In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process

by Bill DeMain

John Linnell of They Might Be Giants
Interviewed 1997

Hits: "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Guitar," "Boss of Me (Theme from Malcolm in the Middle)" "Purple Toupee," "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?," "Till My Head Falls Off," "James K. Polk," "Exquisite Dead Guy," "Hovering Sombrero," "Mink Car." A brief sampling of some of their titles tells you that the New York-based duo They Might Be Giants are definitely not writing generic you-and-me-baby love songs.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell, friends since their high school days, have, according to Linnell, always wanted to do work that's "inspiring and culturally interesting." And what began as four-track experiments in their Brooklyn apartments has sprouted into a cottage industry supported by a large network of fans. TMBG have released ten albums (as well as side projects--Flansburgh's group Mono Puff and Linnell's album State Songs), toured incessantly, made groundbreaking videos, composed the theme for the TV show Malcolm in the Middle, and written a children's book with accompanying CD (Bed, Bed, Bed). They even have their own Dial-a-Song service.

That's right. If you dial 718-387-6962, you can hear, depending on the week, demos of new songs, unreleased tracks, and greetings from the two Johns. They started the service fifteen years ago. Linnell says, "We didn't have any records out, and it seemed like a good way to get our music heard."

Aside from their obvious talent as pop artists, I think their inclusion in this book will make it clear to readers that in the world of songwriting, there is still much uncharted territory. Though it may seem like it's all been said before, one listen to the songs of They Might Be Giants will tell you that it hasn't.

What made you want to write your own songs?

I don't know, that's pretty difficult to figure out. I guess both John and I, whatever we've done, the point of it has been to do the creative work. I wrote a lot of instrumental music in high school. I didn't really get into writing songs exactly until a little later.

What were those early pieces like?

[Laughs] This is very embarrassing, as you can imagine, talking about the work you did in high school, but they were kind of inspired generally by Frank Zappa. In other words, things that were combining composition with recording techniques and psychedelia, things like that.

Are you a schooled musician?

Not especially. I think that most of the stuff that both John and I do is founded on the things that we taught ourselves. I took a little bit of theory in high school and college, and I went to Berklee for a summer. But that was pretty much just piano lessons and ear training.

Who besides Frank Zappa influenced your writing?

Now, the more important influence, maybe for John too, is the Beatles. Even in the 70s when the idea of the mainstream was much less appealing to us, we wanted to do work that was kind of individualistic, and at that point there was this clear feeling among us and our friends that mass culture didn't speak to us as individuals. That was the step we all took from preteens to teenagers, was realizing that there were individual cultural things that spoke to one as an individual, and therefore, the idea of being only interested in the Top 40 was the anathema to doing original work and so on. That was a very kind of knee-jerk feeling.

Did you and John know early on that you wouldn't be writing normal, you-and-I-style love songs?

Yeah, I think we were much more into that idea at the time, that we were not normal. I think now we've completely turned around and feel like we're as normal as anyone else. One thing I realize, looking back, is that the idea of normal in our high school was completely abstract. Nobody felt like they were the normal ones. Everybody felt like an outsider in the whole school, and it just was not something we were aware of at that time.

Did you guys start the group in high school?

No, but we started working together in high school. We started doing this band about ten years ago in New York. We'd both moved to New York from different places the same year, so we started recording and writing together again. Within about a year, we started performing.

Are you and John at it all the time or do you just write for specific projects?

I think we would be at it a lot more, but we're touring a lot with the band, and I find it impossible to write on the road. I really need a clear schedule and a lot of peace and quiet. That's my own particular neurosis, that I can't really work with other people around or in the room, or if I have other things to do on the schedule ahead of me.

When you and John cowrite, do you actually sit down in the same room together?

No. We've done some collaborations, but we mostly just each write songs. We split the writing about halfway, right down the middle on our records, and then there've been a couple of things where we've found different ways to collaborate. One example is "My Evil Twin" from the last record, and that's something where I wrote a bunch of music. It was all MIDI, and I put it on a computer disc and gave it to John, and he wrote the melody and lyrics over top of it.

For songs coming from two separate writers, you guys are amazingly in tune.

Well, as you know, we've known each other a long time, and that is very important as far as what we're doing. We have a very clear understanding of each other's sensibilities, and we have an enormous amount in common. We have a lot of differences too, but we're very tuned in to one another.

When you write songs on your own, where do you usually begin?

I have the worst writing habits of anybody [laughs]. I always write the music first, which is really difficult. Impossible, in fact. That's just the way I've always worked. A couple of occasions I've come up with words and been able to write music. But for some reason, I really get started with a melody. Usually the melody to me is the interesting thing, and I have to come up with the lyrics to put over it. It kind of maybe explains the kinds of songs that I write, where often the lyrics seem like they're having to fit into a metric structure. It's a chore [laughs]. I think you'll notice with my songs maybe more than John's that the metric spacing of the words is identical from one verse to another. That's because the music was written first, and I can't bear to change the melody.

What makes a great melody?

The thing is, I have a particular kind of melody that I write. I think there are a lot of great songs and great melodies that are very different from what I do. There's this album by this guy Frank Black. He writes really interesting melodies. I find them a little counterintuitive. There's some really odd rhythmic things that happen in them, and they're very beautiful for that reason. I don't think he's trying to write beautiful melodies, but that's the effect they have. My melodies are almost always scales. That's the other thing, I tend to write melodies that move up and down in scales. The large interval that I use is the hook, but the meat of it is all scales, moving up and down [laughs]. I mean, it sounds really dumb, but that does end up being a lot of what I write.

When you have a piece of music that you really like, what kinds of things do you do to get the lyric going?

I really mix it up. I've written a lot of lyrics that are very elliptical, partly for the reason that I was telling you about, that I'm trying to make them fit into the melody. Often, if it's a pop song, I think the lyrics tend to be a little less obvious, for that reason. Another thing about the lyrics is that the sounds of the words are important too. The sounds of the syllables have to fit in with the melody, all the stresses and everything.

Will you write a dummy lyric?

I've done that a bunch. "Birdhouse in Your Soul," that's a really good example of that. It started as a dummy lyric and almost even sounds like a dummy lyric, the song that ended up being on the record.

Do you tell yourself at the outset that it doesn't have to make sense?

Oh yeah, I keep reminding myself not to wring my hands over the fact that it doesn't seem to make sense right away. When you repeat something over and over to yourself, you eventually make sense of it [laughs]. It's really important to relax about the importance of what you're doing and not think of it as earth-shattering. I think you can write good lyrics if you don't take yourself too seriously.

A lot of times when I read about They Might Be Giants, words like "absurdist" and "nonsensical" are used to describe the songs. Do you agree with that assessment?

It's sort of painful, because it sounds very dismissable. Actually, I think whenever you kind of caricature anybody's work as anything, it makes it easier to throw away. The other thing is I think we really do write a lot of songs that are in no way surrealist or quirky or anything like that. We write songs which are pretty straightforward. But if you have a reputation for being one thing, then people could miss out on the fact that you're doing something else.

What's the hardest thing about the whole process?

Once you've gotten the good stuff figured out, it's hard just to make it all hang together. In some ways, it's the necessary thing where you're just kind of plastering up all the cracks and making it smooth. It's the least interesting part of the work, trying to make it be a cohesive song rather than a collection of parts.

When you're writing, do your songs make you laugh?

Sometimes, yeah, but usually not. I think that when you come up with a good idea, sometimes it's something--and this can be when you're doing any kind of work, but this applies to songwriting--when you come up with an idea that surprises you when it pops in your head, that makes you laugh. It's often something that you feel is really good, and it can be the thing to hang the rest of the song on. The good idea that makes the rest of it march in step.

Some of your songs make me laugh, like "Shoehorn with Teeth."

I think some of them have sort of the structure of jokes, and unfortunately, this is getting back to this problem we've had of people considering it to be a novelty or joke. To us, our songs are very meaningful, and interesting, and the whole point is that they're saying something. But they have this structure of some joke maybe. Part of the effect is that it lightens the song up so it's not pretentious. Like I was saying, if you think of what you're doing as tremendously important, you can really drive people away.

I think you and John put your records together really well by placing a funny song like "Spider" after "The Statue Got Me High," which is a great lyric.

I think that the contrast is another important element in what we're doing. Occasionally people ask us what our favorite song is and that's one that really drives us crazy. It's very difficult to pull one song out and say this sums up everything, when really an important part of what we're doing is coming up with contrasts. That's one of the values of having an album, is that you can really say a lot of different things, and they each are heightened by one another in a way. You can allow yourself to do something that's a little more intense than you'd want to have as your manifesto [laughs]. But then if you contrast that with something else, it gives you freedom to do it.

Have you ever used a song by another artist as sort of a springboard for one of your own?

Sure. In fact, when we started that was one of the more common things we were doing. I like the way you put that, because I think that we also gave some people the impression that we were writing parodies, and they really were, I think, the opposite. I really feel like we wanted to rejuvenate the stuff that we liked by referring to it.

"Narrow Your Eyes" has a very British Invasion sound.

Oh yeah, definitely. That was obviously part of the whole aspect of what we were into when we were growing up. If you hear the original music, it sounds fresh, so the real challenge is to come up with something that is as fresh now. Often you hear people remaking songs, doing covers of classic oldies. It almost always fails to capture the thing that was cool about the original.

Let me ask you about a few of your songs to get your reaction--"Purple Toupee."

I have this friend who likes all of our songs except that one. She said she didn't get it. She thought "Purple Toupee" was like a surrealist toss-off. Then she changed her opinion about it when I told her that the song had used a couple of Prince songs as a springboard, "Purple Rain" and "Raspberry Beret." I guess part of the idea was that, at the time, it seemed like there was this 60s revival in the works. It reminded me of all the other revivals that had taken place that were reviving times that I wasn't around for. They must have been complete shams based on what the 60s revival was. It seemed like it was based on this utterly one-dimensional caricature of the time that it was supposed to [be] representing or reviving. That still goes on now. That's sort of what "Purple Toupee" is about.

"Ana Ng."

I wrote that one after I'd been looking in the Manhattan phone book. This isn't actually the way John and I write. We don't go to sources. But I think for some reason I had the phone book open. I wasn't thinking about writing at that moment. I noticed that there [were] about three pages, which is really a lot of individual numbers, of people named Ng. There are probably thousands of people named Ng in New York, just the letters N and G. And I didn't know what ethnicity the name belonged to or anything, but that sort of sparked my curiosity. Another thing that inspired one of the lines in the song is a Pogo comic book where they're trying to determine the opposite side of the world, and the way they do it is actually blowing a hole through the globe with a gun, which was very funny.

"James K. Polk."

That one I wrote with a friend. We were both interested in the fact that people know facts based on these kind of historical songs with melodies that are catchy. The lyrics aren't in and of themselves something you'd remember. We were thinking of that song "The Battle of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton. He wrote a bunch of history songs, and they're wonderful actually. We picked a president that we literally knew nothing about. We just both knew the name [laughs]. It turned out to be somebody who was really pivotal in American history. He was president during the largest expansion of the country that's taken place. He started this fake war with Mexico in order to grab all the southwestern land. He was just a very kind of hardline character, and he wasn't particularly well liked by anybody. He's just this very peculiar figure for that reason. Noncharismatic, but he did these tremendous things.

"Metal Detector."

Musically, it was inspired by a song on my old 70s Moog. The lyrics were inspired by this book written by this old Yankee guy who spent all his time in the islands hunting for buried treasure. He wrote a book about it and published it on this vanity press that put out these really weird, mentally ill books [laughs].

"The Statue Got Me High."

It's kind of a song about having an epiphany or something. The song actually started with completely different lyrics. That's what I was saying about dummy lyrics. I think the song was called "The Apple of My Eye." When I came up with the line "the statue got me high," it amused me. It was taking two things and putting them together--not a non sequitur but something sort of interesting and odd about the juxtaposition of those two things. Part of it is that it's the idea that the statue would be in a public square, a monument. Not necessarily a work of art, but something that's just utterly immobile and represents something that's in the past--just the idea of that blowing somebody's mind. It seems like one of the least likely things to make the top of your head come off, and that's what happens in the song.

Were all the twenty-second ideas that make up "Fingertips" things that you didn't finish?

No, they were written to be part of "Fingertips." The project was to write a bunch of choruses and nothing else. In other words, I had to restrain myself from writing any other parts of the songs. I wanted a collection of choruses that's something like what you see on TV late at night, like the old K-Tel commercials. I was thinking about how you know a lot of songs from these ads, but the only part you know is maybe one line, which is half the chorus. And yet they stick in your head in the way a whole song would. In a way, these tiny chips of songs seem complete, because you don't know the rest of the song.

What advice could you offer to songwriters?

You really have to want to do it, independent of whether or not there's a future in it. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but that's how John and I got going--we really liked what we were doing. We didn't have a career ahead of us necessarily, so therefore the career consideration didn't affect what we were doing. Except to the practical extent that we had to figure out how to perform the music, things like that. The main thing is we would have done it no matter what. We did do it for a long time without any money. There are bands that come up to A & R people and say, "What can we do to get signed? We'll do whatever you want." And that's not even what A & R people want to hear. They'd be in bands if they knew what to do.