Brainchild of a Giant

Creative Loafing, January 6, 1994

The thought of joining a CD of the month club usually brings to mind scheming record companies who bait the unwary with screaming offers of ALL THE CDs YOU'VE EVER WANTED FOR A DIME and then once you've bitten try to force full-priced discs by the Judds and Yanni into your mailbox by threat of legal action. The wise steer clear of scams such as these.

But when such a club is the brainchild of John Flansburgh of the quirky yet brilliant group They Might Be Giants, and when the discs feature one-of-a-kind performances by such underground luminaries as the Residents, former Pixie Frank Black and an alt-rock supergroup consisting of R.E.M's Peter Buck, members of NRBQ and Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows, curiousity forces you to give the idea of joining a chance.

Flansburgh is the perfect person to head such a project. As half of the chewy creative center of TMBG, his progressive credentials are nearly giant-sized. Since the release of the group's first album in 1986, Flansburgh and fellow-Giant John Linnell have concocted a sound that features uncannily catchy melodies and wonderfully absurd lyrics that go from pop to punk to jazz to movie soundtrack camp. He brings this off-kilter sensibility to his recent side-project, the Hello Recording Club.

"At first we were thinking of starting just a regular old indie record label," Flansburgh said. However, while in Japan toward the end of '92, he and Marjorie Galen, who works for TMBG's management company and who started Hello with Flansburgh, were discouraged from going in that direction after doing some quick financial projections.

"We realized we had no money," he said. They still wanted to do something to give exposure to new music, however, and after some new calculations realized they would have enough to start a record-of-the-month club. Describing the project as "self-defining" and "self-capitalizing," Flansburgh and his partner print only as many discs as there are subscribers.

"It's not a big financial extension for us," he said. "And it's in the black, which is great."

That's a nifty capitalist accomplishment for a guy whose first appearance with John Linnell was at a 1982 Sandinista rally in Central Park. The more you learn about Flansburgh, though, the less surprising such paradoxes seem.

A member of a band that is solidly entrenched in what most would call the alternative division of pop music - a massive clique that derives much of its identity from one cable TV station and several thousand ads in a half dozen or so music magazines - it would seem natural for Flansburgh to champion the cause of the MTV Nation. But Flansburgh, a self-described populist, rejects the officially sanctioned definition of what makes up the non-mainstream, offering instead a refreshingly snobby substitute.

"As far as the relationship of the mainstream to the subculture, I don't give a Shiite about that," he said. "The things I've always liked that are outside of the mainstream are really singular." By singular, Flansburgh means groups that are musically unique and conceptually original, not those that fall into the narrow version of "alternative" embraced by the Lollapalooza generation. He illustrates his point by comparing the eclectic radio programming of the '60s and early '70s to what passes for progressive radio in the '90s.

"Free form radio was really something that blows the doors off all of anything that's called alternative programming," he said. "It's the difference between what was just groovy then and what's considered cutting edge now." After a pause he concludes that "people congratulate themselves a lot now on something that's not that off-beat." Or much ado about nothing.

Refreshingly, he doesn't accuse the record companies of causing this breakdown of taste via some international conspiracy bent on convincing everyone under twenty-five that Eddie Vedder is the new Dylan. He places the blame right where it belongs: on us.

"I think it's the people," he asserts. "The record company is only serving the mass audience." In his view, the businessmen only give the people what they want. And what we want is music that is radical on the outside, but familiar and unchallenging on the inside.

"The only difference between a Barry Manilow crowd and some alternative heavy metal audience is that one is wrapping themselves in the flag of rebellion," he said. "But there's nothing rebellious about it." So Tool is just Liberace minus the candelabra? As absurd as it sounds, it does make some sense. For music to be accepted by a large group of people, it must appeal to the lowest common denominator. But why do we flock to bands like Pearl Jam, White Zombie or Alice in Chains?

"People want to feel like they're part of something larger in general," he explains. "But I think the impulse to be that involved with a band, projecting yourself into the professional career of a band, is kind of a strange thing to do."

The alternative, then, is to appreciate bands solely on their artistic merits, not by the cut of their, uh, flannels. According to Flansburgh, one of the main reasons he started the Hello Recording Club was to make a variety of truly cutting edge music available to people at a reasonable price.

"This will help people get exposed to stuff that otherwise they'll never get," he said. "This music will never be on MTV. It's simply good music that people who are interested in good music will enjoy. A lot of it is too quiet to even make it on the radio. A lot of it is folk-influenced or traditional music influenced."

Besides featuring high-profile names like Peter Buck, Frank Black and Mac of Superchunk, Hello attempts to give exposure to up-and-coming-acts. One of the more intriguing bands described by Flansburgh is a group called the Nelories. In addition to featuring strong melodies, he said, the group has a lyrical approach that is compelling because it makes us view our own lyrical conventions in a different way.

"The lyrics are very fractured and damaged in translation," he said. "But they really set your mind spinning when you hear them because they're the offical cliches of popular music twisted around by the English-as-a-second-language aspect."

Flansburgh also promised that more "big names" would appear on Hello releases in the coming year, as well as music by deserving unsigned acts.

--The cost for joining the Hello Recording Club is $41 a year, for which the subscriber receives 10 EPs. According to the brochure, "Each CD features a different artist recording four songs exclusively for Hello." The number to call if you want to subscribe is 1-800-HELLO-41.