Johns and the Giants Speak

Smug, November 1996
by Joe D'Angelo

For music to be interesting, it's creators must take risks. Any tune penned with the premise of "this is what the kids of today are listening to" comes out sounding like it's bringing up the rear of a withering genre. But taking a chance in a new direction is thought of as strange, weird, "avant-garde," or worst yet, quirky.

"I don't think we're quirky," says John Linnell, one half of They Might Be Giants. "We're not self-conscious enough. We're just trying to do something interesting."

Together with John Flansburgh, Linnell has been taking his chances with TMBG for eight albums now, letting all bets ride since 1986. These chances garnered TMBG a place in alternative's ancestry by brilliantly deconstructing pop's ethos and recombining it into an easy-to-swallow, candy-coated pill.

Their latest release, Factory Showroom, once again showcases the Johns as masters of adaptability as they gracefully traverse the cheesy, soul-driven funk of "S-E-X-X-Y" to the string-tinged verses and barbershop choral harmonies of "Exquisite Dead Guy," demonstrating a mastery of musical structure and composition along the way.

On this aptly crowned album, each song is its own succinct morsel, completely disengaged from the rest of the album, as is congruous with TMBG's philosophy. "We think of what we're doing as 'have you seen our line of products' type thing," says Linnell. "That's an idea that artists tend to shy away from when they're doing something for sale. Basically, we've woken up and smelled the coffee. We do have a product and we're proud of what we do, so we don't mind presenting it that way."

Factory Showroom's products, however whimsical and clever, are subtly woven with stark social commentary and empowering anthems. Because they're masked by the brand "quirky," these subtleties are often overlooked.

"We don't play totally smiley-face music," Linnell explains. "We try to inject components of real life in there. If it's all Candyland, it's not interesting to us." Within the playful samba rhythms of "Your Own Worst Enemy" lies an over-riding theme of self-destruction, while "Metal Detector" is a sap-happy anthem for the hermit secretly residing in all of us.

Perhaps the best summation of TMBG's ideology is "XTC vs. Adam Ant," a fictitious battle of the bands pitting content against style. "What it comes down to is that Adam Ant was Mr. Style, while XTC had the ideas. It's really about the internal battle between the idea of the package and the idea of what's inside the package."

TMBG transcends those epic oppositions to create a friendly mix of the two. What makes it work is that both their content and their style have never been tied to a chronological trend. The music of TMBG, with clever lyrics bouncing about jingly riffs borrowed from genres as diverse as polka and metal, is unbound to time and place.

Such an approach to songwriting has resulted in a solid following of loyal fans, but as yet no rocket-to-the-top smash. "It doesn't drive me crazy that we're not a top-ten band," Linnell admits. "I'm surprised we get the kind of response that we get. This isn't false modesty, but I don't understand how it works. I don't know why bands get popular.

"I think it's really great that a lot of people like us. It would be cool if everybody liked us," he continues, "but I don't know why they should. And if they did, I wouldn't know why they did. I can't really sum up why I like what we're doing. Because I'm doing what I like--that's why I like what I'm doing. The liking has to come before the doing, though."

There is a personal aspect to TMBG's brand of pop that is undeniable. Not only is John Flansburgh's nasal voice a trademark, but the proud honesty with which each word is sung unmistakably defines them as pop geniuses who don't overtly conform to the mainstream-imposed definition of pop aesthetics. "We totally respect the history of pop music and our dream is to be the Beatles, and all that stuff. We just add our own personalities to it. That's what differentiates anything that's good--personality. That's what people take notice of in the first place.

"In our case, we've picked up things that have been neglected. A lot of pre-rock music that John and I decided we liked pretty early on, is approached from our rock world. I'm kinda aware how successfully ripped off other artists, but as hard as we tried to do that, we ended up sounding like ourselves. I guess it's all about interpreting and misinterpreting other people's work."

It's ironic that their (mis)interpretations stem from what many consider bad music. On Factory Showroom, for example, the disco, heavy metal, and white bread funk avenues are all explored and exploited for their hidden worth. "Whenever you try to make a rule about what's bad, suddenly somebody comes along and does such a good job with it that they can make a case for it. What really has been the problem was that it was done badly. It takes a good artist to take something considered bad and make it good."

Judging from his gracious-yet-thought-provoking response, you'd think Linnell never met a song he didn't like. For the most part, that's true, with some exceptions, of course. "It seems like there's a lot of music out now that's taken from the '70s. The heavy guitar rock from that period was the most loathsome stuff as far as I was concerned. It drove me crazy in high school."

However, forever the optimists, TMBG see something valuable in even the most abhorrent sounds. "The rediscovery of those various styles are interesting because they're such icons of badness. If something is so bad that you think of it as representing bad music, there's something interesting about it."