They Might Be Giants have made a name for themselves as a couple of talented guys who play music which is slightly quirky and definitely fun. Their breakthrough album, Flood, was a commercial hit, thanks to the hit single/video "Birdhouse In Your Soul." The band toured extensively and made numerous television and radio appearances. Their new album, Apollo 18, is in the same vein as their previous records. If the success of Flood is any indication, there is no telling how far Apollo 18 may fly. Accordion player/songwriter John Linnell spoke to Music Revue from Brooklyn about the new album, the upcoming tour and a number of other fun things.
How do you feel the stylistic diversity on Apollo 18 works as a whole piece?
John Linnell: Well, to me it always sounds like there's a lot of different stuff going on. But I have this idea that it all sounds like us. We've been doing this so long, we're so far into it that it is difficult for me to say what our sound is. But one thing I know is that we have a way that we work which is consistent. Like one example is we always produce things in a fairly kind of clear sounding way so you can hear all the instruments. We also both sing in a particular way. We each sing about half the songs on the record, but I think we sound similar. And then there is this sensibility in the songs that even though they're varied it's kind of consistent.
What is the songwriting process in They Might Be Giants?
Linnell: There are a lot of different ways to write songs. We try to mix it up. You know, come up with different systems. But there is kind of this old standby, this old dependable thing that I do, which is I just sit on my bed with the accordion and just sort of play chords and sing and kind of wait for something good to come out. So that gets me pretty far and then there's a lot of different ways of coming up with melodies. We have this song called "Turn Around" on the record, and, this sounds sort of odd, but I just sang these melodies into my sampler and had each key triggering a different two or three note melody, and I just messed around with it. I think John does that even more. He likes to work in his home studio and come up with sounds. He likes to come up with the drum sounds and the whole sound of it while he's working.
John, where does the inspiration come from for your, shall we say, wacky lyrics?
Linnell: You know it's really hard to say where it comes from. I mean, the easiest way to describe it is we come up with words that seem right at the time, that are satisfying. But it's hard to know where the individual ideas come in from. They really seem to come out of thin air. I know there are a lot of songwriters who write very different sounding material like us, but they say the same thing. Their ideas just come from the air.
As nutty as your music is, how do you see your band fitting in with today's music scene?
Linnell: I sort of feel like we don't fit in, there are a lot of other bands that I like which don't necessarily fit in. There doesn't have to be a band to do some things, you know? They just happen to be around. I feel like there are some things we do which are really old fashioned and in that sense we don't really fit in. But I think we also are a contemporary band in a lot of ways.
Has MTV had a good effect on your career and on music today?
Linnell: Well, it certainly had a good effect on our popularity. I think we definitely had qualms about it right from the beginning. There's not any reason to change our opinion about it 'cause when you make a video of your song people have a image stuck in their head when they hear the song. It just automatically affects the song with something else that isn't necessarily the thing you were thinking of when you wrote the song. It's really a tricky thing that way. But I think most people like our videos. In other words, people who would like our music anyway don't see a problem with the videos we make. And I basically like them. I don't think of them as like the main kind of artistic expression we are involved with. In a way they sort of seem like they are in this fuzzy area between advertising and the rest of the work we do. So it's sort of complicated, but I basically like our videos. I think it is interesting making them.
How has the band's style changed on Apollo 18?
Linnell: I don't know if it really is that different. It's a bunch of new songs. The songs don't sound the same as the old songs, but they don't sound the same as each other. I have a hard time getting a grip on where we're going with this. We never really had a goal. We don't have a charter for where we're gonna go in the future. And we've never made concept albums. We've never tried to tailor the songs to a theme or anything like that. So what we end up doing is writing a lot of songs and collecting them all together and arranging them in an order that is nice. The albums that we do are sort of a record of what we've done up till then.
Is a tour in the works John?
Linnell: Yes, we're going to be touring pretty much right through the whole year.
How do you reproduce the many sounds in your music live?
Linnell: Well, I don't know if you've seen our show, but it's just the two of us onstage. I play the accordion and John plays the guitar, and tapes playing all of the other stuff. But it's super obvious like what's on tape and what's live. It's pretty much drums and bass on tape, so it's not like a big fake set. All of the singing and instruments that we play are live. But it does seem like a good way to handle the material we do because the instruments change so much from song to song. Even if we had a live band it would be difficult to reproduce some of the stuff. But, having said that, we are considering this time around bringing a bass and drums with us. It would be the first time we've ever done this. I sort of am resistant, because we've always had pressure to do this kind of thing for years and years. And we've always resisted it. I want it to be clear that this is our own idea, but I think if we pick the right people and work hard at getting the arrangements up it will be pretty interesting.