They Might Be Giants' John Linnell -- The Interview

Paul Pearson blog, December 18, 2011
by Paul Pearson

It's hard being anything for 30 years, but in the music business it's even harder. If your band is ever described as "quirky," that's the same thing as being given an expiration date. They Might Be Giants have been together almost 30 years, practically defining the meaning of "quirky" for those of us with impaired attention spans. I've always insisted there was a lot more to their music than its quirk quotient, and in fact John Linnell and John Flansburgh have proven there's a lot of ways you can go with an aesthetic if you know what you're doing. Or decided that you never will.

TBMG write songs about almost anything. They link to very specific, very thought-out narratives they allow to develop. That might be the secret to their longevity, as well as their willingness to branch out into other forms like children's music or TV theme songs. What limitations one might get from their aesthetics have turned out to be the source of their versatility.

They released their 15th album Join Us last July, along with an odds-and-sods compilation Album Raises New and Troubling Questions last November. I spoke with John Linnell over the phone last August (which explains our remarks about the weather) about what's serious with They Might Be Giants, how they've managed to keep creatively viable, and whether there are any hidden messages in their work that backward masking won't pick up.

The interview started at 7:30am my time, which is never a good time for me to be speaking in public. Linnell was gracious and accepting of the questioner's restricted capacity for connected thought.

Sorry if I’m a little off – this is kinda early in the morning for me.

I’m on Eastern Time. I’ve been up for hours!

Yeah, this is kind of an unusual time for me to be up, but it’s good for me.

Sorry about that.

Speak very slowly. For some reason you’re coming in very dimly – hold on, there’s a fan on in my room, maybe I can turn that off. (Turns off fan.) Sorry about that, we’re experiencing some very unseasonably warm weather.

Really? The whole planet’s going to hell type thing? ‘Cause it’s been miserably hot in New York. In Chicago, yesterday, it was really hot there as well.

I guess I’m kind of bellyaching, ‘cause we whine when it gets to be 70 at seven in the morning. Are you in Brooklyn?

Yes. Let me just check the temperature here… according to my sources, it’s about 73. But it’s coming up to 79. Actually, that’s kind of civilized. I should stop complaining, that’s the coolest it’s been in a while.

Yeah, it’s supposed to get up to 78 here. Weather’s fascinating! Could you tell me a little about Join Us?

It came out in July. I just noticed that the songs are incredibly short. We always have very short songs on our records, but this is one – I haven’t heard anyone talk about this, but there’s only really one or two songs that cross the three-minute mark. Maybe people just expect that from us now.

I think it’s only one song.

Really? Only one song? That’s an even better story. [Ed. note: John was right, there are two.]

The amount of work that They Might Be Giants has done over the last 30 years is pretty staggering. How would you describe your work ethic?

For me – this sounds probably incorrect, but I’m pretty lazy. I am. I have a hard time getting going for a job. I’m sort of kicking and screaming the whole way, in terms of writing and recording and all that. It can be kind of unpleasant, because it’s the process of becoming less and less unsatisfied with whatever idea you’re working on. I find that challenging.

But there are little moments when you can step back and say, “This is working, this is great.” I’m feeling good about it. That makes it all worth it. John Flansburgh’s more of a workaholic than I am. He really hits the ground running and can work all day long. But I tend to drag my feet a lot.

One thing that typifies your work, to me, is the breadth of subject matter you cover. It’s a very unique perspective. How do you catch a song idea – how do you know you’re actually going to write about something?

The process doesn’t get easier over time, I’d say, because once you figure out a sort of rhetorical trick, or a musical trick that works, you don’t want to keep repeating that. In some ways that gets crossed off the list, I guess. You want to try something else. It gets harder and harder to find something original to say each time.

Do you get a lot of cues from reading or research?

Well, often it’s something where you hear an idea and you kind of perk up. Something occurs to you, and for whatever reason – you might be sort of misguided, this’ll be a great idea. And then you kind of have the clarity of mind to realize that it’s not a great idea. Often that can help you get all the way into something to where you actually are making it interesting, even though it might have had objectively less promise than you thought.

Often it’s a process of tricking yourself into thinking something would be a good idea. If you stepped back, you’d probably talk yourself out of it. “This is too cliché, this is too boring.” But when you’re in the heat of the moment of writing, you think, “Oh, this is cool, this is a good idea.” Then you get all this work done. And you basically reinforce that maybe not inherently great idea with authenticity, or authority rather, that puts it over the top. I kind of like that process. I think often the most misguided ideas are the ones that wind up being the best or most interesting.

When I hear songs like “Ana Ng,” or “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” or “Protagonist” – I also felt this way for some reason about “Metal Detector” -- I sense a real poignancy in those songs, behind all the specific detail you use. Do people ever miss the emotional aspect of your work?

I don’t know! I don’t know how people take it. I can sort of think of it one way or another. There’s an emotional resonance to everything that makes it interesting. But often there’s a kind of an autistic quality that I like, where it seems to be completely stripped of emotions. It almost has some numerical fascination, a way of ordering things that’s appealing that doesn’t seem emotional or personal. Perversely, I kind of like that type of writing.

But in any of that, people can project their own emotions onto almost anything. I often wonder listening to Bach if he was having the feelings he was evoking. There’s something deeply emotional about the music of Bach – yet it’s this highly systematic and ordered composition. It almost seems like a computer could write that music, yet it’s very beautiful. It makes you think of all these nameless emotions. It draws all this feeling out of you. It has a very strange quality in that way. Often I think the composer knows what he or she is doing, but doesn’t have to actually be having the feelings that are ultimately produced by the music in order to make it.

Are you surprised how strongly your work has endured?

I don’t know that it’s endured for me. It’s nice that people respond to it. I notice that someone who’s too young to have heard a song when it came out – the context for it had presumably changed quite a lot – they say, “I really like this song.” And I’m thinking, I remember how I felt about it when we wrote it, but I’m surprised that it means the same thing.

Anything cultural has a sort of shelf life, and when the world changes around the idea, it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. It’s more true in comedy, for example. Old comedy is rarely funny – it has to be something profoundly, deeply resonant for it to last more than ten or twenty years.

In comedy a lot of that depends on topicality.

Yeah, that’s true. But also these cultural cues that get worn out over time. People hear Henny Youngman now and they don’t really laugh the way they did fifty years ago. You might get it, but you’re not on the floor rolling around. Similarly with music, it’s harder to get to music from a long time ago.

How has your perspective changed over the last thirty years?

That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. I know that it has. John and I are much more familiar with the musical world we inhabit, in a way. That’s sort of a dangerous situation, because we run the risk of relying on old formulas. We have to make an effort to keep it fresh for ourselves. I feel in some ways we’re exactly the same as we were thirty years ago in terms of what we want out of songwriting and singing and recording. It’s essentially the same.

Regarding your children’s albums – when I first played No! for my daughter, it just struck me as a They Might Be Giants album. It didn’t feel like it was much different in tone and sound. Is there a markedly different process you use for children’s albums?

It’s very similar, you’re right. Especially No!, where I think we didn’t even quite know where that project was going to wind up. We were doing something we thought was fun and interesting, and we weren’t trying to speak down to the audience. We thought we’d just make it as interesting as possible for us. We didn’t realize or have any idea what age group it was for.

It was a really lucky thing that we weren’t taking it all that seriously, because we probably would have been more conservative in the way we approached it, had we realized how popular kid’s music was going to wind up being. We weren’t really clear on whether any child was actually going to hear it though. Or whether it was just a weird folly. It wasn’t our idea – I think someone at Rounder Records had suggested it. We were doing a bunch of other work at the time. We thought in between these paying gigs, we’d do some kid’s music as another record, put it out and see what happens. I think that spirit was what made people like it.

It didn’t sound like you were forcing anything.

Not at all. It wasn’t even clear that we knew what we were doing.

You may have been the first band to embrace and exploit the internet. I think you were using the internet before a lot of people knew what it was. Did you have any idea how big it would become?

Bear in mind, at that time, the ‘90s, it wasn’t like there wasn’t a lot of hype around the internet. Everyone was saying it would change everything, the internet’s going take over. You get weary of those kinds of pronouncements. We were not thinking this was how we were going to orient ourselves. We got an offer from eMusic to put out an internet-only release. According to them we were the first band to do it. But it wasn’t defining us at all – it wasn’t what we were about. It was more, like with Dial-A-Song or the other projects we’ve done, it was another way to produce music that wasn’t the normal way to do it. It seemed promising.

And you know, It wasn’t our idea. We had other people who worked in our office that were way more interested in the dynamics and the ins-and-outs of the internet. John and I never bought issues of Wired magazine or anything like that. It was just another way of producing stuff. I don’t think we thought it was a glamorous idea, the way a lot of other people did. “Oh yeah, you could be a cyber-virtual band!” We were,“What?”

The other thing I think we were put off by was the idea of interactivity. That was a real big buzz word in the ‘90s. We were very allergic to that early on. It seemed like a way to take control away from the artist. That’s how we perceived it. “Oh, I see – you send your tracks out and someone audience member mixes it.” I don’t know – why is that a good idea? (Laughs) It’s just like you’re not finishing your work, so you have someone else do it.

We were very skeptical about the whole thing, to tell you the truth.

How do you approach your stage shows now?

We have our regular five-piece. We often change up the shows where we add a horn player or something. We figure out how to approach a lot of this material, which was written and recorded in a very studio-specific way. There were sounds that were created in the studio and weren’t created to be performed. We have to figure out how to translate that to a live thing. The key for us is not to try and be too literal about how it becomes a live version – not trying to reproduce it exactly. Try to turn it into something that is about a live performance. That’s kind of a fun challenge.