They Might Be Giants

New Route, Fall 1988
by Eric Boehlert

John Flansburgh, the guitar-playing half of They Might Be Giants, is choosing his favorite song from the band's latest album, Lincoln. He eventually decides on the pre-release single for college radio stations, "Ana Ng." He likes it because "it's unusual and hard to grasp," which is also how he sums up They Might Be Giants. And that's the way the band likes it.

Says Flansburgh, "We don't make it easy for people to understand us." Lincoln confirms that notion. The album picks up where TMBG's debut left off; with oddly catchy melodies backed by the band's now familiar grab bag of sounds anchored by canned music and an accordion.

Lincoln is also home to the band's, um, strange lyrical offerings. For instance; "Cow's a friend to me/Lives beneath the ocean and that's where I will be;" "People should get beat up for stating their beliefs," and "I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class..." Flansburgh admits, in his ever-present sarcastic droll, the last one was penned from a "very personal perspective."

Flansburgh and hometown friend John Linnell formed They Might Be Giants in the early 1980s when they unknowingly moved into the same Brooklyn apartment building on the same day. But tackling New York City's club scene was at times trying. Flansburgh remembers playing with a lot of biker bands who liked doing Beatles covers. Looking back, Flansburgh is convinced the week TMBG arrived in town was "the week all the groovy clubs closed down."

The help of new clubs like the Pyramid and Darnika, along with the band's quirky shows and sound, they began to gain a following. Today Flansburgh reminiscently puts the number of early fans at "about 40."

That all changed with the release of their debut album which sold 100,000 copies, and a follow up EP that sold over 30,000. And aided by a CD single along with a heavy rotation MTV video for their left field hit "Don't Let's Start," TMBG has hit the American pop promise land.

That opened the door to touring nation-wide. But did people outside New York's Lower East Side get it when the band donned their three-foot fezzes or when they asked the crowd to scream as if they were in hell? "Yeah," says Flansburgh, "they did." The only place the band slightly changes the show is in the Deep South. Flansburgh jokes, "We swear a little more often, and sure enough, it works."

Flansburgh thinks one of the reasons audiences are so receptive to TMBG's offbeat show is because "we're not preoccupied with being cool." Anyone who has seen the band can attest to that. With their school-boy enthusiasm and Jr. High fashions, Linnell and Flansburgh come across as fun, friendly oddballs. But they don't want to overdo it to the point of annoying people. Says Flansburgh, "We don't want to be the band everyone hates in a year."

For now though, the band is confident about Lincoln and poised for another tour. Flansburgh points with pride to the fact that "all the songs on Lincoln are over a minute long, so you know it's a pretty solid effort...We're hoping it will be our Thriller." And as for a tour name, "We're thinking about the Wait I Forgot My Jacket tour, but we're not sure."