John Flansburgh and John Linnell are busy telling me how they were misunderstood as pupils of the same high school in the Boston suburbs, the former accused of drug-taking and the latter gaining a reputation as class clown when on reflection he believes he was "just kinda outta control."
The pair still suffer from misinterpretation. In fact, they probably always will. They invite confusion. They are New York's terminally hip duo They Might Be Giants, a musical double act with a sting in its tail. If you get to see them perform, you'll understand what I mean. There's Flansburgh playing the irrepressible comedian, entertaining the audience with his offhand one-liners and mock guitar histrionics, and Linnell taking refuge behind his fringe and accordion, insidiously invading the listener's conscience with his bizarre, quasi-psychedelic lyrics. No, they're not drug-influenced. But that doesn't mean They Might Be Giants aren't weird.
Consider it. Two school friends, after four years of separation, find themselves moving into the same Brooklyn apartment building on the same day, and decide to embark on a musical partnership, performing eclectic, sharp-edged witticisms with deep underlying substance to peculiar, off-the-wall backing tapes. A pair of accidental entrepeneurs who leave their songs on the answering machine and so develop an entirely new method of self-promotion: Dial-A-Song (still running smoothly on 718-387-6962). An outlet whose first album features nineteen spitfire tunes of varying styles with titles such as "Youth Culture Killed My Dog" and "Chess Piece Face" and goes on to sell a phenomenal 100,000 copies. An act on a struggling independent label whose single "Don't Let's Start" gains rock radio airplays and whose cheap video receives maximum MTV rotation. A combo who turn down subsequent major record company offers and break in their second album Lincoln over a series of low-key performances at a downtown New York performance space. "Strange" is the politest adjective that springs to mind.
At the Knitting Factory on Houston Street a few hours before the last of their September shows there, John Flansburgh and John Linnell join me to reflect upon their reputation as rock's quirkiest duo. They offer no defense to the charge of imbuing their music with with.
"The mood of rock music reminds me of the way soap operas are," says Flansburgh. "It has all the look and feel of real life, except there's no humor in it."
"People tend to interpret someone laughing at a piece of work as a reduction," suggests Linnell. "In other words, it degrades the thing. But actually, humor pervades all my favorite things in the world."
The pair split the songwriting, but while Flansburgh is the stronger performer, Linnell is the more crafted writer. And his partner knows it. "When Linnell first played me 'Kiss Me Son of God' my jaw just hit the floor," says Flansburgh of Lincoln's final cut. "I was almost afraid to play the song publicly, because I was just thinking, 'This is not going to be accepted.' To be standing on stage singing 'You love me, and I love me' just strikes me as a scary moment." And yes, it does produce titters, but it is only the coup de grace to a biting parody of the heartless businessman; it is the opening line--"I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class"--that pack the punch.
Disdain for the machinations of big business was behind the pair's decision not to sign with a major label this year. As Flansburgh says, "There's been a big shift in record company's attitudes, they're a lot more blunt about saying, 'We want to get this big producer in, we're going to have to do this, this and this.' And it's not the kind of band that we are. When you've committed yourself to a project as much as we have and when it's taken up so much of your life, it's just important that it's worth doing. We're a self-created band and we do things for personal reasons, and it's hard to talk to somebody about commerce and personal expression. They don't always work well together."
As a result of this inability by the industry to work outside of the mainstream, teenagers in less vibrant musical marketplaces than New York often pass through adolescence in blissful ignorance of the alternatives to the cock rock and production-line pop they are force-fed by the local music media. That They Might Be Giants should sneak into the midst of this malaise by virtue of their wacky appeal smacks more of welcome subversion than temporary novelty. And it pleases the pair to no end.
"When we were growing up, punk rock was really pushing through," explains Flansburgh. "The whole idea of some band being alternative was a very positive thing. Now nobody's interested in a refreshing new idea. We just happen to have a toehold in the world of Tiffany, and we're the first interesting weird band that these kids have ever encountered. We get all that kind of fanatical enthusiasm 'cause they think we're the only ones. They don't realize that there's a million interesting bands."
They Might Be Giants are, of course, not strictly a band, a decision they arrived at early in their partnership. "A lot of the arrangements in our songs are really extreme and other musicians might find them unsatisfying. What's fortunate about our situation is we only have to satisfy ourselves. We don't have to be cleared by committee, through the rhythm section."
There is something about They Might Be Giants that strikes me as being indelibly New York. Here in Gotham, craziness is a way of life, borne out by the tempo, traffic, buildings, fashion statements, consumer choice and attitude at hand; the bubbling cauldron that draws people in seductively, then spits them out with contempt, seems to be perfectly encapsulated in the Johns' lopsided view of their surroundings, in the music forestalled from possible epic pop status by its joyfully juvenile arrangements, and in lyrics wavering between insightful and truly mental.
Flansburgh and Linnell aren't quite sure if I'm suggesting that they themselves are insane, or perhaps just too clever (Linnell admits to a problem with the latter). But they do agree that New York is a perfect home.
"It's great to know that you can get standard eight millimeter black-and-white film processed in the middle of the night, while you wait," enthuses Flansburgh. "We really live the kind of lives where we find ourselves having to do things like that all the time."