We at The Dwarf are long time fans of the wonderfully quirky band, They Might Be Giants. So it was an immense pleasure to have a chat with one of the Two Johns, the accordion and keyboard playing John Linnell.
We are very excited about They Might Be Giants forthcoming tour in November.
Yeah I am. We are very excited.
Last time you were here in 2013 you were a part of the Groovin' The Moo tour that also had some headlining sideshows. Any memorable moments of that last Aussie tour?
It was terrific an unexpected way for us. We played in Australia not in the recent past. We played there a bunch in the 90's and a little bit in the 2000's. We booked about a month and there a lot of open slots and we didn't have a sense whether the tour was going to sell well. It went completely bananas. We sold out of the shows that were booked and we added shows and they sold out. So ended up filling up all of the time that which we had arranged. We thought we were going to have lots of time off but in fact we were very busy that month. So that was great. It was really exciting development for us. A really great response from everybody. I think a part of it was that we had been away for while but hopefully we now have a supercharged crowd in Australia and we are very much looking forward to coming back.
I attended your two Corner Hotel show here in Melbourne, when you performed your classic album, Flood. Any good memories of those gigs?
I have a fond memory of those shows. You probably remember, it's a very small room and we had our puppet stage set up on stage right around the corner. The way that we did that we went outside of the club, John and I and we ran around the corner outdoors to get to the other entrance, in order to set up for the puppet show during the set. As I recall it was raining out, so we made a mad dash through the rain to get to the puppet stage.
The puppet show was quirky and something that we obviously love to see at your shows. In previous tours I have seen the conga lines take over the dance floor. What do you have weird and strange installed for your fans in November?
That would be telling. I think it's going to be mainly the kind of solid musical performance. We want to emphasize, we are rock band and we are coming to play our songs. There will be fun diverting things but that's not the main attraction. It's obvious that we have learnt from experience that people love puppet shows and really off the graph kind of stuff. We also really want to try to do a good, solid rendition of our new material. So I don't want to set people up to be disappointed. It's mostly not a circus. It's mostly us playing our material and we have a lot of new songs. Since we came there two years ago, we written almost 52 new songs that we have released on our Dial-A-Song direct project. We put out a song every week this year. So we have a shit ton of new material that we are preparing and are ready to perform and I hope that will be a big attraction for people.
You guys are certainly prolific songwriters. On the last tour you had released Nanobots but since then you have all of those Dial-A-Song songs, another album called Glean and there is a new kids' album called Why? due to late November release. Will you be playing any of those kid's songs?
I haven't had a good look at the schedule but I think it's all adult shows. When we do kid's shows, there are plenty of adults that come to those and we do lots of the material that was originally intended for grown ups. Mainly we are doing a tour of the Glean album and the material that was written for grown-ups and that's going to be the focus of the tour.
You recently did a cover of Jonathan Richman's "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar", which is a fantastic song. Have you always been a Modern Lovers admirer or a fan of his solo work?
John and I grew up in a west suburban Boston area, which is where Jonathan Richman is from. Some of his earlier songs are actually about the areas next to the town we grew up in. "Roadrunner" is about driving down Route 128, which goes right through Lincoln, Massachusetts. So we kind of felt some ownership of Jonathan, even as he was getting a lot of attention internationally. His first album didn't sell very well but in some point in the late 70's it seemed like the British Punks adopted him in some weird way. I remember the Sex Pistols did a cover of "Roadrunner" which was a live version. He seemed like he had this kind of really odd reverberation amongst people he probably did feel any kinship towards. He had a big hit with "Roadrunner" in the UK. Did that song chart in Australia?
They didn't make our charts but those Modern Lovers album and his early solo recordings were certainly cult classics. I remember songs like "Roadrunner", "Ice Cream Man" and "Hey There Little Insect" getting lots of radio airplay on Community FM Radio when they came out.
I think that a lot of people with a deep interest of music have heard of him but here in the United States he has never had a hit record. The nearest he came was doing the soundtrack for the movie, There's Something About Mary. He is sort of the Greek chorus that shows up in that film. I would say that most people have never heard of him here in America. He was a very early influence on John and I.
Are there any other cover song on the They Might Be Giants horizon that you will be releasing in the future?
Yeah. He have done a cover of a song called "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog" (by Norma Tanega). That's another terrific track from the '60s which we have done our own version of. That was one of the Dial-A-Song Direct selections. That is for this year. We don't do a lot of covers but we have those two under our belts.
Last time you toured in your encore you performed your delightful 21 short song medley "Fingertips". I love that song. Can you tell me how that song came about? Was it ideas for song you couldn't flesh out to full musical numbers?
I think that was the common perception. People just heard it and assumed it was songs that never got finished but it really was composed as a single piece of music. I made a demo of it by recording each bit and I had a splicing block and a reel to reel tape machine and I cut the demo together from out of all of these bits. It was a very intuitive process. I wanted to do a collection of what sounded like chorus all strung together. A little bit of it is a reflection of these advertisements that we use to see for collections of music on TV, where they would just play the chorus of each song and I imagine there must have been some of version of this in Australia.
Yes, we had the K-Tel Collections.
Exactly! The ad for that use to just play the chorus of each song and there would be an announcer telling you how great this collection was. In a lot of cases you would never ever hear any other part of the songs but you would really get to know these choruses incredibly well from just watching the ad over and over again. So I felt that was some kind of music and you could work within that form of just having choruses one after the other and sort of following through the circuitous route. That was the idea of "Fingertips".
There is so much talk in the media about Spotify and the streaming music model destroying the industry but you guys have been giving away new songs for free on Dial-A-Song since 1982. Tell me how Dial-A-Song has evolved over the years from the answering machine to this Internet age.
Dial-A-Song started in 1982. That is where we began. So it has been going for 32 years at this point. Of course we have been going on even longer than that. It started out with a song machine attached to a phone line and everybody just called it up. It was just one line, so only one person could call at a time. That seemed to be pretty good for a number of years. That was the whole rig. I think at some point, John and I getting very busy with writing, recording and touring and performing locally and Dial-A-Song sort of got sidelined in the '90s. We kind of felt it was an important part of the brand that we didn't want to let go of. So this year we came out with a version of Dial-A-Song. We put a box set of Dial-A-Song which was a greatest hits compilation and that was probably sometime in the 90's when Dial-A-Song wasn't happening so much. We were always having these technical problems as the machines broke down and were impossible to get fixed, as it was so old. We couldn't really figure out on getting it working on a computer setup. We tried that but it was a long series of problems. So this last year we have been doing this version of Dial-A-Song where it's on the internet obviously. It's also on the radio here in the United States. There are radio stations that are participating in our year long Dial-A-Song by playing every selection that comes out each week. There is a little moment on their program when they play it. Of course you can have it emailed to you. You can subscribe. You can download it from the website, www.dialasong.com. You can watch it on the Facebook page. There is a million different ways to can consume it but hopefully it is just about us turning out music on this periodic basis. New songs all of the time, rather than sending it all out as a single album release. We'll just have a continuous flow of music and see if people want to consume They Might Be Giants in that way again.
Do you have a backlog of song ready to go once a week?
Yeah we do. We're much too nervous and uptight to write new songs right up to the deadline. Although having a deadline really helps. We started writing and recording last year in 2014 and we had a lot of the stuff on Glean ready and finished by the end of the year. So by the time the new year rolled around, it was not as quite as panicky as it might as been in trying to put out a song every week but we have been very busy this year as we continued to write and record. We are at the point now where we have finished all of the material we are going to need to get to the end of the year. We really wanted to maintain the quality. We didn't want to disappoint people. So we were trying to do as much work as we could all along, so that we would have the best songs to pick and choose from. So that is more or less where we are at. We just finished another round of writing and recording and that is just getting mixed and you will hear it on Dial-A-Song Direct over the next eight or nine weeks.
You have written a whole bunch of classic songs over the years from "Birdhouse In Your Soul", "Ana Ng", "Doctor Worm", "Particle Man" and "Your Racist Friend". Which one song do you play live that still gives you a massive buzz?
It really varies from show to show. It's really fun to play a song we haven't played in a long time. Occasionally we pull something out that has been lying inertly in the catalogue. Occasionally we play a song that we have never played live before and that's really fun. In New York we have been doing a show at this place in Brooklyn at the end of the month and we have been doing different themes. My favourite show this year, which was themed around the album called The Else which came out in 2007 and I don't know why but that was really a super fun show for me. There was a lot of material we had not played in a long time but it wasn't ancient 1980s stuff that we often pull out as a crowd pleaser. It was sort of a dark horse.
Is the band the same touring band as the last tour in 2013?
Yes, same guys. Marty Beller is the drummer. He has been with us since 2002. He's the baby. The other guys have been with us longer. Dan Miller is on guitar and he joined us around 1998 and Dan Weinkauf is the senior member of the accompanying band and he is the bass player. He has been playing with us since the late nineties.
So there are two Johns and two Dans.
That's correct. Well, there was a period when we had three Dans. The previous time we came to Australia in the early 2000s we had three Dans and two Johns. Which if you play poker, you know that is a "Full House". A very strong hand.
Well I better wrap this up. I know your a busy man and it's been an immense pleasure to talk to you and I can't wait to see the you and the band at The Forum Theatre here in Melbourne.
I love Melbourne. It my favourite town in Australia, so we are very much looking forward coming back there and we'll see you where we get there.