Don't Lets Art: Under The Cover With They Might Be Giants

Paper Thin Walls, July 2000

For their 11th studio album, The Else (Idlewild), They Might Be Giants accepted an offer from friend and artist Marcel Dzama to shoot its uneasy, dreamlike cover art. The Winnepeg artist, known mainly for imagining similar cute/creepy microworlds in watercolor (see the cover of Beck's Guero), decided to turn his drawings of snowmen into a pair of totem-like figures the viewer confronts in the snow. Do they represent businessmen, politicians or traveling musicians? Or are they simply a manifestation of the 'The Else,' an invented phrase that They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh says simply represents 'the other'?

John Flansburgh: We have a house in the Catskill Mountains and [Dzama's] come up here a bunch. We're up here a lot in the wintertime when virtually no one is here. It's insanely cold and there's often snow when there isn't anywhere else. We just packed up a bunch of stuff from his studio and dragged it up here one weekend in the dead of winter. There had actually been a snowstorm the night before. If you look at the photographs, you can't really tell, but I think the photographs are psychically informed by the fact that it was crazy freezing. We would shoot something and then duck back into the car because it was so cold outside.

Marcel Dzama: I knew that a lot of this album was written in upstate New York which worked well with a lot of things I explore in my own artwork in regards to nature, which was a good starting point. I had been making these snowman sculptures out of felt and plaster and had wanted to photograph them but could never come up with a tangible situation for them to be in. Upstate New York looks not dissimilar from the part of Canada where I am from so when John asked me to do the album I knew right away that I wanted to use the snowmen and shoot them upstate in preferably a snowy landscape. There is something in their music that allows for a little bit of surrealism and mystery, which I wanted to portray quite literally.

Flansburgh: [Our friends] Dave and Jason and my wife Robin are the models in the photographs [throughout the album art]. They're the ones wearing the costumes. Not us. A lot of people assume that it's us, which is fine. We talked about album covers that we liked and [Dzama] is very into Dylan. He was kind of referencing the John Wesley Harding album cover.

The fact that the snowmen are in black and white just reminds me of the jump, [how] he made costumes of drawings of snowmen. He's creating 3D versions of the things that he draws. Typically a snowman's nose is a carrot and carrots are orange, but they're not orange in his drawings because he has a very restricted palette

Dzama: What I like about the snowman is that they are open to so many interpretations. I like hearing what other people come up with. Ideas of impermanence, travel, child-friendly yet a little scary, all of these things are interesting to me.

Flansburgh: I never thought of that link, but we do have snowmen in our past [The cover of their 1987 Don't Let's Start EP featured an iconic image of a Monopoly-style snowman warming himself on a burning pile of cash--Ed.]. When you're a band that leans so heavily on nouns, at a certain point you're just gonna start tripping over the same nouns. I guess we could write another song about a bird now.

Dzama: The quote on the suitcase is taken from Goya's Disasters Of War. Since the Giants tackle political material, it seemed appropriate.

Flansburgh: It's an especially brutal painting. I guess it translates to √ęthey availed themselves' which is a damaged-in-translation way of saying 'they took advantage.' The painting is of villagers or worker-peasant people tearing the clothes and taking money out of the pockets of dead soldiers. A battle had taken place and these poor people came in and just scavenged over the dead.

There's no name on the album cover. There's no title, which we really haven't done since our second album. And anybody in the music business will tell you that it's a terrible idea. It's just a way to completely cripple your sales because, in the bins, people will just not know what it is. It was just impossible to figure out what type treatment would work. Every type treatment just seemed wrong. A graphic designer said to me years and years ago, "Anybody can put a photograph on something and then just leave it." In some ways, I have to admit it was a cop-out. But it didn't work any other way. So, what can you do but give up when you realize you've already failed.