Giants Might Be Middle Aged, But Act is Far from Old

The Daily Progress, February 10, 2012
by Jane Norris

As Valentine's Day draws near and the tower gives Cupid clearance to land, just remember that it's fine if every sentiment swelling up in your heart isn't suitable for printing on a candy heart--or anywhere, for that matter.

The calendar doesn't guarantee anyone that Feb. 14 will be a great day. You might rather be coming up with something mushy and astonishingly witty for someone you care about. But your heart might be filled instead with unwholesome thoughts about what you'd like to see happen to the clod who broke in line, broke your heart, snatched the last parking space, tanked your career or cut you off in traffic. Sure, you'd like to see roses--at the funeral home.

The creative guys at the helm of They Might Be Giants understand. What's more, they get the underlying humor that will flame up at some point under all that smoldering resentment and turn your day back around.

And they've been sharing it lately in "When Will You Die," a subversive fight song for everyone who has to smile and stay polite while someone else deserves big-budget movie-style retribution.

If you haven't heard "When Will You Die," which is on the group's "Join Us" album, there's a very good chance you'll hear it during They Might Be Giants' Thursday show at the Jefferson Theater. The band is marking its 30th anniversary with a busy tour filled with music not only from "Join Us," but also from a companion rarities collection, "Album Raises New and Troubling Questions."

Founders John Linnell and John Flansburgh are the main men behind "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Particle Man" and the "Malcolm in the Middle" theme, "Boss of Me"--as well as many other songs that draw from a wide range of cultural, historical and scientific references to coat cheerful tunes with thought-provoking lyrics.

"When Will You Die" was born after Linnell said he "had this hateful song halfway written" and Flansburgh talked him out of toning it down. "He said, 'No, you have to finish this one,' '' Linnell said.

The resulting song blends a peppy melody and warm horn sounds with misanthropic glee and just enough schadenfreude to get the attention of graphic artist Paul Sahre.

Sahre, who designed the "Join Us" album cover and its candy heart-pink monster truck hearse, was inspired to make a life-sized version of the hearse from cardboard. Check out the band's official video for "When Will You Die" to see the huge cardboard model that Sahre's design team meticulously puts together--and the fate that befalls it.

"We gave them the green light to make it," Linnell said of the creative video. "When someone has an insane idea like that, it's best to stay out of their way.

"With the videos that we've done, for quite a while now, we feel we've benefited from creative people and giving them free rein."

Linnell and Flansburgh are cited as influences by a variety of outside-the-box thinkers, but even after three decades of songcraft, "I'm never confident," Linnell said. "I think John and I both feel like we need to try to keep it interesting and not get too confident.

"The job gets harder because you're trying not to repeat yourself. You have to keep listening for that stray idea. It's really challenging.

"Good ideas don't automatically come. If you work hard, you have false starts."

Touring doesn't get easier after 30 years, either.

"We're middle-aged guys," Linnell said. "We can't just stay up all night anymore. And we miss our families."

Linnell said he and Flansburgh "don't really do much writing on the road. When we're touring, we're just focused on the show.

"We're both such control freaks that we tend to rely on a lot of stuff we've planned in advance," said Linnell, who admits that they're thoroughly prepared enough to take lyrics, charts and even demos into the recording studio with them. "But we do occasionally come up with something interesting on the spur of the moment."