They Might Be Giants has never been the world's biggest band. In fact, only one of the duo's 15 studio albums has been certified platinum--and that was over 20 years ago, with 1990's Flood. The intervening years have followed a path familiar to any number of artists past their commercial prime; TMBG has bounced through a series of indie and online distribution deals, steadily releasing music for the faithful along the way. It's the template for the cult act.
And yet "cult act" doesn't really define They Might Be Giants. From the beginning, their unique brand of idiosyncratic humor and quirky instrumentation might have cursed them to wander the Billboard margins, and it could be argued that their early sales success was a fluke of the era--something that happened almost in spite of itself. But what their singular sound lacked in Taylor Swift-sized appeal, they made up for with a sneaky adaptability and an astonishingly prolific output that has seen the band appear, Zelig-like, all over the pop-culture map. If you've seen a movie or watched TV at some point over the last decade, chances are good you've heard They Might Be Giants, whether you realized it or not.
Plenty of their peers kept higher profiles during modern rock's early golden era--and many of them have trudged on through dwindling sales, breakups, reunions and dispiriting casino circuit tours. Meanwhile, in a strange but very real way, They Might Be Giants are bigger than ever--and they've gotten there by following an unpredictable (and at times inscrutable) path that has taken them from a smart-aleck lo-fi pop combo to Disney-approved bards of the preschool set and back again.
It's somewhat fitting, then, that as the band celebrates its 29th anniversary, the two Johns have chosen to "get back to our original recipe," as founding member/multi-instrumentalist John Flansburgh puts it, with their 15th studio release, the persuasively titled Join Us. Their first "adult album" since 2007, the new 18-track set offers a restatement of purpose of sorts; unlike most of their records for kids, there's no thematic framework, and unlike, say, the Dust Brothers-produced The Else, there isn't a new or unusual twist. It's just the band, doing what it's always done best.
"There are two big elements--two things going on that are kind of opposing forces," Flansburgh says of the They Might Be Giants sound. "There's the human part of our sound, and then there's the electronic part. There's the rock-band thing that we naturally do, and we did it as a duo and we do it live, that's a direct expression of who we are as musicians.
"And then there's the other side," he continues, "which started with us experimenting with drum machines, and kind of taking electronic music somewhere other than that Kraftwerk/disco thing. You know, there was a time when working with synthesizers added a kind of subconscious veneer to the music. There was a novelty to electronic music that too often worked its way into the songs. Like [singing] 'I'm in the future...'
"Bringing in a live band really reshuffled the deck, and to be perfectly honest, I think it's taken us 20 years to really figure it out. I think this record is probably the best balance of the two. We finally," he laughs, "made a good record."
It's a tongue-in-cheek, off-the-cuff remark, but one rooted in a certain amount of truth--not that the band hasn't made a good record in 20 years, mind you, but that they've recorded so much. That 15-album total is impressive, and it doesn't even tell the whole story: There are also more than 20 EPs, a smattering of live releases, and assorted compilations, not to mention scads of musical ephemera, divided among commercials, films, TV shows, assorted one-off projects and their long-running Dial-A-Song service, which doled out free tracks via answering machine (and, later, the Internet). It's half discography, half musical maze--the kind of career history that tends to paralyze veteran artists when it's time to make a new album.
"To do something that's really an evolution and sort of tops yourself becomes a much more daunting task as a creator," admits Flansburgh. "Writing songs, you know, you can write a couple hundred songs before you stop pinching yourself. 'Man, I can't believe it! I'm writing songs!'
"It's a really thrilling thing. But once you've written that many, it is a different sort of challenge. Part of it is that you've got to let yourself go. You need to be willing to write an unimportant song, so to speak, without looking over your shoulder. Just be in the moment. But projects like this current album--they take time. You want it to be something worth checking out, and the only thing to do, really, is invest enough time in the music."
Part of that process, for a band that has undertaken as many stylistic shifts as They Might Be Giants, is trying to figure out which direction to go next. For Join Us, the decision partly came down to simple logistics. "When we were talking about how we wanted this new album to come out, John [Linnell] and I actually did have a couple of conversations where we talked about wanting to come up with songs that we could sing as a duo," recalls Flansburgh. "And it wasn't like, 'Oh, these are the most magical songs,' it was really a practical thing, because we knew we were going to have to do a hundred in-studio performances for radio stations, and the songs we do that work in that peeled-down, unplugged setup are fairly few and far between. We do 'James K. Polk' at a lot of radio stations. And that's a good song, but it's also a really good simple song, and we were trying to figure out how we could write that way again. Get back to that very graphic, bold way of writing."
"And the other thing," he continues, "is that this is the first album we've done without a theme in a while. The kids and family records had these looming themes, and they're such powerful framing devices that once you start writing for them, if you take them away, you don't even know where to start from anymore. In a way, I wish we'd never written that way, because it invites speed writing. You come up with a list of things to work on pretty quickly if you're writing an album about a topic--suddenly there's a whole constellation of ideas in front of you, and you end up with very different results than you do if you're just writing from deep inside your mind."
What it comes down to, ultimately, is the challenge of reaching new ears. "The idea of somebody just discovering us right now is very exciting," Flansburgh says. "I feel like these days, there's a lot of tribalism in pop music--everyone kind of identifies with their own fan base, and it's all about preserving that front row. One of the motivations for us is that we've always wanted to find new fans."
When presented with the notion that They Might Be Giants have done a better job than most of expanding their audience--and that branching off into their parallel career as bestselling kids' musicians was a pretty brilliant way of turning their fanbase into a self-generating perpetual motion machine--Flansburgh shrugs. "I guess so. Although I'm not really sure how much kids listen to the music of their youth beyond a certain age.
"I think we probably do have a wider appeal than some other groups, and there are reasons for that," he continues. "I mean, we use the trick of melody, which appeals to a certain set of people, and we also have a balance of seriousness and humor that might draw others in. But I think our main thing is that whatever you love the most, They Might Be Giants is a band that can fit alongside it. You know? You can have your Bright Eyes collection, or your LCD Soundsystem albums, and then there's us."
That's the sort of friendly, unassuming spirit behind an album title like Join Us--not to mention the warm, hook-filled music and delightfully off-kilter lyrics that make up new tracks like "When Will You Die," "Canajoharie," and leadoff single "Can't Keep Johnny Down." For fans who may have found some of TMBG's various stylistic forays something less than user-friendly, the album will feel like rediscovering an old friend--and for listeners just finding their way into the band's strange, wonderful world, it will function as an inviting gateway.
But it's still a gateway that a relatively low percentage of the music-buying population will deign to enter--and at this point, that's something the band is comfortable with. "I don't think we have ambitions for cultural primacy, if I can use the expression," Flansburgh explains. "It's such a different deal, trying to do the songwriter-as-hero thing. Like, I don't know how Bono does it. And he isn't alone--there are a lot of people who have taken on that role. Just the idea of being a leader of a gang, whether you're Lady Gaga or the guy from Flaming Lips. They're president of their crowd. I was watching the Flaming Lips documentary, and it makes you realize that Wayne Coyne is kind of the Jerry Garcia of Flaming Lips fans--that really comes home, how he's this kind of inspiring, prosaic, earthbound guy. A messiah figure."
After a pause for thought, he quips, "We're the Antichrist."
"What I'm preoccupied with is making the most disinterested reader of this article willing to check out what we're doing," reflects Flansburgh. "To me, this journey is pretty interesting. And I think this new album makes a pretty persuasive introduction to They Might Be Giants."