Band Duo Finds Documentary "Gigantic" to Be "Crazily Flattering"

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 4, 2003
by Ed Masley

John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants have been following "Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)" around the country, promoting the documentary on the band's career by fielding questions from the audience -- a process that "seems really weird" to Linnell.

"And maybe even idiotic," he says, with a laugh. "I feel like we're going to these great lengths to promote the movie. And it seems like it should be the other way around."

Not such great lengths, perhaps. The band won't be in Pittsburgh for the opening, for instance. And besides, things could be worse. The film is more flattering, Linnell points out, than "Capturing the Friedmans," a new documentary on a dysfunctional family involved in a child sex abuse case.

In fact, if anything, "Gigantic" is "crazily flattering," as Linnell says.

At one point, for instance, it's stated -- as fact -- that They Might Be Giants have "really been the vanguard of alternative."

Important? Sure. But vanguard?

"Now, that's really stretching it," Linnell says. "But I'm glad that somebody else said it, because um ... you know, because it's not true."

Linnell laughs, then points out that Sue Drew, who signed the duo to Elektra in the '80s, "said a lot of things that made me blush but seemed completely crazy."

And anyhow, he says, he wouldn't want to be the member of a movement, even if it placed him at the vanguard.

"People who sort of belong to a movement, in some ways, it's kind of a losing proposition," he says. "At least in the art world. I don't think you'd necessarily want to spearhead a bunch of other people. I think everybody kind of has to start from scratch in a way. It may sound kind of nuts, but I do think that's probably the best way to look at it."

If he did feel a sense of connection to a movement, though, it wouldn't be "alternative" so much as it would be the art scene on the Lower East Side when the duo was just getting started.

"We were playing in these performance spaces," he says. "And there were some bands, but it was mostly just people going up and doing some completely [messed] up thing. Someone would just go up and start reciting the dialogue from a soap opera. And we just happened to be holding instruments. But I felt like that was the nearest thing to a little club of people that I think we felt like we were ever a part of. And nothing was really like anything else. There were comedians. And there were musicians. And there were people doing really serious social commentary. And there were people doing completely abstract stuff that you couldn't make head nor tail of -- that made people laugh but didn't make sense."

Making people laugh at weirdness has always been part of the They Might Be Giants equation. But from the start, there's been an underlying sadness, too.

Which may have much to do with Linnell's viewing funny and sad as part of the same equation.

"A lot of what makes people laugh -- at least in the stuff we do -- is the stuff that's actually kind of sad," he says. "To me, that's a big part of humor, examining stuff that's so awful that it makes you laugh."

Making people laugh, of course, can often lead to other, more humorless people dismissing your music as goof-rock.

But Linnell says, "I don't think anyone's ever directly confronted us about that. I can't remember anyone saying 'Cut the comedy' or anything. We've definitely gone through periods where we've had critics who said they didn't like us. But mostly, I just think they thought we were irritating or something like that."

Linnell wasn't sure what to think when first approached about the prospect of a documentary.

When director AJ Schnack suggested it, "I wasn't even sure if it made any sense as an idea," he says, "unless it was some kind of horrendous expose or something, some kind of 'Behind the Music' type of thing, which we obviously would not have been into."

Not that the story of They Might Be Giants is ripe for yellow journalism.

As Linnell recalls, "The Onion did a very funny piece about a year ago reporting on this fictitious 'They Might Be Giants Behind the Music,' and it said nobody watched it. It was just too boring."

He likes "Gigantic," though, from what he's seen in his travels promoting it.

"It sends the message we would want to send, which is basically about doing your own thing. It's not about our glamorous lives. I don't think you could really make a movie about that. But the other thing is it's just really funny. It's a fun, funny movie, so I think that even people who may not even like the band will at least be amused by the movie about the band. Or it might make people feel like even if we're not their thing, they're at least amused by the film about us."

Doing your own thing is one of several ideas they borrowed from punk, from saying what you had to say as concisely as possible to rejecting the pre-punk notion that you had to become an accomplished musician just to play a show or make a record.

In the movie, Flansburgh notes that before the punk explosion, saying you wanted to be in a rock band was like saying you wanted to be the Incredible Hulk.

"Punk was a big reaction against that," Linnell says. "And we felt like we were on that side."

Two things about the film surprised Linnell.

First, he says, he was "surprised at how inarticulate we turned out to be. I kind of thought I was being a little more interesting and clever. And then when I saw it, I felt like, you know, there's easier ways to say the thing that I'm struggling to say on screen."

Which isn't necessarily true.

The other thing that surprised him, he says, "is I seemed a lot more effeminate than I think of myself. I think of myself as just sort of me. But there was something strangely fey about my performance, which shocked me."

Could this be what Syd Straw was referring to when she compared him in "Gigantic" to Emily Dickinson?

"I've just gotta say, that was one of the only things she said that I actually could even make sense out of," he responds, with a laugh. "I really liked that. I thought it was great. And it came across as kind of a joke, but I think there's something very interesting about it. Because Emily Dickinson, she wrote these little short poems about death, and she just kept doing that over and over again. And that's kind of beautiful in a way. I think there is a lot of dark imagery in our music. That's not the first thing people think of when they think of us, but I think we're trying to address something that's difficult to talk about in our songs. We're trying to get at something that is hard to get at. And sometimes you need a sort of musical soundtrack to even begin to think about some of these things."

Considering the recent reawakening of interest in They Might Be Giants, fueled in part by the incessantly infectious theme song they contributed to "Malcolm in the Middle," the timing couldn't be much better for a documentary on the band.

As Linnell says, "We've had a really nice couple of years, where we've gotten all kinds of new work and we're getting a lot of attention for stuff that wasn't originally what we did. We've done a lot of TV themes and movie soundtracks. We put out a children's record that was successful, and we're putting out a book this fall which is a bunch of lyrics from some more children's songs and a CD of bedtime story song kind of things. It's sort of like we've got all the balls in the air again. For a period in the middle-'90s, it seemed like we were still doing creative work, but not getting a lot of attention for it, and now it seems like we're back in the mix, which is nice."