Interview Man, Interview Man

Yale Herald, April 17, 1998
by Brian Levinson

They Might Be Giants (TMBG) have spent 12 years and six albums playing music that defies genre as easily as their lyrics defy interpretation. They have experimented with funk, bizarre harmonies, a capella, and even (on the immortal "Shoehorn with Teeth") polka. They have sung about former president James K. Polk, Belgian painter James Ensor, and the reasons the sun shines. Their hits--"Don't Let's Start," "Ana Ng," "Birdhouse in Your Soul," and "Particle Man" to name a few--are polished pieces of too-perfect pop music with unforgettable hooks and bouncy keyboard lines. Their concerts are a blast, with fans bouncing up and down, and the band manipulating scary-looking puppet heads on poles.

Formed by John Linnell and John Flansburgh, two high school friends from Brooklyn, the original They Might Be Giants lineup consisted of Flansburgh on guitar and Linnell on bari sax and everything else. They kept it this way until their 1994 album John Henry, when they began working with a full complement of band members, including a horn section. The group began a short spring tour at Toad's Place last night, and I got a chance to talk to Linnell on board TMBG's lavish-yet-tasteful tour bus. Here's what ensued....

You guys have played New Haven quite a number of times in the past few years. What is it about this place that keeps bringing you back?

The money. (laughs) It's just a place that's nearby where there's a big audience for us. That's really it. The thing about New England is that John and I, having partly grown up here, have a connection to New Haven, Providence, Boston, Bangor...well, I don't know about Bangor. We have played a lot more in New England than we've played in any other region of the country, and 99 percent of the shows we've done have gone well. We have a really good vibe here. Always a good vibe at Toad's, always a good scene.

I know it was a while ago, but how did you like playing Spring Fling [in 1995]?

It was fun. That's the kind of thing that's very low-key for us. Things always sound different outdoors. For me, better, actually. I like playing outdoors; I can hear everything better.

Anything memorable happen?

We had this really beautiful dressing room that was part of one of the Yale buildings. We had a really elegant place to eat. It was like a little house, and there were people there--faculty people who were incredibly nice. It was unlike most gigs, needless to say.

Would you do it again?

We would do it in a heartbeat. When called, we will serve.

In December, you guys finished up three months of playing at the Mercury Lounge in New York, every Thursday night. What motivated you to do this, and how did it go?

We've done stands before in clubs, and it always pays off. It's a really pleasant experience for us to play in one place over and over again, because we get very accustomed to the room, and then we can relax. That's really the opportunity we have to stretch out and try out different things.

I saw your last performance at the Mercury, and you mentioned a new live album. Is it going to be material you played at that series of gigs?

Some of it is from the Mercury, some of the recordings are relatively old--they're from a couple of band member changes ago--so we've represented pretty much all of the old TMBG members on this one record. We've got recordings from a few years ago, and then one year ago, and then just a couple of months ago. And that'll be out at the end of the spring.

How much new material is there going to be?

There's a couple of new songs, just because we wanted to put a new song at the top as a single and make a video for it--that's still in the works. The single is "Dr. Worm"--we've been playing that little one in concert for a while, but this is a studio recording of "Dr. Worm." And we have a song called "They Might Be Giants Got Lost" that we played a lot live, and that's one of the first tracks, if not the first track, on the record.

Cool. Your earlier albums contained songs that were really tight and really short; Lincoln, Flood, and your first album all had something like 20 tracks. But Factory Showroom, your latest album, only had, I think, 13 tracks, and they were all a little longer. Is this a trend?

I don't think it's a particular direction that we're moving in. Although, I have to tell you--we haven't told anyone else this yet--but John had this great idea. I don't know if we're going to carry this out or not, but the idea was, on the next record, all the songs would be two minutes long. Needless to say, there would be more of them if we wound up doing that. And the name of the album that would correspond to that would be "They Might Be Giants 2."

Spelled t-o-o?

We haven't figured that out yet. Roman numeral II, T-o, maybe, something different, to make everybody confused.

John Henry seemed like kind of a big band record--lots of horns. But, on Factory Showroom, the songs seemed more like classic TMBG--more keyboards, more of you and Mr. Flansburgh, fewer horns. Any comments?

In order to make a band record--John Henry was the first band record--we took it upon ourselves to really make it sound like a band. And on Factory Showroom, we went back to our old ways, and used the studio a lot. We kinda mixed it up. We weren't trying to record the songs all live, the way we'd done with John Henry. I think we felt like that was interesting, but it wasn't actually our preferred method of working. I think we feel the method that's more close to us is to track some drums, track the bass, and then track other stuff as we think of it. Kind of cook it all up as we go. I have a feeling that we're going to tend to do more of that kind of thing in the future. I think it's nice, though, with John Henry, that we actually really made an effort to do something different-sounding. And I liked that idea.

Okay, here's something I've been wanting to ask for a while. James K. Polk. Have you always wanted to inform the masses of the legacy of our 11th President?

My friend Matt and I wrote that song, and we actually had this idea to write a song about somebody we didn't know about before we picked him. So we were thinking, what about some obscure figure from history. We thought, well, maybe a president, and we went down the list. He was somebody interesting, because he didn't seem like a dud president like Millard Fillmore. But we didn't know anything about him, so we opened up the encyclopedia and it turned out he's this really important guy. The last big expansion of the country was due to him--the whole western third of the country was created under Polk. He was a really intense and kind of a creepy guy, as it turned out. So we were lucky, 'cause the guy we picked turned out to be interesting.

What bands do you guys find yourselves listening to? Anyone interesting?

I have a feeling that whenever I say something that I'm listening to, it's the thing that everyone's already been checking out, and that they're sick of by now. My wife got me into a band called Cornershop. Everyone already likes them, but now I like them, so there you go.

Last question, it's kind of random. What did you think of Titanic?

I didn't like Titanic. I feel kinda bad about that, 'cause I wanted to like it. I want to be part of the world, and everybody likes it. But I thought the script really sucked, and I was annoyed by that.... I've seen Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in other movies, and they're good actors, but they were both terrible in Titanic. I didn't really get how people could get past that. The fact that James Cameron won an Oscar for it seemed really suspiciously weird.