Geek of the Week: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

Geek Girl on the Street, September 20, 2010
by Kate Kotler

I have been listening to They Might Be Giants for twenty-years. I was first introduced to TMBG my junior year of high school (yes, I realize I just dated myself) by my friend Lael who used to give me a ride home from school occasionally. He had Flood in his cassette player one day as we rode home from school together. In the 10 minutes it took us to get from our high school to my house I became a TMBG fan. (Seriously: I went out after I got paid for babysiting that weekend and bought TMBG, Lincoln and Flood on cassette tape. I still have them... somewhere.)

The whimsical tone of the music, posited against heavy themes and often dark lyrics made John Flansburgh and John Linnell (often just called "The Two Johns") an extremely popular and renowned musical duo through the 90s and 00s. And, having collaborated together since high school, they are still going strong. Their latest efforts have included four popular children's albums: No! (2002), Here Come the ABCs (2005), Here Come the 123s (2008) and their latest effort, Here Comes Science (2009). As their original fan base has grown up and had children, it makes total sense that TMBG would be uniquely positioned to excell in producing music "for the whole family" which is educational, fun and--very surprisingly--music parents can enjoy listening to over and over and over and over and over and over again...

Well you get the picture.

This summer and fall the Giants have been out on tour, playing all-family and adult shows (often in the space of the same day.) This includes a number of free shows in San Francisco and New York City. I had the unique opportunity this past Thursday to catch up with John Linnell (the Giant without glasses) over the phone for a quick chat...

What were your early musical influences?

I can give you a very straightforward answer to that, but it's a little boring... I would say that both John and I were Beatles fans from the time that we we were five years old on. I have to say, I don't think that you can get out from under that [musical influence]. Sometime in the 70s we both got interested in underground rock--that's what they called it before it was called alternative or independent rock. That would include Frank Zappa, which is a little embarrassing. But, then it also included a band like Sparks, which I still find very listenable and interesting. We both were influenced by songwriters like Elvis Costello. The idea of being a songwriter, as opposed to just being a recording artist, was something which we both were interested in.

Is there any one song which is particularly special to you?

There are certain recordings that we thought, after the fact we thought "wow, what an interesting rare thing that was..." I don't think I can pick any example and say "this is my favorite song," though. There were just a lot of oddball songs, like "Piece of Dirt" from the Lincoln album: [the song] was this odd thing which came together in the studio and was very different and kind of beautiful and rare. It was the result of John and I collaborating in the studio, going back and forth and giving each other material and it was unlike anything we had recorded before.

What inspired the move to children's music? TMBG music is so whimsical and sometimes silly--did it feel natural to move into writing for kids, or was it difficult?

It didn't at first, as whimsical and fun as our music is, there's often a dark impulse to the songs. I think we use the whimsey to say stuff that's hard to say. We're talking about things that are hard or unpleasant or just difficult. So, at first we were trying to take that spirit of expression and freedom and apply that to kids music. And, it wasn't easy to figure out how were were going to apply it to kids. Though on some level it was intuitive. Our first kids album was called No! It wasn't under the auspices of Disney, we were invited by Rounder to make a kids album and we were very surprised by the success of it. And, we didn't think of specifically what age the kids were who were going to listen to it.

I was listening to Here Comes Science last night and I was struck with the thought that even though this is an album intended for kids, I'd probably buy it for myself, too. Was there a conscious effort into making your children's albums appealing to adults as well?

Yes. Kids listen to stuff over and over again. For some reason that's the way that kids consume their music. Given that, we wanted to create something that was at least tolerable for adults.

How has your own son reacted to this music?

For my son--it is something he's grown up with. I think he takes it for granted that this is what I do. He mostly likes [They Might Be Giants music], I'd say. He's not a fan, because he's my son--I think he thinks critically about [the music]--but, he likes it.

What are the over-reaching goals for Here Comes Science?

I think with all the stuff we've done for Disney our over arching plan was to be entertaining first and informative second.

Do you have any plans to do work with Obama's STEM initiative?

No--we haven't been invited--we will serve if called.

One of our readers wanted to know: What inspired the "Hot Dog" song for the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse?

You'd have to ask Flansburgh--I can't answer that, I didn't have a part in writing it. Do you mean why hot dogs? Yeah, you'd have to ask John.

Do you have any sage advice for aspiring musicians?

Yes: This maybe applies more to record making which is an obsolete system of music making. I think the whole model of record companies is kind of gone... But, early in our career our A&R person more or less confirmed something we had already thought. Basically, you shouldn't ask your audience what they want from you. Instead you should give them something they didn't know they wanted.