John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

UGO, 2002
by Adam Swiderski

They Might Be Giants have been called the inventors of alternative rock. Their quirky, unbound musical style is unlike any band out there, which might explain why John Linnell and John Flansburgh (the founders of They Might Be Giants) have stuck together for just over 20 years. In celebration of their long history, filmmaker AJ Schnack has put together an independant documentary, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), which details the "surreal and poetic planet of They Might Be Giants" through interviews, performances and animations. We sat down and spoke with John Linnell to learn his thoughts on the film and find out what the heck happened to the stick, as well as some other TMBG tidbits.

How is the preparation for the movie debut coming along? Are you ready?

Yeah, [laughs] ready. You know, it didn't require a lot of effort on our part as far as the movie training. We're sort of the passengers, at this point. We did all the stuff on camera and then we just waited around. We've seen the film about two times already.

How did the idea for a movie come about? Did AJ Schnack [the director of Gigantic] approach you?

It was his idea, and he kind of had to sell it to us. I mean, once he had given his speil, then we were concerned about it being a film that just talked about us without us having any control over the content, which was the explicit plan at the beginning. We would not get to see any of it until it was done. It seemed kind of risky. But on the other hand, he seemed like this total fan, you know, and it seemed like he wanted to make a movie that was a little deeper than a movie about how glamourous it is to be in an indie rock band. I think it was risky, but it paid off. We were very happy with what he wound up doing, and, I guess, mainly relieved.

You've said before that you weren't interested in being indie rock icons, like, the "legendary" They Might Be Giants, but now a documentary has been made about you. What do you think about that?

I think the movie is a little more tasteful than that. It's not like talking about us like we're already dead and buried. You get a sense from the movie that it's a dynamic project and blah blah. We're obviously still doing new stuff all the time, so that comes through. You know, to us, our picture of ourselves, which is sort of how we want to present ourselves, is that we're not about the history of us. We do have a long backlog of songs, and we do play the old songs at the shows, but that's not really the point of what we're doing. We're actually about the next thing. So I think AJ was empathetic to that. I mean, he wanted to tell the story, but he didn't want it to be, like, memory lane.

Was it a collaborative effort, or did they just film you as you went about normal business?

Well, we put on a live show in a very controlled environment, where there were multiple cameras and an audience that came from our fanclub, basically. The rest of it, he was just following us around for a long time with cameras, so whatever happened was what he got. I think in some of the interview segments, John [Flansburgh] and I were not as articulate as we believe ourselves to be, however wrongly. I mean, watching the movie, I kept thinking, "Oh, I could have said that in another way that would have made more sense." I think John felt the same way. We didn't really have a way of controlling that. We didn't get to prepare speeches or anything.

Was it weird to see yourself 20 feet tall on the screen?

Yeah, it was a good time to check out the old facial blemishes. I mean, I have to admit that I was a little distracted by that.

But weren't you voted the 9th most beautiful person in that People Online poll?

Yeah. I think they were talking about inner beauty, though. You have to keep in mind that the winner of the poll was Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf. It was a classic Internet poll. Very "anything goes."

But that's a testament to the online fanbase you have. You were one of the first acts to start releasing stuff online (Dial-a-Song and "Long Tall Weekend"). What's your opinion on the way technology is really affecting music production?

Well we get asked that a lot, and I've come up with kind of a capsule answer, because people wonder if people are angry about, well, getting ripped off, basically, which is sort of a loaded question. But I sort of feel like on the one hand, I do understand the appeal of getting free stuff. I'd like to get everything for free. I think in some weird, imaginary fantasy world, like some version of the Soviet Union that actually worked, that we would get houses and cars for free and we wouldn't have to think about whether we could afford stuff. It would just all be available. But on the other hand, I do sort of want to get paid for the work I do. There should be an incentive to do work rather than, just give it up, it's not yours anymore, you're doing it for the love of it, someone else gets it for free and they give it to all their friends. We run into this situation multiple times, of people turning up with CDs that were burned and asking us to sign them. It's like, "Will you sign my CD?" And we're like, "You didn't actually pay for this, did you?"

Do you guys do a lot of interaction with the fans online?

Actually, no. Not really. I mean, I suppose I should. That would be good. But you know, I don't know. It seems that people that do often get into a really neurotic relationship, like with Courtney Love and people getting into this really strange relationship with their fans. I don't know. I like the fans. When I meet people that are into us, I find that, more often than not, they are, and this is not a coincidence, they seem like people that actually remind me of friends of mine. Or usually younger versions of friends of mine. But it's a weird relationship, too. It's weird to hang out with people who know about you and you don't know about them.

And anonymity online allows them to say things that they might not ordinarily say.

Yeah, I suppose so. I like the fact that people say whatever they think. People don't tend to censor themselves, because it's anonymous, they can say, "I thought your third album sucked," which is fine. Goddamn them.

In the future, do you foresee a time where there are no albums? Do you think the MP3 craze will go that far?

I don't know. I feel like I've been miserably bad at predicting what's going to happen with each coming year. I'm sure things are going to be really weird and different by the time we are old, unrecognizably different, but I don't really know the shape that things are going to take. I think that sometimes it's surprising that people, because of their humanness, just get up to the same kinds of things. In some ways, people like transgression and humor and stuff that's not too self-important or pretentious, and that's kind of a constant thing. I think those things will probably drive culture in the future. But as far as how people get music or culture, that's anybody's guess.

Were you aware of the brief online movement to get They Might Be Giants action figures made?

No, I hadn't heard of that. We made action figures for the Malcolm in the Middle video that we did. Yeah, somebody sort of sculpted these figures. Basically, they took the bodies of existing action figures and made little heads of me and John and the three Dans. And the kid from the show and in the video, Dewey, is playing with them and dragging them around behind his bike.

Were you happy with the way yours turned out?

My figure? Well the face looks like me and the rest of it has, like, rippling, washboard abs.

Which is accurate, right?

I'd like to say that it was...but I can't.

If you could add a special feature to your action figure, what would it be? Kung Fu grip? An accordion that fires missles?

[Laughs] I'd have to think about that, actually. I think my special feature would be like a curvature to the spine, and you'd have a fake Advil that you would give to the action figure and its spine would straighten out a little bit or something. I don't know, I'm not articulating this very well. I'd have to think harder about this. Mine would be the one with back pain.

Speaking of the Malcolm in the Middle theme did The Oblongs, you did The Daily Show, you have an Austin Powers theme song. What is the secret to writing a theme song as opposed to writing another song?

Well, they are all different. Each one of them is different. Sometimes people want a catchy melody. I feel like that's where we kind of feel that we can confidently bring something into it, because that's what we've been doing, is hooking up little hum-able, memorable melodies. But occasionally, we're asked to do stuff--like we were just ask to do a theme for a show that's going to be on The Learning Channel, and it's a documentary show about emergency rooms and interns. What they wanted was sort of a gloomy techno sort of vibe to it. It's about these guys who stay up all night. You know, they work really terrible hours and so I wouldn't say we're automatically the people you would choose to do that. But, it was really fun and interesting doing it. It was a challenge, and they liked what we cooked up, so it'll be on TV sometime in the Summer or the Fall. It was originally called Rounds, as in the doctor doing his rounds, and then they changed it to New Docs, and now apparently they've gotten rid of that name and I think they have not yet settled on a new name. It's going to be on The Learning Channel and it's connected to a new venture called New York Times TV and it's a documentary. So when that comes out, you'll recognize our beats.

So how do you go about writing the theme song?

Well, we've gotten into this weird practice of just pushing ourselves on people We got to do the theme for this local radio show in New York, The Noon Show on NPR, this guy Leonard Lopate. We've been on his show a bunch and at some point he said, like, "You know, I really need a theme." And we were like, "We'll do your theme!" And of course it's for an NPR talk show, so obviously it's not going to be like the Malcolm in the Middle theme, it'll be like something else. But he really liked it, he played it today and he announced our name, but it was just a completely different process. Although, to answer your question, that was our idea. We just said, we want to do a theme. It hadn't occurred to him that it would be remotely appropriate for us to write his theme. With the Malcolm thing, they called us. They wanted something that sounded like They Might Be Giants, so that was pretty easy. And with other stuff, we've established that we're able to do a number of different things, and we're not too expensive, and we have a cache of personality, so we're getting different jobs.

Was it weird for you to be at the Grammies when Malcolm in the Middle won?

Yeah, it was weird. I mean, we felt for the whole thing that we were imposters, basically. And that was even just when we had been nominated. We were sitting there thinking, "Well, if they announce the winner and it's us, do we walk down the who aisle to the middle row and walk straight up?" We'd have this conversation about how to get to the podium. And then we're thinking, of course this whole thing is ridiculous, because there is no possible way we're going to win, so why are we even having this discussion. But then, of course, we had to. We just jumped over other people's chairs. We did the Roberto Benigni thing. It felt like we were doing that.

How did it come about that Tiny Toons used your songs in its show?

They asked to use them. That was the entire extent of our involvement and work. It was really easy. They just took the tracks off the record and did these really amusing animations, which millions of 8 and 10 year olds saw and, ten years later started coming to our shows. It was great. It was really a great thing for us.

Were you at all aware of the show at the time?

No, not really. The show was new when they cooked up this stuff, and we didn't really know it. It sounded pretty bogus, to tell you the truth. They were saying, "This is a Steven Spielberg thing, it uses Warner Brothers characters, but they are like cute, baby versions of them," so we were like, "OK...whatever, fine. They're going to pay us money for this." And now it's like this classic cartoon that people fondly remember, so we actually got permission to put the two cartoons they made on our DVD, which has just come out. The DVD is all the videos that we made, plus these two Tiny Toon Adventures and some other stuff. It's nice, they hold up. My son actually only really likes those two things. For him, that is the apex of our work.

Are you guys still making music videos? Because that was a big part of the TMBG thing back in the day...

Well, we made one for the Malcolm in the Middle thing, but we haven't been on a major label for about six years. It's just too expensive. We can't really make one ourselves. There was a time when record companies were very into spending money on videos. I mean, Elektra, even before we left Elektra, was sort of backpedaling and saying they couldn't see spending that much money to promote every single band that's on their roster.

Do you think that had to do with the kind of avant garde videos you were making, that it was different from the mainstream?

It was a general thing. They are hugely expensive things. The problem was, at that time, and still, is that if they didn't play them on MTV, specifically, it was a big waste of money. And the only time MTV would play a video is if the song is already a hit. So, in a way it was sort of pointless. If a song was being promoted on MTV to make it into a hit, but they wouldn't play it unless it was a hit, basically we were kind of out of the loop in that regard. We didn't qualify. We do do a lot of Internet-y, very low budget-y visual stuff. We love doing that. Like, making little movies with a handy cam and then editing them together for the web. That kind of stuff. It's very low rez, but it's fun.

And I'm actually kind of interested in Flash now. We've done all this stuff in Flash for the children's record. All this Flash animation that comes on the CD. If you take the children's record and stick it in your computer, it brings up a little animation for each song. So I'm considering something like that as a web thing for us. Like to develop more Flash file stuff, because it's cheap and easy and fun to look at, and it enhances the experience of the song. And I like the fact that it's animation. I mean, how many times do you want to watch me and John lip-synching to our songs? As long as it's cheap and easy, I think it's a good idea.

Is that something you guys are planning on sticking with, the enhanced content on your CDs?

One thing we're talking about now is, instead of putting out a CD--like, Flansburgh had this brilliant idea- I don't know whether we can do this, it might be prohibitively expensive, but we could make a CD, and on the flip side would be a DVD, and it would be a thing we would sell for not much more than CD, but we'd include all this extra content. You can definitely do two-sided DVDs. You never see two-sided CDs, however. I mean, could you have that? Why don't they have that? I guess there'd be nowhere to put the label.

You guys should patent that. You'd make millions.

Mmmm...probably too late.

How do you feel about having your movie come out during the big summer blockbuster season? Do you think you can take down The Matrix?

Absolutely, yeah. The Matrix thing is just going to drop off. People are just gonna be like, "I can't see that, I gotta see the Giants movie. I was gonna see it, but I gotta see the Giants movie a second time." I don't think we exist on the same plane. We've got our own matrix.

Are there any summer movies coming out that you're looking forward to seeing?

Well, I saw A Mighty Wind already, and I know a lot of people didn't like it, but I thought it was really great. I loved the music. I thought it was really beautiful, personal, and way better than it had to be for a comedy. In a way, I don't think that A Mighty Wind was all that funny, but I think it was an excellent movie.

There are pages and pages on the Internet dedicated to interpreting your lyrics. How do you guys feel about that? Do you think it's cool that people are looking so deeply into it, or do you ever wonder where the hell some of this stuff is coming from?

I do think it's cool. I think that when we cook up these lyrics, we're not really thinking, "This song is about this." We're just trying to come up with something that's good, without it having to be translated into something else to make sense. I think the songs are what they are, and sometimes they click in people's minds, and sometimes maybe they don't, and I like the fact that people think about them and try to make sense out of them. I've had occasion to sit down and try and make sense out of songs that I wrote, particularly if I wrote them a while ago and I'm coming back to them, and I kind of understand the appeal of trying to cook up an explanation. But when we're writing them, we don't explain what we're doing to ourselves. I think we're trying to just do something that's interesting and fun and musical.

One aspect of Gigantic that I found interesting was the group of segments in which celebrites like Michael McKean and Janeane Garafalo doing readings of your lyrics? Was this an interesting experience for you, seeing that?

I was actually slightly disturbed by that. I didn't know what to make of it, really. I mean, I actually haven't said this to AJ, the director. I think that it was a weird experience for me because the songs are not really meant to be read like poetry. And yet, I was touched. AJ told me that Michael McKean actually commited some of them to memory, so he was able to just reel them off by heart, and I was just blown away when I heard that, because I don't really think about the lyrics as being in other people's heads. It was interesting, it was cool.

Did you discover any new angles hearing the songs coming out of someone else's mouth?

Nothing that I could articulate. Actually, another one that struck me, I had to sort of wonder what people would make of it, was the specter of Andy Ricter. He was reciting the lyrics to a song called "I Should Be Allowed to Think," and the song is written, it's one of the sort of unreliable narrator lyrics, but he was reading it in such an earnest way with such a furrowed brow. It almost just became its own thing, just listening to him reading like that. It's just a different experience.

If you were confronted by a giant Abraham Lincoln, as seen in the poster for Gigantic, how would you defeat it?

It's a loaded question. Let's see, how would you defeat a giant Abraham Lincoln? That's like a riddle. I think you'd need a giant John Wilkes Booth.

But, of course, you'd then have to figure out how to defeat the giant John Wilkes Booth.

Yeah, then you've got more trouble on your hands.

Having lived there, how do you feel about Brooklyn becoming the hot new place for up and coming indie bands?

Well, I moved out of Williamsburg about 10 years ago, so I'm not in the vortex of the hipness, anymore. I moved out to Park Slope, which is sort of anti-hip. It's like, a lot of people are pushing strollers around. So that part of Brooklyn is the same as it's always been. If anything, it's even more staid...but it's weird. My friends who still live in Williamsburg say that you can't park your car there anymore. So, I think mostly it's negative. There are some more restaurants, which is convienient if you eat out at restaurants. I don't know. I've lived most of my life in Brooklyn, at this point. It's always changing. Some parts are getting worse, some parts are getting better.

Do you want to take credit for being the pioneering indie artist coming out of that neighborhood?

Not really. I never felt like we were at the center of that scene, particularly. I mean, we were there, we were kind of around, playing in little clubs. But it's had its own life.

What happened to the stick that you used to use for percussion before you had a full band? Were there many sticks?

There were many sticks, and there still is a stick. We've got a stick in our warehouse that we pull out from time to time.

Are you so used to having a full band now that you wouldn't want to go back to the duo thing?

I think we'd have a hard time doing a whole show as a duo, now. I think we'd have to really spend some time rehearsing and working on the show to get it up to where we like it, if we went back to the duo. But, we do a lot of stuff as a duo in the course of this rock show, where all the guys named Dan leave the stage and John and I come and sing some songs as a duo, and that always works. It creates a nice contrast.

So the stick still does come out from time to time?

The stick does come out.

Finally, if you could have super powers, what would they be and why?

I think I would have the super power of taking Advil and making my back feel better.

I sense a theme.

You know, I'll be completely honest with you. I'd like to be able to fly. And I know I'd be crashing into Nelly Furtado up there, but I still think it would be very cool.

Would you use your powers for good or evil?

I would have to make that decision when the time came, but I'm open to suggestions.

Thanks very much, John. Good luck.

Nice talking to you.