The professional trend for musicians these days doesn't really include a plan of making it to a major label. In fact, the way things currently are it matters very little as to who you're signed to, but how you sound to the audience. Just the way it should be. But like any other genre or movement, it took years for that trend to become a popular choice and many of the pioneering acts who were instrumental in starting it rarely get the recognition or last to see its fruition. Taking a step back from the local for today, we look at a duo that may very well have had an influence (or at least mild impact of thinking) on the vast majority of Utah musicians and their approach to both music and the industry itself.
They Might Be Giants have been going strong since their 1986 debut. Being mainstays of alternative and college rock, the Brooklyn duo can be linked all the way back to the start of the entire Indie movement with their own brand of experimental and occasional idiosyncratic music. With catchy songs that often come in under the three minute marker, the band has obtained a beyond loyal fanbase and musical-cult status that can rival any others. I got the chance to have a chat with co-founder John Linnell while the band makes its way to SLC for their two shows this weekend (mentioned in this week's issue), talking various topics from their last couple albums to career moves to what lies down the road.
Hey John. How's the tour going so far?
So far we've surpassed expectations for attendance given the current economic climate, and we've outlasted the normal timetable for most of us getting sick by a strong margin. So, it's going well.
Tell us a little about why you've been doing children's albums the past few years.
Overall it seems there is still a demand for music that appeals to kids and that doesn't make their parents want to drive the car into a telephone pole. We are here to meet that demand, and we very much appreciate the fact that parents feel compelled to pay actual money for their kids albums. Bit torrent is either too complicated for people over 30 or they're trying to set a good example for their children.
Here Comes Science is the most recent one, what was it like recording it and putting it together?
In one way it's kind of easy to pick a topic and write a song about it. The real challenge is making the subject entertaining and interesting, rather than a list of facts. The arranging, rehearsing and recording part is always fun and wasn't any different in that regard from our makey-up material.
I know there's a portion of your audience that was introduced to you through the show Tiny Toon Adventures, and now you're putting out music for a generation that are most likely their children. What does it feel like as a musician to be able to connect with your fans in that unique way?
I'm imagining that it's nice for parents to play their kids something that they themselves grew up with, if that is indeed the case. But speaking as a parent I know that kids like to make their own choices and maybe aren't interested in reenacting their parents childhoods. I tried and failed to get my son swept up in Beatlemania, so I know whereof I speak. When both child and parent are engaged it's very gratifying indeed.
In turn, what are the live kids concerts like, having both the parent fans and newer kids both into the music you play?
We've seen kids going completely mental and singing along to every song. Sometimes they have the lyrics down colder than we do. But there are also kids for whom we are kind of the background music to whatever it is they're doing or thinking about. I'm sure there are also kids out there who are seeing a live concert for the first time and perhaps some of them are bonding with their parents over the experience. That would be cool.
Have you given thought to doing more children's records or does it feel like there will come a point where you'll just have nothing else for that music?
Having started with subjects as primary as the alphabet, following up with numbers was a pretty obvious next move and at that point it felt like we had covered the main subjects. Now, having done the science album it seems that we've broadened the range of the project, with the result that there are a huge number of possible topics open to us now.
Along with the albums you've done music videos and podcasts in support. Would you ever want to do a television show like this?
It would have to be well defined and controllable by us. TV is notoriously difficult to get right but we're always ready to say yes to stuff. After that we get really cranky and petulant about having our own way.
Moving to the adult material, the last album you had out was The Else. How was that working with The Dust Brothers and the success you received from that release?
We were pretty gratified that we could work with outside people and feel so comfortable about the result. After the umpteenth album it was necessary to do something that had a different sound. We picked the Dust Brothers to produce the album because they were bringing something to the table that we knew wouldn't be our usual bag. After joining forces with them we were still surprised at how very different their approach really was from ours. For example they work so slowly and methodically it kind of blew our minds. Somehow The Else is still identifiably They Might Be Giants.
Will we see a return to you making adult albums down the road or is that chapter done?
We are currently writing songs and recording them (when we have any time off from touring) for the next adult TMBG album. Early signs are encouraging and we have no plans to quit making grown up recordings.
Last year the Dial-A-Song phone number died out. What exactly happened to it, and will you ever bring it back into service?
It may be that Dial-A-Song as a concept has more or less been made redundant by the internet. Some would probably disagree, but in any case we've run out of resources for that particular outlet. After nearly three decades of faithful service the phalanx of phone machines that were the standing army supporting Dial-A-Song finally collapsed and died of old age and exhaustion. They will be given a state funeral as befits such brave soldiers.
Something people may not know is that you also create music for television shows. How did you get into doing that, and what are some of the shows that people would recognize it from?
Many of the TV themes and commercial jingles we've done might not be recognizable as TMBG music. We were commissioned to write the fake news music that introduces The Daily Show and strove to make it sound as bombastic and impersonal as possible. The rangy themes that introduce the guests as they walk on are also ours. We wrote the theme for the The Oblongs which is kind of in a jazzy mid-20th-century style. We've written themes for public television and public radio that I think are almost anonymous in their adherence to the politeness of that genre.
Bit of a strange question, you're coming up on eligibility for the R&R Hall Of Fame. If they came knocking would you want to be a part of it?
We will continue to deride awards and institutions until they honor us, at which point we will shamelessly boast about them.
Some bands are now doing remastered or Deluxe editions of their albums. Have you thought about doing that with albums like Lincoln or Flood, or are you satisfied with the original as-is?
Generally the originals seem good, though if we start to consider what things we'd like to fix on our old recordings, the list grows indefinitely. For this reason, and the fact that people generally prefer that their fond memories are left unmolested, we're probably going to spend our energies trying to come up with new material instead of messing around with the old stuff.
Speaking of Flood, my understanding is that for the adult concert at The Depot you'll be playing the entire record live from start to finish. How did the idea of doing the whole album come about?
This is something we've done a bunch of times already, and not just with Flood. In recent years we've also played Apollo 18 straight through and even the lesser known Factory Showroom. People seem to like it and we need the exercise.
You're actually performing two shows in SLC, what can people expect from the kids show the following night?
No swearing, no political rants, but otherwise a not dissimilar show to the adult show. We'll mostly be featuring songs from the new Science record, of course.
After the tour, what can we expect from you both in 2010?
John and I are anxious to come up with something that we ourselves wouldn't have expected us to do. So by definition, I don't know.