"I really felt that when I started drinking coffee the clouds cleared and all of a sudden a fully realized John Flansburgh could emerge," says John Flansburgh.
He and John Linnell, the two giants of They Might Be Giants, are sitting in Flansburgh's Brooklyn kitchen, trying to zoom into interview mode by drinking large mugs of strong, rich coffee. They've been up late putting finishing touches on their new album, Lincoln, and they're tired. "Coffee is the fuel of They Might Be Giants," quips Linnell.
That the two Johns ingest copious amounts of caffeine may offer insight into the fact that they've written hundreds of songs, many with manic tempos. Their first album was a nineteen-song extravaganza full of fractured style changes, enough vocal variations to drive a schizophrenic crazy, and patently bizarre lyrics. Two EPs have followed. Most of the songs get their first airing on the Giants' Dial-A-Song line (718) 387-6962, which listeners can call daily to hear the latest Giants material.
Flansburgh, 28, and Linnell, 29, are responsible for creating songs with titles like "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," "Kiss Me, Son of God," and "Everything Right is Wrong Again." Having composed together since their high school days, musical references in their songs read like a Guide to Music They Grew Up With. Snatches of Herman's Hermits sound-alikes, '60s psychedelia, '70s glitter, and even a number with Cab Calloway-ish overtones appear-all of which are arranged for Linnell's accordion and saxophone, Flansburgh's guitar, thousands of backing tapes and an omnipresent drum machine.
The use of backing tapes enables the Giants to ape myriad styles of music and create a constantly spinning, ever-changing carousel of sound effects--a horn flourish here, a stand-up bass line there, the blurt of an unidentifiable noise somewhere else--to keep the style changes flowing within songs.
Their lyrics are a mutant hybrid of aberrant imagery, warped twists on old adages and just plain strangeness. "Youth culture killed my dog/ And I don't think it's fair/ And his suicide can be justified/ By the tastemakers how they cried and cried."
They Might Be Giants have hardly taken the conventional route to pop success. Lacking a label deal, they dreamed up Dial-a-Song as a way to get themselves heard. Lacking regular exposure in major venues, the two played street corners and miniscule basement clubs, the latter tradition they continue even today despite their growing following.
This rampant bizarreness has endeared They Might Be Giants to both critics and fans. But the same quirkiness that has made them memorable may have also caused them to be misinterpreted by the media machine that tends to focus on the obvious and forget the subtleties. They were mainstays on the East Village club scene in the mid-'80s, making Darinka and 8BC their training ground during the early days of the band. "Ninety percent of the staged stuff we do now was generated out of playing Darinka." says Linnell. "We formed all of our stage ideas based on that. It was a perfect combination of being an intimate scene yet, we were able to feel like rock stars because every time we played there was this potboiler crowd."
Wearing ludicrously elongated red velvet hats and playing big sticks, they coerce the audience into singing along to words printed on oversized cue-cards. John F., his guitar emblazoned with the band's name in low-budget white tape, periodically lunges around the stage like a crew-cut adorned cartoon of a heavy metal guitarist. John L. is moving less, his small frame wrapped around a big saxophone, or eliciting alien warblings from his Olde Time accordian. Enough voices to populate a small town pour forth from the larynxes of these two clean-cut looking guys--"like The Exorcist," one of them has been known to cackle. The most recent Giants stage show features enormous cardboard cut-outs of a man's head, hung like photographic apparitions above the two Johns as they play. "He's no one famous," says Linnell, "just someone from the encyclopedia."
Lately, they've developed a huge cult following across the U.S., with club crowds almost salivating in Pavlovian fashion when their trademark props appear. They've been written about in Spin and People, had a couple of videos on MTV, and a top five single with "Don't Let's Start" in Los Angeles. Yet the press and public, having been fed numerous humorous interview quotes by the two Johns, have too often cast them as a couple of wacky clubsters making good-time absurdist pop-a pastiche parody of the back catalogue of pop music.
"We have some happy songs," says Flansburgh. "But by and large, considering that our reputation is being this mirth-filled band, it seems curious to me that it doesn't come up more often that a lot of our songs really dwell on sad topics. Basically they're either acutely alienated or just sad." Amidst the happy tempos and puns about "Vanity Klaws," people with tragic facial deformities, crackpot fundamentalist preachers and the waste of taking the road most taken all find their way into the Giants' songs.
Part of the reason They Might Be Giants are now willing to expound upon the serious side of their music may be because 1988 is the five-year milestone of the band. Their second album, soon to be released, coupled with the fact that both Johns are nearing thirty, signals that the band has reached a turning point, both creatively and personally.
Or perhaps it's because deep down they're still a couple of outcast suburban Massachusetts high-schoolers who used a protective facade of humor to get by. "We grew up in a place situated around the Boston area that was really defined as a community in the '60s," says Flansburgh. "It fancied itself as being really radical."
Yet by their '70s high school days, the two Johns and their friends started an underground newspaper to express their divergent views. Soon the future Giants were writing songs together. A series of bands followed the two through Linnell's stint at U. Mass., and Flansburgh's art school days at Antioch and Pratt.
By the mid 1980's the two had settled on New York as a home base and teamed up as They Might Be Giants. They took day jobs doing what Linnell calls "free-lance drudge work," doing paste-up and graphic arts to support their music habit. The idea they shared was to showcase their songs, free from the constraints of a conventional band, using whatever effects were necessary to get a particular idea across. "We're slaves to a song--whatever arrangements it demands," says Flansburgh. "If the function of our music was simply to pastiche other styles, it wouldn't be very interesting, now would it?"
They drew on music of their childhood in the late '60s, but basically anything else within hearing range as well. "The music [of the '60s] was in many ways the most powerful rock/popular music that's been created," recalls the bespectacled guitarist. "Consequently the radio seemed like such a more vital force. Whether it really was or not is subjective. But when you're seven it's really hard to get a grip on it." He mentions being influenced just as much by punk, experimental music, The Residents, Frank Zappa, and even the impact felt hearing a Willie Nelson record at a roadside restaurant.
The influence of the popular media is certainly central to the success of They Might Be Giants. But some people have seen their stage show and concluded that the visual element must have some artistically highbrow meaning. Since the two both have art backgrounds, they must be like the Talking Heads; i.e. either elite artists making a visual statement, or perhaps pop artists working in a musical form. Album covers by the comic-book influenced Rodney Alan Greenblatt and neo-punk cartoonist Mark Marek serve to perpetuate this train of thought. But like much of the Giant's music, what starts out as an obvious reference in one direction, ends up in a completely different place.
"When I was in art school, I couldn't tell anyone I was in a rock band. I would have been laughed out of school," says Flansburgh adamantly. "It was a very serious art school where they taught renaissance painting techniques. I didn't spend my time in art school studying Roy Lichtenstein. I was not a pop artist. The fact that I went to art school leads people in the wrong direction. It's about as relevant as if I had gone to furniture building school. But," he adds, "in art school, I did learn how to build props."
His partner also denies any overtly intellectual elitist pop-art rationalization behind They Might Be Giants' visual focus. "The main reason we choose all the stuff like the hats is that it seems completely appealing to us," Linell says. "Often we'll just be watching Spanish UHF-TV and we'll see something like a giant hand and it's so completely appealing that it's hard to say why. It looks great. That's really what it is, we don't come up with an analysis of what's cool about it before we decide to go ahead."
"We do have a pop art influence evident in what we do," Flansburgh ultimately admits. "We have a visual element--elements from iconic pop songs, and musical references. But so much of art says the masses are stupid, you must appeal to the highly educated. We have a higher regard for everyone. Even mass media stuff is contemptuous of the average person--even the game show host on the Wheel of Fortune is telling people they're stupid."
The duo acknowledges that their sense of irony is directed not so much to their audience but the industry it supports--the music business. "We might be cynical and pop-arty in certain ways--having Dial-A-Song and giving the finger to the big record companies. But really, we're much more earnest than that," he states conclusively.
This earnestness may show up on the new album, which, Linnell says, "really reflects what's been going on in the past year and a half of work--what we're into now."
"It's been an evolutionary process," says Flansburgh. "When we first started I don't think there was a single song that dealt with romantic love in our set. That was one of the major tenets of the band--no guitar solos, no love songs. It was like 'What's the point of doing that? That's not very interesting.' And as time has gone on, we've become less and less interesting," he smiles. "As time's gone on, our appreciation of Frank Sinatra has grown and this idea of doing an interesting song about romantic love seems more of a challenge than something to be avoided."
The idea of a "New, Improved, Mellower" They Might Be Giants seems as incomprehensible as the Giants switching from drinking potent espresso to decaf. They promise Lincoln will be "not an unadventurous record--really, crazy." Meanwhile, as interviews begin so must they end, and with ironic, iconic symmetry the Giants return to one of their favorite subjects, coffee.
"Did you see the El Pico can?" asks the younger Giant. He gestures to an enormous coffee can. "I got the big one--El Pico Super Grande."
"Check out how big it is," adds his teammate with a final thought. "Two and a quarter pounds. You could almost fit your head inside it."