They Might Be Giants to Celebrate 30 years of Offbeat Pop at Tipitina's, February 2, 2012
by Keith Spera

Depending on your perspective, 2012 marks either the 30th anniversary of They Might Be Giants or the 10th anniversary of the band's 52-song anthology, "Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants." Such compilations often serve as eulogies for the creatively spent. But John Linnell and John Flansburgh, TMBG's prolific co-founders, are still going strong, having logged 50 percent more time together than the anthology examined.

In 2011, they released "Join Us," their first new album of "adult" material in four years, and "Album Raises New and Troubling Questions," their latest rarities collection. Their current tour stops Saturday at Tipitina's.

"There is a feeling when you put out a compilation album that you're making some statement about where you're at as a band," Linnell said this week from a tour stop in Arizona. "It's sort of an unpleasant idea for a working band, like we're being lowered into our graves by putting out a retrospective."

But when They Might Be Giants issued "Dial-a-Song," "we were very busy with a lot of other projects. So I think we were sending out a pretty clear signal that this was not our retirement announcement."

They Might Be Giants have proved remarkably durable. Marked by smart wordplay, an unapologetic pop sense, a kitchen-sink approach to instrumentation and Linnell's especially nasal voice, the Brooklyn-born collaboration carved out a niche at the brainier -- some might say nerdier -- college radio station/indie music store fringe of alternative rock.

Over the years the duo evolved from homemade recordings and drum machines to fully amped band. Keyboards, accordions and horns factor into the mix but, as evidenced by their recent romp through the chestnut "Ana Ng" on "Conan," they are fully capable of bearing down with full-bore guitars and drums.

Along the way Linnell and Flansburgh have diversified and spun off myriad projects. With their long-running "dial-a-song" service, fans could call a Brooklyn number to hear new material on an answering machine. The service helped train Linnell and Flansburgh to write concise arrangements, with the vocals up front; otherwise, callers hung up. They composed music for TV and movies, including the "Malcolm in the Middle" theme song.

Several years back, they received an offer to record a children's album. It outsold their then-current "adult" album. "We weren't taking it very seriously as a career move. It took on a life of its own because of its unexpected success."

They've since released albums and DVDs that playfully teach children the alphabet, numbers and science concepts. In recent years, TMBG has released kids albums more frequently than grown-up albums. The puppets that factor into the current tour originated as part of their children's show.

"We realized the adults liked the puppets even more than the kids did," Linnell said.

TMBG's record sales peaked with 1990's million-selling "Flood." It contained such fan favorites as "Birdhouse In Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and "Particle Man."

"Flood," Linnell said, "is considered the introduction to the band. That's the one people are issued when they attend certain colleges, I think."

The current tour spotlights several songs from "Flood"'s predecessor, "Lincoln," TMBG's much-loved second album. Unlike other bands reminiscing about a classic album, however, they are not performing it in its entirety.

"We thought it would be fun to be completely uptight and just play the whole album in order, but that seemed too hard," Linnell said. "There's a few songs we didn't quite get around to learning."

Despite a tough economic climate, the band's touring business has remained remarkably consistent. Strong merchandise sales help. So, too, does a consistent delivery: The same core of musicians have backed the two Johns for more than a decade.

Most importantly, young fans continue to find TMBG.

"We see people who are balding and have gray hair, but that's a small part of the audience. Most of the people are much younger than we are. Amongst those people, they seem to be familiar with 'Lincoln.' And they aren't old enough to have heard it when it came out."

Revisiting older material underscores how little TMBG has altered the original blueprint, which was, essentially, not to have one.

"The one thing we semi-articulated to ourselves was that we didn't want to say what it was we were doing," Linnell said. "We didn't want to define the band as something in particular. We wanted it to be a very open-ended project.

"If anything, we're even less defined now than we were then. We've continued to do stuff that wasn't what we had been doing up until then. I'm hoping that we'll continue that tradition, trying out stuff that breaks with whatever impression people already had of us."