French toast, of course. And that's just one of the things I learned when I breakfasted with a couple of intrepid musicians called They Might Be Giants.
You don't expect rock stars to cook for themselves, let alone for you. I mean, just try and picture Michael Hutchence whipping you up a little cheese-and-mushroom omlette. Or Bobby Brown working the kinks out of his spinach souffle. So when John Flansburgh and John Linnell (equal halves of the band They Might Be Giants) invited me 'round to Flansburgh's oh-so-bachelor-like apartment in Brooklyn for homemade french toast, I was a tad taken aback. But I turned up at noon good and hungry anyway.
First of all, that name: They Might Be Giants. While Flansburgh and Linnell might be many things, large is definitely not one of them. The average-size duo is actually titled after a '70s flick starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward that also has nothing to do with excessively tall people. "It's about how insanity is groovy. It was the insanity-chic period of cinema," Linnell explains like he's giving a book report. "It's one of those 'Who's crazy?' movies," the more spontaneous Flansburgh jumps in, adjusting his black-rimmed glasses. "'Who belongs in the asylum? The crazy people or the people who aren't crazy?'"
It's a question the two Johns are still trying to unravel, but only in their ever-decreasing spare time. See, while They Might Be Giants may have started out small, they've ended up big: In the past seven years they've gone from playing some of New York City's divier dives to conquering college radio stations across the country (always a good sign) to successfully maneuvering the leap from an independent record label (Bar None) to one you may even have head of (Elektra). And this year brings the release of their third album, Flood, which just can't help but make the band giant for real.
Like their previous efforts (the self-titled They Might Be Giants and Lincoln), Flood offers a busload of songs that manage to make learning fun. Their unpretentious lyrics firmly encourage you to use your brain ("Everybody wants a rock to wind a piece of string around," for example). At the same time, the innovative blend of prerecorded percussion, Linnell's ukelele and accordion solos and Flansburgh's guitar work is making your feet move. So you can think and dance. Or just dance. Or just think and smile to yourself.
Personally, I smile to myself a lot when I listen to my TMBG tapes, and found myself positively beaming in the band's presence, mainly because that tossed salad of seriousness and jolliness is the happy truth about The Giants as people too. So you have to grin. Especially when Linnell (who's like that enigmatic guy in the back row of history class who looks like he's either thinking deep or not thinking at all) is earnestly explaining how the two of them evenly share the work and the glory, while the immensely huggable Flansburgh is handing you coffee in a paper cup (didn't I tell you it was a bachelor pad?).
All this mischief started back in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where Flansburgh, now 29, and Linnell, 30, hooked up in high school. "John was always calling me up, and I didn't know who he was really," Linnell explains. "He'd call and go, 'So. Linnell. What's happenin'?'" If Linnell was drawn to Flansburgh by his outgoingness (is that a word?), Flansburgh was equally drawn to Linnell by his maturity. "It always seemed like he was farther along in every way," says Flansburgh. "He knew all this groovy alternative music I'd never heard of."
What finally clinched their relationship, however, was that they were both working on the school newspaper. "The paper was kind of a red herring," remembers Linnell, who was actually the herring's editor. "We had an office, which meant we could go hang out there. We had a smelly sofa and stuff to play with. Some of the articles were good, but it never seemed like that was the point. I didn't write too many articles. I mostly crossed out bad grammar."
"It was like, 'We declare a high school newspaper with no sports section,'" adds Flansburgh, looking so nostalgic I half expect him to whip out his yearbook. "We had this complete declaration of kookaholicness." Unfortunately, the school administration was a lot less kooky and decreed that the sports section must remain. Perhaps to vent, Linnell and a few other friends started an underground comic book. "We did this centerfold thing of us dressed as Nazis saying we were gonna make some changes in the school," says Linnell. Flansburgh was impressed. "The very foundation of my respect for Linnell is based on that totally suspect cartoon," he says, smiling. Linnell practically blushes.
Years later the two were still friends, working at rather odd jobs (Linnell was a bike messenger, and Flansburgh swears he was once paid to count commuters in NYC's Grand Central Station). "When we decided to put a band together it was this bass player who lived in the building we were both living in in Brooklyn," Linnell explains. "He said, 'Let's make a band.' John and I would never have admitted that that was something we actually wanted to do, but suddenly it seemed groovy. We never performed, but we felt like a band because we practiced our three songs over and over."
This three-man, three-song band ultimately disintegrated, leaving the much more prolific duo, which kept right on writing heaps of tunes despite the conspicuous absence of a record deal. In an effort to get their work heard by someone-anyone-Flansburgh invented the world's first Dial-A-Song phone line, which is still thriving (718-387-6962, if you're interested) and continues to feature a new song every 24 hours. "Some days we get about a bizillion calls," estimates Flansburgh, with typical precision. "And some of the songs aren't, like the greatest things in the world."
It's not just phone calls they're getting lots of: For the band's current multi-country tour to support Flood, TMBG's touring troupe has doubled to four whole crew members and two plushly appointed Ford Econolines. But, says Flansburgh, "the pleasure of being on the road is sort of odd. There's something stupid about doing so much traveling because you can't really take stuff in." They do their best, however, particularly when it comes to giant-size attractions. "There's a famous incident of us during our last tour wearing Burger King crowns and fighting with the crew about whether we should drive one mile out of our way to see the world's largest chair in Thomasville, North Carolina," Linnell says. This sends Flansburgh off in search of his official TMBG tour Polaroids, hoping to find a snap of the aforementioned monstrosity. (No luck, but I did see just about every dressing room they've ever dressed in.)
Wherever they are, though, the Giants are building even more of their tunes. "Because we're a two-man band, we use a lot of technology-type things like computers and synthesizers," explains Flansburgh, as I eyeball the mounds of heavy black equipment set up in his living room/recording studio. "We put the parts of the songs together at home [each one writes the songs that he'll sing on the album], so we come to the studio more prepared than most bands. That's probably why we don't sound quite like regular studio records."
Their unconventional sound is just part of the reason the band's fans--you, me and about a million others dotting the globe--keeps the mail pouring in. Flansburgh and Linnell estimate they get a few hundred listener letters a month, and they answer every single one themselves. "We don't have form letters or anything," Flansburgh says, sounding sort of chagrined that I would even ask. "We just write a note thanking them for the letter and answer one question." Then there are those fans who get special treatment. Like the girl who wrote to complain that her local record store didn't sell on of the band's tapes. So Flansburgh sent her one. And the fan letter from Japan that Linnell answered. In Japanese.
By this point I've finished eating and come to a conclusion: So maybe Flansburgh and Linnell aren't really 12 feet tall. But what these guys lack in literal giganticness, they make up for in niceness and humor and brilliance and talent and something of a flair for french toast. And they didn't even make me do the dishes.