They Might Be Giants is spending 2015 dialing up an idea from its past that seems downright prescient in the digital era.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band is releasing 52 songs this year--one a week--as part of its resurrected Dial-A-Song service, which fans can tap into online or actually call up through a toll-free number.
"It's really just been a part of this current electronic culture ... but Dial-a-Song's origins really go all the way back to the emerging technology of telephone answering machines," said John Flansburgh, who founded They Might Be Giants with John Linnell back in the early 1980s.
"We thought, 'What a delightful way to kind of introduce people to our songs, rather than having people come out to nightclubs. ... So, it was really a platform for introducing the world to our songs in a very low-risk kind of way. It's like the stakes couldn't have been any lower: just a phone call. And people kind of fell in love with it."
The two-time Grammy winners are feeling the Dial-A-Song love again, especially in concerts like the one they'll play Friday night at Oklahoma City's Diamond Ballroom.
"It's 'An Evening With,' so we do two full sets. There's no opener, and it's very loose by the end. It's a blast," Flansburgh said. "There's a lot of older things that we don't normally play, that we've never played, that are in the show now ... and then there's a ton of new songs, which people know much better because of the structure of Dial-A-Song. "It's not like we just dropped a new album two weeks ago and nobody knows how the songs go, which is often how touring works," he said. Everybody knows that routine: You play a new song and people go like 'augh.' "Now, we play these new songs that people have been living with for three or four months, and they're like 'Yeah, I love that, that's my favorite one!' So, there's much more enthusiastic response to the new material than a typical concert."
"I think we really grew up with pop music, and pop music has this very vivid, kaleidoscopic quality to it where it does a lot of kinds of rhythm and it does a lot of kind of tempos. It's just more interesting to have it be ever-shifting," Flansburgh said from the road in Salt Lake City. "We started working, preparing the year in earnest really in like August of last year. There's a two-month or like a six-week window that we have to deliver the finished songs to iTunes, so there's automatically like almost a two-month bumper. So, we're in pretty good shape ... and we reject a lot of stuff as we go. One thing about doing it so far in advance is that it actually does weed out a lot of material that I think if we were just doing it from week to week, we'd kind of just be like 'Well, that's all we got, so let's just go with that.' That's not the way we're doing it really; we're doing it in a little bit more calculated way than that. Quality is important to us, and we're just uptight about that stuff."
The original Dial-A-Song program gave the alternative rockers, known for quirky hits like "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man," a chance to find their audience and launch their career "free of all those sort of cultural gate-keepers," he said.
"We didn't have to be sanctioned ... and we didn't need anybody's approval. We just did what we did," Flansburgh said. "What's funny is that when we started it, rock music was so wrapped up in kind of creating superheroes that the idea of just putting your songs into the world just for free and without any kind of barrier was actually by people within the industry seen as sort of vaguely pitiful. It was not like something that music business people thought was an interesting idea. They thought it was a trick; by and large, they thought it was a terrible idea. But then again, they weren't us. We were an extremely small band with nothing behind it except the music we were doing. It is interesting that it's come back, but it's also interesting to me that it makes so much more common sense now than it did even then."
The popularity of the original project also established a prolific streak the band has maintained: He said they were pondering "difficult album 17" when they got the idea to revive "Dial-A-Song."
"On a personal level, it's just a really big challenge to actually cook up enough material of quality to feed the project: It's 52 songs, which is a lot of songs. And they're all gonna have comments right underneath them the second they come out, so it sort of behooves us to make them good songs. So, that's just a challenge, and we like a creative challenge like that," Flansburgh said.
"We've done a lot of animated projects. I guess it really started with our Disney projects for kids; we did a bunch of these hour-long DVDs that we had to create all this animated video work with. So, we really found a whole lot of different people in that tribe of things who are just very talented, and we're just kind of taking advantage of that Rolodex now," Flansburgh said, referring to the band's sideline into children's music with the Grammy-winning album "Here Come the 123s" and Grammy-nominated "Here Comes Science."
"Songs and animation are sort of the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup kind of combination."
He said he hopes this year's Dial-A-Song redial is a treat for fans, too.
"In terms of our audience, it just kind of makes taking in our music a little bit more fun. You know, every week, people have something to look forward to. On every Tuesday morning, there's a lot of people who sort of start their day listening to the latest song. It's just obviously plugged into people's lives in a really fun way," he said.
"Ultimately, on a more abstract level--and maybe this is too sort of high-falutin'--but the fans who come out to our shows haven't been following us for 30 years. The fans that come out to our shows have been following us for five years or 10 years; they're regular music fans who discovered the band after we had already been established. By doing something like this, it really allows them to participate on something very meaningful and very new. They get to be fans of the band while something kind of important is happening, and that's an interesting place to be. I think one of those things about any band that's been around for a long (time)--and there's not a lot of bands that have been around for a million years--if you follow a band with some kind of legacy, you always feel like you're kind of late to the party a little bit. It allows everybody to be at the party again."
He added, "2015 is a big year for They Might Be Giants, and I think people will look back on this project and go like, 'I remember when they did this thing when they were putting out a song every week, and it was, like, crazy.' That can only be positive."