At their height of college-rock success and MTV airplay, hyperliterate alt-rockers They Might Be Giants never predicted their most lucrative music would grow out of a genre most record stores don’t even carry and whose target audience has yet to earn an allowance: children’s music. Of course, if you looked for it, the writing was always on the wall. This is the band that wrote "Particle Man," belted out the defiant kids’ theme "Boss of Me" for Malcolm in the Middle and appeared on Tiny Toon Adventures.
But it’s one thing to dabble in children’s entertainment every now and then and quite another to go whole hog and rebrand yourselves as children’s musicians. Produced during the off-hours of their Malcolm in the Middle studio work, 2002’s No! was the band’s first official "family" recording, and it was met with resounding success. Disney’s record label, Disney Sound, made the group an offer it couldn’t refuse, and No!’s follow-up, Here Come the ABCs, became the group’s second album to be certified gold. Its sequel, Here Come the 123s, even won a Grammy. For its latest release, which TMBG will support with a family show 2 p.m. Saturday at Miami’s Arsht Center, the group has shifted its focus from the alphabet and counting to the sciences.
Here Comes Science, They Might Be Giants’ fourth children’s album and 14th overall, is an adorable, mirthful, infectious and even educational affair, with 19 tracks addressing subjects such as the circulatory system, paleontology, photosynthesis, shooting stars and the color spectrum. It includes, as with the previous two kids’ discs, a bonus DVD with animated music videos to accompany each song.
"We’re ambitious about what we’re doing, and we spend just as much time making the kids’ stuff as we do the adult stuff," says John Flansburgh, who formed the band in 1982 with John Linnell. "Our aspirations are pretty high. Hopefully, that shows."
While the group has, for years, integrated its children’s music into the adult shows, Flansburgh describes the family concert as a different beast. "The adult shows are loud, in the dark and happen at night," he says. "The kids’ shows are essentially quiet, happen during the day and there’s a lot less blinking lights. We’ve discovered that small children are afraid of the dark, so we have to respect that."
For longtime fans of the group’s "adult" material--i.e., songs about obscure Belgian painters, neglected presidents and funnily named costume designers instead of tunes about letters, numbers and crossing the street--it can be surprising to learn that many of the band’s fans only know it from its children’s albums.
"There’s a whole contingent of adults who only discovered the band through the family stuff," Flansburgh says. "The thing about kids’ music and that culture is that it’s very viral, and so a lot of parents turn other parents on to this stuff in a very organic way--they hand off the DVDs and tell their friends about stuff as they discover it. That’s kind of thrilling for us. Anytime you can be making new fans is kind of great.
"Where it really gets confusing is when they only know us through the kids’ music and they try to get into adults-only shows," he continues. "‘Cause they just don’t understand what we’re doing. It’s like, ‘Hey, I thought these guys were cool with the kids?’"
Even if the atmosphere is markedly different for the afternoon shows, Flansburgh knows that many of the same 20- to 30-somethings who follow the band with cultish devotion will be in attendance, and he’s glad when TMBG’s admirers can appreciate both of the worlds the group traverses.
"I suppose there are people who are more invested in appearing superficially cool that would find the whole idea [of children’s music] toxic, but I think we’ve found a way to do it," he says. "I appreciate the fact that our adult audience is emotionally mature enough to accept the duality. A lot of adults actually embrace the kids’ stuff we do for the style and spirit of it for the same reason I think adults like graphic novels that have quality artwork. There are a lot of independent thinkers out there."
There are a lot of anti-science zealots out there too, apparently. Flansburgh was taken aback by the accidentally controversial nature of Here Comes Science, which includes songs about evolution and electric cars.
"We’ve gotten so much shit for doing science in this post-George Bush era," says Flansburgh, who describes himself as a "knee-jerk, tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts." "It’s not like we’re itching for a fight, but when we’re talking about science, it’s really about something. It’s not just what you want it to be. It’s about observed facts. We really don’t want to insult anybody, but it’s hard to talk about science and not have it rub up on a lot of people’s belief systems."
Here’s hoping the group takes on other school subjects, provocative or not.
"It would be fascinating to do a history album," Flansburgh says. "Our sense of history is so divergent from the Texas School Board sense of history, it might totally get us in trouble."