After two weeks of hackneyed schedules and phone tag with various people in the They Might Be Giants entourage, the following cross-country interview with John Linnell finally materialized. John was in Gainesville, Florida. I was on my lunch break in Santa Monica. The rest, as they say, is history.
Campus Circle: Where are you calling from?
John Linnell: We're on tour. We're in Gainesville, Florida where the sun is shining. I understand that in the Northeast it's, you know, fall now. It's gotten cold.
You are from Brooklyn originally?
The band pretty much formed in Brooklyn. I met John Flansburgh in Massachusetts, and I was born in New York so we can sorta pick where we wanna say we're from at this point. We both lived in Brooklyn for most of the life of this band.
And you still reside there?
Who are They Might Be Giants? Interchangeable musicians? Of the two core members -- you and John (Flansburgh), who writes the music, the songs?
John and I write the songs. We've each written about half the songs on the new record and that's generally the way it works. We share the singing, the arranging, everything. We have other musicians playing the hard parts. We make demos on our own, and give them the songs and they more or less learn them like the way they are on the demo. Particularly the drummer is free to come up with a more drummerly approach. I'm into writing out the bass parts myself, but we have a bass player who's very creative and can come up with stuff on his own. We're touring with this lead guitarist who plays solos and he's really making up his parts. And the horn parts we write out ourselves.
How did living in Brooklyn form your musical outlook? If it did. It might not have.
Well, I'm sure it did. I don't really know how things would've been different if we'd grown up somewhere else. I think John and I have this sensibility that comes from this circle of friends we grew up with. There's probably something about New England that affected our thinking. (Pause. Laughs.) I'm not sure exactly what that is. I'm the least equipped to say. We're definitely not a California band. I think that maybe if we were from LA, we would have a more sunshiny approach. There's something a little bit dark even about the lyrics to songs that people consider upbeat that we do that would be different if we came from a place that wasn't as cloudy.
Is it true that your band's name originated from a line in a movie?
It's actually the name of a movie starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. It's called They Might Be Giants. It's also a line in the movie and it refers to, um, human advancement. George C. Scott, "if Don Quixote had not imagined that the windmills were giants," in other words if people didn't think about what might be rather than what always is -- what they know to be true -- then human civilization wouldn't progress... or something along those lines. We weren't really thinking so much of the idea as much as the sound of They Might Be Giants in that we thought it was good kind of name for a band. Partly from the perspective of... we thought of the name in the early eighties and at that time there were a lot of bands called The Somethings or Somethings and the Somethings or Something Something. That was a popular type of name, and we just wanted to get away from the sort of routine of band names.
You say you plan to tour until you drop. How long would that be?
Well, we could drop at any minute. We never know what's going to happen next. We will be touring to support Factory Showroom through the Spring of next year. Depending on how the album does, you know? If it bombs, we'll go back to our shed and try to make up some new songs.
How has the road been treating you so far?
So far so good. We've got some heavy drives ahead of us. John and I are doing a lot of the driving and other band members, and it can really -- that's work, like driving 500 miles is, uh, (laughs) that can take it outta you. We're getting to see exotic places like Gainesville, Florida.
Tell us about your Larry Sanders experience.
It was really fun. Very low key. Completely different from doing a regular talk show which is often incredibly nerve racking. It was taped. It was shot as if it were a movie. It's not taped the way talk shows are taped. Where everything happens in real time, and you can't screw up and if you do actually have to stop and start over it's incredibly out of the ordinary. There's a lot of pressure to do it right. The other thing is basically the band plays their song, and there's not much interaction with everything else that is going on so we were kinda like a backdrop, but I'm a big fan of the show, and it was totally an honor to do it.
When does the episode air?
I have no idea. It's the next season, whenever that starts.
Where do you draw your inspiration from and who are some of your musical heroes?
It's kinda depressing, but I feel like I don't really have any heroes. I think we're maybe not a hero worship kind of band. Maybe we were when we were teenagers, but the kind of things we think about now, we're not so much wishing we were... maybe the closest thing is the Beatles. And I presume to be old and wise enough in what that experience would have been like for them, and I don't think that's really what I want anymore, you know? We're mainly interested in writing songs that are new and fresh, and we don't really want to sound like somebody else. That sounds really like, "We invented music ourselves, and we don't have any influences!" Obviously, that's not true. I could point to a lot of different things that we like a lot, and I'm hoping there are so many things that influenced us that we don't really sound like any one of them, but we did really dig Elvis Costello when we were in high school and still are fans of his work. And there are a lot of American kinda underground rock bands that pointed the way for us in terms of just freedom, in terms of just doing whatever you wanted, doing something personal. The Residents and Pere Ubu. The bands we thought were really not trying to sound like somebody else and trying to do something original and new and at the same time trying to do good work, which is a whole separate issue.
What are your impressions of the American music scene right now in 1996?
I'm pretty out of it, you know? I turn on MTV, and I know that I don't know what's going on. That's all I can tell you. (Laughs)
Any plans for world domination?
Nope. No immediate plans for world domination. I think we may have given up on world domination. We figured out that it's a Faustian deal. You don't dominate the world.
It dominates you.
At the House Of Blues show two weeks ago, you didn't sing. Were you ill?
I had a cold. I was in Japan, and I came down with something. Just as we were getting on the plane my voice starting getting hoarse and then we had this 12 hour plane ride, and I just couldn't talk by the time we got to LA. I was just barely able to croak out some stuff. I really wanted to sing. It's really frustrating to not be able to sing in that situation. It took about 5 days for me to get my voice back. I tried singing a couple of quieter songs, but basically my voice would crack. It was a drag. It was very nice of Frank Black and Mike Viola to help out. They were total sports.
Do you guys rehearse your encores or is it a spontaneous thing?
Well, we put the encores on the set. We don't really rehearse the set at all. We have a list of songs, basically.
Are you a Blur or Oasis fan?
Oh, I like Oasis. I like their songs. Uh, I think that's not an infinite well. It seems like they've come up with a particular song of a couple of songs, that's their thing. They're going to have to come up with some new ideas to keep that ball rolling.
Any last words?
We have this record, Factory Showroom. It's coming out in about a week. It's a really cool record. We hope everybody likes it. "S-E-X-X-Y" is the single, and it's the first song we've ever done about "getting it on," written by Mr. Flansburgh. Um, and there's a whole a variety of fantastic material on the record.