They Might Be Giants' new album, entitled John Henry (on Elektra Records) marks a giant step for the band since it finds John Linnell and John Flansburgh recording with a full band for the first time in their 10-year history. With their unique melange of wit and musicianship, They Might Be Giants (who took their name from an overlooked film starring Joanne Woodward) have won themselves a devoted following since their early days of gigging around Downtown New York.
Since the release of their last album, Apollo 18, in 1992. They Might Be Giants have done extensive touring and released the "Why Does the Sun Shine?" single. In 1993 John Flansburgh established the Hello Recording Club, a subscription-only record club offering exclusive music by artists such as Frank Black and The Residents. TMBG's Dial-A-Song service may have established them as the first "interactive" recording artists.
"Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love," as John and John have dubbed themselves, were interviewed in a Midtown recording studio where they were putting finishing touches on new material.
ROBIN EISGRAU: WHY IS THE ALBUM CALLED JOHN HENRY?
John Linnell: We've finally picked an album name that we can explain, which is good. We've had a lot in the past, where, like Lincoln and Flood we've felt like they have a vibe to them that we thought was particularly good, that spoke to us and seemed to be saying a lot of different things in just the right way. The thing about John Henry is that the story of John Henry is this guy who...it's this 19th Century character who was pitting himself against the machine and you know ultimately that the machine is going to take over his job, but in this particular case he beats the machine but then he dies and it's about that kind of conflict.
This is the first record we've made with a live band, all up until now we've always used sequencers and stuff. It's sort of funny in a way. It's a little bit wry and it's also a sincere expression of our interest in getting human beings to do the job now that we've tried machines out, we want to see what it's like for the band to play the music. It's funny, it seems like the comparison might not hold, but in a way, we have these guys who are these sort of mensches who are struggling to produce the product with us. It's very appealing to me to have people alongside you onstage doing this thing. I don't know what else to say about it. The other thing is that we're both named John. It's just a name that had this resonance.
OF ALL THE SONGS ON THE RECORD, I REALLY LIKE 'I SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO THINK.'
BECAUSE I THINK IT'S A REALLY POLITICAL SONG, BUT IT'S ALSO CHARMING AS OPPOSED TO BEING THIS-IS-HOW-I-FEEL SLOGANEERING.
JL: Well, it's one of those songs...you know there are certain Randy Newman songs, or songs by people where he's obviously not speaking personally, he's not being himself, he's being a character, you know? But he's getting into the character. It's kind of a hard song to write because you're trying to make it clear...in the song, the guy who's singing the song is blaming everyone around him but himself for his problem of not being able to express something and it's something I could sort of get into, but it's sort of a joke in a way. It's not really the way I feel, and it's a parody of the way anybody else particularly feels because it's taken to such an extreme in the song where they're saying the government is preventing them from having ideas.
John and I live in Williamsburg where there's a lot of young bohemians moving in right now, so it's partly inspired by that scene where there's a lot of people running around sticking their flyers up. Now that we're grumpy old men it seems like it's sort of irritating and it's sort of nostalgic and charming to see other people doing their dumb little thing like we did.
IS THERE ANY TIME THAT YOU'RE INACTIVE AS A BAND? IT DOESN'T SEEM LIKE YOU APPROACH TMBG AS AN ALBUM PROJECT. DO YOU VIEW WORKING WITH TMBG AS SOMETHING YOU DO ALL THE TIME?
JL: It sure seems that way.
JF: There haven't been a lot of, like, quiet times in the past 10 years. It really requires a lot of work. I think we're more involved in it than other people are. We're both songwriters. I guess there are bands that take time off and bands that don't. Part of it is that we both pay our rent through doing shows. We're not such a monster success that we can afford to not play. There are times when I think that it definitely puts us in a different place. We're not in that rarified rock place where you can just say 'I'm not going to do this.' We can't really declare ourselves as free of any of life's challenges. That's sort of where we're at. And we're grateful to have the work. It's not like it's such a bad thing being able to tour. Most musicians are dying to tour. It is a lot of work.
AT WHAT POINT WERE YOU ABLE TO DO THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS FULL TIME?
JF: We actually held on to our day jobs a long time into when I think a lot of people would hitch their star to their project or whatever. I don't know, we were working up until '88, something like that. I guess that's the one thing you don't think about when you're in a local band, you're just going 'oh man, I just wish I didn't have to work this horrible job.' One thing when you have that thing going on, everything you do in the band, probably just because everything is new and exciting, but also there is a certain thing where...you rehearse for every gig because every gig is like an event which is very different from being on tour and doing a hundred and something shows.
If you've done a hundred shows in a year, doing the 101st is strangely like just being alive. And it's a funny thing because there are all these lights pointing at you and stuff and you're supposed to be doing your Mick Jagger thing, but if that's not your total orientation and you don't believe you're riding some cultural wave it's a strange place to be.
WHAT SORT OF STYLISTIC PROGRESSION DO YOU THINK HAS OCCURED DURING TMBG'S RECORDING CAREER, FROM ALBUM TO ALBUM?
JL: I think we've learned more about formal things. Not that we were particularly naive when we started, but I think that we had a smaller set of cultural things, references, to work from. We knew about certain rock stuff and a little bit of older stuff, but I think throughout the '80s we got to be a lot more familiar with music of the '50s and '40s that was not rock or youth music. That still has a kind of effect on what we're doing. That's still a really ripe kind of area for us to integrate into what we're doing, not to sound too technical, but it's not something that gets overdone. You don't find a lot of people running those Four Lads covers into the ground. So it still seems like there's a lot to be gotten. A lot more fruitful things are waiting to get sort of reinterpreted or whatever and there's a lot of older music. John started getting into the Mills Brothers about five or six years ago.
JF: From that tape that we bought on the ferry, which was like the Mills Brothers/Andrews Sisters back and forth.
WHAT FERRY WAS THIS?
JL: We were on our first European tour which must have been '87 or so, and we bought a lot of tapes. In fact it seems that we've often gotten tapes while in Europe that have been a real clobber on our heads. We got a Sammy Davis Jr. tape while we were in line for another ferry that was such a great tape that it became the intro to our show for awhile.
JF: One thing I feel about our musical progression, aside from the songs getting slightly longer, which makes them almost regular length, I think we're not afraid that we're boring people. When we started we felt a little insecure about what we were doing and kind of...playing for New York audiences which are not known for being forgiving. We just really wanted to get on, do it and get off. We had a very skittish quality to what we were doing. Even on the first record, where all the tempos are basically faster than we ever played them live, we always were worried that if there was any fat, it was going to be scrutinized.
I don't think we ever thought about the other side of it; that if we act nervous and skittish all the time...we never thought about the other side of it: that there's no groove to this or that there's a downside to being too blunt and I think the final thing is going to be us listening to Beck records and realizing that you can actually do stuff that's a little bit loose and it's even more satisfying than something that's completely uptight.
There's a song on the record called 'Stompbox' and a lot of it was tracked live and there's a sound coming out of the guitar in the middle of every phrase that's just kind of me playing as fast as I possibly can and the guitar part in the middle is completely inaccurate. It's like I'm just hanging on by a thread to the drums, bass and keyboard thing that's happening. The tempo's really frantic but it's like I'm just sort of barely there and that's a perfectly good thing. You feel a real excitement rather than a nervous excitement.
JL: It's funny, in a way, our connection to the zeitgeist of the early '80s was that we were really into accuracy in this perverse sort of way. We've definitely shed a lot of that since then, but it's funny to think that one of the effects of punk rock on us was that we really got into trimming the loose edges off because we didn't want it to be sloppy sounding. For example, the whole thing about 'Ana Ng' was that it's this crazily rigid rhythm that we actually used a machine to cut off the sound of the guitar to make it perfect. It still sounds interesting, and again, it's not really an overused sound. It was such a doctrine for us at the time that we didn't want to have any timing errors on the record to the point where it sounds extremely uptight. Someone pointed out that one of our endearing qualities when we started out was that we were so unbelievably uptight.
JF: I think it's going to take pretty much a lifetime for us to climb back down from our uptight...scene.
THAT'S STRANGE, BECAUSE I ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU GUYS WERE FUN.
JF: (with mock ire) How wrong you were!
JL: (with equally mock ire) Fun for you maybe!
JF: This is serious stuff! (everybody laughs)
JF: But you know, it's not EST.
JL: It's supposed to be fun.
JF: Part of the reason why we didn't want to have any fat or inaccuracy in what we were doing was that you see so many bullshit acts, people who are totally indulging every whim. There's plenty of that.
JL: In other words, think of all their mistakes as ideas. It's true that sometimes your mistakes are interesting ideas but you can take that too far. It's a very common thing in New York.
JF: I don't regret it. It's part of our evolution though, that we just have a little more perpective on how the audience sees what we do and that it's not a doctrine, we're not completely rigid about it. When we started there were no solos. There still aren't that many solos, but we were kind of antisolo.
COULD YOU DISCUSS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE LYRICS AND THE MUSIC OF YOUR SONGS? WHAT USUALLY COMES FIRST?
JF: I think it works every way you could possibly imagine. Part of the whole thing about writing a lot of songs is that you have to always figure out ways to get another one out of you so you have to experiment with different styles.
JL: I think it's an interesting question in that I've historically written the music first and then added the words later and then recently John's been on a thing of writing lyrics just independently of music. Just writing piles of lyrics. Just last year we did a thing where John handed off some of them to me and we were collaborating that way.
But the other thing your question reminded me of was that we have this thing in a way, there's a kind of technique which we've used where there's a relationship between the words and the music. In a way it's part of the way that you get to do one thing by doing the opposite in the other part.
For example, you'd have to say there's a lot of lyrics that we've written that are very dark and address unpleasant subjects and stuff but generally when that's been the case, the music is very upbeat and melodic. That's kind of a thing, I don't want to say it's a schtick of ours but it's something that we've done a bunch and I feel that it always works and is interesting.
JF: You know, we should really explore writing really slow, dour goth music with lighthearted insignificant lyrics, like (John starts to sing in a voice like the Addam's Family Lurch) I... love... flowers.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF BEING DESCRIBED AS QUIRKY?
JF: It's pretty meaningless to us. I feel that it's inappropriate.
JL: It's a way of saying that the thing is unfamiliar and that you find it, like, weird. It's something that gets applied to bands before you decide whether you like them or hate them. It's not really a perceptive description of us.
JF: It's not accurate either. I think most of the humor in what we've done has been kind of deadpan or if there is something that's over the top, it's really hard to even say that. It's not a very direct, personal message, you know? I don't know. I'm often surprised by what people think is funny. I was playing some thing I was doing for my landlady's daughter and it had this weird sax line in it that was bouncy and really low and I thought it sounded really menacing and she thought it was completely comic.
I remember the very first show we did, we had a lot of songs that had screaming in it and stuff and it was a little bit more experimental on some level just because we hadn't really synthesized what we were doing in any big way. I remember thinking that people would assume we were pretty serious, on some level. Not so much that we take direct influence from Pere Ubu, but I always feel like there's something about Pere Ubu that runs similar to what we're doing which is that there's a free set of images in the music and it's kind of street level in some way. It's about regular life in a lot of ways and immediately I knew that was not the way we were ever going to be understood. From the way the audience reacted at the very first show, but up until that point, it wasn't like, when we were rehearsing, I never thought 'Oh, this is the part where, when we do it, people are going to burst into gales of laughter and start applauding.' It was a positive thing on some level but it certainly wasn't the reaction we were going for. In a certain sense what we're doing, it's not about entertainment as much as it might seem.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT'S ABOUT THEN?
JF: Well, I think it really is...it's personal expression on the most bogus level, you know (laughs). We're ready to duke it out with the most self-involved rock performers out there. It just kind of scans a different way. Maybe that's really our lucky break.
JL: Or you can say that maybe that's what entertainment is, that it's always dervied from that, even when it's trying to be impersonal.
JF: But I don't think of Danny Kaye and Kraftwerk as being on the same...there's kind of a wall between them for me. I feel like we're on the Kraftwerk side but we're sort of perceived as Danny Kaye.