They Might Be the Hottest Show to Hit the Hilltop

Bradley Scout, April 1994
by Yosha Bourgea

The eagerly-awaited They Might Be Giants concert will finally take place Sunday in Robertson Memorial Field House. Last week, the Scout talked with John Linnell, one of the two Johns who make up the band.

Scout: Where do you come up with your ideas and lyrics?

John Linnell: That's not an uncommon question for us. It's actually one of the questions that really makes us squirm around, because we have a hard time answering. We have a sort of object in mind when we're setting out to do an album, and in the free time we have, we sit down and work on songs. I think the ideas for songs would come anyway, because we're both very compulsive about writing. The ideas come from a different place every time--we don't really have a formula. They have to just pop into our heads.

S: Do you write most of the lyrics individually or together?

JL: We write mostly individually, about half and half of the stuff. John [Flansburgh, the other Giant] made a big pile of lyrics once and handed it to me, and I wrote music for it. On some songs, like for example, "Puppet Head"...I wrote the song, and I didn't like the verses. So I gave it to John, and he filled in all the blanks.

S: Do you enjoy watching people try to figure out your songs?

JL: I think people overanalyze sometimes, but it's okay. Maybe I'm less inclined to get deeply into analysis, I don't know. After a while, you sort of know what people are about without understanding all the symbolism and every little meaning. Especially with rock lyrics, you tend to get into the area of the crackpot pretty quickly. We're not really into writing songs with secret meanings or coded messages. I mean, for example, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" is a song about a nightlight. That's it. It's written from the perspective of a nightlight serenading the occupant of its room. The thing is, there are so many syllables in the songs that we have to come up with something to fill the spaces. So it ends up being kind of Gilbert and Sullivany.

S: Talk a little bit about the next album.

JL: The name of the new album is John Henry. Do you know who he is?

S: He was a hero of the American blacks sometime in the 1800s, wasn't he?

JL: That's right. He was a guy who hammered stone to make tunnels. Then in the mid-19th century they made a steel drill, or a steel hammer, that was better at doing the work (or so the inventors claimed). So there was a contest, between John Henry and the drill, and the drill broke down, and John Henry kept going until he died. So it's kind of a parable of people versus machines. This is also the first time we've recorded with a live band. Until now, everything's been on computer.

S: What's it like to work with a live band?

JL: It's kind of like the story of John Henry--everybody collapses (laughter). But they can go farther. It's a more exciting sound, but it's also more difficult, because you have to get people to learn stuff. Our producer on this one, Paul Fox, wanted it to be as live as possible. We recorded up in Bearsville, New York--it's next to Woodstock, there's a big studio up there--and we recorded everything but the vocals live. I mostly played the organ. We also recorded the horns at the same time. It's very much the opposite of what we've done in the past.

S: How do you decide who sings which songs?

JL: We mostly sing our own songs. Sometimes there's a tradeoff, but that's how it usually goes.

S: You may or may not be aware of this, but on the Internet, there is a newsgroup devoted to discussion of They Might Be Giants. I was talking the other day with a fellow in the group, who said he was a big fan of yours, and he called you "paragons of geek music." How do you feel about that title? And how do you feel about your status as a "cult" group?

JL: Well, I don't feel like a geek. But I like the idea of being a cult band. To me, that just means that we have a group of fans who are particularly into what we're doing. It's not that we're into loyalty, it's that the fans aren't all consumer-based, feeding into the consumer marketing. If we can manage to be the Grateful Dead of the next century, you know, that'd be fine. It would be nice to have that security (laughter). As far as the "nerd" or "geek" thing goes, I think that's a way of describing unusual things when you're uncomfortable with them. Once you get into something, it's no longer weird.

S: On your recent EP, The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas, you did a cover of a Meat Puppets song. Are you fans of theirs? What do you think about so-called grunge music?

JL: Well, the Meat Puppets are not "grunge." They're very much on their own track; they always have been. How long have they been recording, since '83 or something? They have a very personal style, which is one of the things I like about them. Stuff like Up On The Sun is very good. They're also friends of ours. I think most of the stuff we like is personal, individual stuff, not simply styles of music as styles.

S: What did you do before becoming musicians?

JL: We had a lot of crappy jobs. I was a messenger boy for a while, which was actually kind of nice, but we were holding jobs that were not headed for careers. I used to be a stat camera operator. I don't know if you know what that is, but it's a job that's now extinct because computers have made it obsolete. It involved being in a darkroom a lot, putting my hands in chemicals. No one was allowed to come into my darkroom, so there was some security there. John used to do layout for magazines like Conde Nast and Sassy. That's one of his big things, layout. He lays out all our album covers.

S: Two of your songs, "Istanbul Not Constantinople" and "Particle Man," were made into cartoons for Tiny Toon Adventures. How did that come about?

JL: They just offered to do this thing. We really didn't have any creative input; we just gave them the use of the songs, and they took it from there. I thought they did OK with it.

S: It was suggested to me that I ask you if you'd heard any good jokes lately.

JL: No, not particularly. Actually, I'm sort of surprised and relieved that I haven't heard any Kurt Cobain jokes yet; there's a polite silence, it seems. It's kind of nice.

S: What can people expect at the concert?

JL: Well, first of all, we're going to be doing a lot of new songs, stuff from John Henry, and we want to ask people's patience with the unfamiliar stuff. Also, we have a great opening act, Brian Dewan. I don't know if you've ever heard of him. He plays an electric zither. I think if people like what we're doing, they'll like him.