Dial N for Nonsense

They Might Be Giants' John Linnell chats about recording on answering machines and at the Edison Museum.

Time Out New York, December 3, 1997
by Stephin Merritt

In the 1980s, before I was familiar with They Might Be Giants' catalog, I called their Dial-a-Song number and heard "Everything Right Is Wrong Again," a tribute to the unloved Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz movie The Long, Long Trailer. Dial-a-Song was and is an answering machine in Brooklyn on which the band previews its latest material. They Might Be Giants make short, simple and wittily surreal pop songs that are perfect for telephone transmission.

The two permanent members are accordionist John Linnell and guitarist John Flansburgh, who sing in jokey voices to match their absurd lyrics. Here are the complete lyrics of early oddity "Mr. Klaw": "A claw is a claw and nobody has seen a talking claw / Unless that claw is the famous Mr. Klaw / Mr. Vanity Klaw / Mr. Lightning Bulb / Mr. Dental Flaw / Mr. Vanity Klaw." Few of their songs make any more sense than that, but several, including "Purple Toupee," "Put a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "We're the Replacements," were MTV classics of their day. The Brooklyn guys put out their wonderful debut record in 1986 and have been busy ever since, with their Hello Recording Club (a subscription-only record club), Flansburgh's side band, Mono Puff, and plenty of TMBG albums.

Interviewed at Katz's Deli on Houston Street, the two Johns are constantly interrupted by fans and autograph hounds. One fan hands them CDs of a recording bootlegged from a recent show. After the interview, my tape of the interview breaks and I have to call Linnell to have him repeat everything he said to me. "In 1983, Flansburgh's apartment was burgled, and in the same week I fell off my bike and broke my wrist, so we couldn't perform for a while. John came up with the idea of Dial-a-Song, and I tried to talk him out of it because I thought we'd get into trouble somehow. We didn't, of course, but it had its problems. For a while, Dial-a-Song was on John's home phone, so whenever I tried to call John, I had to listen to three minutes of myself singing before I could find out whether he was home. Also, we recently made T-shirts on which we accidentally printed the number as John's actual home phone and didn't spot it till some of the shirts had been sold."

For last year's Factory Showroom, their most recent release, TMBG recorded a song called "I Can Hear You" at the Edison Museum in New Jersey on an 1898 wax-cylinder recording phonograph. The joke of the title is that the recording is so unfaithful that you can barely hear them. The lyrics explain why with various fictions, such as "I'm calling from the plane" or "I'll buzz you in" (as though the protagonist were on an intercom). Linnell reminisces, "We were performing in the old Edison laboratory. Tour groups were coming in to watch us singing and playing into a box the size of a cigar box, through enormous cones ten feet long and a sort of vocal microphone four feet wide. We played as loud as we could, and Flansburgh hollered as loud as he could. When we were done, the engineer took the cylinder to the open window and let the breeze cool the wax, then he played it. What an eerie experience, listening to it. It was a lot like our experience with Dial-a-Song: Everything had to be stripped down, because you couldn't hear too many things at once. Even in ordinary recording, by force of habit we enunciate and make everything as plain as we can--the legacy of Dial-a-Song.

"We're doing a series of Mercury Lounge shows to work up new songs for the next album. One of the songs, 'Doctor Worm,' I wrote to accompany a computer video I made, on a $100 digital camera, that plays on your computer screen at the size of a postage stamp. You can download it from our website (www.tmbg.com)." At these three Mercury Lounge shows, They Might Be Giants will be performing their high-energy, strangely happy show with revolving guests, including horn players and possibly a vibraphonist. For a free preview, call Dial-a-Song.