"We've reversed into this really," sighs John Linnell, the floppy-fringed accordion-toting half of They Might Be Giants before relating the touching story of how he and John Flansburgh met at the age of 12. Linnell was a musician without a purpose, Flansburgh had written a play in 100 acts, all of which were two lines long, and he felt that Linnell might somehow understand. He didn't. But they decided to form a band anyhow.
"It's always been a very personal project," says Flansburgh, the bespectacled guitarist. "We've very specifically never wanted to make it big. I always wanted to have a band that was completely goalless. No strategy. When we started, nothing was more clear than the fact that we could not possibly make a living out of this. Even now it doesn't seem like a proper job. You're always looking over your shoulder."
They Might Be Giants came into the world's attention in 1988 when their independent album, Lincoln, knocked The Joshua Tree off the top of the college charts in America. They were immediately labelled "America's Biggest Independent Band," although they dismiss this: rather spookily in unison: likening the accolade to "being called the world's tallest midget."
Nonetheless, Lincoln was, and indeed remains, a fascinating collection. Surreal, clipped vignettes peopled by businessmen wearing purple toupees, a character craving a shoehorn with teeth purely because he knows no such thing exists, a cow that lives under water and a couple who split up during a middle eight that manages to make "Don't call me at work again no no the boss still hates me I'm just tired and I don't love you anymore and there's a restaurant we should check out where the other nightmare people like to go: I mean, nice people, baby wait, I didn't mean to say nightmare" somehow scan.
Despite last year's album Don't Let's Start (a sort of B-sides holding operation), They Might Be Giants' new LP proper, Flood, takes up where Lincoln (some would say mercifully) left off. So we get one song that begins "Where was I? I forgot", another that details the all-too-probable predicament of being reincarnated as a bag of groceries and the frankly unsubstantiated claim that "Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads."
These loyally peculiar lyrical preoccupations: combined with the group's Roy Castle-esque get-a-tune-out-of-anything approach to instrumentation: has had the inevitable effect of splitting listeners into one of two camps: one that believes They Might Be Giants to be the future of rock'n'roll and the other which sees the duo as merely the rotating bow-tie of pop.
"I can't really agree with the idea that we're self-consciously oddball," complains Linnell. "We're not self-consciously anything really. It's never been that styled or thought out. It's always followed its own logic."
"We are aware when we write," continues Flansburgh, "that you don't just makes things funny and that's it. The problem is when you make funny stuff on records, it's there to stay. When you do it in a live show it passes and is gone. But on record it has to stand up to repeated listening. We're into having the records listened to repeatedly and if the songs aren't anything but a bunch of weird noises with some funny lines thrown in, then people aren't going to be interested more than once. The songs have to endure, have a reasonable shelf-life. In a way, the poppy singles like "Birdhouse In Your Soul" are a way to lure people into listening to the other stuff we do. I think people should risk it. It doesn't hurt. Who knows, you might like it. It didn't do anyone any harm to hear "Revolution No. 9" on the White Album. There are no medical records claiming that track killed anyone or even made them feel unwell."
Unlike many tinkly-bonk bedroom musicians, They Might Be Giants play live with convincing attack. Driven by the indelicate pounding of a low-budget drum machine, Flansburgh careers about the stage wringing both fuzz-tone hardcore riffs and disfigured country chops from his electric guitar while Linnell remains stock still, wresting alternately with an accordion and what appears to be the offspring of a saxophone and didgeridoo. When they entertained the good people of London last month, they opted for intimacy above income and: despite ticket demand for nearly 2,500: played the 750-capacity Powerhaus in Islington.
On stage, They Might Be Giants are a sweatily energetic and distinctly American affair, closer in spirit, John Flansburgh believes, to The Ramones than the cosy English whimsy of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, to whom they are often, if a little lazily, compared.
"There was something shocking in a very random way about The Ramones in their early days," says Flansburgh. "Not manipulatively shocking but just in the way that their songs were full of their own personal obsessions. I guess we're a little like that."
The group's committed fans: some in the clinical sense of the word: were worried that signing to a major label (Warner Brothers) last year might curtail the duo's regular trips to those best-left-unexplored areas of the psyche but, it transpires, there was no cause for concern.
"The record company were really sensitive about it," says Linnell, bemused. "We thought that they'd say, Well, that lyric is total nonsense, or, You can't sing that through a bullhorn, but they just left us alone. In fact, we had hardly any information from them at all, although we still suspected that once we'd given the album to them, they'd say, Hey great, then go away and have the whole thing re-recorded by session players."
Early alarm bells sounded when it was rumoured that their hit, "Birdhouse In Your Soul," was a dry pastiche of Warners labelmates R.E.M.
"I really don't even know where that idea could come from," says Flansburgh innocently. "Maybe it's just because we have American accents and sing the word 'bird' with a hard 'r' sound. Linnell has a Michael Stipe-y kind of whine to his voice but that's where the comparisons end really. What would be the point of an R.E.M. spoof? So they've written a few songs about birds. So did Pere Ubu. R.E.M. aren't even a big influence: The Smiths would come up way higher on the list of influences. Anyway, we're not a parody band. That would be facile and totally unsatisfactory."
Birdhouse was one of four potential singles on Flood produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Dexys Midnight Runners, Morrissey) which indicates that we may be seeing a lot more of They Might Be Giants in the British charts.
"We'd never really had producers before," laughs Flansburgh, "but they came out to Brooklyn to do some pre-production and we played them the tracks we wanted to be singles and they timed them to get the arrangements down and so on and then they'd say, Don't you think one minute 20 seconds is just a little short for a single? It's very er, non-traditional. Of course we couldn't see that it was."
"The problem is," explains Linnell, "it's only when we work with other people that we realise a lot of our ideas are completely indefensible. Music's a strange area for debate because there isn't a right and wrong. Whenever we've had arguments with producers, it's always been, Well you're right but I'm right too . . ."
For the more obsessive Gianthead or the simply curious, "The Theys" run a laudably non-profit-making Dial-A-Song phone-line (718-387-6962) upon which a different original song can be heard every day.
"Actually it's a new song every couple of days now," Flansburgh apologises. "My landlady was getting pissed off changing the tapes. But it's a good system if you want to hear new songs or works in progress or some awful reject or something that was too good to put on record."
Do the 40 songs languishing by the ansaphone give some indication of just how prolific They Might Be Giants actually are?
"I think a lot of that has more to do with the format of the band than some God-given Brill Building talent," says Flansburgh modestly. "You can knock off a song very quickly because you don't have to teach it to a band or decide how to arrange all the parts. We do actually write and edit the songs pretty quickly but not having to convince a bass player that he doesn't have to play three million notes on this one does help."
"There are periods," concurs Linnell, "when I sense this dreadfully intense ESP between us . . . and you wish it would go away."
Ah, the fabled They Might Be Giants sense of humour, often responsible for the reckless and quite unexpected use of the words "quirky", "idiosyncratic" and, worst of all, "zany".
"It's most strange," muses Linnell. "Some people do expect you to be real zany. They seem disappointed when they meet you and you don't give them an electric-shock handshake."
"I mean we are fun people," pleads Flansburgh. "We're normal, friendly, warm, clean people. We like to tell jokes and share good times with near strangers but we're not comedians, and even if we were, we wouldn't be constantly telling jokes in our private lives."
"We use humour to touch upon those things that are really too dismal to contemplate," Linnell improvises philosophically. "You could construct an argument that humour is a device for dealing with dark, otherwise unreachable elements."
"We're interested in a lot of strange things but we're not sickos," Flansburgh agrees. "There are people who are really perverse and their job is to shock people in a public horror display but we're interested in that . . . David Lynch half of the world. There's something fascinating about enigmatic phenomena, something glorious about things you can't and never will be able to understand."
Are they, perhaps, prone to over-intellectualisation?
"Well, we're either called over-intellectual or just silly," shrugs Linnell. "It's always one or the other. Neither is really true."
"We are probably more intellectual than a lot of other rock bands, it's true," admits Flansburgh. "We're not a kick-ass rock'n'roll band or an MOR easy-listening group. But I think there's room in the world for us. And if people don't like us, they don't have to buy our records. We're really easy to ignore. There's always Phil Collins waiting there in the display in the front of the record store if you don't want to think too hard . . ."