb element.
It's really weird that "Narrow Your Eyes" wasn't pushed as a single.
Linnell: It's another "what if." There are a lot of songs like that. Maybe if we got a producer for that album, it could have gone that way.
Flansburgh: When will we get our shit together? [Laughs.] I don't know. It could have been that people's perceptions of what we're good for got set pretty early. While we were making the album, grunge happened. It didn't really change us; it certainly could have changed us more. It certainly made a lot of things more acceptable: "Don't like this stuff? Who cares about you?"
Linnell: They've been conditioned by Devo and the B-52s to have this idea, like, we don't know what the band is trying to do but we could turn this into--
Flansburgh:--Or even Laurie Anderson. She had just been signed by Warner Bros. for some impossible amount of money so there was the notion like anything could happen. Everything just seemed very cool, and that changed very rapidly from '90 to '95. Once we had sort of broken their spirit on the novelty front, I think with the unfortunate consequence was, "If they're looking to have success the old fashioned way then they've got to straighten up their act." That was the memo that Paul Fox didn't have to share with us but in retrospect was fairly obvious. He wanted to cut "Meet James Ensor" off of the album, which is nuts because when you look at that album, it completely stands out. To this day it is a very enduring song that people really identify with this band. You think, "Here is a song that has an identity."
Basically, we have always gone for big, variety-pack albums. We try to serve as many ideas as best we can and when we pruned away the other songs that aren't going to be included, the thinking is usually, well, we've got a good, solid mid-tempo rocker or we got a good, crazy uptempo thing, we've got an interesting ballad, we've got an experimental song-- all these things covered. What makes John Henry a very unusual record for us is that is the only time that the sequencing did not go that way. For a lot of people the fact that it's sort of mid-tempo and continuous is a real vibe maker. They're like, "I can really listen and hang out with this record." It's not as wild a ride as a lot of our other records.
Flansburgh: The thing that was difficult is that there was no easy transition from demo to finished, full studio production. If you were doing a full studio production you had to build it from the ground up in the studio the way studios were set up.
Linnell: We did that with John Henry and it was not a comfortable scene for us. Just rehearsing over and over again with a band, we were not used to doing that, and we had Paul Fox in the room slightly countermanding what we were saying, so that was not a smooth process for us. That sucked.
Flansburgh: There was so much dot-com mania. RealAudio was a thing that was happening. The mp3 was still in its earliest stages, there was Liquid Audio, there was RealAudio, and all these other formats and they all sounded better than mp3s. I was very surprised that mp3 became the package. But you know, in the grand tradition of the eight-track and the cassette, it was like fidelity meant nothing. Convenience meant everything. But it was something that we were just free to do. It was kind of a rarities record but it made a big splash just because of the format of it, which was a preamble for us knowing that just putting something out in a different way can garner so much more attention than what [the music's] doing.
But then as everyone now basically knows, the album was released on 9/11 and within a week the record company that financed it was completely out of business. It wasn't just bad, it disappeared. It ceased to exist. After a lot of work, all of sudden, records were not going to be manufactured. It had become invisible. Months after 9/11, that shadow was still over people's life choices. We did a sold-out show in San Francisco where about one quarter of the people in the audience--it was a seated show--just didn't show up. They had already bought tickets to the show before 9/11 and then they didn't show up.
What you described as the "variety-pack" feel of many TMBG albums was probably good for kids because they get to access all these different kinds of music and instruments in one place.
Linnell: There's a thing about doing music for kids, where you are in this extremely privileged position of introducing types of music to kids who have never heard them before. We gave ourselves that freedom on No! just to do like, a total funk track or whatever. I don't think that's particularly controversial thing to do. But at the time it also seemed like we were going out on a limb by not doing songs that were in any way remedial. We're not trying to educate or improve children at all.
Flansburgh: Kids aren't really that much better off after hearing our music.
Linnell: Or two or three times maybe. [Laughs.] The Spine has no particular significance in the vast fullness of all the work we've done but it had the distinction of not being released on 9/11.
Flansburgh: And in many ways it was kind of the beginning of now. We were working with great musicians who we had a wonderful collaboration with. We have a fine producer who supports us but also challenges us.
Linnell: That was the first 'this band' album, I guess.
Linnell: I think we did benefit from the scrutiny of the Dust Brothers, because they were definitely saying specific things about what we're doing that we would not have. And we work very fast and these guys do not work very fast. That was another big difference: they were sort of pulling the brakes and saying "Let's really examine this groove," and that was great. I remember at the time thinking that this is really showing the influence of the producers, and also really sounds like They Might Be Giants.
I really like The Else a lot. I'm probably saying that about every album but The Else in particular made me very concerned and worried subsequently about trying to match the quality of that recording. I always think back to The Else and we've got to top that again or try. I think Flansburgh started to move into a whole new realm beginning with The Else.
Flansburgh: I was listening to "I'm Impressed" today and there's, like, 19 guitar parts on that.
Linnell: That period was also in the wake of Iraq War, so we were kind of feeling bad all the time because of the shitty government that we had. Normally that kind of thing won't have a very direct relationship to our own theme, but there's a number of songs on The Else that were a reflection of how horrible everything seemed at the time.
Flansburgh: Before that project had a name, all my files were just in a folder called "During the War." It's not the topic but it is the backdrop. It was the thing that's happening that's just sort of poisoning everything around it. A song like "The Shadow Government," which came from a direct quote from the Vice President, was very paranoid.
Linnell: Weirdly, "The Mesopotamians," which is a happy song, is specifically about Iraq but in a completely background, working around way. It was very of the time.
Flansburgh: Join Us was a very slow-building crescendo and I am very proud of that album in particular. We were kind of in recovery from making three albums in three years, and needed to find a simpler way of working. I wouldn't say any track that ends up on an adult album is in reaction to the kids' work--there is actually a kind of easy relationship between the two efforts, often grabbing one idea and pushing it over to the other side for better effect.
But the simplicity of Join Us was kind of in reaction to our own over-production on The Else and the kids' records, which are all technicolor projects in terms of instrumentation and sonics. I do remember a couple of conversations, one with John and one with the band, about keeping it a combo project much in the way an album like, say the Beatles' Revolver was recorded. Even though you might be recording in an identifiable genre or style beyond rock, sticking to your regular lineup's instrumentation has an immediacy to it that can be very exciting.
Flansburgh: As short as three minutes is, for some songs it's still too long. Keeping a song short locks some mystery in there that a longer song can lose. A track like "Nouns" needs to be short. If it was longer it runs the risk of being cloying, but at its jingle-length, it doesn't overstay its welcome.
Death references come up for interesting, and occasionally not-so-valid reasons, and this kind of relates to the short song thing. A song like "When Will You Die?" has a very clear idea that is worked through the whole song. But in some songs that will remain nameless, both John or I will be facing a tightly constructed chorus and verse and then not really have a clue how to build it out to get to another chorus. Sometimes when that third verse has you cornered, you just have to shoot your way out.