They Might Be Giants

Rockpile, September 2001
by Tom Seioli

Let's dispel the myth right now. The fact is, musicians do pay strict attention to entertainment rags regardless of their status in the rock music food chain or how aloof they may portray themselves in the media. John Flansburgh and his partner in pop crime, John Linnell, are collectively known as They Might Be Giants, and they readily admit to collecting back issues of Rockpile in order to gauge the competition and eavesdrop on themselves. We will not fail them.

For nearly two decades, this Brooklyn-based duo has brought the world infectious melodies with a penchant for quirky humor, garnering a cult following. They've seeped into our national conciousness without fanfare or blasphemy. From their MTV Breakthrough Award in the early '90s to the soundtracks of Austin Powers, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Malcolm in the Middle to producing videos for artists such as Ben Folds Five, Frank Black, Soul Coughing and Harvey Danger, the Giants have lived happily among us.

Mink Car is the culmination of two years worth of writing sessions, paused and resumed to accomodate side projects including a John Linnell solo album and a series of specially recorded tracks to McSweeney's Literary Journal's Art and Music Issue.

"We're very much a new wave band," Flansburgh declares from a hideaway in the Catskills. "John and I write short melodic songs with interesting lyrics, which is not a contemporary idea. Nowadays things are much more groove oriented and cut and paste. We're into craft."

In order to bring Mink Car to fruition, TMBG enlisted the help of U.K. hitmakers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (who engineered TMBG's British Top-10 hit "Birdhouse In Your Soul") along with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne/Ivy fame in the producer's chair. Allowing their guests to choose finished tracks, Flansburgh and Linnell felt the duo could be brought to another level.

"Adam is an old-fashioned producer," Flansburgh notes. "He's not an engineer that brings a sonic quality to what's already going on. His approach is to make the songs as extreme as possible. Normally with other producers, it's very important that the record's sound has a continuity to itself, which seems to me to be completely anathema to the spirit of TMBG. The more difficult each transition is, the more powerful a project it becomes. I realize that sounds kind of perverted, but we're about variety. No matter how much we try to run away from it, it's us."

The wide range of recording methodology employed on Mink Car encompasses cuts with TMBG's acclaimed backing live ensemble, The Band of Dans (yes, they're all named Dan), to purely electronic offerings-not to mention a few hybrids. The stories behind the tracks are encouraging to those who believe in the power of chance encounters. While in a London studio, TMBG intended to call upon punk rock legend Joe Strummer to chant on the coda of "Cyclops Rock," but instead chose Cerys Matthews of Catatonia. The Welsh bombshell flips out in a tune detailing the story of a fellow who feels betrayed by a woman.

"Joe was on the scene," Flansburgh adds. "But Clive suggested Cerys, who coincidentally happened to be working down the road. He'd just done a record with her. I didn't know Cerys from Adam. She's a total sport and has an incredible amount of character."

TMBG's cover of beloved English pop star Georgie Fame's "Yeah Yeah" was a gem waiting for re-discovery. A psychedelic guitar solo by Dan Miller punctuates the Giant's hallmark tendency to champion the surreal. While the result might ruffle the feathers of a few purists, TMBG insist the cover was done out of love and tribute.

"I've always loved that song," says Flansburgh. "The original has an under-cooked quality that maintains an impossibly cool vibe. We stretched to figure another arrangement and did a lot of stunt work."

Whatever the motivation, whatever the modification, any song TMBG writes, re-tools, instantly becomes their property. One hypothesis Flansburgh holds to the light captures the essence of TMBG in the present tense.

"As songwriters, we started without a rhythm section," he explains. "That's how we wrote for the first 10 years. Without commitment to a set configuration, we're not invested in certain stylistic decisions like most bands. TMBG are musical flying Dutchmen. We're totally free in that sense. Once you get a taste of working our way, it's impossible to step away."

Flansburgh admits he has no theory regarding TMBG's longevity, aside from bellowing Ad Reinhardt's quote, "After me, there is nothing!" When pressed for a less dramatic answer, he stresses the importance of the relationship between himself and Linnell.

"The only way you can succeed as a band like ours is to have something that ties it all together," he says. "In our case, it's John and me. If we were simply genre hopping, we would not be successful in the most essential way. We'd be transparently bad."

It is the creativity of this long-standing, anti-pop duo defining They Might Be Giants and allowing the group to flow seamlessly through stylistic borders. Flansburgh refers back to another bit of historical dialogue. This quip comes courtesy of blues legend John Lee Hooker. When asked to comment on his legion of imitators, the aging Hooker blasted, "They want to play the blues sooo bad." After a pause, Hooker concluded, "Then they play the blues sooo bad."

Somewhere between the two, They Might Be Giants has balanced ambition with creativity to find a comfortable, quirky little niche.