Meaningful Numbers Loom for They Might Be Giants

MSN Canada, June 10, 2011
by Steve McLean

They Might Be Giants will release its 15th studio album next month, is closing in on playing its 2000th show, and 2012 will mark the quirky Brooklyn, New York pop duo's 30th anniversary.

Singer, songwriter and guitarist John Flansburgh reflected on these milestones during a recent phone call to promote TMBG's free performance at Toronto's David Pecaut Square at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the Luminato festival.

"More than anything, I feel kind of a mania. When you say 30 years, that seems kind of hard to believe. And when you say 15 albums, I think ‘How come we didn’t do 20?’ We’ve worked so steadily that I’d think that our output would be a little more prodigious. But it’s cool. It’s interesting. It’s certainly against the odds." p>Flansburgh recently turned 51 and singing, songwriting and multi-instrumentalist bandmate John Linnell turns 52 a day after the Toronto gig, so they weren't fresh-faced teenagers when they started the group (and were usually accompanied by a drum machine instead of the full band they play with now). But that doesn't mean they were slick and seasoned musicians either, Flansburgh points out.

"We didn’t really have big ambitions about what we were doing on a professional level. We had ambitions on an artistic level, and that made it a lot easier for us. I don’t think we assess what we’re doing by the standard of how well it goes over with the general public or how unbroke we are or whatever. It kind of lets you off the hook.

"A lot of musicians feel like if it’s not making immediate sense, then it’s not really worth doing. If it’s not clicking with enough people, they kind of give up on the more fragile, less defensible part of what they’re doing a little bit prematurely. p>"It makes sense to do what you think people like and to play to your own strengths, but from very early on we realized that what we like doing might not be the most mainstream thing. In many ways, we’re still there. We’re on the road less travelled for a band."

Still, for a group whose refreshingly original self-titled 1986 debut album featured songs with such out of the ordinary titles as "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head," "Rabid Child," "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," TMBG has enjoyed surprising commercial success.

The band moved from the independent Bar None label to the multinational Elektra Records for its third album, "Flood," which was certified gold in the United States and spawned the surprisingly successful singles "Birdhouse In Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

TMBG stayed with Elektra for three more albums and Flansburgh maintains that he and Linnell were under no illusion that they'd be with the label that spawned The Doors, Queen and Eagles forever. He insists they were dealt with fairly and were allowed to get out of their deal quickly when sales failed to meet Elektra's expectations.

"Some people love using major labels as a huge piñata," Flansburgh says. "We don’t look to record companies to solve our problems. We think of our careers as being our responsibility."

"Join Us" will be issued via TMBG's own Idlewild Recordings on July 19, and Flansburgh chuckles when he describes it as fantastic.

"It’s 18 songs and a lot of them are from the point of view of unreliable narrators. It’s kind of classic They Might Be Giants in a way because the perspective of the person singing the song doesn’t necessarily reflect our point of view. In fact, there are a lot of very unreasonable characters in the album."

TMBG has contributed music to a variety of films and television shows (most notably the "Boss of Me" theme song for "Malcolm in the Middle"), creates podcasts on a regular basis and has released four albums geared towards children and families: 2002's "No," 2005's "Here Come the ABCs," 2008's "Here Come the 123s" and 2009's "Here Comes Science."

Flansburgh says the fun educational albums have specific delivery dates and are done on tighter deadlines than their normal releases, which don't differ too much when it comes to the sound of the music. TMBG doesn't record its "adult" LPs until it has all of its songs in place, but Flansburgh concedes that the musicians that he and Linnell now play with are versatile enough to react quickly to any experimentation that may occur in the studio.

Look for a full band and a mix of music that should hopefully please all age groups at Saturday's Luminato performance.