Interview: They Might Be Giants

Bearded Magazine, May 14, 2015
by Erick Mertz

I don't quite know what percentage of my vocabulary comes from an adolescent obsession with They Might Be Giants, but I assure you, it's considerable. The same can be said of my ironic understanding of pre-history and, well, irony in general. Let's just say, it's appreciable.

When I first walked into a dark venue to see Brooklyn's ambassadors of love, it was 1990. Flood was one of the three compact discs that I owned. I would sit up watching MTV's 120 Minutes on a Sunday night on the off chance they would play the video to "Birdhouse In Your Soul". Things are different now. In some ways though, everything the same as it ever was. They Might Be Giants take the stage as a larger band, with a larger catalog of humorously insightful songs but they ply the same audience enticing qualities as before. Wit. Surreptitious moments. The kind of interplay that most bands work a lifetime to achieve. When you think about it though, that's how long John and John have been at this thing--a lifetime.

One of the finest shows you'll ever see, from the meta-phone call interruptions, to the well timed insertions of harmonica humor to a twenty-one song encore. Yes, you read that right. Twenty one. The two Johns end their show with the entire "Fingertips Suite", evidence that you can jam your way and make a go of it as an artist in this uncertain climate all the more real.

I had a chance to speak with John Linnell about what it all means, and by that I mean, everything.

Dial-A-Song was born, in part, out of necessity and it ran successfully for over two decades before ending. Why did you decide to bring it back?

It never officially ended. Like an old soldier it was in danger of fading away due to myriad technical issues, but we always felt that there was something about dial-a-song that was at the center of TMBG's philosophy: it was and is a direct link to individual audience members. From the start it was a way for people to feel like they owned us. Which is not to say we are your slaves and are forced to do your bidding, but rather that we want to foster that degree of intimacy as much as possible. When I think of my own favorite bands, I feel like I personally discovered them and jealously guard my stewardship of their music.

Marketing your music through Dial-A-Song has been an integral part of They Might Be Giants ascent into pop culture. Did you have even the foggiest notion that it would be so successful?

It depends on what you mean by successful. It has been moderately successful as a promotional tool. It more or less fails as a money-making gambit. It is, I hope, wildly successful at telling everyone who we are and what we stand for. Which I can't do in so many words. They Might Be Giants has been through so many phases, from a two piece with backing tapes to a full band to a full on alt-family rock phenomenon. What has been your secret to constant reinvention?

We're pretty cautious about reinventing ourselves but we have a secret weapon: we never figured out what we were supposed to be doing in the first place. By not strictly defining TMBG we allowed the gig to be very flexible.

You've crossed over all over, into children's music, Internet music revolution, the literary world. Do you bristle at the term "crossover success"?

I mainly bristle at the atrocities of the Internet music revolution. Did they really have to gun down the tsar's family?

In the same vein, do you ever tire of the accolades around your cleverness?

Bring 'em on!

I'm a longtime fan and I am always surprised to see younger and younger devotees in the crowd at your shows. Are you?

Yes. It is a delightful surprise to us that even as people our own age are less inclined to go out and see a noisy rock show, their numbers have been gradually replenished by younger versions of themselves. Many of the old timers are still hanging around as well, which I'm grateful for as well, but I have learned to take nothing for granted.

Recently I went out to see one of our contemporaries from the '90s post-college rock scene (or whatever that was). I was up in the balcony looking at the crowd and it was a sea of balding men with flannel shirts and converse sneakers. God bless them.

Every fan has their favorite They Might Be Giants moment (mine is the weeping girl from the documentary, Gigantic). What's yours?

I have an intensely fond memory of our first tour of Japan in 1990. It felt like the perfect synthesis of us devouring a thrillingly exotic yet familiar culture and at the same time being eaten by it. I wish everything were that exciting.

You've been through everything. You've survived, really. What's been your secret to staying relevant in a fickle, artist hostile music industry?

Beta blockers and Crestor.

Now to the music. If the number of records in your discography were each given a year, it could vote in the upcoming election, yet I always think of the lyrics to "Number Three" on your debut. Was there really fear that you might not achieve songwriting longevity?

I suppose we don't think too hard about the sheer number of songs. When I'm writing I'm trying to get one good idea off the ground and the weight of the back catalog is a serious encumbrance, especially if I start to worry about repeating myself. That can really slow you down. At some point I'm just going to start writing new songs with the old titles.

I remember that Apollo 18 used to drive my Dad crazy, especially the "Fingertips Suite". It almost acts like a stuffiness detector. Can you talk about the inspiration of that unique collection and some choice fan responses?

Eugene Chadbourne (US improvisatory musician) gushed with enthusiasm over Fingertips. That was nice. Likewise (American comedian) David Cross. However at the record release party for Apollo 18 I remember (music writer) Ira Robbins from Trouser Press expressing sincere, friendly disappointment with it. He had high hopes for us and we had let him down with Fingertips. We're still performing it in the live show, a quarter century later. The original inspiration came from a terrifying dream that my Dad told me he had had, which I then rewrote and altered until the source material was no longer recognizable.

Among my favorite They Might Be Giants signatures are the little ditties, the seeming one-offs like "The Day" or "Minimum Wage". It has to be rewarding as a band to be able to craft these unconventional pieces and know they'll find a welcome home in your catalog.

It would be except that there's never any guarantee that whatever glib little ditty we start into is going to make it all the way to the finish line. Lots of them die on the vine. Some of them seem incredibly hilarious and great until you give them a good look in the eye, and then the darlings get murdered.

I will admit to being hostile to John Henry at first, until it became one of my favorite records. Did you receive a lot of backlash for becoming a full band?

We were probably a bit insecure about it ourselves, and as good as some of the material on John Henry is, I think you can tell that we were still trying to figure out how to integrate the band into our scene. We also had the misfortune of coming out with a more traditional rock band album during the very season that grunge washed over the culture. We got a certain amount of shit for not sounding more like Nirvana at that moment, especially in the UK press.

Let's talk about influences. You have them. Who are they?

I'm assuming you mean musical influences, so here is a grab bag: The Beatles, The Residents, Walt Kelly's "Songs of the Pogo," Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, The Mills Brothers, The Velvet Underground, The Banana Splits, Fletcher Henderson, Laurie Anderson. Some of these are a little embarrassing.

The Ramones, Burt Bacharach, The Hollies, Pere Ubu, Sparks, Abba, the theme from The Magnificent Seven, the Perry Mason Theme, The awesome Mr. J. S. Bach, stuff we heard in taxis or restaurants before there was Shazam. Flansburgh would make his own (better) list but I am still moved by "Old Man River," "Town Without Pity," The Little Rascals theme, "Tico Tico," "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," anything by Richard Rogers, Amy Allison, Mr. Henry Purcell. I would also say that collectively we have been heavily influenced by the subculture of our immediate friends, from high school through the present day.

I first saw you on tour at like fourteen and was, in so many ways, blown off of my musical mooring. Your live show was like nothing I'd seen. Talk about what goes into translating your unique sound for the stage.

The path of least resistance involves trying to learn the songs the way they sound on the recordings, but when we have time and energy we try to come up with uniquely live versions. For some songs it's simply impossible to replicate the recordings so we're forced to be creative. It's also hard to get through an entire show without dropping the pretense that we are some kind of magical beings enveloping everyone in a trans-dimensional hypnotic spell. At some point we are forced to acknowledge that we're a bunch of jerks yelling into microphones. But then it's back to the theatrics!

And for those who don't know, talk about how William Allen White ended up as a regular fixture in your stage act.

We didn't really know who he was when we chose his photograph to be the unofficial face of TMBG. I think the choice was influenced by a performance piece created by the Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström, which involved people marching down the street with giant portraits of Chairman Mao and Bob Hope. I'm not exactly sure what Fahlström was intending to say but the effect was so exciting and hilarious that Flansburgh wanted to create our own mysterious version.

For a while we discussed having a large wooden Orson Welles on wheels onstage with us but the William Allen White picture won us over and became our standard backdrop.

Recently I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Bully Pulpit" which contains a bunch of information about White's role in the progressive movement. He started out as a conservative Midwestern newspaper editor who wrote the original "What's The Matter With Kansas?" essay (pushing back against populism) but over time he joined the movement for change and started hanging out with Ida Tarbell and Teddy Roosevelt. It turns out he was every bit as complicated as his haunting photograph.

Now we've arrived at Glean, and album that fits almost seamlessly into your epic catalog. There is a story to this record though. Talk about the idea to collect songs from your re-imagined Dial-A-Song on a record.

It seems as if this year we've discovered a new way to kick our own asses. Coming up with a new song every week for Dial-A-Song with the foreknowledge that we were also compiling our next album (and possibly the following two) was a thrilling test of our intestinal fortitude and a realistic simulation of being repeatedly shot out of a cannon.

Lastly, are you at liberty to divulge what comes next?

There are no constraints upon my liberty but I have no idea what we'll be doing next year. If we had any sense and followed the zeitgeist we would quit music and become master chefs! Sadly, I am a terrible cook.

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