They Might Be Giants

Flak Magazine, October 28, 1998
by James Norton

After over a dozen years of studio work and a seemingly endless series of national tours, They Might Be Giants have put out their first live album, entitled Severe Tire Damage. Flak Magazine caught up with accordion- and saxophone-master John Linnell to gauge the album's success, find the group's sense of direction and dig up more information on all the cool merchandise TMBG has managed to spew forth into the world.

Since '86, you guys have been putting out studio albums pretty much every two years, like clockwork. Things changed this year. Why are you guys doing a live album, and why right now?

Well, geez...I don't think there's any real master plan about when it's appropriate for us to do live albums. It would've been a bad idea for the first decade John and I were together because we didn't have band, we were a duo, and our live show consisted of us performing with tapes. So I don't think that would've been a very popular record. Plus, we just hadn't been around for very long. I guess we reached the point last year where we accumulated enough good live material from various concerts that we thought it was something different from anything else we've recorded. You know, our live show is different from our studio recordings and we kind of feel like we've established a sort of live sound that didn't exist for us before.

What kind of a response have you been getting from Severe Tire Damage, and how do you personally feel about the disc?

I'm totally into it. Well, I mean, one thing that we managed to get in there is that we did a lot of the songs that are kind of staples of the live show, which are the ones everyone would expect us to put on a live album, and then there a few recordings that mainly just represent a different approach to a song we'd already recorded that made it worth putting out again, and then there's stuff that's very off the chart. There's one or two new things, and then there's a bunch of songs at the very end of the record that were just completely extemporaneous improvisations. We made up a bunch of songs on the spot which were a series, that were a tribute to the Planet of the Apes movie series.

In anticipation of the new re-release [of Planet of the Apes], I take it?

We didn't know that was going to happen. Just lucky, I guess.

Quick side note. Was "They Got Lost" [which details John and John getting haplessly lost before a radio appearance] a reference to a particular town, such as Rochester?

Not Rochester, no. Although we certainly have gotten lost there, I can almost guarantee it, because we've gotten lost in almost every single city we've ever played in. The song actually refers to our whole careers.

Here's a question about your previous disc, Factory Showroom. As far as I can tell, They Might Be Giants have always had a fierce dedication to both quality and quantity...

That's right.

But Factory Showroom only had 13 tracks, and it got some mixed reviews from even diehard fans. What do you think happened on that disc?

Well, we made a real decision to edit ourselves after John Henry. The thing with John Henry is that it had...well, it's a good collection of songs. In fact, I don't think there's anything wrong with any of those songs, but there's so many of them that we sort of got the impression that people weren't really listening carefully all the way through. It wasn't really being listened to as a record, it was just a kind of an endless collection of, you know, our usual quality work. So we really wanted to make an album that people would listen to, beginning to end....

So, basically just make it a bit tighter.

Yeah, it would be more a through-written album if we didn't put a million songs on it. And it's a nice long record, at least by the standards of the records that we grew up with, that were all in the 40-50 minute range.

It's pretty easy to pick up an industry publication and read about John and John and what the two Clown Princes of Pop are up to, yet you've both been showing a lot of non-TMBG activity with Mono Puff [Flansburgh's solo project] and State Songs [Linnell's] and God-knows-what other kind of side projects going on. Do you feel like the two of you are starting to go in separate directions, or is They Might Be Giants still very vital and alive?

Well, this is still what we do, this is still how we spend most of our time. I think mainly, John has just got a band he's doing in addition. It hasn't meant that They Might Be Giants has been working any less than it always has...we tour a lot, and spend a lot of time recording. The funny thing is, I'm not really doing as much as John, but I still feel like I have a full time job with They Might Be Giants. So he obviously is just not sleeping.

You guys have fantastic TMBG trinkets and souvenirs. Between the mugs, the shot glasses, the pencils, whatever else is out there, there's an amazing assortment of stuff to buy. Who comes up with your marketing ideas, and how does that whole process work?

Well, everybody just sort of pitches in. We've had suggestions from the people who work at Hornblow [TMBG's management company] for various things, and we've come up with some ideas ourselves, and on other occasions, we've just hired artists to come up with an interesting design.

Like the Joe Millionaire stuff?

(pause) Yeah, we just sort of...let them roam free. That's how some of that stuff came about, like the Tony Millionaire drawings.

Oh. Tony! Pardon me. Blew that one.


Anyway. Well, this is probably top secret, not going to get an answer on this one, but what's the tone or theme for your next studio album, or has it not even come together to that point?

It's not a secret, but we don't really have a theme yet. We have an idea, and John and I discussed this recently, that one of the things we both like about the music that we like is that often it's not written in a style that you recognize...there's something about that isn't reminiscent of a certain brand of music. So we were sort of thinking along those lines, that we wanted the sound of the record to be...well, if it started to sound like meringue or something that we'd try to make it more mysterious, or more of a question mark as to what kind of music it was. So that's really the only discussion we've had, but we've both written a bunch of songs. Flans wrote a bunch of good ones, and I've got a huge pile of songs at this point, so we're going to have to pick and choose, once again.

Is it just me, or is the fervent return of swing one of the most bizarre things in musical history, and are you guys planning to cash in on it at all?

I'd say "no" to both of those. I think it's just one of those things that get revived...everything comes back, and it's always really exciting for the people who weren't around for the first go around.

So, what's the coolest thing about what you're doing these days? What are you living for these days, in your musical life?

I think it's always surprise...the things that happen that are interesting or fun, or make us excited about what we're doing. I don't think it's any one predictable thing. There's certain songs that come out really nice in the show, and then you start looking forward to playing them, and you know...there's been fun things on the tour and stuff. I can't think of anything specific, but it's always something new. Part of the thing about this job is that it offers a lot of open-endedness...there's a lot of possibilities for new and interesting projects and it's been a consistent thing that we've been coming up with different things to do with the show and the records. Doing the Edison recording [recording a TMBG song on an antique Thomas Edison wax cylinder device] was something we just sort of stumbled on.

During your quest for stardom, TMBG has acquired legions of fairly fanatical fans who can probably quote entire albums at you, and probably do. Is this any cause for concern? Are you disturbed at how much people get into your stuff, or is that kind of exciting?

(pause) I hate actually, feel so much gratitude toward our fans for supporting us. They're literally supporting us. We can't do this unless people pay money for it, so it would be foolish of us to not be grateful for that kind of attention and interest. But I guess personally that I do feel sometimes like I don't really relate people on that level. When I talk to people personally, I don't want to have a fan-to-performer relationship, I'd much rather have a one-on-one two-people kind of relationship. Unfortunately, that's a very difficult thing, and people tend to get into sort of a fan state, and I don't blame them; that's what I do when I meet the artists I like. It's hard to be casual and just pretend that you don't already have this relationship with them. I think part of the thing that's a little skewed is that when you're interested in a performer's work, you feel as though already know them, and yet, of course, they don't know you at all, and so it's very asymmetrical in that way. And unfortunately, that's sometimes the way it works out with us, is that we meet people and they sort of feel like they have this intimate rapport with us, and we of course don't know who they are, and don't know anything about them, and sometimes it's awkward. But I guess just as a group I'm really happy that we do have fans; it's wonderful.

I heard a rumor that you guys are originally from Boston, although you're heavily billed as "Brooklyn's Ambassadors of Love." How much do you think your music is a reflection of where you're from?

We feel it's very much a reflection of where we're from, but the waters are pretty muddy because I was born in New York, and I lived there until 3rd grade, and then I moved to the suburbs of Boston and that's where I met Mr. Flansburgh. After ten years, we both went to schools, and we wound up in Brooklyn, in our 20s. So we've both lived in Brooklyn for most of our lives at this point. But I think that everywhere we've been has been important to what we're doing, particularly the period when we were going to high school outside of Boston. I think the friends that we had and the kind of general sensibility that everyone we knew had plays a big part in what we do, even now.