Bigger Isn't Better for Pop-Rock Duo

The Tampa Tribune, February 2, 2012
by Ed Condran

While staring at the set list after a recent show at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club, They Might Be Giants' vocalist-guitarist John Flansburgh checked out how many times his band performed at the venue.

"We've played there 31 times," Flansburgh said in a telephone interview from Tuscon. "I think a lot of people in our shoes would say, 'I don't want to do vaudeville anymore.' I don't want to play this circuit year after year. I want to move up to the next level.' "

But They Might Be Giants, which will appear Tuesday at the Ritz Ybor, doesn't think like that. Bigger has never been better for the idiosyncratic act, which was formed in Brooklyn 30 years ago.

Flansburgh, 51, and his longtime musical partner, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist John Linnell, 52, realize they have a great gig. The duo has been crafting quirky, unpredictable and cerebral pop-rock, and mixing in clever kiddie discs, for three decades. The act is well compensated for making exactly the type of music that pleases Flansburgh and Linnell.

"We really appreciate that," Flansburgh said. "We haven't made compromises and we have had great support for all these years. We live in a culture in which bigger is better, but that's not so for us."

Perhaps it's fortuitous that TMBG comes from an era in which rock bands weren't careerists. During the '80s and early '90s, the rock landscape was dotted with reluctant rock stars. The Replacements, Nirvana and Pavement were the poster boys for alt-rockers who didn't want to appear on posters.

"It was a different time," Flansburgh said. "It was about something else. We always enjoyed making the kind of music that we wanted to make."

"Join Us," TMBG's 15th album, harks back to the band's early days. During its first decade, less was more for TMBG. Flansburgh and Linnell were backed by electronic drums and tapes.

The act's sound was fleshed out in 1992 with a backing band. The live rhythm section remains, but Join Us is TMBG's sparest album since its '80s run, and it's also its most eccentric offering since the Reagan era.

"When we added live drums and bass, it increased our musicality, but we weren't sure how to bring back the musical extremes that we had," Flansburgh said. "When you have an actual backing unit playing with you, you tend to sound more like everybody else. That's usually the goal for bands, but not us."

TMBG still plays with a backing band. Guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller have been on board with Flansburgh and Linnell for the last decade.

TMBG really has nailed it with Join Us because it balances the jolt that the live musicians give the music with the familiar left-of-center sensibility that helped differentiate it from other bands during its salad days.

"We scaled back when we needed to this time," Flansburgh said. "Sometimes it really worked when just three of us played on a song. It reminded me of old times. It worked."

Expect TMBG to be around for many more years. "John and I love working with each other," Flansburgh said. "We recorded 120 songs in (the last) four years. We have to stay together just to get those songs out there."