They Might Be the Smartest Popular Band Ever

John Linnell Expounds on the Life of A Different Kind of Professional Musician

Music Today, 2000
by Bret Booth

John Linnell, one half of the fabled duo They Might Be Giants (which also includes John Flansburgh), is no stranger to using new technology to distribute music. In fact, They Might Be Giants found considerable success employing non-traditional forms of sound sharing as early as 1983, the year that Dial-A-Song was launched. Dial-A-Song is a song-distribution method, essentially invented by TMBG, which utilizes telephones and answering machines. Fans called in and were able to listen to various songs by the two songwriters. People were excited about the innovative form of spreading music--a mode that had absolutely nothing to do with corporately-controlled radio and record stores. The plan worked like a charm and the calls came pouring in; they still do. They Might Be Giants were quick to act on another new technology--the Internet--to push their music independently. caught up with the hard-working Linnell in his home studio recently.

What exactly are you doing in the studio today?

Today, I'm doing two things mostly. I am putting together the charts for a show that we are doing where we play the entire Flood album all the way through. So, I'm going through all of these songs and trying to figure out arrangements for the band. The other thing is, I'm rewriting music for the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart." That's actually a strangely fun gig, because what they want us to do is write sort of bombastic news music.

How would you describe that?

Well, it's like the most self-important sounding news music. I think that they wanted us to be doing this with a straight face, so we've got tapes of regular NBC nightly news, and they are also doing an election special, and we have tapes of the election special from the networks. We're kind of copying a lot of this same exact stuff that they do and making it just a little more bombastic than it already is. That's pretty much it. Lots of tympani rolls and trumpet blasts and really big sounding, fake orchestral stuff.

Did they contact you for the project?

Last year we performed on their millennium special. We also wrote the theme music, which they played. So, since then, we kind of got the gig of rewriting the "Daily Show" music, and right now they are doing another revision of that; and plus now, as I said, they are doing the election special

Have you been working on anything else, or is that it?

No, no. We mainly have been working on "Malcolm in the Middle," and that takes up most of our time. We are doing all of the incidental music for that show.

I take it that this stuff is well beyond just the theme music.

Well, it's music that I think most people don't really pay attention to, but the show doesn't have a laugh track, so it is very music intensive. There are a lot of musical cues throughout the whole show, and they use fresh musical cues on every show; they don't keep reusing the same music. So, we're the ones that are supplying this stuff. What they normally do is give us tapes of the shows that are being worked on, and they put in sort of temporary music that is taken from some popular band that you may have heard of, or some bit of techno music, the kind of music that John and I never do, and we're supposed to make a sound alike to that. We've also compiled a pretty big library of music for various moods of Malcolm, so they have many, many CDs of us just playing instrumental music. They have also licenced They Might Be Giants songs for the show.

Wow! So, do you still have time to write your own songs?

Yeah, we're managing to get a lot of things in right now, but we're mostly doing "Malcolm" at the moment.

And you have also been involved with some soundtrack work?

In the past [we did], and we are looking at offers now. We did a song for the second Austin Powers movie; the very beginning of the movie starts off with one of our songs about Dr. Evil. You just hear about a minute of it, but you can hear the whole thing on the DVD. Then, there is a show coming out on the WB called "The Oblongs," and we've written a theme for that one.

So, it really sounds like you are branching out from typical songwriting.

We're getting to work at home a lot more now, which is nice. You don't go on tour when you do TV music.

I was reading somewhere that you all were working on a children's album. Is that right?

We finished it. We wanted to do a straight children's record, one that kids would like. It's not aimed at adults, pretending to be a children's record, it's really songs for kids. We're really happy with the way things came out. We hooked up with the designers of our website, the Chopping Block, and they put together sort of an enhanced CD where the songs on the record each have a little animated thing that can play on your computer. It's ideal for kids, because you basically just wave the mouse around; waving the cursor around in front of these pictures and different things happen.

An educational tool, as well?

I don't know about educational, but it's a very nice looking thing, and it just comes on your CD. If you buy the CD, you can play it on your CD player, but if you stick it in the computer, then you get this extra stuff.

Sounds interesting. One of my co-workers wanted me to ask you a question in regards to the children's album. She wanted to know if you had a favorite childhood toy, and, if so, what was it?

Hmmmm. Wow, I'm trying to think. I don't know if I was particularly fixated on toys.

A special blanket or something of the sort?

I probably did have a special blanket. You ask me that and I can't really think of anything that I was super fond of, but, for some reason, my memory goes back to this tiny, black, almost two-dimensional, flat, plastic astronaut. It became sort of a fetish object in my family, the thing that you just picked up and waved around when you were trying express yourself in one way or another. It was a little, flattened-out black astronaut, and that's all that I can really remember.

Good enough. It's always been difficult to describe the music of They Might Be Giants, so, instead of asking you about your sound, how about what sort of influences do you have, or what are you currently listening to, other than your own music?

Well, we listen to the cues with the "Malcolm in the Middle" deal, and it will be some band that we wouldn't be listening to otherwise, like Lit or something. I don't really listen to that much music on my own. I kind of like to have the radio off when I'm driving, so, I'm pretty out of it is what I'm trying to tell you.

Fair enough. Let's talk about something that you seem to be more familiar with: non-traditional forms of music distribution. Let's start with Dial-A-Song. Maybe tell us a bit about it, especially for those who may not know what it is.

Sure. Well, Dial-A-Song has been going since 1983, so about seventeen years now. Actually, I guess that we are coming up on our anniversary of seventeen years, because it was November, I think, that we plugged the phone machine into the wall and put our songs on it, and it has been going continuously ever since.

Never a disconnection of any kind?

Well, I should say that continuously is maybe the wrong word, because we have had a lot of technical problems over the years. Those phone machines are not designed to withstand such constant use, and by the middle of '80s, we were getting calls pretty much all of the time, or the phone just kept ringing and, as soon as the person was done listening, they would hang up and the phone would ring again. We had about five of these record-a-call phone machines, and they were breaking as fast as we could get them serviced, and eventually we moved to a computer voice mail system and that actually didn't work as well as the phone machines. We got a lot of complaints about that because the computer crashed constantly, and it wasn't really as good as it was supposed to be. Now, we are kind of back on, like, a combination of computer and phone machine.

And you also have a website, is that right?

We do, and that's probably the easiest way to hear Dial-A-Song right now, just go onto and you can hear songs that way.

But you still have the old phones running?

It's the same number that it has always been.

Internet distribution. You guys are doing quite a bit with that right now. What are your feelings about this in general?

I think that in general, it's pretty good. The situation is good for us because we have a very computer-literate audience; for us to make the transition to selling our music on the Internet has not been as challenging as it normally would be. We had a lot of people download our first all-MP3 release. I think that we actually had the record for downloads in '99, when the record came out, at least on emusic. We're looking forward to keeping it going. We have a pretty on-line kind of crowd, so it seems like we are well suited.

Do you think it would be harder for other bands to try to pull something like this off?

I think that, for a band starting out, it is ideal. I think that's the type of situation where you can build a following on the Internet from scratch more easily than other ways. I think that, for a band that is established, it might be difficult to stop selling records as physical things and start selling them on-line, because there is this readjustment involved; but I would guess that this is the direction that things are moving in. Everyone is going to figure out how to do it, one way or another.

Where do you see the entire music industry, say, twenty years down the road?

The way that people buy and receive the music is not really the whole point. It's not what makes you like one band over another, and I think that the basic issue of promotion and having the resources to promote what you are doing are not going to change, and they are going to be the same ones that existed in 1970. You have to spend a lot of money promoting your thing in order to have people find out about it, no matter how great it your band is, so the Internet is not really going to change that, because, even though everyone can make everything universally available, it's still a matter of having some enormous institution behind you to push. I say this with infinite regret. It would be really cool if everybody's band could be judged exactly equally based on merits, instead of anything else, but I think that the whole system of record companies is not going to go away.

Do you think that Internet radio might serve as some sort of equalizer?

It seems like there is a potential for a lot more narrow casting. You have way more channels on the Internet than you have on your radio dial, so you can have a station that is devoted entirely to Latin electronica, some very specific thing that has its own audience. So, there will be less cross-over, and more people listening to exactly what they want to listen to. One thing that we noticed is that we were touring on this bus that had a satellite radio where you could just pick a channel, [and] you could almost listen to any particular song that you wanted to at any given moment, because the channels were all so specific. So, the whole notion of Top 40 seems to be fading away; the idea that everything is on the same station is what might be changing as a result of the technology.

They Might Be Giants is often considered a good model of a successful independent band. What would you say the trick is to sustaining a career and still having a good amount of control over your art?

That was something that I have to give my partner a lot of credit on. He's always very concerned with not giving away the farm and maintaining control. I think that the other thing was that we both decided that we were going to do stuff that we liked rather than stuff that we thought would be popular. For a lot of bands, that would involve kind of a sacrifice; you would have to say, "well, people may not like this as much." In our case, it was the only choice available to us, because I don't know if we really knew how do what was popular. We were really only sure about what we liked. So, the result is that we wound up in a band where we felt close to what we were doing. It didn't seem like, if it failed, that we would lose interest in it. For several years, we were struggling along trying to get gigs and get the record to people, and it was difficult, but we were able to maintain our enthusiasm for it because it was very personal music. I don't know if this advice applies to everybody. I know that there are other bands that are not so much interested in expressing their own thing as just doing pop music that will catch on. That is perfectly legitimate. There's a lot of stuff that I like that is this kind of music--very expertly crafted pop. If that's the kind of thing that you are doing, then you have to figure out what people want.

But trends change so often. How can one possibly keep up with that?

I couldn't. I think that we would have really screwed up if we tried to sell-out. We would have blown it completely because I don't really think that we're smart enough to do that.

Last year, you were named one of People Magazine's 10 most beautiful [people]. Is this true?

It's perfectly true, and if you could see me right now, you would understand why.

How did this strike you?

It was a total honor, and really weird. One of the nice things about it, for me, was that it seemed like this total canard. I was given the opportunity to write an opinion for the New York Times about that, and it was the main perk for me, because the whole thing was so crazy. The winner of the poll was someone who appears on the Howard Stern show and his name is Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf. He was number one on the list and Leonardo DiCaprio was number two, but he beat him hands down. After that, the list is a bit more conventional. I think that I was right behind Madonna, for example.

Are you guys touring much?

We are not really touring at all. We are doing a lot of shows in New York in November. We are playing every Thursday in November, and we will be playing on the East Coast on those weekends somewhere, either in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, or someplace.

What's the live show like now?

Good. We've got a band that we have been with for quite a while that we really like, and we have a horn section that comes along on some of the shows. That's two horns, but at one of the shows in November, we are going to have an eight-piece horn section, so it should be massive. We're doing a lot of different things with these November shows; we're going to have a different set each week. One week, we are playing the Flood album, and then, one week, we are going to play our children's record. It's always a fun show and it's always unpredictable, even for the band.

I've got one final question for you. So, you released the States album last year, and They Might Be Giants talk about presidents quite a bit. It is election year, so, what are your thoughts?

Run for cover. My mom is voting for Ralph Nader. I'm not sure if he's going to be any better.

Do you think that is was unfair that he didn't get a shot at debating?

Yes. It would be a lot more interesting if more people were included. That's the whole problem really, I think that there are some differences between the candidates, but it's kind of like the same thing we were talking about regarding the Internet; if there was more narrow casting, then you'd see how diverse people's opinions really are.

Interesting. Well, John, thanks for the time, and good luck with all the studio projects. It sounds like you're bogged down.

We do have a lot to do. It was nice talking to you.