On The Record: They Might Be Giants

LSU Legacy, February 26, 2012
by Sydni Dunn

For 30 years, They Might Be Giants has created a string of funky, intellectual beats for a diverse fan base – reaching from New York City 1980s hipsters to their children. Fifteen studio albums including three children's albums, two Grammys and countless successes won't stop this Brooklyn duo, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, from calling it quits. Not yet, anyway. Linnell chats with Legacy about TMBG's latest album, the band's long-lasting motivation, and its nationwide tour, which stopped in New Orleans at Tipitina's Uptown on Feb. 4.

How's the tour going?

The shows have been going well. We've only had one minor catastrophe. At the end of the last date, our equipment trailer caught on fire. We lost a lot of stuff, but our insurance covered it--so, I think we're gonna be in good shape.

Oh, wow. I wasn't expecting that.

[Laughs] Yeah, I felt the same way. We finished the last show in San Diego, went to the hotel and everyone left to go back to their various homes. The truck started driving back East and the driver noticed smoke pouring out of the trailer.

But in general, it's all going pretty good. The band is sounding great. By the end of the last leg, everyone was playing in tune and together. It sounded good to me, and we've been attracting pretty good crowds. Concert tickets are down and have been for a while; the economy has hit everybody, but we've been OK.

I see you guys are playing in a lot of small venues on your tour. What's the advantage of playing in the smaller joints? Was it planned?

It's a disadvantage of playing a big place if you can't fill it [laughs]. The space is equal to the crowd you can draw. Plus, it's a lot more fun to play for an intimate crowd. You don't have that relationship with a big audience. We like where we're at with the crowd and size of the room. It works well with our type of show.

What about New Orleans? Are you excited to return to the Big Easy?

We've been there a bunch a times in the past, and it's always fun. We've done a lot of shows at the House of Blues down there, and we used to play Tipitinas a lot in the 90s. There's nothing wrong with that place--it's a lot of fun.

You took a break and released three popular children's CDs, which earned you recognition. Now, you're back making ‘adult' tracks. Why did you decide to return to your more mature content with "Join Us" [TMBG's latest album]?

There was a little bit of a gap after the last adult record...[laughs] it sounds like I'm talking about porn when I say ‘adult,' so I hope people don't get the wrong idea. We had this notion that we were going back and forth between kids projects and our regular thing, which we now call ‘music for adults … ' We did two kids projects in a row--first with numbers [Here Come the 123s] and followed closely by the science record [Here Comes Science]. But the shows we are doing, we've never stopped doing shows for adults.

Though it didn't sound too different, what do you think are the major differences in writing for children and writing for adults?

We made our first kids record not considering what age it would be for. We set a pattern with making music that's OK for adults to listen to too. We take the same spirit, but we don't include the darker material. The songs about death and divorce don't make it on the kids' records. The attitude is really not that different, though. We aren't radically editing ourselves. We don't want to lower the quality of what we do. You'd think you could get away with less because the kids are too young to know the difference. We think it's a question of personal pride--and we want to do just as good.

This year marks the 30th year for TMBG. Tell me what your motivation has been to keep making music.

We don't have anything better to do [laughs]. We've been compulsive about it. It's what we love to do, what we like doing. This is the gig, I guess. There's no other grown-up job we'll be moving on to. It's a job that we, I think, felt incredibly lucky to get in the first place. We don't feel too old to keep doing it.

Of all the work you've done in those years--from the TV theme songs and Dial-A-Song to the children's records--what would you say has been your best project? Is there one that you've enjoyed the most?

I feel like it's one thing to write songs and record them and then tour and perform, but there are occasions when all the planets line up and you're doing something that's serendipitous. And that's the Venue Songs project from 2004. A few days into that summer tour, we started writing a song about each venue [we played]. We'd write and record the song the day of the show, most of the time during the sound check. It had such an organic feel. It was a nice package of interesting, short songs.

TMBG is known for having intellectual lyrics, with references to history and science. Would you consider yourself an ‘intellectual' rock band? Have you tried to fit or maintain that label?

We don't have to have a set idea of what we're doing. It's a general project of music we like. In other words, there's no theme or schtick we follow. When you're a teen, you think of those terms to establish an identity for yourself. When you're older, you stop being self-conscious and are less concerned about identifying yourself.

Your fan base, I feel, is the same way. It's really widespread in terms of type and age. What would you say is the one quality TMBG possesses that attracts them all?

It's very diverse. We're trying to do something just as interesting and out of the box. We've never been able to second guess the audience. We decided, in the beginning, to focus on what we liked. The result is we attracted an audience that liked the same thing. They Might Be Giants has a range-y crowd with not much in common except that they like us.

One of those age groups is college-age. This is for a college magazine, and you and John [Flansburgh] were that age when you got started. Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing a career in music?

I think, unfortunately, things have changed since we started. When John [Flansburgh] and I first started in music, you could imagine a lucrative career doing it. Now, it's almost impossible to make money selling records. My advice for someone like us is: you really have to figure out a way to do it. There are a lot of ways to work now that didn't exist when we started. For example, doing stuff online.

What can fans expect in the future?

We want to do stuff that we don't even expect; come up with ideas that seem unlikely. We're doing a lot of recording this year. We have some puppets, and we'll be working with the puppets.