"Giants" Bring Same Spirit for Kids and Adults

The Des Moines Register, May 24, 2011
by Joe Lawler

Barney, Raffi, The Wiggles. It's understandable why some parents might cringe when their kids get to pick the music.

But They Might Be Giants, the headliners of Sunday's Every Family Rocks event might prove to be the exception. In the early 1990s, many kids' first exposure to the quirky pop duo was the band's songs "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantine)," which were animated on the "Tiny Toons Adventures" series. Twenty years later, those kids have grown up and many have become parents themselves.

Meanwhile, They Might Be Giants have put out a series of albums aimed at children. While songs like "Particle Man," the "Malcolm in the Middle" theme "Boss of Me" and the song from the perspective of a night light, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," have kid-friendly appeal, they weren't written for that audience. In 2002 TMBG released "No!" and have followed it up with three more albums of kids' music: "Here Come the ABCs," "Here Come the 123s" and "Here Comes Science."

John Linnell, co-frontman for TMBG, compared the band's shows for kids and adults: "They're not as different as you might think. You take the same spirit to both types of shows," Linnell said. "We strongly resist the urge to use curse words, and I think we're pretty successful in that regard. There's not that much dark material; we don't talk about divorce so much in the kids shows. But we want to bring our A-game to both types of shows."

But the audience is pretty different. When adults go to see the band at a club, it's normally because they are fans. Children are more fickle. Linnell said children don't grasp the same audience/performer relationship that adults often cultivate. They don't applaud after every song, or always face the stage. They talk, laugh and cry during unexpected parts of the songs.

Recording "No!" was initially a fun little side project for Linnell and his co-singer, John Flansburgh. They worked on the songs at the same time as their 2001 album "Mink Car," and the albums went on sale within a few months of each other. When they got the sales figures, "No!" had outsold "Mink Car" nearly two to one.

"We weren't taking it seriously, but suddenly it seemed like it could be a job," Linnell said.

Linnell, who was born in 1959, got attached to music like the Beatles at a young age and the band was a big influence on They Might Be Giant's use of harmony. But an album that caught his attention early on was his mom's copy of "Songs of the Pogo," featuring songs from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip. "Pogo" was a comic that appealed to kids because of its funny talking animals and to adults for its allegorical messages.

"There was something really great, individual and idiosyncratic about 'Songs from the Pogo,' " Linnell said. "The lyrics are really interesting and sort of literary in a Lewis Carroll-y kind of way. Nonsensical, but interesting and thoughtful. I still have a copy."

In July TMBG will release "Join Us," its first adult album in four years. Linnell said a return to focusing on their original audience didn't change the creative process much.

"We were conscious of the possibility that since we had been doing all the kids records that we might do something reactive and go more adult. But we didn't," Linnell said. "We wanted to make a good record, for people our age as well as older and younger. That said, there are a lot of adult themes on the new record. I wouldn't say it's inappropriate, but it's not aimed at kids."