They Might Be Giants Know a Bit About Fun

Courier-Post, September 29, 2011
by Matt Chimento

For a lot of bands, a concept album could mean one of several things: an attempt to overcome a serious creative dearth, a much needed break from the traditional recording process, or even to branch out and capture a new audience.

And, if you're an unpredictable, chronically out-there sort of group, you have a free pass to do whatever you want as long as you play a few standards on the road.

If ever a band was to embrace the shrugged shoulders approach and do what feels like fun, it's They Might Be Giants, the ska-influenced, alt pop, unconventional rock supergroup from way back in the early '80s.

TMBG can rest assured that any one of their releases will be met with anticipation and adoration but it's their recent "Here Come..." series that's really stolen the show .

An educational, kid-marketed collection of albums with bright, bouncy classroom-ready anthems like "Alphabet of Nations," "Even Numbers," "Meet the Elements" and "I Am a Paleontologist" have made it possible for adult fans to bring their kids along to shows .

TMBG are riding high on their grown-up summer release, "Join Us", and will be visiting Philly tonight at the Theatre of Living Arts.

I understand it took nearly a year to record "Join Us." Can you talk a little about the process?

That makes it sound so Steely Dan. I wish that year was just endless toiling in the studio recording and rerecording bass flute solos, but it was far less focused than that. That year or so was really blown full of holes by various shows in faraway places. I think we take a bit of pride in our ability to hit it and simply make music when called upon to work, but after recording ninety or so songs in three years, we were probably overdue for a break we didn't get. Rolling in to "Join Us" became a bigger creative challenge. Not only were we returning to the adult arena, but we started out kind of drained.

How does "Join Us" fit into your catalog?

By temperament we like to fully arrange and maybe overproduce our songs. We did discuss trying to set up at least some of the songs in such a way we could play them easily and effectively as a duo or trio, and once that was discussed that idea seemed to permeate the tracking. The songs on the album are often quite paired down--often just a voice or two voices, drums bass and a keyboard or guitar. That sparseness seems to really excite people.

You've played thousands of shows over the years – how do you keep things fresh when you're on the road?

To keep audiences going, I think you have to change your show every night in some essential ways. You have to change your set. You have to always be bringing in new songs, bring back old songs. We have 60 or 70 songs in our active repertoire, which is very useful when we are coming back to a city a year later. We can actually address the previous show and do a totally alternate set.

What's the typical crowd like at one of your shows? Do you find that you're playing largely to your mainstay fanbase, or are you seeing new faces in the audience?

We have the Dorian Gray of audiences! We have 200,000 Facebook people on our page, and the stats that Facebook gives you on your own group are pretty extensive. Looking at the age chart it was a straight line from 18 to 50. That seems pretty weird to me, but I'm not complaining.

Did you have any idea "Here Comes Science" would be such a big hit?

There are a few videos from the project that are clearly being used as teacher's aids in schools. That is very flattering. It was odd how "controversial" doing a science project was perceived by people in the press. We live in such a strange moment in history where science and fact-based approaches to understanding the world are being undermined simply because scientific thought accepts and acknowledges its own fallibility. I find it frustrating that so many in the United States clearly can't wrap their heads around the difference between a scientific theory and a guess. There are many scientific theories that are not in doubt, but politicians and media prey on the lazy-headed to always act like there are two sides to scientific inquiry. Maybe someday we can get past the fake debates.