Over the past three decades, They Might Be Giants has worn so many unique hats -- Indie Rock nobodies, alt.press darlings, phone-to-internet pioneers, commercial successes, TV/film contributors, kids music heroes, Grammy winners, documentary subjects -- it seems as though they've had to grow a new head to accommodate each successive chapeau.
Thankfully, the longstanding duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh has decided to recycle some of its older hats. TMBG's latest album, Join Us, the group's first album of non-children's material since 2007's edgy The Else, has the wildly eclectic and experimental vibe of their earliest Bar/None releases in the '80s.
"John and I did have a couple conversations about at least part of what we were doing on the album," Flansburgh says from a house-painting project in The Catskills. "There was a practical aspect to it, which is we wanted to have a few songs we could play as a duo that would showcase what we do when we're singing and playing on a radio station, which we're called upon to do all the time. We never think about writing songs for that format. We always write more for the band format. Getting back to that stripped down idea was on our minds and because this record has a lot less big production on it, it's very reminiscent of that straight up simplicity."
Naturally enough, TMBG has skillfully woven its various creative threads into a single complex tapestry. And none of those threads has been more colorful and oddly textured than the group's music for children.
"It's probably annoyed our standard fanbase; there's nothing more emasculating for a Rock band than acknowledging that there are children in the world," Flansburgh says. "It's been a strange combo platter. For us, it's very interesting work and it's kept us loose because we write so much more than a regular band might write. We were figuring in the last six years, we've recorded something like 120 songs, which is a pretty prodigious output.
It's true many of them are not particularly good songs, but they're songs nonetheless. The way we approach the kids' stuff is so psychedelic, it's kept us ourselves."
Almost unbelievably, the first songs intended for Join Us, which was started immediately after the completion of Here Comes Science, were deemed too weird even for TMBG.
"The songs we were putting together were so mutant and formless, it really sounded strange," Flansburgh says. "Our notion was we'd go right into producing the record with the band, but the writing was so confused, it took us awhile to find the rhythm of this album."
Flansburgh notes that the absence of the big-subject framing device to construct kids songs may have caused him and Linnell to go too far off the rails, but they soon found their songwriting mojo. Flansburgh is also quick to credit the band members that he and Linnell have worked with for a decade -- Dan Miller, Danny Weinkauf and Marty Bellar -- as vital to the process of making the music that they ultimately take to the studio and stage.
"The kids projects are, for the most part, never going to be reproduced live, so it doesn't have the same challenges that doing an ensemble album for adults has," Flansburgh says. "The whole point is to figure out material that is strong enough to take to the stage, and that's certainly happening with this album. This stuff totally works.
"This is our 15th album; we could do shows without making another record ever. The question is do you turn yourselves into a singles act and just try to have a couple of great tracks or do you actually tour behind an album? A lot of people want you to be a greatest hits act. The ultimate professional challenge is to make an album that is interesting enough for your audience that you can play it, really dig eight songs into it, and not have people searching for the exit doors."
So far, Flansburgh says Giants fans have greeted the Join Us songs in the set positively, which isn't always the case with new material from a beloved band. Even the most loyal fans often have a hard time processing a new album, and TMBG's audience is a prime example.
"We've done a bunch of shows, and the response to the new material has been very warm, much warmer than the response to The Else, and we were feeling very chuffed when we finished The Else. We thought it was something very good," Flansburgh says. "But we're used to the cycle, which is -- we put something out and the front row is very into it, but the rest of the audience is very ambivalent.
"And then over time, everybody feels like that's the real stuff. We'll play songs off of Factory Showroom or Mink Car and, when we were on tour ostensibly promoting those records, those songs were totally in the way, as far as our audiences were concerned. And now when we do them, it's like, 'Oh yeah, that's my favorite!' And audiences are all just a series of individuals. I'm not saying all audiences are monolithic, but there is a strange irony to how much revisionist history there is."