The Black Sheep Interviews: John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

The Black Sheep, September 24, 2011
by Brendan Bonham

John Linnell is the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist half of Brooklyn-based They Might Be Giants. He has 2 more Grammys than you have, enjoys bagels and will be playing Chicago at the Vic on September 23rd.

Your new album, Join Us, dropped a few months ago, but the album before that, Here Comes Science, was a childrens' album. How do you transition from writing music for children to writing music for adults?

Well, it's not as drastic as you might think. We weren't trying to distance ourselves from the kids project or anything, because the kids music wasn't really kids music, it's our music our way, it's just stuff kids can listen to.

How much consideration--regarding subject matter--do you give a song intended for children, as opposed to songs written for adults?

Our last three albums were all themed, so really it's been explicitly spelled out what we're doing, whether it's songs about numbers or science. In that sense, yeah, and it makes it a little easier, you know what you're saying, but you just have to find a way to say it.

On Join Us you don't have a song over three minutes long. Is that a conscious decision?

We just naturally drift towards short songs, so we write them. There's no specific minute we shoot for, it's just what we end up with.

Over your long career how have you seen your sound change?

We haven't really charted it or conceptualized our music, we tend to just write a bunch of songs and publish the ones that work best together on an album. Over time the kind of material we do has changed, we're trying not to repeat ourselves, and we're trying to find something new to say each time. We've been around for a ridiculously long time, so to not change would be odd. We occasionally have ideas like, "Let's come up with something we can play as a 3-piece at a radio station," but we've always had a range that we like to work in.

Do you ever marvel at the idea that you have people who are four and people who are sixty that probably listen to, and enjoy, your music equally?

There's only been one There Might Be Giants, so we don't really have anything to compare it to. Looking at other bands, I think we're really lucky to be able to attract new fans and not alienate old ones. We're not a band that has an enormous fanbase--we have fans that are loyal and dedicated--so we get this interesting range of people.

Since you've been around the music block a few times, what's the biggest change you've seen in the music industry the past 20 years?

I think it's probably obvious, but the collapse of the record industry. So, uh, that was weird. It's affected us materially, because we can support ourselves just making albums anymore. Now we have to do a lot of other stuff to keep the boat afloat. We're behaving as though it's still cool to be in a band. There's plenty of opportunities for young musicians to be in a band, but it's not as good a business opportunity as it once was.

How has touring changed for you now, then?

When we started we were in vans, driving around and crashing on couches. We moved up to cheap motels, and by our third album it's been the same, more or less. Now we're on a bus with small bunks with a cappuccino machine.

What do you do with your Grammys?

Oh man, I hate to even say this, but I can't find one and the other one is sitting on a bookshelf in my house. I mean, what do you do with it?

I don't know, I don't have one. What's your perfect sandwich?

I like that one! I like a roast beef and cream cheese sandwich on a salt bagel. The salt bagel just has huge chunks of rock salt, it's like you're afraid it's going to snow on your bagel.