Gleeful tunes laced with sinister surrealism. Cheerful ditties about life, death, hatred, shyness, love, and guitars. That's only some of the musical terrain They Might Be Giants have claimed for their own. Their most recent album is Apollo 18, featuring 18 songs: except that "Fingertips" is a monster collage of tidbits divided into 20 individual tracks ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes long. Most CD players have a RANDOM/SHUFFLE setting, and when you do that with this album, you get an unpredictable sound collage: the accidental juxtapositions are fascinating.
They Might Be Giants is the duo of John Linnell (accordion, bari sax, clarinet) and John Flansburgh (guitar). In concert at the Barrymore in Madison last month, they were augmented on stage by bass, drums, and reeds/keyboards, creating a tightly-rehearsed, full-size rock band sound. Yet musical and lyrical weirdness abounds, both live and on record. My favorite tracks on Apollo 18 are the strangest and funniest: "Spider," "She's Actual Size," "The Guitar" (which is a bent arrangement of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), and "Turn Around." But even the funniest tunes here have a dark underside: an awareness of the unpredictability of life. Apollo 18 extends the Giants' ascending orbit with brilliant, rocket-fueled modules of madness and music.
So where does this musical mayhem come from? I talked to John Linnell in a phone interview before the Madison show. He was very personable and articulate, friendly and full of the trademark They Might Be Giants ironies.
NS&S: Considering the nature of your music, I thought I'd throw out my prepared questions . . . .
John Linnell: I always understand the basis for prepared questions, because there are questions I like to ask people about their music. But on the other hand, as you probably already know, most musicians are made uncomfortable by questions like "What are your influences?"
I understand. So, what are your influences?
[laughter] Well, I've been heavily influenced by doing phone interviews . . . No. John and I are in our early thirties now. I sort of feel like we actually do have pretty much the same influences everyone else has who are our age. We were at a particularly impressionable age during the Beatles' career: this was the brand new music that every eight-year-old could like who had an older brother who bought records. It definitely wasn't too freaky for you to get into at that age, and it was something that you'd still like when you were older. So that was a really important influence, for that fortuitous reason, that we were that age at that time. But obviously there were other elements that grew in importance in the '70s, notably the emergence of things that were connected to underground rock or suggested something other than the mainstream, a kind of music you could identify with.
Like the experimental art rock stuff?
Not necessarily the most outside stuff. Basically there's this thing that happens for every person when they start getting a little older, when they realize that they don't have to like everything that's mainstream. They don't necessarily like everything that everyone else likes. They don't have to identify themselves as being like everyone else in order to feel good about themselves. So everybody starts to feel like there's something more individual that they're into. So for us, it was music that was not mainstream.
How do you get into the accordion?
I bought my first accordion in 1984, and I borrowed somebody's the year before and played it a little bit. But I got serious about it in '84; it became my instrument.
So you think of that as your main instrument.
Well, it is. In our performance, that's the instrument I use to play. When I write songs, that's the instrument I generally write on.
Do you still play sax, too?
Yeah, sure. On this tour now I've got a bari sax, and I'm playing clarinet as well. In previous years I've played bass sax, which is a real drag to try and carry around. Not only is it gigantic, but the case for it is even bigger. I think the crew is really happy that I switched to baritone.
It seems like a natural question to ask how you do your music on tour?
For the last nine years we've been doing it using tapes. Recently we had an eight-track reel-to-reel doing all this stuff. We'd recorded everything ourselves; it was a band composed of us. That was the show up until this summer. Now for the first time we're taking out a live rhythm section and a keyboardist/saxophonist. So we're now a five-piece. But we've never done this before, so this is kind of a major thing. This is partly why we've having such an elaborate production rehearsal, to make sure all the bugs are working. Keep those bugs in line!
Do you have precise ideas for arrangements in mind when you compose?
Oh yeah. The arrangements are half the reason why we do this, because we like to arrange music. The arrangement and the song are very bound up to one another in almost all cases with us. The drum sounds and instrument sounds are very important: it's really part of the song. It sort of comes out of doing stuff where you're just at home with a tape recorder for years and years. That was really how we started out.
The Living Room Studio Effect.
Yeah, exactly. We didn't start out playing in little groups and doing shows: that yields a very different result in a musician, when that's their background. It's obviously a good thing, and something we miss from not having done a lot of jamming with people and done that kind of work.
How does your sense of arrangements affect a piece like "Fingertips" on the new album? It seems like that's very much a collage piece.
"Fingertips" was one of those really worked-out things, in some ways like a logical extension of what we've been doing all along. It's hyper-arranged, practically that's what it is, an arrangement. All the little bits are extremely short and melodic. So it's a lot like everything else we've done, only even more so.
Taken to the ultimate in some way.
Yeah. That's like the extreme, the apogee of one our orbits. Using this live band is exactly the opposite for us. It's interesting now for us, now that we've done both things.
Are you going to be doing "Fingertips" live?
I don't think so, no. It's really hard work adapting these arrangements to a live band. Just with the songs alone, it's been such a chore to get everything memorized, get everyone to figure out all the parts and memorize them. The fact that we haven't even starting working on "Fingertips" now would suggest to me that we'll never learn it. There's other stuff that we're kind of halfway there with, maybe we'll get together by the end of this tour.
Your arrangements are so tight and precise, it would seem to be somewhat tricky to teach them to other people.
And cruel. Unnecessarily so. [laughter]
Do you take out the whip when you're rehearsing?
Well, you know, we're playing with people who we personally like a lot, get along with, and it's definitely fun to be around them. So you have to temper your fascist impulses. The impulses that John and I have evolved from just having machines that do whatever you want for years and years. Or mostly whatever you want, whatever you can get them to do.
Are you still doing Dial-A-Song, then?
Absolutely. Dial-A-Song will never die. In fact, I'm sure long after we've broken up, stopped making records, done all that stuff, that we could still do Dial-A-Song. It's so easy. It's just a phone machine. Doesn't require any work. I guess the work is doing the demo for the songs that we'd be making anyway. They don't have to sound okay, they just have to be audible: 'cause they don't sound okay once they go over the phone line anyway.
Where did Dial-A-Song come from?
The obvious answer is that there were all those Dial-A-Prayer things when we were growing up. It just seemed like kind of an easy thing. They'd come out with phone machines in the early '80s; it was something you could buy and use. It was Flansburgh's idea; he wanted to just do it on his own phone. To me it seemed like a horrible idea, 'cause I knew first of all that I'd never be able to reach him again. Three minute message on his machine, so you'd have to listen to that whole thing in order to call him. It was true for about a year; the only way to reach John was to call Dial-A-Song and start yelling after the beep for him to pick up the phone. Hopefully he was there.
When did you actually start that?
In '83, I believe. It was right around the time that we'd started performing out. I wasn't playing the accordion yet, but we had a series of mishaps. One was John had his apartment broken into, and he lost a really nice guitar, and the tape recorder we'd been using for the live show, the reel-to-reel, and an amplifier. That put a damper on our performing lives. And then the other thing was, the same week, I fell off my bicycle and broke my wrist, so my whole right hand was in a cast. That really meant we had a lot more free time than we had had previously. So it was time to implement Dial-A-Song.
What's your total output of songs now? Are your up to 800 or so?
800? Well, we've got four albums out, we've got another thing that's just B-sides, plus we've got new B-sides from the last two albums.
From the singles releases?
Yeah, exactly. So I think the total is a hundred songs released. I'd venture to guess there's maybe another hundred songs that we never want anyone to hear, somewhere in the vault. The main thing is that the ones you get are the ones that are any good, and the ones you don't hear, you don't have to worry about, because they're terrible. They probably were on Dial-A-Song, but we took them off.
You guys have been called coffee-driven Dadaists, and I wondered what your caffeine intake was like.
Very high. I've got a little empty styrofoam cup in front of me right now. See, I don't actually drink a lot, but it has a really extreme effect on me. It governs my life.