Interview with John Linnell

The Splatter Effect, 1994
by Spiros P. Ballas II

John Flansburgh and John Linnell are They Might Be Giants. They've been friends since childhood, at least that's what we established in an interview they did with them way back in 1987. That was around the release of their first eponymous titled debut on Bar None Records. Since then their little collaborations have become increasingly popular. In fact, their third album, Flood, has recently been certified as a gold record, meaning it sold over 500,000 copies. I even heard from someone that Bon Jovi said it was one of his favorite records of that year (1990)--I'm not sure what that indicates. Recently, Elektra Records released the band's sixth (fifth studio) album. It's entitled John Henry. Up until this release this duo was doing business as usual, playing their quirky pop songs with the aid of a drum machine and straying further and further from their Brooklyn base, but they decided somewhere in the promotional touring for their Apollo 18 album (1992) to change everything around, not with their music, like they're known to do, but with their line-up. Aw, heck! You'll see...

The Splatter Effect: The obvious thing to start with is the "whole band" concept the label seems to be pushing with this release.

John Linnell: It's sort of like what we're pushing it as. I mean, we need something to talk about [I laugh] because, if you say [he goes into a "professionally excited" voice], "This album is of our best songs ever!", no one is going to believe you, even if it is true.

TSE: Well, since it seems the songwriting credits are the same, what then are the differences now that you have a band?

JL: The difference is in the sound. We wrote the songs the same way that we always write, which is, we make demos at home. In this case, instead of going into a studio and producing the demos in a more "recordy" way, we gave the demos to these other musicians, our drummer and bass player [Ed.'s note: Brian Doherty and Tony Maimone respectively], and wrote horn charts for some of them, and that's how we put the whole thing together. It was a really interesting process for us, because we worked with a producer, Paul Fox, who stipulated that we record things as live as possible, which meant for us to record everything, except the vocals, at the same time, and only doing certain overdubs which just couldn't be done live. This meant that we actually had to learn all the songs, completely. The band had to learn how to play!

TSE: Weren't you on the road for a while? I guess that was part of the plan?

JL: That was it. We did a lot of playing together before we recorded. But we also rehearsed for about two weeks in this barn up in Woodstock near the studio, Bearsville Studio. Actually, the barn is part of the studio. And this really refined the arrangements to the point where we felt we could play them live and not make any mistakes. Paul Fox really frowned on doing "punch-ins", which is something that John [Flansburgh] and I sort of have been reliant on in the past. Fixing up the mistakes.

TSE: Did you pick him as a producer to keep you two awake?

JL: [He laughs] Well, yeah. We were completely changing the way we worked, so we needed somebody to make the drum sound real. A lot of the stuff we were doing was totally outside our field of past experience--recording a live rhythm section and horn section along with us, you know? So we got somebody who had done that before and who was enthusiastic about getting us to do it.

TSE: I'm guessing that you have done a lot of interviews in the last few weeks. Has anyone accused this "band" thing as just being another gimmick?

JL: No, no. Gimmick? This is the first time that I heard that suggested. But as a gimmick, it would be a funny one.

TSE: It's just with your history--the Dial-A-Song, the hats [Linnell laughs] and the accordion--it just seems...Well, I'm wondering if this angle is just another thing you're doing to get press, or is it something the two of you have been working towards all along?

JL: Well, we haven't been building up to it, that's for sure. The band came as a real surprise to us, as odd as that may sound. We were in the middle of our tour last year when it occurred to one of us to hire another musician to come play with us. Once we made that conceptual jump we thought, "Why don't we just get rid of the tape and hire an entire rhythm section while we're at it." So we did that while we were touring for Apollo 18 and it worked out very well. It was actually a lot easier than we imagined. It was at that point that we decided to make a whole record as a live band. But I don't think you can say that we've been particularly "gimmick" oriented. We really had a manner of working which lasted us for not just through four albums, but also for a b-sides collection as well.

TSE: All of which I have in front of me.

JL: We in fact started in '83 with more or less the exact same format of performing that we had up until two years ago, so we haven't been just dancing around trying to come up with a new gimmick each time. We just try to do stuff which suits the material. We found that the tape show was getting more and more to be bass and drums on the tape and John and I playing guitar, keyboards and singing live. So it became a thing that completely lent itself to a live band. It wasn't that it was a bad show--I'd be happy to go back to it. I think it was a really good way to present the material we were working with, but we've found another way to do it which I think is pretty good too, and it's a challenge for us to do, which makes it fun for us.

TSE: Out of curiousity, do you still have the Dial-A-Song?

JL: Oh yeah.

TSE: Is that still a new song every day?

JL: Yeah.

TSE: What I'm getting at is that by now that's a lot of songs.

JL: After three years, you figure there are about a thousand songs.

TSE: And it's been a lot longer than three years!

JL: Let's see. It's almost twelve years, so that should be about four thousand songs by now. Well, actually, there is a new song every day, but after about two weeks, it repeats. So, I'd have to say there have been about a total of two hundred songs. Most of the material that has been on Dial-A-Song has come out on record. There are five records so far and John Henry will be number six. They all have eighteen or so songs, and then there are the b-sides too.

TSE: Where did the name "John Henry" come from to become the name of the album?

JL: We tossed around a bunch of different names, and that one struck us as particularly defensible. We generally have the practice of coming up with a name not worrying about having to talk to anyone about it, you know, to define "what it means" or "why we gave it to the record." In a way our favorite kind of names have been indefensible, open-ended titles, like Lincoln or Flood. They just suggest a lot of things and yet don't mean anything very specific, but John Henry does mean something very specific to us, which is, because it is our first record with a live band, we thought the story of John Henry was very appropriate.

TSE: You're scaring the machine.

JL: That's right.

TSE: You just came back from Europe?

JL: That's right. We were shooting a video in Berlin. And they're having a heat wave in Berlin right now, which is driving everyone nuts because it normally never gets hot there so no one has air-conditioning. None of the hotels, either. It's really an unusual situation.

TSE: Did this help the video-making process?

JL: Ah, not really. No. In fact, being indoors, under hot lights from the time you get up until the time the sun goes down is usually best done in wintertime in a cold climate.

TSE: Is there a special reason why you had to shoot this video there?

JL: The director, Nico Byer has this particular fixation with Eastern European architecture and style and he's really into this TV station in East Berlin where he filmed a lot of their equipment for the video. The idea of the video is "an Eastern European scientist making a rock video" and I don't know if I can explain it much beyond that. [He snickers.] But we'll see what it looks like when it's done.

TSE: Speaking of "not being able to explain things", there's an outtake of a conversation on one of your records where some people are talking about your Dial-A-Song line. Where did that come from? Was it rehearsed?

JL: That was from Dial-A-Song. At one time, early on, the Dial-A-Song line could take incoming messages. Someone once called from a party line and this woman was talking to someone else after listening to the song, and, because they were on a conference call, they couldn't hang up on the third party--that's just how it works. They probably didn't even realize that they were being recorded. They just kept talking. I think the tape went on for the whole length of the cassette--forty-five minutes. We just used about two minutes of that whole thing.

TSE: Have they heard themselves on record?

JL: I hope not. I don't want to hear from their lawyers.

TSE: I guess the first time that I talked to you was back in '87, when you played at the Loop Lounge.

JL: Wow, yeah.

TSE: Then you were complaining about not being accepted by commercial radio and MTV. Obviously that has changed.

JL: Yes, and subsequently abandoned.

TSE: Well, I figure if you complain about it now they'll pick up on the video.

JL: Who knows? MTV has gotten very conservative. In a way they're not even focused on music videos the way they used to be. But, actually, it's funny that we were complaining in '87 about that because at that moment we were getting our first video played on MTV, which was really a flukey thing. We were not the typical "MTV band" at that time either. I seem to remember that we were sandwiched in between Whitney Houston and Whitesnake. It was just very lucky that somebody at MTV decided to stick us in there.

TSE: I, of course, always attributed it to my interview. Just weeks after complaining on my pages, there you are on MTV!

JL: No doubt, and we're counting on you again!

TSE: But what are your fears, your complaints, now that it has been about seven years?

JL: I don't remember complaining, but I'm guessing that at that time we just didn't know what to expect. We certainly felt that we didn't have a particular role model and we do even less now. The one possible role model that we have is that of a "cult band." We are going to grow old with a loyal following of anywhere from two people to some much larger number, but we didn't slip into the mainstream, and it doesn't seem to be in the cards particularly. But I admire other cult bands. I think that is actually a good way to manage your career. The Grateful Dead had the right idea.

TSE: Well, it really gives you more creative control.

JL: Yeah.

TSE: Some of the themes that I've noticed popping up in your songs are science, space, a lot of spy/detective type lyrics...

JL: And a lot of animals, especially on this record and the last one in particular. And transportation is another one.

TSE: Ah, why?

JL: I think there are just certain words you end up using when you try to say something interesting. There are certain nouns that I think of as very ordinary--like "car"--that seem to work well in the kind of songs that we write, so that's the reason. It's not that the subjects are particularly dear to us as they are the kind of subjects that function well in They Might Be Giants songs. We just like to talk about ordinary stuff, like, kind of...oh, what's the word? Sort of quotidian type things, the everyday things are things that you can never hear enough about in songs. And there are a lot of things that seem like ordinary, everyday things, but no one seems to sing about them, so they're appealing in that way. There is a kind of song that...for example, the ones that we write that give you information about a subject, like "The Science Song", "Mammal", and "Meet James Ensor" from the new record. They're not told from a personal perspective; it's not somebody spilling their innermost feelings toward you. It's more of this impersonal thing or giving you info.

TSE: Music for knowledge.

JL: Yeah, but in fact they are personal songs because it is us talking about something. I was talking about this recently. When a song declares itself to be "expressive" or "personal" or "intimate" the effect is often the opposite. And I think that the opposite can be true. If we sing about something dry, it allows you to get into it without the heavy-handedness of expecting you to emote. You're free to listen your own way.

TSE: What is music to you?

JL: For John and I it's a very compulsive kind of...not in the strict technical sense, it's not like we have a clinical problem, but it's just that it is kind of our attitude about it. It's something we'd be doing anyway even if we weren't paid to do it. It was something we did for a long time before anybody was interested, which is not to say we don't want to earn money at it because it is a great way to make a living if you can, but that isn't why we're doing it.

TSE: Is it the arrangement and the idea of creating a song that you like? Is it the need to express yourself, or...?

JL: There are a lot of different aspects to it. But the personal expression aspect is not the most interesting to us, like I was saying. But there is something great about creating something that you like and feeling like it's filling a need, a gap, culturally. Making the kind of records you wish there were more of. That's one thing we do. And I have a personal--a real obsession with melody and harmony. I can really never get enough of that kind of thing. In some ways I'm a little too fixated on those kinds of things. I don't think too much about the cultural context of what we're doing. I think John is more on that end of it. He thinks more in terms of the larger picture, the larger meaning of what we're doing. I'm more into the technical end, the chords and the rhythms and the melodies.

TSE: I'm assuming that the band has become a living for you.

JL: Oh, yes.

TSE: How did that change--or maybe it didn't--your appreciation for music and making it?
JL: It's harder once you're no longer hungry to...[he pauses for a second]...to have the same ambition for what you're doing, like "I want to be on TV," because once you've already been on TV, you run out of things to want in that regard. But like I said, we do this in a compulsive way. It hasn't been driven by that much of a desire to be on top of the charts or to chat with Jay Leno or whatever. We are in fact very goalless as a band. We just love to continue to do the work and to continue to make it fresh and new, and that's the real challenge. It gets harder and harder every time we sit down to to come up with something else to say and to say it in a way that's interesting.

TSE: Coming up with song "number three."

JL: Exactly. And that's good. That's the challenge for us, and, as far as making money, it's just enabled us to work more efficently.

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